Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Solstice

Sylvia made a small Solstice shrine tonight, complete with candles and an original illustration to show the lengthening days.

We’re on the uphill side of daylight. Uphill if you consider the days will lengthen between now and spring; as in, we’re no longer descending into darkness. That’s downhill, I guess, if you consider it’s an effortless slide toward longer days. Either way you label it, I’ll take it. I'm not averse to winter but I like daylight.

Unlike the growing days ahead, the weather’s been anything but effortless, however. Mother Nature is working hard to make us work harder here in the 6-1-2. I rode to work yesterday morning in a pleasant snowfall. I was aboard the fixed gear Cross-Check, deciding to give my experiment with Pugsley commuting a break. The Check has Schwalbe Marathon Cross 40c tires on it. They are great for snow and feel like racing rubber compared to the 4” footprint of Pugsley. I kept my chin up in spite of the impending accumulation. Keep in mind some park paths still haven’t been plowed from our mega-snow a week and a half ago. I admit the reality of more snow made me wonder whether, as some of my cycling friends have posited, the city is giving up on clearing some of the smaller paths.

Shortly after arriving at work it REALLY started to snow and didn’t let up for about 5 hours. I’m glad I waited it out rather than leave work early, since I was able to avoid most of the automobile traffic congestion as well as the poor visibility from the heavy snow. I did have a fresh snow depth of 5” to contend with. No problem, I thought. I’ll slog through the residential connectors and hook up with the plowed main roads as available.

Out of the parking lot and into the street I began the zig-zagging pattern that inevitably greets the cyclist navigating the compacted cookie dough left by hundreds of car tires. That’s not my favorite kind of riding for sure, but it lasted no more than a quarter mile since the sidewalk connection I take to avoid a major road was snowed in. Someone on a fat tire bike looked to have successfully cleaned it earlier, but I was not able to hold a sufficient line to keep momentum. Oh well, the evening was warm so I dismounted for a half-mile walk to the next residential street. Remounting on the next street I proceeded to zig-zag some more. A half mile later I popped out onto a nicely plowed secondary and began sailing along with a decent tailwind.

A couple miles down the road I turned onto another residential and got stuck on a hill. Off again and more hike-a-bike for a hundred yards. I was working up a pretty good sweat on these walking sections – no cold feet tonight. At first I thought the wetness on the outside of my wind shell was my body perspiring through the well-worn nylon. But I rethought that as I realized the moisture on my face wasn’t sweat at all, but a fine, misting rain falling. As I hooked up with the main road for a 6-mile push straight north I carried some steady speed. The windchill created froze the slick layer to my jacket and mittens. I’ve never had that happen before on a ride. It seemed plenty cold enough that anything falling should be frozen, but it wasn’t. The few sections of clear pavement were beginning to crust a thin layer of ice. Nice.

My helmet and mittens, encrusted in ice, upon arrival at home.

Rounding Lake Calhoun I had the one and only driver of the night shout something I couldn’t quite make out as he passed. I could discern that it was directed at me and was derogatory in nature. I’m sure plenty of drivers think riding a bike in the snow and ice is dangerous, stupid and perhaps should even be outlawed. So be it. Do they really think driving in the snow and ice is particularly smart? Especially when so many continue to drive at unsafe speeds and behave recklessly with little regard for other non-drivers exercising their right to get peacefully from point A to B. This thought led to pondering the city’s philosophy of clearing snow. The emphasis is placed on restoring the ability of average motorists to confidently return to the streets. The resulting piles of snow on walkways and paths (some are impassible and will remain until spring) prove the concerns of the driver take precedence. It’s a shame since I regard those of us who choose to explore alternatives to driving to be the saner, safer variables in the equation during any season of the year. The internal-combustion-driven wheels of commerce must keep turning, however.

I expunged the negativity quickly because I was within a mile of the saving grace of winter cyclists – the greenway system. This peaceful ribbon is reliably plowed during snowfalls making it one of the best parts of any commute. I stopped off for a few cans of fizzy liquid refreshment to celebrate this most epic of solstice commutes upon my safe arrival at home. Moving quickly, I tried to avoid shedding my entire layer of ice in the store and made my exit back into the steady snow that had resumed.

Minutes later I rolled my tires onto the greenway where my enthusiasm quickly flagged. It hadn’t been plowed. Not only had the path gone uncleared, but a generous number of walkers and a couple skiers had already chopped up the way. I wanted my Pugsley but had no alternative. My skinny tires cut back and forth in the all-too-familiar zig-zag pattern. In addition I was fighting to turn over the gear in the deep snow. Moving to the edges didn’t help since they had been pocked from footfalls as well. A man was jogging ahead of me. Under normal conditions I would have rapidly overtaken him and left him behind. Tonight I was struggling to catch him. The effort to guide the bike and crank the gear was wrenching my lower back. My cyclometer read 4-5mph. I gave in about 2 miles from home, reasoning I could walk almost as fast and save my back for shoveling snow when I got home.

I walked for a while, cursing the city’s lax snow removal practices so far this season. As I left the last row of visible houses behind I noticed the warmth in the air and the glow of the full moon illuminating the dense, gray cloud cover. Then I remembered I had beer in my panniers. Propping the bike against a snow bank I introduced a celebratory crack into the silent night air. Then I took a few minutes to quench my thirst and ponder the beauty of it all – a fresh snowfall, peace and quiet in the middle of the city, plans that don’t work out but turn out okay in the end.

Feeling somewhat refreshed, I trudged the final mile of walking, post-holed across the railroad tracks and ascended the spiral ramp into Bryn Mawr. I rode the last stretch toward home, stowed my bike in the garage and mustered a soggy grumble ‘hello’ to the family. Still a bit chafed by the city’s untimely snow removal this season I swapped jackets and headed out to grab the shovel and complete my own snow removal responsibilities.

Happy Solstice, friends. Winter’s here.

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