Jiggity Jog

Every now and then I deviate from a bicycling-related blog to comment on other experiences in the cycle of life.  This one’s about a snowstorm, an event I suppose is a “cycle” at least in the sense of the counter-clockwise rotation of a northern hemisphere low pressure area.

I missed the end of the comic opera that was Washington DC meteorologists forecasting the non-storm of Sunday (or was it to have come Saturday, Sue?  or Monday, Bob? or back to Sunday, Doug? {Doug and Bob are ABC 7’s “Perfect Storm Team”–an ominously complex pun}).  The prognostication had, of course, begun long before December 23, when we drove north on our annual Christmas pilgrimage to Cheshire, CT.  All the media weather pundits wanted to talk about a white Christmas long before they could know anything reliable.  And as the date of Santa’s visit approached, those darn computer models just weren’t coming together.  Actually the storm, like the giant coastal lows that gave us three genuine blizzards last winter (a blizzard must by definition have not only snow but sustained winds of 35 mph or more with visibility of 1300 feet or less for a period of at least three hours), didn’t exist until the last minute.  As typically happens, it comes into being from the confluence of two other storm systems, whose energy is transferred to a new, single low just off the coast.

In what have been considered usual winters, the DC area is often on a north to south borderline between rain and snow, and that’s what makes forecasts tricky.  All too often we get ice, worse than snow and far worse than rain in its consequences.  There’s a thin layer of cold air on the surface, warmer air at altitude, and the storm’s rain freezes when it hits the ground.  A half-inch of that stuff paralyzes all vehicular traffic.  This year, as last, has brought with it plenty of cold air (see yesterday’s blog), so if there is precipitation, it is going to be snow.  Another border line, pertinent to coastal lows, now comes into play.  That’s the border between heavy snowfall and light, determined by how far offshore the coastal low sets up.  A relatively few miles can make a difference between digging out of deep snowfall and only seeing a few flakes.  So the forecasters, desperate to keep our interest, dying to please us with a snowy holiday and/or terrify us with the pale spectre of another Snowmageddon, and wanting to be correct, kept us on tenterhooks (a curious term, worth looking up) with the heavy storm/light storm, some storm/no storm, Sat/Sun/Mon alternatives.  They were still hard at it when we left for New England less than 48 hours before Christmas day on a cloudy but not threatening morning.

On Christmas Day, Saturday, we reveled with our hosts, Anne and Henry, and family from CT and from the DC area.  Checking back to see DC’s weather on the internet, we read National Weather Service forecasts for light to moderate snowfall from DC westward (1 to 5 inches), heavier amounts east of the Chesapeake Bay.  This was supposed to begin on Christmas night in DC, and the storm would develop and move up the coast over the following day.  Travel was anticipated to be very bad on Sunday and Sunday night along the I-95 corridor.  Some family decided to take off a little early and drive all the way back to DC on Christmas night to avoid being trapped until Monday or Tuesday.

Well, you know what happened.  Coastal New Jersey and New York, and most of New England, got socked.  Philadelphia got a bit of snow.  DC got none, barely a flurry.  There’ll be more fresh flakes in the House of Representatives in January than fell on the metro region last weekend.  It was a lot of hoopla over what turned out to be nothing.  One wonders if the weather people teased it out a bit for the ratings after they knew the truth.  But that’s probably uncharitable; such things are truly difficult to forecast.

We stayed in Connecticut, figuring that if worse came to worst, we could leave a day later than we planned, Tuesday instead of Monday.  On Sunday the snow really started to come down.  I went out with Henry when he walked the dog around the block.  The snow was falling, but no friends were calling “yoo-hoo.”  The wind was also blowing, a feature of our weather on the East Coast this season so far.  The remarkable thing, to us Virginians who are used to abysmal snow removal, was the efficiency with which the plows operated.  Booming down the street at about 30 mph, they must have made four passes while the snow was falling.  In the afternoon, as the accumulation totals crept up, Henry “mowed” the driveway and sidewalk to assure a relatively easy task in the morning, when Anne was scheduled for an early surgery.  As the daylight waned and the evening dark crept in, the wind kept howling, the snow kept falling, and we had a cozy evening of drinks and dinner.  By breakfast the snow was waning, and by 9:00 or so it stopped and a bit of sun peeked through (this is homage to the current forecast cuteness of “peeks” of sun; meteorologists don’t know the word is a verb).  So while the howling wind and blowing snow first convinced us to stay put, the great plowing and definite end of the snowfall made us brave enough to decide to keep to our schedule, while accepting that it would be a long, tiring trip.  We were on the road at 9:50.

