Cold-Weather Cycling Has Its Moments

Our friend Larry does a Thanksgiving Day ride every year from Harms Woods to the Chicago Botanic Garden. Lunch was soup and a 7-layer bar. It’s chilly, but dry and mostly not windy. Not much traffic on the (paved) trail or road crossings.

Source: Larry’s Gobble Gobble Ride | Ride | Strava

The Midwest, the joke goes, has 2 seasons: winter, and construction. For Midwest cyclists, there are 2 seasons: winter, and cycling around construction. Some do extend their seasons into late fall and even into the bitter winter by investing in cold-weather gear, lights, beefy gloves, and even “bar mitts” that fit over their handlebars to keep their hands warm.

We belong to a loose association of cyclists that get together using the MEETUP app or by posting notices in local Facebook groups about rides. Sometimes we meet other cyclists at rides hosted by bike shops, sometimes we sign up for an “invitational” ride out in the hinterlands or on quiet local roads and trails. My husband David is a much more avid cyclist – he’s an intermediate to advanced road cyclist, I’m a recreational-speed “casual” that prefers paved paths, quiet country roads, or neighborhood streets. Occasionally, I manage to go for a longer distance, but that’s mostly during the summer.

After we returned from our Hawaii vacation, it was like going from summer to late fall/early winter. I haven’t been riding much anyway, and I didn’t ride as much as I’d have liked in Hawaii, but at least it was decent weather and I did get out there and to some extent, was forced to be a road rider on the recent charity ride. I didn’t go as far as I’d committed, but 38 miles is a decent day’s effort. And I am pleased that I was able to get over a lot of my on-road fears, especially at crossings – though I wasn’t able to get over the steepest hills well at all. That’s for next season.

Since our return, David was talking about the next ride opportunity; Larry Gross’ annual Thanksgiving Day ride. He’s been on this ride before, sometimes when it’s REALLY cold. Somewhat unenthusiastically, I decided to go, too. I wanted to see Larry, and was familiar with the trail we’d be riding.

We didn’t leave the house until almost 1015am, after a leisurely morning drinking coffee, eating cereal, reading the Internets, and searching for all my cold-weather gear. The report was that although it was only about 42 degrees, it would remain dry and relatively windless.

My lack of enthusiasm was greatest in the last 20 minutes or so of warm, sleepy almost-snoozing, but then I slowly started finding bits and pieces of my anti-freeze riding stuff until I had assembled everything. Tights, bike shorts, under layer, over layer, jacket, long-fingered gloves, and a fleece headband to cover my ears; this outfit could almost double as cross-country skiing attire with the exception of the padded shorts.

We drove out to Harms Woods, and found the parking lot where Larry and a few other people waited for us. We compared bikes, chatted, and set off. There was one other woman, a younger one named Chris on an older ladies’ Schwinn that she said was the best kind of bike; “free to me.”

Never judge a rider by her bike, she could definitely keep up and was quick off the mark. I stayed with Larry, who was fighting a head cold and is not a speedy guy at the best of times. David, of course, was farther ahead, and the others were quite fast indeed and decided to go on and skip lunch at the halfway point, the Chicago Botanic Garden. At lunch, another cyclist joined us for the company, remarking that he wasn’t the only lonely rider out there. Actually, there were lots of other cyclists out, and at one road crossing, we were greeted by a southbound group with a friendly “gobble gobble!”

Let’s face it, I’m 59 years old and not likely to get much faster, but also in the cold air, I wasn’t really trying to make PRs in my Strava log for the ride. It was just a grey, chilly day that was good for getting outside, breathing, and listing to one’s body. I wasn’t trying for a PR, but was pleasantly surprised to get one, along with a lot of other 2nd place “bling” logged by Strava,

It’s quite a meditative state, cycling; I watch for cars at crossing and I’m alert for obstacles and hazards on the trail, but my mind goes into a pleasant state where I think about things while simultaneously operating the bike, shifting, pedaling, and avoiding pedestrians.

For more than a year, I’ve been trying to become a better cyclist, but struggling with my own fears and trepidations. My progress has been ridiculously slow. I still get anxious, but am better about just getting a move on rather than whinge. One of the hurdles was crossing busy streets; the recent ride in Honolulu forced me to just get on with it and not hang back waiting to start. I’m hesitating less, thank God; once I get going I tend to remain in motion, but once stopped, I do tend to want to remain at rest too long.

Damn entropy.

One mental habit I need to drop is overthinking how far I’ve gone, how far yet to go. Meanwhile, the cold woods on either side of the trail keep their secrets; who cares how far before lunch, we’re out here in the woods! Watch for coyotes and listen for squirrels! Crunch the brown leaves under the wheels and play a game of “goose poop obstacle course!”

It was a good ride, for all the chilliness in the air. We made good time on the way back, said farewell to Larry and Chris in the parking lot (we’d lost another rider during lunch, who couldn’t stay). On the way home, I enjoyed the pleasant feeling of relaxed fatigue that seems to spread through my muscles; it’s that feeling that you’ve worked hard and earned the rest.

With extended family that night for Thanksgiving dinner, I was teased by a cousin. “You ride right by our house all the time, and never stop by!” They live near the Botanical Garden, and we turn around there on trail rides. Another cousin asked how far we rode. “Only 17 miles.”

From her reaction, you would have thought it was a cross-country tour.

