Sunday, December 20, 2009

Surviving the Winter (c)

With that first major snowfall of the year, the heart of a cyclist goes into the stage of sorrow, and their mouths go into a silent scream. They know from now on they'll have to watch and wait for clear streets ahead before they get back on the road .

Photo Credit Michael Oryl

But many cycling maniacs still ride not only through cold weather--defined as below 35 degrees Fahrenheit, but also through the snow. ( I don't say below 32, which is freezing, because of wind chill--more on that later).

Gavriel Epstein reported he rode through fresh snow this morning.  Here is his ride on Map My Ride--about 50 miles round trip from Fort Lee to Haverstraw and back. Many cyclists take their chances riding alongside massive snowbanks, melting and re-iced snow, and reduced width roads. One site, Icebike, is all about riding your bike in the snow.  The site even has an entire page dedicated to classifying 10 different ice road conditions, from dry asphalt to "glare" ice.  

There is also a long discussion of "windchill" which I am happy to report to Eugene Boronow of Mengoni who always runs off to Arizona in the winter but nevertheless insists that there is "no such thing" as wind chill.

I am happy to report that the ice bike experts confirm that there IS windchill, Eugene, and that it is calculated in the following way by the U.S. National Weather Service:
T(wc) = 0.0817(3.71V**0.5 + 5.81 -0.25V)(T - 91.4) + 91.4
T(wc) is the wind chill, V is in the wind speed in statute miles per hour and T is the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

The relief is that wind chill no longer operates at negative 40 degrees, so if you are riding at 15 miles per hour in minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it will actually feel like -40 degrees and no more (or is it no less?) So when it is negative 40 degrees, Eugene, you are right, there is no windchill!

Zakopane - Tatra Mountains - Poland (Piotr Chilecki)

I have seen some cyclists with studded nails in their wheels so they can ride on snow and ice.  It can be pretty exciting, the fresh snow under your tires making it a little slippery, the fresh air, the gorgeous white stuff all around you, it's quite a rush.

But if you ride on the road, the presence of snow and ice add to the statistical average that you will have an accident or worse be struck by a vehicle. Cars also are less predictable and are more likely to slip or skid --with you in the way.

So when it snows or dips below 35 degrees (25 degrees is my absolute limit) you're better off joining a gym and signing up for some tough spin classes and swimming or enjoying some outdoor winter sports like cross country skiing.

Before you do, check out some Artic bike riding tips by blogger and author Jill Homer to see what you are really missing.  Some of these are really useful, like "Stay away from Moose tracks."  At least in Alaska there is no chance of being hit by cars as you cycle across the Tundra. Another tip, use wider tires and let some air out.

Spin Classes

Spinning is a great way to prevent the winter weight from taking control, and often the intensity will allow you do get away with a one hour work out instead of three hours of road riding.  But spin classes are designed for non-cyclists and are often taught by non-cyclists.  So you will need to adapt your workout to suit a cyclist's needs.

For one, spin instructors often mistake standing up as a better work out. Actually, it's a better way to ruin your knees.  You'd be better off practicing a full 50% of your sprints in the saddle than out of it.

Just mention to them at the beginning of class that you are a cyclist and therefore need to watch your knees and won't do every move that they tell you to do, so they won't humiliate you in front of everyone by pointing out what you are doing wrong. Eventually spin instructors will get the message and learn how to protect cyclists' knees.

Another thing that spin instructors don't warn you to do: from a saddle position to a stand up position requires increasing the tension by at least a full turn of the handle, again otherwise you can really hurt your knees.

And finally, make sure your position on the bike is not too high or too low--this also can really damage your knees. Take the time to check your seat position carefully before you start.

Another thing cyclists really have to watch for is BOREDOM when either spinning or doing any other indoor sport. So choose your gym and your classes well--make sure the teacher is inspiring and you like the music and the people around you. I like gyms where the cyclists scream in pain, it makes me feel like we're actually working (if you live in New Jersey, try the Jewish Community Center in Tenafly, they're the best.)

If you don't have access to a gym, you can buy a trainer. But be warned, even though trainers are more convenient and you can watch your favorite TV show while you work out, the lack of competition from other spinners around you, as well as the absence of a driving, screaming instructor, makes home-based work outs less effective.

Cross Country Skiing

Although it takes really good snow coverage to get a run in, we already have had a huge nor' easter, with more than a foot of snow today (well if you don't know that you're either living in another part of the country or you're not among the living). Skiing was possible this weekend even in New York's Central and Prospect Parks.

Often it's best to plan your ski run first thing in the morning when there are few cars, and less chance for the snow to melt. Just after a major snowfall in the middle of the night--like 2 a.m., can be a great time to ski especially if there is some moonlight (though some parks are officially closed after midnight, so be careful.)

The trail ahead, Tallman Park, Dec. 20, 2009 (Benepe) 

In the burbs, many private and public golf courses can be the perfect place for a midnight run.

During the daytime, parks are best for skiing. In New York state, Tallman Park, a mere 20 minute's drive or a 45 minute bus ride from Manhattan offers up to 5 miles of trails.  You can also ski the Old Erie Trail from Orangeburg to Nyack, NY, so round trip will be more than 10 miles.

