Cycling in the First Snow

I wake up Sunday and I can barely see the ground from our perch 400 feet above the city. Our view that extends for 100 kilometres is now down to just a couple of kilometres. Our world is completely white. The sky is white, the air in front of the window is white and the snow that has fallen so far has turned all of the rooftops, forests, and parking lots below white.

Snow falls through two hours of Hindi class. It keeps falling through lunch and two more hours of improv class. At around 4PM, I have another errand: Take my bike in for maintenance and winter upgrades: more winter-appropriate tires, fenders to keep the slush and snow off my face and back, and new brakes.

I put on warm layers, coat and shoes and go outside. When I get there I’m surprised at just how much snow has fallen so far. The driveway of our building is covered in slush. The roads look a little better but have slush in the edges. My first winter cycling in several years is going to be on a relatively busy street that almost immediately comes to a bridge. I think of all the signs I saw in my childhood: “Bridges freeze before road”. Without warmer earth below, ice can form on bridges much more quickly than the rest of the roads, making for a nasty surprise if you’re going too quickly. I cycle slowly and steadily across.

There are two possible ways to the bike shop. One is to take roads all the way there. It’s faster but may be more stressful. The other is to take the trail by the river through the ravine. There will be no cars to share the road with for all but the first and last kilometre or so, but there will also be no snow clearing.

I cycle carefully, remembering the way my dad taught me to drive a car in the snow. Start off in a higher gear so you don’t spin your tires. Don’t stop too quickly or you’ll lock the brakes, don’t turn too quickly or you’ll skid. In a car that means possibly going off the road and hitting something. On a bike that means you’re going to fall. My mind goes back to the last time I fell when cycling in the winter about 8 years ago. I was cycling to the grocery store on a small laneway. There were no cars around and it was mostly clear. But then, I noticed below me was clear ice the colour of the pavement. Fans of early Warner Brothers cartoons will understand this feeling:

I was fine on the ice for a bit, keeping as still as possible, trying not to turn, accelerate or brake. But then, maybe I breathed wrong but in one moment my wheels came out from under me and I hit the pavement. No harm done but to my pride. Mostly I was amazed at how quickly it happened. That feeling of time stopping as I tried to be as still as possible still sticks with me to this day.

Today there is no ice on the trail, only snow. It is slippery but only enough that you need to go slow. The snow is not so deep that my wheels will get stuck. It just means that I am more mindful than usual. My brain is focused on the here and now of the trail and my cycling more than the usual thoughts about the past or future.

I ride slowly around a corner and suddenly up ahead I see movement. I brake slowly and watch as the biggest deer I’ve seen saunters to the middle of the trail and turns to look at me. If we were closer together he is so tall he would be looking me in the eye and his horns would tower above me. Foolishly I reach slowly in to my pocket to try to get my phone to take a photo. I fumble with the password and by the time I get it he is slowly walking off the trail. If it wasn’t clear from my previous experiences it is clear now. The animals in our ravines do not want me photographing them.

By the time I get my camera ready, this is all I can see before me…

I pass a few other cyclists, runners, and many people out enjoying the snow with their dogs. I ride at about half my usual speed here as passing anyone is a slow process requiring a gradual movement to one side so as not to fall. The snow absorbs so many sounds that I announce my presence early, letting them know I’ll be passing so as to not startle anyone.

I come to a bridge near the end of the trail and stop short. These bridges are made of metal and can be a little slippery when wet but today with snow they’re treacherous. I dismount and walk across, noting the skid marks where clearly one cyclist tried to ride across.

I leave the trail in Riverdale Park and as I climb the hill toward the street I watch children sledding down the big hill. At the bottom, a dog playgroup chases each other, playing by rules that only they seem to know.

The roads are a different experience. I emerge on a side street and the drains are choked with snow and leaves. I ride through slush that would come up over my ankles if I were to be walking. The slush sprays up on my lower back and I feel the cold through my clothes. I wish I had my fenders already.

As I ride snow collects on my glasses and they fog. I wipe them with the side of my glove but it keeps coming back. Imagine if I had windshield wipers for my glasses. That’d be so useful!

I drop the bike off with a long laundry list of fixes and upgrades and then head back out. Without the effort of cycling, I start to get colder. I also notice as I walk that my feet are soaked and snow and ice have collected around the cleat that usually keeps my foot connected to the pedal making it uncomfortable to walk. Home is quite a ways away and so I find my way to a bike share station. The screen on it is broken so I download an app to get a code to borrow a bike. However, the snow is falling so quickly now that it makes my phone almost impossible to use. Extra characters are typed or different ones than I intend end up going in the registration form. All the while as I do this, I’m getting colder. My feet are especially cold now, feeling like I have only two toes – one on each foot. I finally give up and walk a block to another station and check out a bike.

This bike rides really well in the snow and I begin to enjoy myself, especially as I warm up. It reminds me of when you drive a car in the winter. When you start off the car is cold and uncomfortable but in a few minutes the engine warms and heat comes out of the vents. This is winter cycling in a nutshell.

I turn on busy Bloor street. There’s a nice bike lane but thanks to the snow and leaves, it’s got large puddles in it. Some stretch out in to the traffic lanes and as I cycle along, cars go by splashing slush on me from shoulder to toe. All I can do is laugh. This wasn’t malicious on their part, it’s just absurd. It is as if the world is conspiring to make this as unpleasant as possible. I am determined to resist, though. Feeling upset or angry is a choice, and feeling like one’s on an adventure is a choice. Which choice is more fun?

The nearest bike share station to my home is still almost 3 km from home. I pull in, check the bike in and then settle in for a walk.

