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.