As I think I’ve mentioned before, I typically put my bicycle away each fall when the first snow flies and start pedaling again when the streets are clear in the spring. It’s an act of self-preservation, I suppose, and a nod to convention. I can walk to work. And for longer trips, there’s always the automobile. That’s what they’re designed to do. Why not take advantage of them?
My Lovely Wife, on the other hand, enjoys bicycling year-round, and nothing short of a major snowfall will keep her and her bike off the street in the winter. Bicycling is her favorite mode of exercise — it’s good for her grumpy right knee, it gets her heart pumping, it’s all accomplished in the fresh and bracing outdoor air, and at the end of the trail there’s usually a coffee shop. Plus, it’s kind of a point of pride for her. She likes to compare notes with other winter cyclists, most of whom fit in a rather different demographic.
So, MLW has been happily pedaling around town since our recent thaw, and on Saturday afternoon was planning to head to the East Lake Library to pick up a few printmaking books she had on hold. We also needed to restock our pantry, so the excursion seemed to call for more conventional transportation. But, by the time we got around to running errands, Mr. Parkour (who has no interest in bicycles) had already claimed the car.
While the weather was not what I would call balmy (temps in the 20s and a northwest wind), the sun was shining and the pavement outside our house seemed relatively free of ice. And it occurred to me that climbing on my bike might not be out of the question.
For those of you who have never bicycled in below-freezing weather, I should point out here that bicycling in those temperatures can be quite unpleasant, regardless of road conditions. Exposed skin and even unexposed extremities (toes and fingers, especially) can go numb pretty quickly, because — in my experience, anyway — your body’s not working nearly as hard as it is when you’re walking.
I wouldn’t think twice about walking the 2 miles or so to the library in this kind of weather. A half-mile into the journey, I’d have my hat off and scarf loosened. Not so much on a bicycle. So, in considering such an excursion, I needed to consider whether my current winter wardrobe was up to the job, whether my bicycle was still in operable condition, and whether I was emotionally prepared to endure a certain amount of physical discomfort.
This is not a debate that MLW entertains. She casts a casual glance out the window.
“Let’s go for it!” she says.
So, I get bundled up as best I can and tromp out to the garage, where my old Schwinn has been snoozing since November. I check the tires and brake pads and off we go.
They say that once you’ve learned how to ride a bicycle, you never unlearn it. But I’m always surprised when I climb on board again each spring that it feels like no time has passed since my last ride. This was the case on Saturday. And that was a good thing, because there were plenty of puddles and glacial ice to maneuver around just to get through the alley and out to the street.
(A note for those of you who may be conjuring images of two sleek bicyclists in high-tech, winterized spandex perched on racing bikes: Not so much. Lots of people climb on their $1,500 Treks and pedal 50 miles at 20 MPH for a little weekend cardio. That’s not us. We go slow. I’ve had joggers pass me on hills.)
Anyway, we wind our way north and west toward Lake and Minnehaha, mindful of the potholes and icy remnants of the last plowing at intersections, and I’m struck, after four months of walking, by how much faster you can travel on a bicycle. This may seem pretty obvious, but when you’ve been employing one form of transport for an extended period of time, it’s striking how different another can feel.
And it’s not just faster; it’s almost effortless by comparison. My legs are pushing down on the pedals, but my arms aren’t moving, my feet aren’t striking the ground and pushing off, my ankles aren’t flexing. As a result, my toes are beginning to go numb and my thumbs under my mittens are losing their feeling. What’s odd, though, is to look around and see drivers in passing cars wearing light jackets and pedestrians on the sidewalk in hoodies, hands bare.
Locking our bikes outside the library, I suddenly feel overdressed. Not because I’m too warm, but because everyone around me is dressed like it’s April and I look like I just blew into town from Nome.
MLW picks up her books and we saddle up to head south again to pick up provisions. My thumbs have reached that fascinating point beyond numbness, where they actually feel like they’re warming up. The toes on my left foot haven’t received the memo, but the wind is now at our backs and we zip along at what feels to me like quite a clip until a couple of young guys on fixed-gear bikes whoosh past us near the parkway roundabout. We head west and catch a little late lunch at our favorite bakery and then fill my basket with some dinner fixings before heading home.
All told, we probably traveled a bit over 6 miles — a trip that later this spring will seem as routine as my morning commute — and managed to avoid any traction-related mishaps, leaving me with the notion that maybe spring has officially sprung and it’s time to adopt the bicycling habit once again.
Outside my window, though, I notice it’s begun snowing. And another thought intrudes: What’s the hurry?