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…