Anyway, sometimes riding in the cold isn’t all that. Yesterday, David and I got all suited up to go out and ride again, as the temperature was to to be about the same. We were to start from East Dundee and ride up the Fox River Trail as far north as we wanted. After noodling around, we got to the start point, stepped out of the car, and immediately thought better of it. The wind was sharper, it was slightly colder, and it was damp. There had been sprinkles of rain on the way over, and it felt like more was on the way.

Suddenly, lunch seemed like the best decision, and we ended up at a place called Pita Pita for some delicious Mediterranean food. No bike ride that day. That was a moment when we looked the wind and the weather in the eye, and blinked.

Today, David took off at about 9am to meet up with the regular Saturday Fox River ride. They ride south to Aurora for lunch at Two Brothers’ Brewery. I opted to stay in bed and drink coffee, but as it’s supposed to be warmer, may go for a ride around here. I do have a yearly goal to meet and I’m just a few miles short of it; I;m just not that crazy. Also, I’d be on my slower upright bike “Geoffrey,” as my flat-bar hybrid “Veda” is now installed on the indoor trainer. Sure, I may ride a bit later when the temp gets up a bit.

And tomorrow, it’s supposed to be almost 50 degrees…

The Fitness Bug

Something interesting seems to have happened.

I’ve caught the fitness bug. Either that, or Bug has gotten into fitness (my dad’s nickname for me was either Bugginia or Bug).

I spent all of last spring and part of the summer not riding the bike I bought, which was a fairly decent women’s step-through that wasn’t quite the right fit or size for me. I went for a few rides, and made it around the 20 mile course for Tour de Cure last year, and I liked it all right, but never felt very comfortable on it. Also, I wished I had bought something lighter and had spent more time test riding and trying different things – I had this thought in my head that I didn’t want to awkwardly lay the bike halfway over to get my leg over the seat (never having been graceful) on my previous bike, which was a mountain bike with nobbly tires.

Unlike David, I didn’t go out of my way to ride my bike, and I didn’t plan travel around it (on vacation in Maui last year, he rented a very nice road bike for the 2 weeks and raved about it, but I’m not ready to be a road cyclist).

So then in December when I was diagnosed with diabetes, it was like running into an ice-cold wall of wake-up call. Although I was eating fairly well (following David’s low-carb diet), I was overweight, out of shape, and having to deal with a chronic disease that I was supposed to regulate with diet and exercise.

I still haven’t been to the nutritional class for newly-hatched diabetics, but I attended a 4 or 6 week seminar with David when he was diagnosed that was run by the local hospital, and I’ve been through my own very quick rundown with the nurse-nutritionist at my doctor’s office. The whole thing was a blur, but I came away from my “Congratulations, you’re diabetic” consult feeling slightly underwhelmed by the information I was getting.

Fortunately, with David being so involved with Tour de Cure Chicago (team captain of Team Red, is a member of at least one committee and is well-known in the offices of the American Diabetes Association in Chicago), I pretty much had the gist of what it means to to have diabetes, and have it be “well-controlled.” We’re lucky, neither of us currently have to take medication for it, although many, many of the people we know through the various ADA fundraiser and educational events deal with insulin, oral medication, insulin pumps,and more.

As far as being “well-controlled,” which is keeping one’s daily blood glucose readings within a healthy range, I’m doing all right. I had already decided to do the Tour de Cure and ride 40 miles, and had David set me up with a custom web page that re-directs to my Tour de Cure fundraising page (which has an impossible URL as far as remembering it, reposting it, etc.).

During most of the long, cold, dark winter, I was riding my old bike, set up on a training rig in the spare bedroom. David hooked sensors up and set me up with fitness apps and other gadgets (such as a Vivofit that’s linked to Garmin and also My Fitness Pal). I rode for about 20-30 minutes at a time, every few days. It was boring, uncomfortable, and not that pleasant. But I was getting some benefit and my weight dropped, and my blood glucose kept dropping from the rather high 140s-160s to a more reasonable 110-115. And then it kept on dropping.

So then David started talking about getting me a new bike; lighter, better fit, and so on. I came around to the idea of lifting my leg up and back to get it over the seat again. We talked to a guy David trusts at our local bike shop, Brad at Bike Connection. I looked at a few bikes, but one Brad sized me on had felt right. We made plans to go back and do some real test rides at a couple of places.

Meanwhile, I’d been out on the old bike on a few rides around the neighborhood, and hey, my blood glucose really started to drop. It was good to get the old bike off the trainer, and it wasn’t as uncomfortable as it was on the rig, but it still wasn’t what I needed.

So last Saturday we rode around, and the bike that still felt best AND rode best was Veda.

Since then I’ve ridden every day, even today, a mid-week day (there was a regular Meetup ride at Busse Woods). David got me a refurbished Garmin bike computer, because using my iPhone and some apps with an ANT adapter wasn’t cutting it. And my blood glucose, weirdly, has stabilized in the 80’s-90s. I know, WEIRD, right?

Here’s my Strava route from today – it was oddly cool and warm at the same time. There’s a big booming wind coming from the west tonight and although the temperature read 73 degrees, it felt a lot cooler than that, especially when the wind came over the still-slushy lakes.

This ride from the day before, my first long ride on Veda, ended abruptly when the battery in the iPhone died. I kept riding and went back to Holy Moly, where I’d left the car park (it was a post-church ride).

My mileage is NOT impressive compared to some of David’s friends whose Strava postings are pretty intense, but it’s good to get outside and do something and I’m seeing so much benefit from it already.

Still have to tweak some things as far as the bike is concerned (sometimes called “dialing it in” ) but I’m happy to have caught the fitness bug while it can still do me a lot of good.