Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ice biking...

Andrea and I are on the east coast for the next month or so visiting my parents. It's cold here. I've been trying to get back into bicycling, now that I have a bike again (for those who aren't up on the news, all our bikes were stolen a couple of months ago when, after a day of working on getting the house ready to show, I left the garage door open all night).

I was really lucky in my timing on buying a new bike--we finally got around to it after Thanksgiving, so the sales had started, and the local Trek dealer happened to have the exact bike I was looking for in a size that fits me well. I wouldn't have sprung for this bike if it was full price, but it was heavily discounted - about 40% off of the usual retail price.

It's really pretty. Anyway, I think so. But more importantly, it's really fun to ride. I had some adventures on it before we left Tucson, and have been looking forward to biking around out here in Massachusetts. Of course, temperatures in Massachusetts are somewhat cooler than they were in Tucson. It was ranging from 60 degrees to maybe 75 degrees there. This morning, it was six degrees on the outdoor thermometer at Mel's house, where we are staying.

Well, either you're going to go riding, or you're not. If you let a little thing like cool temperatures dissuade you, you're not. So I decided to test the waters a bit. Riding in cool weather is a challenging problem. When you're going three miles an hour up a hill, the wind chill factor might be fairly low. When you're going 25 miles an hour down the hill, it's going to be substantial. Your gear has to keep you warm on the descent, without creating a sweat bloom on the ascent (which will then freeze you on the descent). Today, at rest, the wind chill factor was 6, because there was no wind. Descending, it was probably -16 degrees. This is all in fahrenheit, of course. Ascending, it was probably about -2.

My ride was a short one - about a mile each way, to the bakery in the center of Warwick. I put on a ski parka, and I was wearing jeans, and a nice polyester fleece watch cap, and a scarf. The only gloves I could find were my cold-weather bicycling gloves, which, as it turned out, were hugely inadequate (more on that later). The ride starts with a descent down Mel's driveway, which is dirt. The driveway wasn't particularly icy, so I made it down with minimal angst. Then there's a very mild climb up to a summit for about a quarter mile, followed by a half-mile fast descent.

The pavement starts at the summit, and the road is just dirt until then. This time of year, what that means is that you're basically riding on a layer of ice that's got a lot of dirt in it. The ice forms as a result of moisture in the road freezing and rising to the surface, plus snow that's compacted into ice by tires driving over it. Because the roads are frequently sanded, this ice tends to be permeated with dirt, but because it's driven on frequently, and because sanding is not a uniform process, what you wind up with is a surface that's got patches of slick ice and patches of dirty ice, varying pretty randomly.

This surface works fine for a car - you can climb up a fairly steep hill, and you can do a fairly quick panic stop on it, because although you will slide when you hit the icy patches, you hit enough dirty patches to make up for it. On a bicycle, if you try to brake hard or change direction on an icy patch, you will wash out the front tire, and if you're going fast, you will have a bad accident. If you're going at a walking pace, you can just put your feet down and recover. It's tempting to plan ahead and pick patches that aren't slick, and see if you can't string together sections of good traction, but that way lies madness: you'll start to go too fast, and then when you hit an icy spot, you'll crash.

So I picked my way gingerly up the dirt section, never going very fast, careful not to turn on the slick sections, and never had even a moment's loss of traction, although I went over some fairly shiny ice. I suppose it helped that it was six degrees - ice is slippery because the surface melts as you put pressure on it, so really cold ice is no slipperier than a similarly smooth steel or glass surface. When I got to the descent, I covered my face with my scarf, which was a pretty thin wool scarf, and went for it - the road was nice and clean, without a single icy section, so I didn't feel like I had to hold back.

My face got a little cold on the descent, but not alarmingly so. My hands were fine. My knees felt a little cold, but again, not too bad. Surprisingly, the jeans seemed to be enough. My core was perfectly comfortable, but not overly warm. I was pedaling on the descent, which probably helped my knees. So I made it to the bakery feeling pretty good about the ride - clearly I don't want to do any riding on dirt roads until summer returns, but I can manage just fine on paved roads.

It was on the way back that the trouble started. I never had any problem with my nose freezing, which was what I was really concerned me, but about halfway up the ascent back to Mel's house, I noticed that my hands were getting uncomfortably cold. I've used the same gloves for cross-country skiing in similar temperatures, so I don't know why it was so bad on the bicycle, but bad it was. Maybe because my fingers are out in the wind when I'm riding, whereas when they're on the poles they are all over the place, and not consistently out front.

I tried just flexing and flapping them around to keep the circulation going, but it was a losing battle - if I'd had much farther to ride, I would have had to stop and put them in my armpits to warm them up. Fortunately I was pretty close to Mel's house, so I just finished the ride to the base of her driveway, walked the bike up her driveway (my fingers were quite painful by then, and I didn't feel like riding up the driveway) and went inside.

My fingertips weren't white, so I knew I didn't have frostbite, but it was still pretty sobering. After fifteen minutes, they were back to normal. So the lesson I take from this is that for bicycling in really cold weather, you'd better have really good wind-proof gloves. Of course, the downside to really good windproof gloves is that your hands might get too warm and start sweating. The funny thing about this is that even though my fingers were painfully cold, I was otherwise quite warm. Not warm enough for a bad sweat bloom, but very comfortably warm. It's kind of amazing to come off a steady half-mile ascent wearing a full winter parka and not feel overheated.

So the experiment was a qualified success. I will try a longer ride soon, but not a lot longer, because I am sure I will discover some new temperature-control problem I'll need to deal with, and I don't want to be ten miles from home when it happens. And it's pretty clear that I can't think of the bicycle as basic transportation in this weather - I would not want to try to ride it from Mel's house to my parents' house, which is entirely on that dirt road. Even if I made it safely, I'd be a ball of nerves when I got to my parents' house. I think on a longer ride I need to do something to prevent my kneecaps from getting too cold, even though I didn't have a problem with them on this ride. Long underwear, or knee warmers.


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