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The Unnamed Bicycle Column: Maslow's Hierarchy Of Bicycle Riding

Winter cycling may not be for me

It just may be a long, fat winter.

Sunday was but the second day this week I was able to put in a few miles in the saddle. It was as pleasant of a fall day as a person could possibly ask: Sunny, warm but mild, with just a hint of wind here and there.

I rode for about 20 miles, or thereabouts, with a frequent crunch under my tires as I pedaled over fallen brown leaves heaped in mountains on the side of the road and past the people in the midst of making them.

I waved to people working out in their yards, other cyclists out enjoying the morning and even a horse or two on some of the farms I pass along my way. They didn’t wave back. Pretty sure at least one of them gave me a head nod, though.

But, as I said, it was just the second time this week I was able to ride and enjoy the solitude of man and machine, listen to the ambient whir of the wind in my ears and be lulled into a trance by the rhythmic cadence from the rotation of my tires.

There is a somewhat meditative state that can come from long rides on a bike. It’s part of what makes bicycle riding so appealing. The mental benefits of bicycle riding are often subjugated in value to the more obvious physical benefits, but are, frankly, the most attractive and, to me, most addictive.

But it’s been just too damn cold to ride.

* * * * *

It’s 6 a.m. in the middle of a Detroit winter. My mother’s tired old furnace starts and stops with great frequency, trying in vain to heat the little brick house I grew up in. It’s a losing battle, mostly, in part due to the freezing temperatures outside and partly because of the dearth of insulation in the post-WWII construction of my childhood home.

The wood floors are cold. The thermostat was turned down significantly overnight, as it always is, to save money.

I’m wrapped in a blue blanket that I’ve removed from my bed as I make my way down the hallway to the kitchen. I retrieve a small Panasonic radio from a counter, sit down on the linoleum floor in front of a heating register, lean my tired head against the wall and ensure the blanket covers the vent on all sides to keep every scrap of warmth inside my personal winter morning lean-to.

I turn on the radio and listen for school closings. It is the most important thing to know at 6 a.m. on a weekday when you’re 10.  And it is January in Michigan, after all. Not only is it bitterly cold outside, maybe, just maybe, there was snow last night, too. I never looked, but it is always a possibility, so who knows?

The furnace kicks on, with a slight rumble. The air coming through the register starts out cold, then turns tepid. A couple of minutes later, it’s full-on hot and it’s almost uncomfortably warm under my blanket. I’ve got a long wait. My school district starts with a “W,’’ so I’m at the bottom of the alphabetical list.

I hear that the high temperature today is gong to be 2 degrees. Two. That’s fahrenheit, in case you were wondering. Two degrees. The high.

The radio finally gets around to telling me that school is closed today. It’s not because there was too much snow. It’s not because the plows haven’t gotten through. It’s just too damn cold. School is canceled because of cold.

I turn off the radio and go back to bed.

* * * * *

I say all of this to illustrate a point: I know from cold.

I don’t come from Fargo or Montreal or Helsinki, but I do know from cold. I’m no stranger. Cold and me are on a first-name basis.

But cold and me and bicycling, however, are not all that chummy, turns out.

I do so want to be an all-weather cyclist and over time build up all that righteous indignation whenever I see someone who rides only in summer, but, dude, riding in the cold is seriously… well, it’s seriously cold. And that just sucks the fun right out of it.

Instead of being rhythmically lulled into an altered consciousness by the sound of my tires churning, I have found myself on cold days just trying to keep the snot from reaching my chin. I’ve found myself just trying to increase my cadence enough to maybe, just maybe, warm a toe or two. I’ve found myself bracing against headwinds cold enough to shatter your will to live.

Dramatic? Sure.

But really, this winter cycling, how is it you kids do it?

I don’t ride strictly for the physical benefits, although those are quite nice. I don’t ride for the economic or ecological benefits, either, although those are really, really lovely. I ride for the head-clearing solitude that forces me to listen to nothing but my own internal voice after a handful of miles.

But with winter cycling, I’ve found myself concentrating on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy. I have been enduring, not cycling.

I am going to continue riding in the cold until I don’t think I can any longer, but my feeling right now is that the winter cycling thing may not be for me, despite that I know from cold.

I don’t generally do this, but if anyone has tips, or inspirational stories on winter cycling, I’d love to hear them. Otherwise, it could be a very fat winter.

Joe Cirile November 22, 2011 at 03:39 PM
riding alone is very mind clearing expierience i enjoy it very much even when it is cold
Hamish Greenland November 26, 2011 at 04:13 AM
Given the choice of riding in winter or waiting for a bus in the cold - I'll ride any day. It is only the first few minutes that hurt. Modern clothing has made it much easier to keep warm. For the past few years my only problem was cold hands until I got a barbra.ca TM it covers the handlebars of the bike so keeps wind and rain off my hands. Agreed winter riding is not for everyone but I hope to be doing it for many years to come.

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