Joyful & Triumphant: Braver than the Elements

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
—John Steinbeck

Farm dogs chased after riders in Georgia, pedaling underneath a grey sky. The horses took notice of their swift company as the riders drifted through the empty allées of oak trees, blown bare by winter.

In Pennsylvania, they stopped in front of a rural church, where the bells tolled “Oh Come all Ye Faithful,” into the cold air and over the empty patchwork of land. They stood there for some time, listening.

In Colorado, the peloton ambled across the dirt roads at the junction of the Great Plains and the Front Range. The women spread out in bright dots along the cuts between ranchland.

It was a day most would have left the bike leaning to in the hallway in the Pacific Northwest, with flood warnings, overbearing rain and temperatures in the 50s. If ‘grey’ was a feeling, this was it. Forty women suited up regardless. Cookies and hot coffee took the edge off atop a climb, and the route was curtailed to just shy of 30 frozen miles.

“Bravery” is different things for different riders. For some, it’s riding in the snow. For others, it’s riding in a group at all.  In its annual Braver Than The Elements ride, Rapha encouraged women to ride in spite of, and with, winter.

All told, around 1,000 women put on jackets, shoe-covers and gloves in 13 different locales scattered across North America. Many women also formed their own informal Braver Than the Elements ride in places as far and wide as Tallahasee, Munich, Paris and Lyon. The rides were not about the strongest or the fastest, but more a celebration of a collection of women from the constellation of cycling, all riding together. Some rode in sun, some in prevailing rain, some in the porous cold, but, namely, they rode all together.

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“Under skies the color of steel wool, we pedaled into the first folds of the Appalachian mountains, which begin in northeast Alabama. The group was a mixture of new faces and familiar steady wheels, with women representing four states: Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida,” remembers Kim Cross, a Rapha ambassador in Alabama. “At some point we crossed over into Georgia. Horses raised their heads as we rolled by. There were dogs, and more dogs, as there are on country roads. Some of them chased us. Some cocked their heads. Along the ridgeline, we could spot both valleys and the miles unspooling behind us.”

The women in the Deep South warmed their hands around cups of hot chocolate and chicken soup. “Nature gave us the gift of fickle weather. Cold, still, but not a drop of rain,” Cross noted. “We counted heads and blessings.”

In Colorado, a woman took her shoes off in the store and pressed her toes against a cup of coffee.

A picture?

“Yes, I’ve just had a pedicure,” she said, smiling.

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In the winter, riders get a better understanding for what it is to feel warm and fast and lean in the hot summer sun. That feeling doesn’t come cheap; it comes from miles under legwarmers and jackets.

Beth Strickland, an ambassador in Emmaus, Penn., led a group of 60 women out, with the help of others on the shorter loop. The damp air was a frozen 27 degrees.

“After everyone’s ride, nearly all thanked me and said what an amazing time they had. There were so many smiles and a few emotional tears, too. Some were inspired to get out more during these cold months. So many don’t ride with others and certainly don’t go out well below freezing,” she says fondly. “Many, many will come back here and ride with other women. People that came into the bike shop before we left and after we were all coming in were a bit freaked out by all the women. But in the very best way.”

The days will grow longer now by slivers of hours. Warmth will come, too, however slowly. The memory of riding in the cold, though, remains.

“Oh, come, all ye faithful,” the church bells said in Pennsylvania to the day and to the riders below. “Oh, come, all ye faithful,” the bells shouted. “Joyful and triumphant.”

Cold, yes. Joyful, yes. Triumphant, absolutely.

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Picture: Matthew Beaudin