My cycling shoes are about as inappropriate as can be for this. They’re vented for comfort on warm sunny days and that’s let water in followed by cold air. On the bottom of each, just behind my toes is a hemisphere of ice. The sidewalks are covered in snow as nobody has cleared them yet. I’m dressed to stay warm on a bike exerting myself and as I walk I get colder. I pick up my speed as much as I can to generate heat. It now feels like I’m walking on two sticks. My toes are just a memory. But it’s quiet, peaceful, and beautiful out here. I am lucky to have this moment here. I am proud to be so resourceful and persistent that even when the ground is covered with snow I manage not only to get everything done, I do it with enjoyment – and little moments like seeing the deer in the valley, or laughing at the absurdity of being covered in slush by passing cars are the payoff – the things I would’ve missed had I boarded a bus or just stayed indoors.

Just over half an hour after I started walking, I arrive at home. In the elevator I notice I am still wearing my bike helmet. I must have looked a little silly walking with a helmet with no bike to be seen.

I jump in a hot shower and put the plug in to let the warm water fill. My feet tingle and then itch as their sensation comes back. While I’m in the shower, I try to parse this experience. Looking at it one way, it sounds horrendous: cycling nervously in the woods, feet wet and cold, glasses covered with fog and slush, drivers splashing slush on me, walking on numb feet with hemispheres of ice beneath. There are so many moments where I could have chosen to be miserable. There were other moments where I could have worried about failure or looking stupid. What if I fell and someone saw me? How stupid did I look getting covered with slush. What kind of idiot doesn’t wear appropriate shoes in a snowstorm? Who walks 3 kilometres with a bike helmet on? Why would someone ride a bike when they could sit in a warm bus or just buy a car? Or why would they even go out at all? All of that was potentially true but they barely entered my mind. My mind was focused on the beauty of the snow, the fact that I was managing to get around in it, that I was pushing myself past the huge internal barrier of “I hate winter so much.” I had no room in my mind to be frustrated, angry, or worried.

I think of that relative to times when I actually feel frustrated or embarrassed. Times when I’m not being understood, or stuck in a crowded store and I’m in a rush because I have to cook dinner and do some work before I go to bed. I feel embarrassed when I’m on stage in an improv scene and feel like nothing is coming to mind. Why am I nervous to talk to a stranger in English but in India feel little shyness talking to people in Hindi?

I wonder what separates those situations? Why are some so bothersome and yet being in what could clearly be described by some as an unpleasant situation was an adventure?

As I turn the water off it comes to me: I think it has to do with expectations. I went outside expecting to have some discomfort. I knew I might fall and also knew that if I did I’d probably be fine. I knew a lot of people think cyclists are crazy on a beautiful day in August let alone a snowy November night. My expectations at the grocery store are that I will get in and out quickly and get home and everything will go smoothly. I am so attached to that idea I can see no other way that is acceptable. And being on stage is even more about expectations. I have expectations of myself, and I have the expectations of the audience weighing on me filtered through my own expectations of what they should be expecting.

What if we just let go of our expectations? What if we didn’t always expect comfort or to look competent? What if we became more comfortable with failure and looking foolish to some people? What possibilities would be opened in our lives if we could do that? What things would we try? What interesting experiences would we have?

10 thoughts on “Cycling in the First Snow

  1. Expectation reduces joy – not my saying but I heard somewhere and that’s so true. Lovely pictures of the first snow. Wish you would get the picture of the deer too, but am sure you’ll get more opportunities for that. I had never thought about things like ice forms faster on bridges than on normal roads. I share your dislike of winter, though snow feels dreamy and nice, but in whatever little snow experience I’ve had it remains as nice only for a short while.

    1. That’s a great and simple quote. I think back to my early days with improv. In the first show I did I had no expectations. I knew I was inexperienced and had tons of fun. A year later I was having less and less fun as I set my bar higher and higher and was more critical of myself. (“You should be better at this by now!”)

      I suspect if I am able to spend more time in the woods in the winter more wildlife viewing opportunities will present themselves. The trails are quite busy during the warmer months but on cold winter days it is virtually empty.

      I’m with you about snow but every year I try to find sustained joy in it. After all, snow and cold weather settle in about now and we won’t see the end of it until late April. That’s a lot of time to feel dissatisfied with the outside world!

  2. Are you able to cycle all winter? Here I think the haphazard clearing of the streets makes it impossible. At least I never see any riders once the snow comes and stays.

    1. There are definitely year-round cyclists here. Cycling in the cold is absolutely no problem. After all, it’s no different than any other outdoor winter sport in terms of staying warm. Layer well and generate your own heat! I avoid cycling in ice because it’s so dangerous and unpredictable. Snow is actually manageable in small quantities. I was actually dropping my bike off to get better winter tires and fenders added to get ready for winter. Like driving, you have to be a bit more careful, go slower, avoid rapid acceleration, stopping or turning. Street choice is a mixed bag. Busier streets are more likely to be clear but also busier and may have reduced width due to snowbanks. Residential streets are generally quieter but also the snow clearing’s not as good. When I was out this week the trail had a couple of inches of snow on it and it was a bit slippery (but my tires were almost slick) so I could only manage 8-10 mph at best. Roads were slushy and wet. I could go a bit faster but wished I’d worn my waterproof pants and shoes.

      And of course the one consideration is that like with cars, salt wreaks havoc. It eats the drivetrain of the bike so after a harsh winter you might spend $300-400 to fix it all. Many people buy a “beater bike” for that reason.

      So short answer: Yes, I can ride but will be doing it less in the woods and trails as they’re generally not cleared and will be covered in frozen icy slush with ruts of footprints in it. I likely won’t be riding on stormy days unless there’s a real need to. I’ll switch to walking or running for outdoor exercise on those days. Or at worst, indoor cycling.

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