I giddily packed my commuter bag with all the things I would need for a ride after work and launched my snow bike into the cold morning. The wide wheels glided through six inches of untracked powder like a swan in a tranquil lake. I grinned and pedaled faster, racing to match the bike's effortless glide. A wake of snow spray coated my jeans and I giggled out loud at the feeling of quiet weightlessness, floating in a fountain of powder, like an urban snowboarder.
Suddenly, the rear wheel swung sideways, launching my formerly weightless body into the cold air. It was one of those suspended moments, slow-motion terror. I remember the soft outline of the sun through the morning haze, and then the metallic taste of pain as my elbow slammed into the ground. I laid for a couple seconds, dazed, feeling the trickle of melting snow on my face, and then I stood up. The bike had spun a complete 180 and lay toppled beside a cleared half-circle of glare ice at least five feet wide. The contents of my commuter bag were strewn in wreckage — a full yard sale. I gathered the dented apple, the smashed bagel, the snow-drenched clothing, and the broken yogurt container sprawled beside an eruption of blueberry blobs. An orange had bounced a full 30 feet away. So much for lunch. Still shocked by the impact, I tenderly remounted my bike and soft-pedaled the rest of the way to work, terrified of hidden ice.
At 5:20 p.m., I left work to a full-blown blizzard. There would be no extra miles tonight. The wind howled as shards of snow stung my exposed neck and forced their way into my still-sore throat. I couldn't tell the street from the sky. The white out turns the cars and intersections and buildings into flickering shadows. Even with goggles I felt blind. I put my head down and ground the pedals toward the wind. On the other side of the bridge, I ran into my friend, Bill, who was also returning from work. "Man, commuting sucks," I grumbled in an open moment of weakness. I doubted Bill heard me over the wind. He had a huge grin on his face. "This is awesome," he said. "This is so much fun." I forget Bill likes blizzards. I can't say I understand, but he did manage to deflate my bubble of self pity. We churned in the general direction of home, hopeful we were still in Missoula on not on the top of some forlorn mountain, and plotted a bike ride for Tuesday.
A foot of new snow meant trail-riding was out. We decided to ride the Deer Creek loop from Pattee Canyon down to East Missoula, about 25 miles on packed snow and a bit of exposed pavement. The sky cleared up and the temperature dropped to the low teens. I have a bad habit of commuting to work with only the clothes I wear at work, a soft shell, liner gloves, and a hat. For the bonus ride I brought tights, gaiters, a thin balaclava and a fleece pullover. It still wasn't enough. I shivered on the climb, and I knew I was probably in for an uncomfortable ride down.
"It's 10 degrees," Bill announced at the top of the canyon. I mounted my headlight and put on the last of my extra layers, then followed Bill into the brutal descent. I was decently prepared for a run in those temperatures, but I had nearly forgotten just how cold winter bicycle riding can be, with the added windchill and periods of lower intensity. All of this is amplified tenfold when you have to coast for 15 minutes on a painfully long, gradual downhill, but can't crank up the speed lest a patch of ice meet you unaware. There's nothing you can do but clench your teeth and take your beating, bidding goodbye to the feeling in your toes and fingers as you dream about an anti-cyclist's-fantasy where there are no descents, only toasty warm sweaty climbs.
I knew I deserved it so I could laugh about it. At the bottom of the canyon we still had five miles to pedal into town on ever-more-icy, flat pavement. It was impossible to work up any heat. I held my hands in clenched fists in my pogies, hoping brakes wouldn't be necessary anytime soon. Bill seemed perplexed, and admitted he too was painfully cold. "This is good acclimatization," I reasoned. "Like taking cold baths. Getting ready for Susitna." Bill did not laugh.
Remembering Bill's blizzard grin, I said, "This is one of the things I like about winter activity. You can't quantify anything. Sometimes it's really hard, and sometimes the same things are not all that hard. But it's never easy."
Bill nodded, and I think he understood, but his face was probably frozen. We parted ways and I followed my commuter route home, thinking only of warm showers, and nothing of glare ice.