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When it’s so cold that your spit freezes, hopping on your bike is a great way to stay warm.
By Robert Judge
SASKATOON, SK – At 52 degrees North, in the heart of the continent, Saskatoon has a different take on winter biking than others.
We inhabit an arid cold here. A solid state, where dry lips never kiss the word “rain” from October to March. Sometimes the mercury drops out of sight and the normal laws of physics fly south.
At minus 40 degrees Celsius/ Fahrenheit, a cup of boiling water explodes into the parched air. And a bicycle is the most beautiful vehicle going. You cannot love a bicycle until it’s carried you through this surreal land of four-month frost.
Forget everything you’ve heard about winter biking when you come into deep winter. Fenders are pointless arches: thirsty flakes swirl off tires like sparkling feathers. Crisp is clean. You can wear your nicest clothes. Drive chains run dry and silent for months. There’s nothing to carry grit as high as your chain, and nothing to glue it on if it could get there. LED lights blink languidly in the velvet of gasping cold nights if they work at all. It’s most reliable to mix lights of different brands.
How to get started?
Winter has a skin, the way a water drop does: surface tension. The best tool to pierce it is a sharp attitude. For the first few kilometers winter fights you off. It recognizes your tropical roots, the millions of little holes in your naked primate skin that let water seep out incontinently. To fend it off:
1) Jackets must cover the throat.
2) Zippers must run to the tip of the collar.
3) A collar with no closure is no collar at all.
4) Pull up the zippers and pedal harder.
This temperature is lethal. The psyche rings an alarm and the body goes into critical mode. “Draw all blood to the core!” You feel it in the fingers and toes now, a numbness, maybe an ache. If you stop to fumble with some mechanism, or tie the load better, if you pull off the gloves, if the aching wind finds you, blood will abandon the fingers, their tips will become merely the idea of fingertips, the thumbs will be a tiny nubbin of live nerve tissue someplace near the bone and the rest clumsily theoretical. So you plunge dying hands into your armpits, bring them back to life there and hope it’s soon enough to avoid the winter biker’s version of the bends.
You pedal on. The eyes dry and vision clears again. You see a world that is different every day.
Clouds are made of ice. You push yourself, trying to keep a summer pace on a road made of stiff Danish Blue. Soon a ribbon of sweat lies upon your spine, but your fingers are still warming because you’d taken off your mitts just when the wind peaked. You stop to take off your topcoat, but still your fingers are not quite there. Your toes never took chill thanks to thick felt-lined boots – you learned long ago how to shop for boots.
Boot makers have mostly forgotten how to make footwear both warm and sweet to the eye. Fur around the cuffs is just for show. Some tips:
1. If the fur, felt or foam doesn’t carry on all the way down and wrap around the toes, these are imitation boots intended for dancing in and out of overheated motorcars.
2. You have to thrust your fingers right to the end of boots in the shop to make sure the lining is throughout the boot.
3. You may end up with snowmobile boots; so much for elegance.
4. Alternatively, buy felt packs or the thickest socks you can find to add some extra insulating layers to your boots.
5. Another resort, though rather stiff and galumphy once you reach the office, is snowboard boots.
6. What to do if your boots simply aren’t up to it? Hop off and push the bike. Walking flexes muscles in the feet that cycling doesn’t work, encouraging your circulatory system to pump vital heat down to your toes.
The truth about snow
Snow helps keep you warm: it’s often not as hard as pavement. And it’s much more varied. The chalk snow of the trails squawks like some longwinded raptor. Fresher cheese snow clumps up in doughy patches here and there throwing your tires out from under if you haven’t been watching. Only deep snow can stop a bike. But there are now enough of us bundled bikers to be noticed by city hall so the trail ploughing keeps getting better.
Winter biking life is expressed in pastels, a crow whirls by like a rag thrown high, spruces sway like really high dancers. Rodents chew slowly on green bark and hide under the drifts. A bicycle can bring you places summer doesn’t know. Your eyes water in fierce gusts, your chin burns in the parched air and you love every moment not just because you are the most efficient and independent land vehicle the earth has ever seen. You love every moment because sun, snow and wind are primary elements of our souls.
Suddenly you notice something has shifted. Hands and feet are warm right to the tips. You’ve broken the surface tension of winter. All of you is now submerged in subarctic reality. You can now ride your bike all day in any temperature. You must stay dry of course, lose another layer or open your collar a bit.
Your body has passed equilibrium. It is now looking for places to radiate waste heat. This morning’s warning from the weatherman: “exposed flesh will freeze in ten minutes!” is ninnyism to you now. You must unzip your jacket further to stay dry, waving warm bare hands to show off. Your throat is a radiator. You ride past people shivering at bus-stops who really could lose a few digits if they stop there too long. But the rules of thermodynamics have done a backflip for you. Prepare to hear “you must be freezing; you poor thing!” while you power up a slope or stand sweating and fumbling over a bike rack. The social dissonance of bodies within and without the surface tension of winter. Souls permanently outside the skin of winter will never understand you.
It will take hours for your inner furnace to lose it’s momentum. You can afford to stay outside and sit watching the river steam or chat with a friend. It’s all within your heat budget and you are in control, adding or losing a coat, baring the throat and getting far more naked than the shivering occupants of motorcars can make any sense of. No other wheeled vehicle makes you a part of winter the way a bike does. You are not watching winter pass like a triptych of framed reproductions, you are the winter, in every fiber. This is winter by bike in my town.
Robert Judge is a freelance writer, inventor and parent. He and his wife were drawn to Saskatoon, SK by the long riverside bike trails and Elm-lined old streets. A couple of long-ago summers spent exploring the Cotswold Hills of England on his auntie’s already vintage Raleigh three-speed and years of biking and ski touring in British Columbia left him willing to try year-round utility cycling in the big city. He says feeding a carfree family in Saskatoon’s urban food desert for 2.5 years has made him fetching; always fetching something.