Wheels of the Year: Gearing Down for Winter Cycling by Tamia Nelson

The hours of darkness are now edging past the hours of light in northern New York, but with daytime temperatures hovering in the mid‑80s (degrees Fahrenheit, of course), it’s hard to believe that winter will ever arrive. It will, though, and as Tamia returned, dripping with sweat, from a quick 10‑mile ride around the block, she was already thinking about the challenge of winter cycling.

Our New Model Climate is certainly leaving its mark on the Americas, and though the Adirondack foothills have so far escaped hurricane‑force winds, I can’t help but notice that, with October less than one week away, a lot of windows in a lot of neighboring houses still have air conditioners perched on their sills. The obvious conclusion? Summer’s lease has been extended. I can remember when no Columbus Day trip was complete without at least one snowy morning. Not any more. And I’ve no idea when winter’s snows will make their first appearance this year. But it’s a safe bet that they will. A friend in the mountain West has already seen white on the hills surrounding his home, so it’s just a matter of time before General Winter turns his attentions to the wild East. No matter. I plan to keep cycling through the storms. I’ve had a bellyful of going nowhere for half the year on my aptly named “stationary” bike. But if I’m going to hit the road this winter, I’ll need to gear down before the snow flies.

The first order of business will be deciding on a suitable bike. In years past, the decision was easy. I owned one bike and only one bike, so I rode what I owned. But today I have no fewer than three bikes to choose from. True, one of these is a near antique Schwinn Traveler, now enjoying a well‑earned semiretirement. I certainly won’t be riding this old friend through the mix of hardpack and salty slurry that the highway crews leave behind on our town roads. The sorry state of the roads isn’t the crews’ fault, by the way. The town roads are maintained to meet the needs of snowmobilers, not cyclists. The “sledders” — We’ve come a long way from the Flexible Flyer, haven’t we? — travel in packs and consume gas and beer by the hogshead, whereas winter cyclists are solitary, like snow leopards. We subsist mostly on fig bars and the slush from our bidons. There’s not much money in fig bars, and the highway crews are under orders to follow the money.

Anyway, my ancient Schwinn — it was my first “good” bike, and it came back into my possession thanks to a friend’s generosity — will stay on its rack in winter. Which means I’m left with my Surly Long Haul Trucker and my aluminum‑frame Schwinn Sierra, which, before I swapped out saddle, seatpost, stem, and bars, was perhaps the most uncomfortable “comfort” bike ever sold. That was a long time ago, though. It’s now a very comfortable go‑anywhere utility machine, and it’s my usual winter ride. Once I fit the studded tires, it’s equal to almost anything General Winter (and the town highway crews) can throw at it, and for the many years when it was my only bike, it carried me on hundreds of shopping trips into town between the months of October and May — not to mention hundreds more between the months of May and October. But it, too, may have seen its last winter. When the state resurfaced the highway linking my crossroads hamlet to the nearest outpost of civilization, it left the shoulders out. Where I once had three to five feet of usable shoulder, I now have six inches to a foot at best, with a one‑inch‑plus drop‑off down to the crumbling, potholed remnant of the former shoulder. Even in smiling summer weather, I find myself whistling “Suicide Is Painless” as I ride into town, and obvious risks to life and limb aside, the ravaged shoulders are no place for a good bike in any season.

The upshot? I’m thinking about buying a cheap “beater” at Walmart, tuning it up, and using it as my winter bike, replacing it when the salt and the potholes take their inevitable toll. I’ll opt for a single‑speed, too. Even well‑maintained mechs (a handy Britishism for “derailleurs”) freeze up in winter. I’ve often started the climb back into the foothills from town with 21 (or 27) ratios at my fingertips, only to finish the ride with just one. With only a single cog on the beater and plenty of 10‑percent‑plus grades on the road, however, I’ll have to gear low. My cartilage‑free knee gives me grief if I stomp on the pedals, and climbing out of the saddle is streng verboten. Of course, an easy ratio is necessarily slow on the flats, but that’s fine by me. Winter rides aren’t time trials. Survival is the order of the day, and I’ll have better luck avoiding the slip‑slidin’ dodge‑em cars if I’m not distracted by a balky mech.

There’s another plus to a beater: I won’t have to spend an hour after each ride scraping frozen gunge off the drivetrain. I can just wheel my winter bike into the shed and clean it every other weekend. And what will I do with all the free time this will give me? I don’t know, but I find the prospect mighty attractive.

That being said, I’m still dithering. I’m not keen on contributing to our culture of consumption, and buying a beater bike with the intention of riding it into the ground is putting my money where my mouth isn’t. So I may yet turn to my workhorse Sierra. (Farwell, who rides Sierra’s twin, has christened her Modestine, after Robert Louis Stevenson’s patient, though ill‑used, donkey. The moniker fits.) We will see. But one way or another, I’m going to stay in the saddle when the snow flies. Whatever the charms of going nowhere on a stationary bike — and I admit that saddling up on a 15‑degree day with a nippy northerly blowing right in your face can prove tolerably off‑putting, at least at the start — there’s little doubt that the world is a much more interesting place when you’re out in it than when you’re looking at it through two panes of glass. I think so, at any rate. In life, as in writing, I always prefer the active tense to the passive, and a little discomfort is a small price to pay to remain active through the winter. After all, as someone (Balzac?) once wrote, if you suffer, at least you know you’re alive.

That’s the object of the exercise, isn’t it?

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For half a century, Tamia Nelson has been ranging far and wide by bike, boat, and on foot. A geologist by training, an artist since she could hold a pencil, a photographer since her uncle gave her a twin-lens reflex camera when she was 10, she's made her living as a writer and novelist for two decades. Avocationally her interests span natural history, social history, cooking, art, and self-powered outdoor pursuits, and she has broad experience in mountaineering, canoeing, kayaking, cycling, snowshoeing and skiing.