The first snowfall of the season! So what in the name of Our Lady of the Icy Gonads was I doing out biking in it?
If anyone has seriously tried to live their life rather than merely exist their way through it they should, if they chance to look back at the halcyon days of their youth, be utterly appalled.
One of the hallmarks of youth is that you will, inevitably, engage in all sorts of inadvisable, possibly insane, often life-threatening behavior out of a deep-seated sense that you are indestructible. Another hallmark of youth is that you will often engage in death-defying stunts and ill-advised forays into moral turpitude–sometimes both together–under the delusion that you’re doing so after soberly assessing the potential risks. When onrushng danger is glimpsed, like the Exxon Valdez weaving its way toward a seal colony, the possibility that all might not end well is safely tucked away with a single, all-purpose, deliberative assessment: “Cool!”
Time was, this kind of behavior was largely the provenance of adolescent males (the same group that still makes up the bulk of the audience (and, usually, the participants) for Jackass and any movie by Judd Apatow or the Farrelly brothers). But one of the great things about the hard-fought victories gained by the feminist movement is that women everywhere have also been liberated to get in touch with their inner twelve-year-old male.
Now, I can’t really speak to the experience of older women, but at a certain point in a man’s life, he yearns for those dearly departed, carefree days where he used to try and kill himself on a regular basis. He grows tired of over-thinking and under-living his life. He misses the days when he could revel in an utter lack of responsibility toward self and others. This stage is what many women unfairly characterize as “mid-life crisis” or, less generously, “male menopause.” I prefer to think of it as Phase 2 of a Grand Existential Quest to Plumb the Chaos of Modern Existence. So what does a man do?
He purchases a Maserati. Or he purchases a mistress. Or, if he can afford the payments and the insurance, he purchases both together.
In my case, I purchased a Team Z membership.
This is how I found myself standing in the parking lot of the Mary of Nazareth school near Dranesville, Maryland, with a bunch of my fellow Zers, contemplating the rapidly thickening snowfall and saying to myself: “Cool!”
Today was the second Team Z time trial, and we all knew going into it that the conditions were going to be less than optimal. The forecast, right through last night, was for cold (mid-30s), and rain, turning to snow after midday (by which point we would all be done). I didn’t have a ton of spare time this week (tragic, since this was a recovery week) so I’d prepped the bike as well as I could by cleaning and oiling, using a heavy, wet weather lube on the chain. I rode a race last year where the standard lube had washed off after about 15 miles, leaving me with some none too reassuring rattling, clanking, and grinding for the remainder of the ride. I wasn’t feeling in top form. During Thursday’s swim my right calf had seized up with probably one of the worst cramps I’ve ever had, and afterwards my calf felt as if someone had been at me with steelcap boots. I knew I wouldn’t be using those muscles a whole lot on the ride, but it was still a concern. Plus, I was feeling a bit phlegmy, signs that I was perhaps finally coming down with Mary’s cold that I’ve been resisting for the better part of a week. But I was still pretty keen to give it a go, and be out there with the team, and I wasn’t at all surprised to find it raining pretty steadily as I drove out towards the ride start.
What was surprising was when some of the rain began to make a distinct splattering sound against my windshield. That’s the sound that is usually made by. . .snow. By the time I reached the parking lot, it was snowing lightly but with intent. People were bundled like Everest explorers. I didn’t even recognize Jackie when she came up to me until she mumbled “Hi, it’s Jackie” through her balaclava.
Damon got us all organized in pretty quick order and in the random drawing I was slated to go number 20 out of 21 (I think). I tried to get in a quick warmup, noticing as I did so that the snow was now falling a lot more heavily. Visibility was deteriorating rapidly, and with my glasses it was minimal. I made a final pass by the car to shed my outer layers; I knew I’d warm up pretty quickly, so I had planned to ride relatively lightly clad. I just can’t bike with any speed in rain paints and a jacket (even the lightest jacket tends to turn into a sauna for me). So I was wearing a balaclava, my super-warm long-sleeve Underarmor with a bike jersey over the top, shorts, leg warmers, booties and mid-weight long-fingered gloves. I was all set to go but as I tried to leave the parking lot, I jammed up my chain. Got to the start line to find everyone had already left. Damon announced “You start in ten seconds. Nine, eight. . .”
