Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I eat snow for breakfast

Date: Dec. 28 and 29
Mileage: 36.3 and 31.1
December mileage: 790.1
Temperature upon departure: 19 and 15

For the past few days, biking conditions have been tough. Really tough. Like fishtailing-in-sandy-sugar-snow- punching-through-postholes- being-blown-by-wind- into-deep-snow-drifts tough. And that's just in the road shoulders! All the trail riding I've tried has been an abysmal, bike-pushing failure. Every other person in the entire city is up at the ski resort, lining up to battle for first runs through two feet of fresh power. And while I don't necessarily want to be doing that (ski crowds: ugh), I am still a little unclear about why I am trying to ride (and often walk) a bicycle in the worst of conditions.

Yesterday, I was wading through a still-unplowed bike path when I came to a mountain of chunky snow that had been deposited by a highway snowplow driver. The pile was at least six feet high. It was over my head. On one side of the path is a chain link fence; on the other, a deep trench. The bike path is the only way through. I picked up my 35-pound bike and hoisted it over my shoulders, holding the seatpost in one hand and the handlebars in the other, and stepped into pile. It was littered with ice chunks and sand. The first step engulfed my knees; the next, my waist. I threw the bike to the side as I kicked and struggled to extract myself. Then I crawled and flailed my way across more precious inches of progress, stopping briefly to catch my breath and drag my overturned bike those same few inches forward. After about five minutes I was finally somewhat free, having moved all of six feet down the path, with only another half mile of 2 mph bike pushing to go. Once I was past that obstacle, all I had to look forward to was more unplowed road shoulders, more fighting of drifted sugar snow and sand, more crawling over loose piles of snow to avoid swerving into traffic; and after that, the impossibly deep trails that were my actual destination.

Then today, I did it all again, minus the submerged bike path.

And as I churned along the North Douglas Highway amid a swirling ground blizzard and breathtakingly cold cross-winds, I realized that beneath my face mask, I was smiling. I was enjoying the high drama of it all, relatively safe in my cocoon of clothing layers and riding as far away from the light flow of traffic as I could manage. I was working hard, and I was having a tough time just moving forward, but I was happy.

And, of course, I asked myself, "What's wrong with me?"

I think the answer lies in the reality that all cyclists, from the fast to strong to the "crazy" among us, need a challenge. For some, the challenge is losing weight. For others, increasing speed or distance. And then there are those who simply want to clean that impossible move or crush other cyclists in certain races. We all have different motivations, but we're all connected by one thing: the reward. If we meet our challenges, our brains reward us with happy thoughts and a fair dose of endorphins.

So what's my challenge? My challenge is tough. That's it. The tough stuff. Rides that are tough to me. Rides that are tough to most. I'm an atypical cyclist in many, many ways. I don't care about speed. I've tried. Really, I have. But in the end, I could never develop an interest in watching a clock and calculating fractions of fractions of numbers to chase that ever-elusive edge over arbitrary standards. And I don't care about distance. I like to ride far, but what I like to do most is ride long, in terms of time, and do the best I can with the hours I have.

So if I don't care about fast and I don't care about far, what does that leave me with? Really, after that, there's only tough. I'm left with tough. And riding a bike in the winter in Juneau, Alaska, is tough. And the tougher it gets, and the better I get at it, and, yes, even the faster and farther I can go in tough conditions, the happier I am.

That's my excuse. I'm not crazy.


  1. Amen Jill! I had a great bike commute to the UAS campus today (and campus is closed!).. :)

    But "ski crowds" at Eaglecreast aren't really all that bad compared to any lower 48 ski area!!

  2. No, not crazy. Just incredibly dedicated and motivated. This gets confused with crazy sometimes.

  3. I'm not fast either, but I do enjoy a challenge also. I don't think you're crazy (unless maybe we both are!)

  4. My sentiments exactly. But, I can't say that I wouldn't like to be faster.

  5. For some, cycling is about the challenge, but as a friend wrote in the club newsletter some time back in the earlier 70s (when road cycling was more of a "fringe" sport), others have "deeper, existential reasons." Personally, I attribute my own cycling habit to a blow to the head that I suffered in third grade.

  6. " ... And the tougher it gets, and the better I get at it, and, yes, even the faster and farther I can go in tough conditions, the happier I am."

    The clock creeps in, always. You may not be ticking off the seconds in an aero tuck, but you are keeping track of yout rides, the miles and the time and I guarantee that if you should somehow magically turn in a time on a tough ride that shaves 10% off yuor best time; you'll be doing cartwheels in the slush.

    I'm slow on the bike, but still I track my speeds, if nothing else just to see how my times compare against ....me.

    Speed, Time, and Distance, the inescapable elements of the cyclist's basic equation.

    Yr Pal, Dr Codfish

  7. Cheers to that!

    While I've raced competitively on the bike, it took a while for me to figure out that my athletic demeanor was that of a--


    I just like to work.

    It didn't really matter what went on in a race or in training-- as long as I got to work and earn that delightful exhausted feeling afterwards.

  8. Jill,

    That's exactly my motivation. I'm slow, but I like the challenge. I like it that people think I'm just a little bit crazy (in a good way).

    I started several years ago with my first sprint triathlon. I thought that would be tough, but it wasn't. Middle-aged pudgy women were finishing the thing easily.

    I then tried two half-iron distance triathlons up in Fairbanks. Pretty darn tough, but still not enough.

    I thought about a full ironman, but everyone does those and, besides, I've got a knee that doesn't like running.

    So last summer I did the Fireweed 200 solo. My goal wasn't to go fast, but to finish. Riding 200 miles in one day over Thompson Pass isn't something that very many people have ever done or will ever do.

    Now I'm looking for the next big challenge and have bought a new mountain bike and started riding in the snow. I'm not ready for the ride to McGrath yet, but I'll probably be experimenting with some shorter races this winter.

    Other future tough challenges I might consider:
    Fireweed 400 (the whole thing)
    Pennock Island Swim in Ketchikan (8 miles)
    Soggy Bottom 100
    Susitna 100
    Iditasport (or whatever it's called now)
    Alaska Wilderness Classic

    I know you've done some of these. Maybe you should consider some of the others if you need a change of pace.

  9. Also, like Roadrider above, I suffered a hard blow to the head in third grade (fell hard onto some concrete bleachers at a ball game). It's the only time in my life I've ever ridden in an ambulance. Maybe that explains a lot...

  10. I ask you...where is that Juneau Empire photographer when Jill is waist high in snow holding a bike over her head??? FWIW, they plowed the valley sidewalks last night.

  11. Wow, I felt tired after just reading your adventure! :)

  12. I embrace several of the challenges you mentioned, and weight is an obstacle to meeting some of my goals. I get bored easily. Cycling is the only sport that has allowed me to progress while meeting different challenges and not feeling like I don't belong.

  13. WELL PUT !!! For those who haven't bike or run or anything, they will tend to think you are crazy. However, I am a long distance runner and I am sure many other bicyclist doesn't see you as crazy. Its all in the name of P-A-S-S-I-O-N!

    Happy New Year and I am looking forward to reading more of your adventures.

  14. Hah, your post today drew all too familiar a comparison to a ride I just completed in sand on Fraser Island.

    I'm not used to walking bikes. I pride myself on being able to ride.

    ... but I think the affinity you feel for the surrounds makes it so much more tolerable when you do need to push, regardless of a few little cuss words muttered under breath along the way - lol. After all, it's the journey and the things you learn about yourself along the way that really matter.


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