Cold weather fitness

Tired of sitting around in the house? Winter weather is a mental hurdle, not a physical one

I feel sorry for people who don't go outside during winter. It must suck to sit around for months waiting for the weather to warm a little so they can go back outdoors.

Many people think all you can do during winter is snow sports such as skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, etc., but there's much more. I used to think anyone who fly-fished during winter either had a screw loose or needed another hobby. Now it's rare that I go through the winter without a fishing trip or two.

This year I got an invite for a late-November mountain bike ride. My riding buddy, Jesse Taylor, talked me into it, which didn't take much convincing.

"Want to go for a bike ride?" he asked.

"OK." I replied.

It was 18 degrees when I was getting dressed to go. I dug around in a footlocker that holds my cycling clothes. I put on a base layer of long underwear, bike shorts, a long-sleeved jersey, shell, wool socks, bike shoes, a fleece helmet liner and Nordic ski gloves.

I knew I had to achieve a balancing act of dressing warm enough to keep the frigid air at bay without overdressing and sweating.

After all, you don't see Nordic skiers wearing parkas. They rely on generating body heat to keep warm rather than bulky insulation, which is what I was trying to duplicate to stay toasty on two wheels.

After a short warm-up ride, we hit the trails.

I was never so happy to climb. I wanted to get my heart rate up to cardiac-arrest territory in the hopes of getting blood flowing into my toes and fingers. They had gone from chilled to aching quicker than I could shift my bike from its middle ring to granny gear.

Taylor pulled ahead on the frozen trails, and my first thought was, "Uh oh, this isn't going well."

My fingers were going numb and I was losing dexterity, which is not a good situation when you have to smoothly shift and brake to maintain traction on frozen trails.

I briefly considered bailing, but decided to give the ride at least 15 more minutes. It's a trick I've learned through years of mountain biking. When I don't think I can keep going because of cold (or hot) temperatures, sore muscles, steep hills, weak will, or any other excuse, I force myself to keep riding for 15 minutes.

My legs, lungs, circulatory system or conscience seem to realize they are not getting a reprieve and start functioning properly. Then I resume my normal riding pace, which is usually syrup slow on the climbs and seat-of-the-pants swift on the downhills.

But only half of that applied this time. The sticky dirt on trails was mostly covered by a cobble of crusty snow and patches of glazed ice.

Taylor cranked up the hills with annoying ease on his fully rigid (no suspension front or back) single-speed with 29-inch wheels.

It was humbling to sit on a 27-speed, full-suspension wonder beast and get schooled by a glorified Greenbelt cruiser.

Twisted thoughts of dropping the hammer just long enough to ride alongside and mace him entered my mind. I didn't have any mace, but the thought made me feel better.

As I pedaled up the trail, I realized I actually was feeling better. My fingers felt strangely normal and even my toes were merely chilled rather than frozen brittle enough to break.

The air temperature hadn't warmed, but my summer riding nemesis of overheating on climbs worked in my favor this time. I stood and cranked out a few pedal strokes to pump a rush of super-heated blood through my system.

When we started carving sinewy singletracks and tight switchbacks, the frozen ground provided better-than-expected traction, and I centered my weight over the pedals and kept my hands light on the bars to counter any sudden slippage.

I was no longer going through the motions of mountain biking, I was actually attacking the trail and trying to close the gap between me and Taylor.

Suddenly, cold weather riding didn't seem so strange anymore. It wasn't some weird stunt; it kind of made sense.

I again realized that winter weather is a mental hurdle more than a physical one. Modern outdoor clothing does a wonderful job of keeping me comfortable, and there's specialized winter clothing for most outdoor sports.

I later bought a pair of neoprene covers for my biking shoes, and the next time the trails are frozen or dry, I will be out riding again.



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