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.