So here it is December again with another “winter of our discontent” staring us blankly in the face, to be followed closely by the prospect of all the end of year accounting for last year’s New Year’s resolutions. For these reasons, I think December should be known as the Introspection Month. I know it is for me. Perhaps during our early evolutionary development the yearly dipping of the sun down to its lowest point on the horizon has imprinted upon our brains some basic human need to think of the future beyond our next meal. It also gave us a moment to sit down, rest our aching feet in front of a warm fire and consider where we’ve been. It’s at once a point of embarkation and also one of arrival, as well as prime beer drinking territory I might add – especially for sipping the dark murky stuff…
Lately as I gear up to race in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, I’ve been asked by a few people why I ever started doing winter bike races. Some people just don’t get it. No matter how long I speak of the beauty of the land in winter, or of the special feeling you get by covering ground under your own power, or of the overwhelming sense of satisfaction in overcoming that nagging voice in the back of your head that screams at you “stop” when stopping isn’t an option – many people still just shake their heads and change the subject. It’s ok if you’re wishing you could do it right now. I’m used to it. At least go take a look at the nice photos toward the end before you move on, however.
Admittedly, I’ve also at times questioned my own motives for wanting to do such a crazy race. On the surface it does seem kind of odd for a guy who lives in Socal to obsess about playing in the cold and the snow. Taking up beach volleyball or surfing would probably make more sense, but it’s about much more than a simple activity or hobby for me. I suppose you could say that it’s a December thing.
As with many other aspects of my middle-aged life, I sometimes question whether I have reached the point in my “career” (cycling or otherwise) where I will not advance much further if at all. While riding a bike is not the “be all and end all” of my existence, it is easiest for me to frame that question by considering it from a biking perspective – it lends something tangible to the intangible. So click into your pedals, grab hold of the handlebars and start pedaling with me from my perspective.
I’ve been riding and racing for years now with marginal success. My virtual trophy cabinet contains a few pairs of socks I’ve won along the way, a check for $50 from one lucky pro-class podium and a bunch of plaques that read “finisher”. The movie “The Natural” was not written about me. I realize that after all the bluster and hours of training pain, nothing short of an all-consuming obsessive effort will improve my performance any further. Even then, I’d probably only win a few more pairs of socks. I’m not ancient by any means and the receding tide of abilities brought on by advancing age can be stemmed, but one needs to face who you are and your own limitations sometimes. Perhaps placing oneself in a new set of circumstances is the next logical step to somehow find a way around the barriers – a reframing of the question, if you like. It could just as easily have been a career change, but for me it was time to head out into the cold.
The initial seeds were sown a few years back as I traveled to Northern New England to visit family for Christmas. Being an exercise freak, I had brought my bike. I’ve begun to travel with my bike a lot recently. It follows me like a puppy. Or maybe the reverse is true? That’s one of the gray areas in which I exist, but regardless of how that particular power trip plays itself out, I will tell you that the bike I brought back East with me was nothing special. It was pure Humane Society. I think I bought the frame for $150 bucks a few yrs ago and the components are mostly old and outdated. No need to destroy expensive parts with road salt and grime. But I place value on a bike based on where it gets me, not based on the dollar figure of its components.
Toward the end of my trip I found myself at my brother’s house in Vermont. Fog had shrouded the hill behind his home all day in the post Christmas drear of one of the shortest days of the year. I almost decided to blow off my ride for the afternoon and retreat to the comfort of the couch and the warmth of family, not to mention the beckoning of a fridge well stocked with beer. But on that dark December day I really felt the need to at least ride a little, so I decided to head up to the top of the hill to where the fog was hanging.
Northern Vermont is a warren of country dirt roads. They run over the land like Grade A maple syrup over a stack of waffles – they follow every nook and cranny. I will admit here publicly for the first time that it is the only place I have ever become completely and irretrievably lost. A few years back I arrived at my brother’s doorstep after 3 days of white-knuckle cross country driving and immediately took off into the maze on my road bike. I had training to do for some race or another I think. Within 2 hours I was inspecting moss on the sides of trees in an unsuccesful attempt to figure out which direction was north. I might as well have been sniffing the air for signs of the Molson Brewery in Toronto – I was lost. Only the kindness of dairy farmers and their directions helped me back to my starting point or I might have wound up in Canada. With all these things in mind, somewhat reticiently I geared up and began spinning my ancient cranks out into a world of ice and snow.
As anyone who lives in a cold climate will tell you, when the tiny little hairs way up in your nose freeze with each breath you take, it’s cold out. Let’s just say my nose was full of medieval weapons as I left the relative warmth of the unheated garage where I kept my bike and headed off on pavement until I reached the end of the subdivision in which my brother lives. Nowhere is immune from the invasion of the cul-de-sac, not even small town Vermont. Within a mile I entered the dirt road network of old New England. Snowfall earlier in the week had covered the frozen road surface with a layer of semi-grippy snow. I stopped to let some air out of my tires to gain some traction. If you’re prepared for the new challenges that the cold presents to you, worlds can open up.
Climbing the hill past the dairy farms, I noticed the fog begin to recede in the distance. As forbidding as the ride had seemed at the outset, the lifting of the clouds buoyed my mood as I gained what little bit of elevation there is in this part of the country. The clouds would not consume me and they had left the gift of rime ice – supercooled fog that crystallizes on surfaces under these circumstances. The southern Californian in me began to notice tiny cactus spears in silhouette against the backdrop of sugar maples and the doom of winter’s sky. I’ve been away from home too long.
Near the top of the hill the rime was in full bloom. While sometimes rime is blown like an ancient mariner into twisted furls and sails by the wind, this gray day had been as still as the deepest midnight. In the icy stillness the crystal formations crept across the sky just as gray sweeps across the hairs of my furry body in the frost of my own window pane. My rasping breath broke the stillness and echoed in the emptiness as I fought my tires and the consequences of their lowered air pressure. Resistance is futile, but necessary.
Upon reaching the crest of the hill, I paused for a moment and slowed my pedaling cadence. Blowing vapor smoke rings in the air like a child I thought of that day I had been lost out here on these roads, how I had lost my inner compass amongst these hills a few years ago. But today I knew exactly where I was headed and it was not time to turn around. It was time to go forward.
And so it is today. In the years that have passed since I first took that ride I have seen so many incredible things from the seat of a bike and challenged myself to do things I never could have imagined myself succeeding at. Following this weekend, 12 weeks remain for me to prepare myself for one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever taken on. The past few months I’ve been merely riding my bike: on Monday I begin training in earnest. I have a plan and know what I need to do to succeed. To paraphrase a little Pink Floyd, it’s time for me to trade cold comfort for change. I wish you were here.