Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Cruel Transition

Particularly in New England, November has always struck me as a cruel month. At the beginning, the fiery foliage and the azure skies carry over from October.

The crisp, but still warm air is charged with just the right amount of electricity to gently stir our emotions. And we are lulled into a state of self-willed denial that soon it will all be yanked away from us in one fell swoop - replaced with desolate landscapes, freezing temperatures and perilous road conditions... for the next 4 months.

As far as cycling goes, I must admit the memories of how difficult last winter was fill me with dread. I am trying not to panic, but to be prepared instead. And part of that is just being mentally prepared for what's to come.

My biggest disappointment last winter was discovering that any kind of sporty cycling was out of the question after temperatures dropped below freezing, because I had trouble breathing at speeds over 10-12 mph. The science of that is still a mystery to me, especially since I can cross-country ski in the winter without experiencing the same problem. And I know that other cyclists have trouble with this as well - it might just be a genetic difference in how our lungs are structured, whereby for some it is a problem and for others not. This year I will try some tricks that have been suggested to deal with the breathing issue, but if it doesn't work I am prepared to accept things as they are and hang up my roadbikes until spring. Or so I tell myself.

But as far as transportation cycling goes, I do not anticipate any great changes in my routine. Last winter I was able to get anywhere I needed to go on my Pashley, taking it slowly and enjoying its stability and winter-proofness (wide tires, internally geared hub, full chaincase). This winter I am looking forward to seeing how the Gazelle and Bella Ciao perform in comparison. Most likely I will ride the Gazelle for local trips, and the Bella Ciao (after I get a rack and lights for it) for more hilly, long-distance trips. And the rest of my bicycles will be put away, including my custom mixte - which I just cannot bring myself to ride in the winter, yet.

But all this is still in the future. For now November has been good, and the increasingly desolate landscape  has a romantic charm to it that I hope it will retain for at least another few weeks. It's a cruel transition, but a trusty bicycle is a good ally to have.

28 comments:

  1. Having never lived in quite that extreme of an environment, I can truly not imagine what it is like.
    While I was in Atlanta, I would daily commute in 30 degree weather.
    I do miss the trees turning colors there. Your pictures have reminded me of that.
    Here today, it has dropped into the upper 70's with colder weather(upper 60's) forecasted.

    Conversely, in the summertime, I find it impossible to ride. When the temp is at 104F and the humidity is in the 90 percent range it is very difficult to breath. Heat exhaustion becomes a real danger.

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  2. Yikes! It was 55F at 6AM here in North Texas and our trees are just starting to turn.

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  3. When we lived in Lithuania, I would have trouble breathing while walking some days in the winter, if it was windy. Once it got down around about 5-10 F, I'd have to be kind of careful and make sure to have a scarf I could hold over my face and all that.

    The Autumn in Portland has been good so far as well, with only a couple of really nasty days - mostly just a bit overcast and grey. Many trees are dropping their leaves, but they are still colorful, so it just went from the sky being colorful to the ground - soon that will change completely though, and we'll be in for the yearly winter of gray drizzle.

    At least I usually don't have to worry about inclement weather stopping me riding too much, as it's only ever rainy really - the few times it does snow, it's almost always wet and slushy, so you can just ride slowly and you're fine.

    Then again, if I did ride recreationally, I certainly wouldn't be as excited to do it in the dumping rain, so that might put a damper on my recreational cycling as well.

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  4. I see a fair number of folks riding throughout the winter in the DC area. How they do it I don't know. I complain about even having to walk in cold weather. So, I'd be afraid that riding a bike in it would make me unbearable to be around.

    Since I'm not willing to add a layer of fat or dress like Quinn the Eskimo (for me, that's what it would take), I guess I'm resigned to sit in front of the fireplace and catch up on my reading. That should take me through winter without losing my marbles (for not being able to ride). But, for those more hearty souls, enjoy and be careful out there.

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  5. Riding in the cold weather definitely does not appeal to me so much, but I'm trying to stay inspired by you and the other lady bloggers who ride these beautiful vintage bike in such weather. I've actually taken the plunge and commuted to work in the month of Sept and Oct and I plan to ride tomorrow. My road bike is usually put in storage by this time except for my mtb. Until I find that perfect vintage bike, for now I'm commuting with a somewhat vintage bike, which belonged to my husband back in the early 90's (a Haro). Not sure I will continue to ride in the dead of winter, but I will live vicariously through you and the other ladies.

    SM

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  6. This all very well and good, but April is the cruelest month.

    Somebody had to say it.

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  7. I am not a fan of winter except in extremely stereotypical fly into perfect skiing environment, ski, hot choco, more skiing, wine + proper fondue, repair oneself to fireplace in thickly cabled cashmere and super hot fur boots kind of scenarios. Winter is known at our house as "the season of complaints" and lasts, by my definition (as I am the complainer), from early Nov-May.

    Last year was my first winter riding my bike and I think it improved my winter mood quite a bit and I determined that I would much rather ride a bike than walk in the cold. It is not as bad. Try as I might, I cannot love it, though as I am not a person who gets satisfaction from being intrepid. It is pure utility cycling for me.

