By Vernon Felton
I don't have a thermometer hanging around the house. Don't need one. I never tune in to The Weather Channel or ask Siri what the heavens have in store for me today. I just open the front door and check the dog bowl. If it's full of water at this time of the year, I can get by with just a long-sleeve jersey or maybe some arm warmers. If there's ice floating on top, I'll probably add a pair of winterized gloves. If it's frozen, I'll grab a coat. And maybe some wool socks.
The dog bowl, however, never tells me that it's too cold to ride and it never lies.
The bowl was frozen solid this morning. It was, in other words, a perfect day for a ride.
There was a time when I wouldn't have interpreted the tidings of the dog bowl this way. I grew up in Northern California, and while we had our fair share of frigid days, that weather was positively balmy by my current standards. But here's the odd thing—back then, I used to stop riding in the "winter".
From Thanksgiving through Valentine's Day I hung up my cleats and called it quits. Cold turkey. And I wasn't the only one. Most of the guys I knew—unless they were actively competing on a team—took the winter off as well. Looking back on it all, I can't understand why we thought 13 inches of rain and a handful of days below freezing meant that we needed to sit it out until spring.
The easy answer is that we were all sissies. That we lacked grit, determination, moxie, stiff upper lips and all that crap that made your grandparents members of the Greatest Generation. Maybe that's it, but I have my doubts. Speaking for myself, I was a much harder, angrier kind of rider in my younger days. I was full of a piss and vinegar back then that I have a hard time summoning up nowadays. I don't know where I left that steely resolve, but the fire inside me that once fueled countless 10-hour punishing rides has mellowed a bit. These days, I'm about as hard as a Dairy Queen swirly cone…and yet, I ride all winter now—real winter—sleet, snow and snot-crusted beard-cicles be damned.
I think—and I realize how lame this sounds—that we stopped riding during the winter simply because we thought that we were supposed to. We just thought we were meant to go into some kind of cycling hibernation. Some time around October the Nashbar and Colorado Cyclist catalogs would come out and their pages were full of pictures of guys riding in lobster gloves and thermal bibs and, damn, that shit looked miserable. Then we'd open up the pages of Bicycling or VeloNews and would be regaled by tales of storms and blizzards and chamois pads so cold that they'd give you frostbite in places that shouldn't be frostbit.
We read that stuff and we thought "Winter is coming." And we called it quits…which is strange because I eventually moved back east and you know what? Folks don't call it quits out there. We rode year round out there in Buffalo. For that matter, I know plenty of guys in Colorado and Montana who make the cycling thing happen in some truly shitty conditions. And how about those riders in Marquette—you might mock the Yoopers' fatbikes, but you have to admire a people who will craft a 15-mile snow trail for the express purpose of pedaling all day in sub-zero conditions.
The truth is that any day you can get out on a ride is a good day. It might not be all roses and unicorns and hero dirt, but if you are still turning pedals anywhere outside of a spin class at this time of year, you're doing something right.
I opened the front door this morning and saw the dog bowl had become a giant chunk of bulldog spittle, hydrogen and oxygen. Perfect. I loaded up the test bike for the day and headed to the trail. When I squelched into the trailhead parking lot, I found it packed with muddy F-150s, mini vans and Subarus. Riders were coming off the hill covered in mud and ice—high fiving and wearing the world's biggest shit-eating grins.
Life, when it comes right down to it, rarely gives you the gift of perfect conditions or perfect timing. It's never the right time to quit a cozy job and dive recklessly into that career you've always dreamed of. Babies rarely announce their impending arrival in the world when you are ready for it. Your septic system is bound to back up when company comes to visit.
Life isn't convenient. It's messy. It's ill timed. And yet, when you get done wrestling the bastard, you almost always find that struggling against the odds, getting out there and taking chances is invariably a hell of a lot more rewarding than standing still and sitting out the season.
Get out and ride. It's cold as hell. The mud is going to play hell with your fancy new drivetrain. You're going to need some lobster gloves and that balaclava that makes it look like you're gearing up to rob the nearest Dunkin' Donuts. In other words, it's a perfect day for a ride.