We eschewed our usual route over the mountain road to Prospect, down into the Naugatuck River Valley to the Merritt Parkway.  Instead we took the flat Route 10 to the Wilbur Cross.  The road was OK, but not overly well plowed, with some snow on the surface.  But moderate speeds and anti-lock brakes on our Audi Quattro kept us in command.  The Wilbur Cross and Merritt were a mixed bag. In places there were only two tracks worn to the pavement, while in others two full lanes were plowed, treated, and melted.  Shockingly, there was almost no traffic.  For long stretches we could see perhaps one or two cars way ahead, and another in the rear view mirror.  Traffic moved sensibly but not frantically, except for when it got backed up behind a team of two  or three plows.  We noticed that the on and off ramps, here and on the Hutchinson River Parkway in NY, were terrible, and in some cases untouched even as we passed in the late morning!

Taking our usual shortcut through upper Manhattan from the Cross County to the GW Bridge, we could see that the snowfall in NYC had been heavy.  We stayed off the usual side streets of our route, keeping to Broadway all the way to Dyckman.   Cars had what looked like 15” to 18” snow hats as they drove around.  All along Dyckman Street the cars were (1) buried by the snowfall, PLUS (2) plowed in.  Slush had turned to ice in the low 20s temperatures.  Ouch!  We saw one humble citizen with a shovel approach a guy who was just starting to figure out how he was going to liberate his vehicle.  I bet he earned a quick $20 or more.

The sun came out at about this point, which was good for the melting (air temp was below freezing until Delaware) but horrible for the spray and blowing snow on the NJ Pike.  In fact, that blowing snow was the most striking feature of the trip.  The wind was at right angles to the pike, and wherever the right “channel” occurred, the wind would pile up 3” to 5“ of hard-packed snow on the road.  You’d have sworn that some mechanical wind machine was blasting fake snow over the ridges at the western edge of the road, it was so consistently intense and heavy.  The white clouds of blowing snow also obscured visibility.  No amount of plowing or treatment could keep ahead of it.  So our windshield got covered by a combination of salt spray from the trucks and cars, blowing snow, and my own cleaning spray.  All of this was backlit by the low, southerly sun, creating a bright glare that made visibility bad.  When we pulled in at a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop it hadn’t been plowed, but people were in there 20 to 30 deep buying windshield cleaner.  I pride myself on having remembered to fill up that tank before we left home.

They were doing well clearing the Jersey Pike, so we stayed on it all the way as a known quantity, instead of shifting over to toll-free I-295 as we often do.  At one point we saw a fleet of huge cement mixer trucks rumbling up the northbound lanes with giant plows attached.  After about Exit 7, however, the snow depth started falling pretty fast.  At the Delaware River Bridge, in the Philadelphia area, there was only an inch or so on the ground, and by the Susquehanna River Bridge there was barely a trace.  The strong northwest winds made crossing that bridge a bit of an adventure, but we made it.  By then the road was dried off, and there wasn’t much snow for the wind to blow.  The rest of our trip back to DC was a cakewalk, until about 5 miles from the exit to Tyson’s Corner off the Beltway, slowed by a combination of rush hour and construction.  It took us over 30 minutes to do those last few miles.

And so we crawled in the car and listened to the DC radio news team (one a former TV weatherperson, downscaled by local staff cuts a couple of years ago) natter about how windy it had been.  Of course they did acknowledge that it had been nice to miss a blizzard, but it almost sounded as if they thought the DC metro area had been shortchanged.  So they were making a big deal about how severe and scary and dangerous the wind alone had been–some gusts hit 40 mph!  All weather, the WTOP dictum insists, must be at least borderline alarming and upsetting.  There was an undercurrent of resentment and disappointment that the region had been denied a new Snowmageddon, and they the chance to talk about some actually dangerous, unsettling weather.  “OOOhhh, it was windy!  Head for the tornado cellar!”

The cats were glad to see us when we drove in about 7½ hours after leaving Cheshire.  They reported that the electricity never went out, and that they had slept through that windiness without being perturbed in the least.  Feline sanity.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


Christmas Presents

I think that some of the nicest cycling Christmas gifts are those that help me ride in the cold.  And, though readers may think my whining has been incessant, this has been one cold December.  My ride today is only the third of the month, and even if I ride the next (and last) two days of the year, my riding log for 2010 is going to be bookended by two months spent nearly totally off the bike.

