Never too cold to ride: Or not

“Never too cold to ride” was going to be the new tag line for this Web site. My new theme was going to be describing the challenges of riding – commuting and training – through the long, dark, frigid Michigan winter. But when I finally put this into practice, I lasted 18 minutes. And this was in early October! Since then, I’ve been curled up in a mental ball trying to figure out what kind of cyclist – or person, actually – I really am. My idealism, my belief that the human will can reshape and retool a person got smacked down by a frosty Michigan morning.

I’ve never been a good cold-weather rider. Making matters worse, I’ve spent the past 10 years in subtropical parts of Asia where temperatures would dip down to the lower single digits (celsius) for a week or two each year. Last spring, when I announced to my riding mates in Guangzhou, China, that I was moving to Michigan, there were some chuckles and gentle reminders about how I hate the cold. Although I’m a winter wimp,  I am proud that I rarely use the cold as an excuse not to ride. Last “winter” – if you can call it that in Guangzhou – I made sure that I got on the bike on the coldest days of the season. A lot of that riding was done alone. I was trying to condition myself for Michigan. I really wanted to repurpose myself for a new climate challenge.

In Michigan, the first test was that 18-minute ride in early October. It was supposed to be an hourlong spin around Walloon Lake in northern Michigan. I was there on a long weekend retreat with the other journalists in the wonderful Knight-Wallace fellowship program that I am fortunate to be participating in this academic year. We were staying in a ski lodge, and while everyone else was sleeping, I slipped out the door at 7 a.m. to go for a ride around the lake. I knew it would be chilly. The area was hit with the season’s first frost. So I threw on my warmest winter kit. Tights over shorts. Thermal wind booties. Wool socks. A warm base layer with arm warmers under a thermal, long-sleeve jersey. Assos lobster mitt gloves. A wind vest. As I was getting dressed, I started feeling embarrassed. It felt like overkill. I thought for sure that I’d be stripping off the layers after my warm-up.

The second I stepped out of the door, I knew something was different. It felt as if I walked into a wall of icey air. It was a serious, don’t-mess-with-me kind of cold. I realized that my “winter” rides past the palm trees and banana fields of southern China prepared me as much as a wave pool in Kansas would prepare a surfer for the moster breaks in Hawaii. The wind instantly cut through my Lycra tights, which didn’t have any kind of thermal fleece or wind barrier material. They served me well in Guangzhou, but they won’t cut it here. Five minutes down the road, my fingertips and ears started getting cold. My quads weren’t warming up and my knees felt creaky. I went down a gradual 2-kilometer hill and figured that as soon as I got to the bottom of it, I’d turn around and climb back up it. That would warm me up. It didn’t. By the time I got to the top of the hill, I was colder than ever. Things kept getting worse. I finally abandoned the ride, with my bike computer saying I was only on the road for 18 minutes. Talk about a humbling experience.

Since then, I’ve been on and off the bike. But I haven’t done any serious riding. I’m going to give it another crack, though. It’s the romantic idealist inside me that gets me interested in endeavors like riding through the Michigan winter. When I crash and burn with a better appreciation of the difficulty of I what I’m trying to do, the practical idealist inside of me kicks in. My first attempt to learn Mandarin left me frustrated and convinced that I would never be able to learn a second language. But a couple years later, I tried again with a more rational approach and a realistic appreciation of the challenge. After tons of hard work, I succeeded. Let’s hope I’m as successful with my “Never too cold to ride” plan.

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Posted: November 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

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