This morning I rode past a rabbit which was standing in the middle of a frost-laced A- road, staring blankly at the oncoming traffic. I didn't stop, I was far too cold and if I had stopped I would have felt like an idiot. The rabbit was probably suffering the effects of mixomatosis, but to all intents and purposes the little grey bag of fluffy bones looked frozen and suicidal. Standing there with a vacuum chill sucking the air out of its lungs, cars thundering past on both sides, staring fixedly along the white lines, the rabbit looked how part of me felt. This was my first experience of Winter on a bike, and it has left me uncomfortably numb.
My first real foray into proper Winter cycling was in November 2009. I went out with Leamington Wheelers one week and then bumped into my local Kenilworth Wheelers the following week. I was just finishing a fifty mile ride with a friend when the impressively drilled Kenilworth Wheelers came past us, a blurred fusion of flesh and metal. Six of them, all sporting modified extra-long mudguards (Duct tape and bits of plastic in the main), whirred past us. We decided to try and keep up with them and they kindly let us piggyback the remaining twelve miles. It was very pleasant drafting a bike with mudguards that actually stop the muddy spray from blinding you. It was also an education to see them warning each other of hazards with hand movements and loud shouts, switching the front two slots with clockwork efficiency. It was also an eye-opener to see six cyclists powering through the inclement weather conditions on their "Winter Rides". I learned a lot about club etiquette that day, and also realised that cycle clubs may be nice in the Summer, but through the crueller months they are a major motivator.
Charting the seasons by the farmers fields, Warwickshire and the surrounding counties started to look barren towards the middle of November. Harvest was gathered, ploughing was completed and seeding had left a thin green blanket of shoots over some fields. As I continued to put in my base miles, it became apparent that my bike was beginning to suffer. After each ride the urge to clean my bike was still present, but the thought of standing outside with a hose and a bucket seemed less than remotely appealing. So the bike stayed mucky for a little longer. During rides I became accustomed to hearing creaks and groans where before there was only a mechanic purr. The weekly deep-clean turned into a bi-monthly affair. And it wasn't long after this apathetic approach that my first spoke sheared off. This was followed the next week with another sheared spoke on the same wheel. A few days later, after getting these repaired at my LBS, the third spoke went and in a fit of consternation, I emailed customer support at Trek.
They got back to me promptly and after hearing the circumstances, agreed to replace the rear wheel for me. I'm new to the customer support in the cycling world, but Trek left me feeling warm and fuzzy inside. My LBS also helped out by liaising further with Trek for me, even though I got the bike from a shop some miles away. The new wheel was with me before the end of the next week and I vowed to keep tabs on my spokes in future, purchasing an inexpensive spoke tightener for good measure. I'm not totally blaming my reduced cleaning regime, but I would probably have noticed a loose spoke if I was cleaning the components more frequently.
It was late December when frost started to cover all of the roads on my way to work. I was forced to stop riding for a few days and instantly felt the calories coagulating around my midriff as I gorged on lard-based Christmas products. I haven't got a Turbo Trainer, mainly because I only have one road bike and don't want to keep swapping it on and off. So, on the 30th of December, as soon as the sun peeked out and the roads began to sweat, I met up with my friend Neil and we struck out for some distant hills.
We took the bikes along forty miles of familiar and enjoyable roads, taking in Stratford-Upon-Avon as the crowds braved the cold and thronged to the sales. Spinning out towards the village of Kineton, we aimed the bikes towards Sunrise Hill. This is a decent sized 16% incline, the steeper approach to Edge Hill. It has a delightful sign at the bottom suggesting that cyclists should dismount. We kept the pace to an acceptable post-Christmas trundle and grinned at our own stupidity as the temperature dropped to zero. We were about a mile from Sunrise Hill that I noticed my rear tyre was looking podgy at the bottom. I ignored it, attributing the bulge to my overindulgence. However, when the road levelled out and I started to spin faster I noticed my arse was bouncing the wheel rims into the road. I had a slow-puncture that was now ... flat.
We stopped outside Redwings Horse Sanctuary and I started to operate on the rear wheel. The problem was my clothing was only suitable for shielding me from the wind and keeping my body-temperature floating around "acceptable" levels whilst pedalling vigorously. Now that we had stopped and I had taken my big gloves off, the cold wet metal of the wheel on my hands and the wind were having a dramatic effect. My motor skills were rapidly deteriorating and my hands were very quickly rendered almost useless. The tyre levers started pinging off the wheel with machinegun rapidity as I struggled against the elements and my mannequin fingers. I watched a disaster movie recently where traumatic weather conditions caused the air to supercool in a matter of seconds, turning some poor actors into instant popsicles. The scene stuck in my mind for some reason.
Eventually I replaced the tyre and grabbed a CO2 canister from my saddle pouch. The canister was a recent purchase and it was only in the arctic conditions that I discovered it had no screw top with which to attach to my valve. Stupidly I had purchased the wrong canisters. Neil had a threaded one in his pouch and gave it to me. I then promptly burst the freshly prepared inner tube, which must have been pinched against the rim of the wheel due to my clumsiness. With the deflation of my spare came a morbid realisation. I was forty miles from home, shivering with the cold, in cleats and wearing tights. Luckily I had my phone secreted about my person and so I phoned my wife. She was in the shower (my 9 year old son told me). It took me a while to speak the right words, but eventually I stuttered to her my request for a lift. Even more luckily, Redwings has a nice warm cafe and Neil kindly gave me his emergency tenner. The majority of our journey had been along country roads devoid of civilisation. For me to get a flat less than fifty metres from a cafe was like a pinch on the backside by Lady Luck. I hobbled into the warmth and ordered a hot chocolate and coffee cake. Neil cycled off home hoping to avoid a flat. Less than an hour later my Father-in-law picked me and the bike up in his nice warm car. Thanks Ted.
The cold stayed in my bones for much of the day. The lesson of that journey has stayed with me longer. I was not adequately prepared and it almost cost me dearly. My first act upon returning home was to go and get some puncture resistant tyres from my LBS. The salesman informed me that farmers were cutting their hedges at this time of year and the resulting thorns on the roads were causing lots of problems for cyclists. I took his word for it at the time, but when I rode past the rabbit with the thousand yard stare, I also noticed the perfectly trimmed hedgerow down the side of the road. I ♥ my LBS, it's like an Oracle sitting atop a conveniently low placed mountain-top.
So why am I cycling in the cold and the dark and the wet? Why do I bother taking the bike out when bitter winds are making my eyes water and my ears freeze? Good question really. I suppose one reason is the physical benefits I am receiving by putting in this level of commitment. There's also the financial burden of paying for a bike I vowed to ride all year round instead of getting a second car. But the main purpose for putting in the miles is because I'm loving it.
Just because I love it doesn't mean that I don't occasionally get bored. I firmly believe that a goal makes for more relevant and purposeful exercise, and also keeps the enthusiasm up during more inclement periods of weather. I've also realised that cycling isn't just about the exercise, but equally important is the bike maintenance. For Christmas I got a big bucket of bike cleaning products from my telepathic wife. I spent the next day making the bike look like new. It now purrs once more. I realise now that the creaks and groans were mainly the loose/dying spokes on the rear wheel. I've come out of this harsh season a wiser man and once my festive waistline subsides, I'm certain I shall ride faster than ever come the Summer.