‘Winter riding’ can mean a great many things depending on your locale and your level of stubbornness. For those in pleasant, sunny environments, I’ve recently discovered that riders consider wind jackets to be cold weather apparel… and yes, I’m calling you out on that Ms. Kelton Wright. For those of us that live in far less welcoming climates, the months between November and March (and sometimes April…or even May) mean one of two things: a mind-numbing number of hours on a trainer, or a physically numbing number of hours on the road.
For those that choose the latter, the experience can be both harrowing and enlivening. The first winter that I trained through, I wound up on a four-hour team ride in balmy temperatures of 9F (-12C). The night before the ride, one of the guys questioned meeting up in the morning — he wasn’t convinced that he could handle those temperatures. The ride leader — not insignificantly, an ex-Marine — shot down those apprehensions. Non-participation was not an option. In his mind, these were the type of rides that made everything else on a bike seem doable. As the least experienced and slowest member of this group, I figured there was no way I’d be able to live it down if I didn’t show up. That Sunday morning, covered in every layer of Roubaix fabric I could find, I rolled out at 7am to meet up.
We rode amidst the slush and ice and wind. And it was brutal. And amazing. Our faces were numb and windburned, and when our eyes watered the tears froze. Our water bottles froze in less than 30 minutes. Our bikes looked like they’d been powder-coated with confectioner’s sugar—though in fact it was a thick casing of road salt. Riding in the winter is a different beast than even the longest, most arduous of rides in the summer. You dress differently, you handle your bike differently, you have to psych yourself up to just kit up and get out on your bike. Yet, when you’re riding together, surrounded by harsh unforgiving temperatures and road conditions, there’s something intangible about the shared mindset and motivations that bind and drive a group to stick it out and suffer those elements together. There’s also a type of solitary focus that you achieve, breathing in the cold air and staring at the wheel you’re following—mentally trying to block out that your hands are so cold that they no longer even hurt, but are simply numb.
Hours after this ride ended, when my face and hands returned to their normal shade again, I had to admit that there was a peculiar afterglow that accompanies riding in the depths of winter. Your lungs have a fresh, cool, clean sting that you just don’t get on an 80F (27C) day. There’s a sense of accomplishment that your body has been pushed not just to its internal physical limit, but has been subjected to conditions and elements that punished and battered it from every external dimension as well—and regardless, you managed to meet those elements and thrive.