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  8. Christopher - Not if you're a cyclist! I will always have fond associations with April, because that's the month in which I really started riding again after a 13-year break.

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  9. It's been fairly nice here in Charleston, SC with a high in the 70's today. I am not looking forward to riding in cold weather but I am inspired by your riding in Mass and Dottie in Chicago in the winter. It makes me feel that I must dress properly and give it a try. February and March are the coldest months here usually. April is a very interesting month here. I spend a good bit of time in a hardwood forest at my farm in upstate SC in April. In the beginning of the month the woods are "wide open" and I can see a half mile across a bottoms from a favorite ridge of mine. Then come the "Judas" trees followed by the Dogwoods. Gradually, the woods start turning green and by the end of the month the woods have fully "greened up" and I cannot see further than a few dozen yards at best. Spring has arrived and I am a lucky man to have been there when it did. I love April.

    best,

    JimP

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  10. The difficulty breathing in cold weather is related to the fact that you breath through your mouth when exercising and that blast of cold air hits the lungs unimpeded. Normally, we breath through our nose and the air is warmed first. The blast of cold air causes bronchospasms (tightening of the airways) which causes breathing to become more difficult. This can also trigger asthma just to make things even worse. The solution, or I should say, a possible solution, is to wear a scarf over your nose and mouth so that the air is warmed before you breath it in.
    And yes, free medical advice is worth what you pay for it!

    best,

    JimP

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  11. I'm looking forward to winter! I love the cold, mostly because it gives me the opportunity to wear all of my favorite wool things at once. :) I'm already experiencing night time rides in the 30's, and find that I start out with many layers which gradually are shed as I go. I do have to be careful, and cover my face to warm the air as Jim recommended, as I have asthma.

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  12. Funny thing is, I used to be known--I used to advertise myself--as a cold-weather wimp. This after growing up in wintry brutal Pennsylvania and not really noticing it, but then living in Washington DC for 28 years, which thins the blood.

    But after my own return to biking a year and a half ago, punctuated by a 25-mile ride in a local event called Bike DC in pouring 43-degree rain, it toughened me up. I want to ride straight through winter this time if I can. The cold I can handle when I'm dressed properly--the ice is what freaks me out.

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  13. jim said: "The difficulty breathing in cold weather is related to the fact that you breath through your mouth when exercising and that blast of cold air hits the lungs unimpeded. [...] The solution, or I should say, a possible solution, is to wear a scarf over your nose and mouth so that the air is warmed before you breath it in."

    or a balaclava. i can understand the desire to wear scarves from a fashion standpoint, but personally scarves have always been cumbersome for me. while they're more attractive than balaclavas, when in a cycling context they just don't make a lot of sense: they're bulky, they shift, they flail about. i have a pearl izumi balaclava, it's thin, fits under my helmet, and keeps my head warm in temps down to 10F. but even better, it pre-warms the air i breathe.

    i have to admit, i don't enjoy cycling in winter because of the sinus pain that the cold weather causes me (i can breathe just fine, however). even though this past year i managed to bike commute to work on all but the worst stormy days, i was at times miserable doing so. i'll be doing it again this year, but i won't always be a happy camper!

    what bugs me about winter commuting as much as putting up with the cold is putting up with the constant barrage of comments i get from my co-workers. every day it's the same: "you biked again today??!!". "yes, i bike everyday". then the incredulous head shakes, as if to say i'm crazy. repeat daily.

    i always enjoy april, and the fact that my city starts street sweeping on april 1 is no small component of that (i like clean streets when i ride!).

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  14. Christopher - For me it's the opposite. I love cold weather, I love snow, I love skiing or just walking around in snow. I would not be willing to live in an area without winter. But cycling in 35F temperatures on a roadbike at 20mph I cannot do without passing out - though on an upright bike at 10mph it's fine.

    JimP - I've tried the scarf thing, but when I have it over my mouth and nose I feel as if I am suffocating on it!

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  15. somervillain - I have that sinus thing to some degree as well, plus my nose will start running uncontrollably which is extremely inconvenient to deal with while on a roadbike!

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  16. yep, i've got the nose thing as well. i keep a pocket stuffed with tissues!

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  17. forming a mental image of myself on a roadbike while continuously blowing my nose : ))
    (I think my handling skills would need to improve first)

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  18. thanks for the information Jim. I have been bike commuting in Utah for the past few winters not really by choice, but because I'm broke and don't own a car. I came to enjoy it (and even enjoy the comments at work :-) although it takes my body a bit to adjust to the cold, so December tends to be the coldest riding for me (then I visit my family in Maine for Christmas, experience REALLY cold weather, go back to Utah and riding feels great!) I use less trafficked roads, ride slower, wear wool, use my lights even in the day depending on conditions, and give myself more time to get places, and everything works out great, I've even learned to really enjoy it. Snow and salt buildup in the cogs and derailleurs can become a problem fast, so frequent cleaning and lubricating is a must. I don't usually hop on my bike in the winter to ride for fun, but I consider it a year round mode of transportation, and so far the weather hasn't beaten me yet!
    stay warm!
    ps: goggles saved me a few times when my eyes felt like they were freezing, and the scarf over the mouth/face kept the breathing comfortable.