In January the problem was snow, the remnants of a December 18, 2009 blizzard that dumped about two feet.  This December it has been the cold, and the wind.  For most of the month the air temperature or at least the wind chill has never risen above freezing.  That despite the fact that our coldest month is January and our lowest average daily “high” temperature is 42°.  For outdoor activity, frostbite is the ever-present danger.  I understand that in truly cold places like northern Minnesota, kids are trained to watch their playmates for signs of frostbite when they’re cavorting in the snow and on the ice.  That’s the ultimate danger.  Since a cyclist generates an automatic “wind chill factor” just by moving through the air, strong winds on top of that are not only destabilizing but potentially dangerous.  So even with the sun shining I have had to get used to the exercise bike.

But Christmas brought a couple of gifts to boost my ability to defy the cold.  Andrew and I, in email conversations spurred by my earlier cold-weather riding blogging, isolated the problems with the extremities of toes and fingers.  He and his wife got me truly desirable Christmas stockings, two pairs of high-tech, wool-based, black with white highlights, cycling socks, each especially designed for a different temperature ranges, 21° to 42°, and 43° to 54°.  And with an Amazon birthday gift card from them I got a pair of truly warm cycling gloves, semi-mittens that separate between the middle and fourth fingers, in a “lobster claw” look.  Inside each half, the fingers have individual slots.  They’re waterproof, they’re breathable, they’re Descente and thus cool looking, with red-on-black motifs.

Armed with these new garments, I rode out today in weather almost too warm to give the armor a stern test.  The temperature was nearing 40° as I departed, and when I returned it was 42°.  The sun dutifully retreated to give the noonday a bleaker cast, but I was delighted to find the W&OD Trail open.  Well, mostly.  There were a few spots where a rider had to weave among ice lumps for 15o feet or so, an a couple of places where snow covered the entire trail in swatches of about the same length.  I soon learned that aggression worked on the ice lumps, since the air temperature alone was melting them, and that it was better to keep cranking than just freewheeling across the snow.  Not exactly Andy Hampsten on the Gavia, especially with 28mm tires on the Coda, but enough to feel that one had faced some challenges and beaten them.

Between my head cold and many recent days off the bike and even away from exercise, I took it easy (as I had yesterday indoors).  But I came home invigorated and anxious to repeat the action tomorrow.  No tingling fingers, no chilly, stiff toes.  I’m ready; let December go out like a lion!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Bogus Retro?

For a long time I’ve pondered a minor but intriguing conundrum regarding the documented history of bicycling.  The images all make it look like things happened a hundred years ago.  The film of Coppi racing in the 1950s seems as if Thomas Edison himself was the cameraman.  The sequence of Tom Simpson collapsing on Mont Ventoux is so low-quality that I’m surprised he wasn’t riding a penny-farthing.    Even up to and including the early 1980s every still could have been shot by a Leica from the ’40s or a Rolliflex.  Not until toe clips are on the wane, in the Fignon glory years, do most images start being in color.  And that’s only about 25 years ago.  You’d think that Tour de France photographers were under the same stressed, remote, combat-zone emergency working conditions as those covering Vietnam or the Korean War.

Is it that color film was too expensive and cycling wasn’t “worth” the cost in terms of newspaper and magazine sales?  Is there some advantage in making the heroes of the past seem farther in the past than they were?  In terms of technology and racing strategy perhaps a few things have changed.  More riders are in better condition for more of the year; the bikes are made of more esoteric materials; everybody has to wear a helmet all the time, so the forms on the bikes are more remote and impersonal (as in ice hockey–what a loss to the fans!).  But graphic technology was capable of much better 30, 40, even 50 years ago.  In about 1962 the film of Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was shot in black and white for effect; color film had been the norm for years.  Color television was pretty standard well before 1980.  So why do our cycling heroes of those eras look like they were photographed by Matthew Brady?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

Ein anderer bewölkt, kalt Tag

Continuing with the German weather forecast theme seems fitting, in that our Washington D.C. prognosticators are hopelessly out of touch with the weather’s local language.  Yesterday was envisioned to be partly sunny and in the low to mid forties.  In fact the sky was leaden, with the exception of some wan sunshine through medium-thin overcast for a couple of hours around noon.  The temperature hovered just over 40º.  At least there was no wind to speak of.

