Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Road biking in January

The only bike shop in all of Juneau, Glacier Cycles, shuttered its doors on Christmas Eve. Before I left town for my Christmas trip to Whitehorse, I stopped in one last time to clean them out of all of their lube and 29” tubes, and say goodbye to the great guys at my soon-to-be-former LBS. I felt a mixture of guilt — for all of the bike parts and gear I had purchased on the Internet — and low-level panic, because without access to a commercial bike mechanic in town, mechanically incompetent cyclists such as myself are pretty much screwed.

I knew the time would come, sooner or later, when one of my bikes would be rendered inoperable by a mechanical I could not fix. I was hoping that time would come later rather than sooner, but sure enough, yesterday I discovered a broken spoke in the rear wheel of my mountain bike (on the cassette side.) In addition to this broken spoke are several loose spokes, and a severe wobble that tells me this wheel is not far from total collapse. I’m a bit frustrated with my options. I can’t replace the spoke because I don’t have a tool to remove the cassette, and even if I did, the wheel is so out of true that I shouldn’t ride it anyway. I could go online and buy a new wheel, which is probably what I will do. But how do I install a new cassette? Is this something I’m going to have to figure out how to do myself? Am I going to have to buy tools? I am not happy. Not happy at all.

In the meantime, I can’t ride my mountain bike. I don’t like to ride Pugsley on wet roads — the result is not unlike taking a shower in a fountain of grit. Which leaves me with my road bike. I never ride my road bike in the winter. Juneau’s heavy precipitation and continuous freeze-thaw cycle guarantee a constant mess of ice, slush, gravel and mud all over the pavement. A bike with skinny tires and no studs - though considerably faster - just isn’t worth the risk. But today I wavered on my “No Road Bike In The Winter” rule. Although it still drops below freezing at night, we’re at the tail end of nearly a week of temperatures in the 30s and rain. I thought maybe, just maybe, the rain had scoured enough of the slush to make skinny tires viable.

For a couple miles, I felt almost unbelievably light and fast, like I was riding on a cushion of air. But then I came to the end of Fritz Cove Road and the beginning of the slush and gravel surface of the highway shoulder. I cut a narrow groove at least an inch deep, but the tires seemed to hold decent traction beneath the goo, so I continued.

Farther out the road, conditions deteriorated. The slush became deeper, and soon it was coated in a thin veneer of crunchy ice. As I was coasting down the long hill toward the Shrine of St. Therese, I inadvertently rolled onto a solid layer of wet pack ice. When I realized this, my heart jumped into my throat. I knew braking would be suicide — pressing the brake pads against the rims all but guaranteed the wheels would slip out. So I did the only rational thing I could do: I screamed. Then I death-gripped the handlebars and straight-lined it all the way down the hill. Eeeeeeeee!

By providence or sheer luck, enough gravel was embedded in the hard ice to keep my tires upright. As soon as I reached a more level section of road, gravity generously slowed my death plunge and I was able to veer into a narrow track scraped bare by traffic. Scary! It was perhaps the scariest thing I have done on a bicycle all winter — certainly more frightening than any of my Pugsley ridge descents so far.

Then, on the way home, I got a flat tire after running over a particularly sharp chunk of road salt. I only had a patch kit with me; my hands went completely numb while I waited for the glue to dry at glacial pace in the cold air. I began to rethink my rethinking of the "No Road Bike In The Winter" rule. Which means I'm down to one bike.

I miss you, Glacier Cycles.