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  19. Spencer - I'm broke too and can't even afford bus fare. I sometimes have to reassure myself that it's okay to love cycling even though I don't have an alternative. (On the bike blogosphere, it seems like everyone constantly reminds everyone else that they don't ride out of necessity.) I still shake my fist at those smug slickers with them shiny transit passes! :P

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  20. Herzog - Bus fare shmus fare. My motto: "ramen noodles and lovely bicycles".

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  21. I'm jealous that you have winter. I'm approaching my 4th winter in LA and, while I realize that I shouldn't complain because the weather will remain perfect for riding, I really miss autumns with changing leaves and winter snows that turn into brutal ice on side streets that doesn't go away until March (it can be nice to have something to rest from and complain about while enjoying hot food/beverages).

    I have no advice on breathing that hasn't already been mentioned, but I think that it's worth mentioning that the best snow tire I've used is a skinny (32mm Panaracer CrossBlasters are my favorite) cyclocross tire. It sinks through the snow to solid ground and generally maintains better traction than fatter tires. Through my many winters in Nebraska I have used, and seen used, this type of setup with great success.

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  22. November spawned a monster! Hey my birthday is in November but it can be a grim time. I ride year round, but the pacific northwest is more rainy and grey than anything. I did ride in the frigid prairie winters which I actually preferred to the constant rain. I do not have a car and the rural bus has such a lame schedule. It's faster to bike than wait for the bus,and I'd rather buy a latte with the bus fare. But somedays I dread going out there!
    Excercise induced asthma seems to be a problem among cyclists even when doctors find nothing wrong. Also pollution from cars is of course bad for lungs, but it feels much worse when it is cold. I recently went to see an allergist who had me breathe into the asthma machine and he was all excited because my lung capacity was so great and strong. But, in cold weather or even cool weather I choke up like a frog, am constantly coughing goo and blowing my nose! I feel like I can't breathe, sometimes I panic and then my hands and feet go numb out of fear. So much fun! The cold is hard on the lungs. I recently saw some people from South or latin america at a local store and they had scarves over their faces. It was actually quite warm for this time of year-but to them it was freezing! A good old wool scarf should help. Alcohol helps. a coffee with baily's, or something stong! Or, a hot thermos of innocent spicy tea is a good thing to carry too. Think bengal spice or yogi tea's indian chai.
    My advice to all is to have a winter bike or two ;) ready to handle the elements so you can save your super precious bikes from salt and road goo. You could try having a winter specific relaxed roadbike set up with cheaper components you won't feel sad about losing by spring. If you feel your lungs cannot bear extreme cold, don't fret it.
    As long as you're still out there biking you will keep up your health, endurance and muscles. Better to be safe than sick!
    Heather

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  23. You know last winter was the snowiest on record, at least down here in tropical Philly. There is no way ( knock wood) this winter can be as bad. The long range weather forcast ( we all know how accurate those are) are saying a La Nina will make it cold in November and December than a warmer than normal winter in Jan. and Feb.

    It's perplexing how you can cross-country ski without problem but not bike in cold weather. My limited experience in X-sking is that it is even more aerobic than bicycling. It certainly warms one up quite a bit. I would get so hot that I would often end up without any outerwear on.

    Do you get warmed up biking in winter, where you have to remove layers to prevent sweating? If not, maybe that's the difference.

    Or maybe it's the dryness of the air where you bike vs. where you ski?

    I know bicyclists who get asthma attacks breathing frigid air and they sound a lot like you - although again that x-ski thing! Anyway they wear stuff like these air warming masks with great success:
    http://www.hammacher.com/Product/78958?source=CJ&cm_mmc=CJ-_-9223372036854775807-_-1609763-_-The+Subzero+Warm+Breath+Mask.

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  24. Pedestrians look at me like I'm nuts, but they look much colder than I feel. My bicycle has a saddle mounted heater as standard equipment!

    Maybe I burn my fuel extra hot, but last Boston winter (my first on a bike) I was much warmer outside than the year before, when I was strictly ambulatory.

    +1 on the balaclava. A good-looking one can also be used to intimidate bad drivers :)

    P

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  25. Gorgeous photos!

    I agree that this November has been lovely so far, albeit with an underlying sense of dread about the upcoming long winter.

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  26. Forrest - because summer is the season to struggle through when in the south, my buddy calls it the "Dixie Winter".
    Last year in New England I put studded tires on my bike (from Peter White Cycles) and it made me feel so secure. They have ones as skinny as 700x32 or so. With multiple bikes, you might want to make one winter perfect.

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  27. My grandfather's girlfriend swears by riding track bikes (with mudguards) in rain and snow. The fixed gear gives a better indication of traction/slippage. She ran a bike shop with her husband for 30 years and favoured a traditional british "touring" style bike normally

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  28. Dweendaddy - I considered doing that last winter, but it ended up being unnecessary. But if it's a harsher winter this time I'd like to try them.

    thelighterthief - Yes I've heard that. Will try to ride my fixed gear roadbike in the snow this winter!

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