Still, I rode again, knowing that today’s rain was to be followed by bitter cold and wind again.  It’s surprising how much a six degree difference can make, though.  One less underlayer, lighter-weight leggings, and fingers that are chilly but never tingling or numb.  Being Saturday, there were more riders on the Trail, but they were still the hardy, dedicated ones, along with a smattering of walkers.  I passed one who was leading three dogs and pushing a bicycle.  I wondered what his game plan was.  Would he get them all in sync and then pedal along, hoping they would stay in line like a pack of huskies pulling a sled in the Iditarod?   he had one of his yappy little charges on a 20-foot leash, and he seemed indignant when I warned him loudly, and twice, that I was passing on the left.  The whole trail is ten feet wide.  What was he thinking?

The trail can get mesmerizing on a cloudy, cold day.  There’s little movement of object or of light, as there would be with a gleaming sun.  A few grey and brown sparrow-sized birds flit through the brush (though I saw blue jays and hawks too).  Walkers aren’t talking much.  Few dogs around to bark.  The whoosh of cold tire rubber on iron-hard asphalt is the loudest noise, except for the rushing air sound that all ear coverings generate.  There’s a serenity, a calmness, because I have forsaken all thoughts of speed in favor of a comfortable pace.  Not having ridden outside in ten days before these last two, I want to take everything at a moderate tempo.  It’s almost  like Zen, especially with the hypnotic spin and song of the wheels.  One with the machine, free of desire. Near-perfect stillness of soul.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


I’ve always loved the German word for “snowflakes” for some reason.  Perhaps it’s just that the term is so much like its English equivalent, yet so different.  The “flaken” part is pronounced like “flocken” in English, but it has that overtone of “flak” from World War II, puffs of hostility in the air.  And we had them in the air this morning, as an “Alberta clipper” went through to belie the forecasters’ “partly sunny and slightly warmer” prediction.  The glum, leaden sky, the thin blotches of white accumulation along the side of the road, insisted once more that a fairly harsh winter is settling in.  These are the first flakes of what could be a long, white winter.

After I got home and had lunch, I decided this would be a good opportunity for my first real winter ride.  Our indoor/outdoor thermometer read 36.1, the sky was very grey and threatening to drop a few more flakes, but there was no wind.  These conditions called for full-force winter gear, though.  Heavy leggings over cycling shorts, two underlayers of shirts, heavy socks, skullcap, turtleneck, and the GoreTex jacket, plus heavy gloves.

The trail was pretty empty; just a walker or dog-walker here and there.  And yet I am passed in the first mile and a half by two riders.  Only the really serious ones are out on a day like this.  The one guy is really fast, but the other never gets more than about 75 yards ahead of me.  When he stops to take a cell phone call I quick pass him.  I never see him again.

Three miles into the ride, I check how my body’s doing.  Everything is fine except for my fingers.  When we vacationed at Acadia National Park we swam at Sand Beach, the only one with natural sand for a long stretch along the “rock-ribbed coast of Maine.”  Even in August you had to wait until the tide had just turned and was going out, so that new cold water wasn’t being pushed into the cove.  When you went in, your whole body went numb in a minute or two.  To call it “refreshing” is something of an understatement.  But once your body was used to the temperature, and effectively went numb, it was fine for quite a while, assuming the sun was out. So it is with my fingers.  First they felt icy cold, then they tingled for a while, now they felt OK.   I can move them, I can feel them, they can feel the brakes and handlebars.

The sky is layered with gray cloud banks.  To the south there seems to be an opening or two.  But not anywhere near the Trail.  If anything the west (the direction I was riding in) is darker.  At times the brightest part of the sky is to the north, and every so often I briefly cast a light, almost phantom, shadow toward the south.  Watering eyes occasionally obscure my vision a bit, and my sensitive sinuses create a perpetual drip at the end of my nose.  I think I might grow an icicle there.  A few stray flakes drift by, but nothing serious.

One of the most foolish aspects of this ride is that in all my focus on cold weather garb, I forgot to wear my helmet.  By the time I realize I’d forgotten, I am too far out to go back for it, so I just have to ride extra carefully.  I stop to push every button at every cross walk, and take no chances with stop signs, approaching cars, or other riders.  I ride more that way in the winter anyhow.  The low temperatures keep the oil on the chain, derailleurs, and other moving parts a little stiff, and all the clothing inhibits easy movement.  Further, I really think that low temperatures divert a lot of energy from the propelling of the bike to maintaining the core temperature of the body, as also happens when the weather is very hot.  So in these extreme conditions the idea is to get the miles in the legs, not to push it too hard.