And if you can drive to Nyack Beach in Nyack, you can ski from Nyack to Haverstraw along the Hudson River--a distance of about 12 miles out and back.

Though skiing does not offer the same intense, long distance work out that cycling does, it allows you to work on muscles that rarely get any work at all-arms, stomach and full leg stretches.

Ah, the joys of winter: The sun faintly coming through the trees, Tallman Park, Dec. 20, 2009 (Benepe)

Swimming and Weights

If you can join a gym, try to find one with a pool. There are many reasons for this. For one, swimming is excellent for recuperating any back issues that you've kept tensely wrapped up in your body from ride to ride all summer.

The stretching motion of a standard swim stroke also lengthens and strengthens stomach, back, shoulder and arm muscles, the most neglected parts of a cyclist's body. Many cyclists have excess fat around their stomachs even in the middle of the summer, which means, working on your stomach now will pay off later.

But the best solution to prevent weight gain is to do at least two spin classes a week coupled with at least two 50 to 70 lap pool workouts.

Add to that weight lifting for both arms and legs. Yes arms, because now you are swimming, but also because now that you are not riding as much, your arms will lose their fitness quickly. Leg muscles are a must too because these weight workouts will allow you to retain strength for the spring season.


Hiking is a great way to be outdoors and not freeze your butt off if skiing and running are not your cup of tea. It's also a great way to bond with the people and pets you have ignored all year while you take both Saturdays and Sundays to do three to five hour rides.

Two caveats--one, conditions on rocks can be icy, adding to your potential for injury.  And storm conditions can make hiking hazardous if you get caught on a mountain at the wrong time.

Ana Banana, BBB dog going on a cross country ski at Tallman Park, Dec. 20, 2009, after she was let out of the bag (see below).

Many mountains do not have cell towers nearby, and you can find yourself in a fading light with freezing weather conditions and dangerous ice or snow underfoot, and no way to communicate with the world. Some areas without cell communication include most of Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park, the hike to the old burned out hotel above Woodstock, NY, and all of the major trails at North and South Lake near Hunter, NY. 

One year I climbed a mountain after a major snow fall only to find on the way down that there was a fine sheet of ice under the snow, so every step would send me flying. I had to make my way down the 3 mile hike on a sliver of a 5 inch strip along the edge of the trail while also carrying a freezing dog in one arm wrapped in my down jacket.

If you plan to do a lot of winter hiking, invest either in a pair of snow shoes or clip on spikes for your hiking boots, and make sure you have adequate water and clothing for the colder trip down.

And make sure you have provisions for woman's best friend too (like Ana Banana here, wistfully packaged in a warm bag.)


I saved this for last because most cyclists don't really like running which is why they ride. For one, it feels distinctly uncomfortable on the feet and knees, and it is certainly a lot less refined.

However, if you can invest in a good pair of shoes, and assuming you didn't start cycling because you ruined your knees running, it's a very good way to stay in shape over the winter.

For one, it is about the only thing you can do when the temperature slips below 20 degrees, and still feel warm.  As long as you have a warm hat and very warm gloves, two upper layers and one lower layer should be enough in 20 degree temperature.  Running on packed snow is one of the most beautiful experiences in the world, while running in deep, soft snow is not so great. It's best if you can do a minimum of three miles. If you're on the home work out plan, add an hour of indoor training to get the equivalent of three and a half hours of cycling (it's not as much, but it should do.)

Finally, stop eating so much

The hardest thing for a distance cyclist to do is to eat less. Just look at professional cyclists when they stop competing--they balloon out into caricatures of their previous selves.  It's always very sad to see, but cyclists know in their hearts of hearts that it isn't because they stopped taking speed and other performance enhancement drugs. It's because they didn't stop eating as much as they used to.

As much as I love dispensing this advice, I often find myself being one of the best candidates for motion control when it comes to consumption.

So here are some tips on how to cut down on the invisible calories that are ruining your physique. Don't listen to all the pundits about eating breakfast in the morning. My advice, don't eat unless you are hungry. Repeat after me: don't eat unless you are hungry. That includes the morning.

Why? It's your body telling you that you don't need food. If you like a cup of coffee in the morning, make sure you have milk with it so you don't ruin your stomach. And if you aren't hungry until lunch eat something nutritious but low calorie, like a whole wheat bread sandwich with turkey, or home made chicken soup and low fat cheese.

And then don't eat again until dinner time. Two meals a day are best for cyclists with reduced work outs, even if you are doing a back-to-back swim and spin, or run and train.

Here's another tip. Stock up on lean meats and lots of vegetables, stay away from butter, and cook vegetables and meats with juice and a tiny bit of oil instead of lots of oil.  And if you have to eat sweets, make them yourself. Why? Home made cookies and sweets are infinitely more nutritious if you load them with oatmeal, whole wheat flour, nuts, cranberries and raisins. And because of this, you'll eat fewer of them.

In any event, winter should be your opportunity to fight the boredom of riding the same route 100 times over and over again, and give you the chance to re-balance you leg-heavy muscle ratio.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and move!

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