Coming home my fingers are on the lee side of the bike (tailwind) so the wind chill on them is much less.  I notice that all the creeks and runs along the way (we New Englanders know these things are really “brooks,” but they never use that word here in Virginia) have a film of ice over them except where the swiftest currents run.  The marshy areas are all iced in.  the cold has already taken on a permanence.  Almost back home, I pass a small two-point whitetail buck standing right at the edge of the trail.  Yearling?  (I don’t know my deer very well because I don’t shoot animals for fun.)  He just stares at me, as if he were saying “hurry up, buddy, I want to cross the trail.”  I don’t know if I like this much intimacy in my coexistence with wildlife.

The garage seems tropically warm compared to the outside.  As I re-rack my bike I notice that my hands are a vivid pink.  Still have their feeling, though.  And I’ve come to terms with winter for one more year.  It won’t be so hard to go out in the cold next time.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

The Lance Factor: III (Tour de Lance)

We have a number of family birthdays that are celebrated in August, including mine.  We also have a certain tradition in our family, that of a Tour De France party to celebrate the conclusion of another running of the world’s greatest bike race, and perhaps its greatest single sporting event.  The party happens shortly after the Tour’s conclusion, maybe late July; maybe early August.  Often the Tour party and the birthday parties are somewhat conflated, but in any event, the family knows that cycling-related gifts are always welcomed by me.

This year one of my birthday gifts was Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong’s Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France (by Bill Strickland.  New York: Harmony, 2010).  I picked it up a couple of days ago, at last, and found myself immediately engrossed.  Some of the best cycling books are written by former cyclists, others by life-long cycling journalists.  Few writers are both.  But Strickland has a powerful pen, a great imagination, and plenty of experience, both on the bike and within circles of cycling’s leading lights.

Strickland is chronicling the story of Lance’s 2009 “comeback,” when he returned to top-flight professional cycling and ended up finishing third, on the podium, in the Tour de France at the ripe old age of 37.  Strickland, writing from the point of view of an ex-racer, a bike racing insider, a friend of most of the friends of Lance, a journalist, a fan, and a cyclist, creates a commentary that fuses episodes of Lances’s 2009 races, an analysis of Lance’s character, a fan’s complex reactions to the riders and the racing, and the insider commentaries that only a journalist can get and only an ex-racer can interpret through both personal experience and professional contacts.

What is so good about this book–which I am halfway through and yet must already recommend fervently because of its style and substance–is Stickland’s ability to capture the complex, emotionally strong and strange, amalgam of fans’ responses to Lance’s comeback: hero worship, skepticism, hope, exasperation, idealism, cynicism, excitement, exhaustion.  he takes you through Lance’s year, and through the wringer of emotions too.  And he does so in a style that is so right on, so perceptive and objective, personal but not self-indulgent, articulate and imaginative, that it makes me, a blogger on my own cycling and fandom, wonder if it’s worth it to go on writing when someone this good is already out there.  Only a small handful of writers even come close to Strickland.  I give you a paragraph, from p. 98 of the text.  I cite it as a source, but I have not obtained copyright.  I will remove the text if the publisher wishes.  this paragraph describes a crash in the stage race called the Vuelta Castilla Y León in March of 2009.  Note the vivid imagery, the restrained yet intense style:

It was a crash.
Red and blue and yellow and orange jerseys disappeared over the fronts of the bikes that had an instant ago been carrying them, and the colors strobed as the riders somersaulted, or slid along the pavement until they ran into someone else who had just finished sliding along the pavement and were, in turn, slid into or run over.  The left was a clot, and what remained of the race streamed to the right and passed around it.  Some of the cyclists were off their bikes and running all crooked on their cleats, one hand on the saddle or handlebar.  The team cars were coming up on the scene now, and also the motorcycles with their engines searing hot and loud as they were hot and exposed out where they could peel the skin right off a rider if the drivers weren’t careful.  Riders were walking stiff-legged in circles, or holding their wrists, or already back on their bikes without full realizing they had risen from the ground, and mechanics were jumping out of the backseats of the team cars and unlocking new bikes from the roof racks and pushing them under the riders.  It was absolute chaos, and it was pretty ordinary for a bike race.

A reader who can’t feel present at that scene just isn’t trying.  I stand in awe.  My first impulse is to wonder why I bother writing, when there is someone out there that good.  Buy the book; read it.  You will feel part of the Lance experience of 2009, but from the viewpoint of neither an apologist nor a cynic, but just a cycling fan full of mixed feelings about both his/her hero and his/her sport.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

PS:  Lance fractured his collarbone into four pieces in this crash.  It was mended by fastening a five-inch steel plate onto his clavicle using twelve screws.  Two days after the surgery Lance did a thirty-minute spin on his indoor trainer.