It was bad from the get-go. The roads were wet (expected) but the snow was icy and stung, and the odd flake that hit me in the eye had me streaming tears. But eventually my face went numb, and I found the right head angle to protect myself from the worst of it. Going at speed downhill was just miserable. It was like being sandblasted in a meat locker.
But I felt pretty good in the first part of it. Perhaps stupidly–well, let me change that, definitely stupidly–I was still thinking that I could TT this ride. So I was feeling pretty good, those parts of my body that weren’t numb were nice and toasty and I felt I was pushing it a little harder than the last ride, particularly in the climbs. But there were already signs of trouble; the snow continued unabated and I could see places on the road where it was beginning to accumulate (the last forecast had said that wouldn’t happen for several hours). I made a mental note of those places for the return journey and pushed on.
I reached the turnaround, and uttered a string of expletives in the direction of Kate and Nelson who were doing the timing at that point, and then settled back into my tuck for the return journey. . .only to find that I had lost a large portion of my gears. I was down to about 6, split between the two chain rings. Looking down, I couldn’t see parts of the bike frame for the amount of snow and ice. One hand was getting seriously cold (interestingly, my hands didn’t start to freeze until the points where I got out of the aero position and up on the pursuits). Worse still, there was now substantial snow build-up on the road, and it was thickening by the minute.
I made it safely down the bottom of the hill, discovering in the process that any attempt to use the back brake produced a violent juddering and a sound like being smacked on the arse. There was probably ice jammed up around the rear brake at that stage, but it felt as if the whole wheel was unbalanced. As we hit River Road, I gritted my teeth and tried to ride in the wheel tracks that cars had left. I caught up with Annie, who seemed to be having a great ride, since she’d passed a ton of people. I passed her and hit one of the rollers, downshifted to my lower chain ring. . .and found myself spinning air.
I pulled off to the side of the road to get my chain back on, and Annie passed me (after first seeing if I needed help) and then someone else I couldn’t recognize (when everyone is dressed like Shackleton it is hard to tell who is who). Looking at my bike, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Most of the lower part of the frame was coated with slush. My entire front chain ring was one big icy mix. Both derailleurs were completely iced over. I banged some of it off, but much of it seemed to be there to stay, and by this point I was just hoping to be able to finish the ride in one piece.
The roads were treacherous and when we came to the long hill before Riley’s Lock (where I’d normally expect to be chasing 40mph) I backed way off and road the brakes lightly all the way down. I’d back the Michelin Pro 3s in the wet any day (having ridden them in a race during a torrential downpour) but the icy buildup on the roads was another matter, and I couldn’t see a clear line of tire tracks all the way to the bottom. I caught Annie again, passed her, and then promptly dropped my chain again. I was now down to one gear: big chain ring in front and second largest cog in the rear; not ideal for the last part of the course which was all uphill, but it could have been worse. Well, not much actually. In fact, I was just thinking it couldn’t get any worse when a van passed me and showered me with frozen sludge from head to toe.
I sniveled my way across the finish line and then rode the last part to the school. I wasn’t sure Damon had got my time because he was busy checking in a few people who had been sagged in, but I didn’t care. I’d completely forgot to hit my stop button anyway. And I was actually far more worried for the people still out on the road. But either people were bailing or Damon had sensibly started pulling people off the road, because by the time I was finished the conditions had become truly treacherous.
I leaned the bike against the back of the car, jumped inside, cranked up the heating, and proceeded to strip out of my wet clothes. One hand was completely frozen and as circulation returned I was literally screaming in pain. I was also shivering violently and uncontrollably, something that has only ever happened to me once before after a ride. I packed on every single item of clothing I had with me, then stepped back outside to see to the bike. While I was standing there, half crazed with cold, Nelson snapped a picture of Mabel and I:
Kate came up to me, helped me load the bike, and said “I knew it was getting bad when you came through. You said something like “This is stupid. . .”
“I think what I actually said was “Jesus Fucking Christ.” ”
“Yes, something like that, and I was thinking he’s usually a joking sort of person, and he’s not joking!”
My teeth were chattering, and my voice sounded croaky and stuttery. I knew I was probably borderline hypothermic at that point, and I had to get warm, so I hope Nelson and Kate weren’t too offended when I mumbled some excuse and rushed back into the car. While I tried desperately to warm up, I snapped another picture of the bike with some of the post-ride snow accumulation knocked off. Take a close look at the rear cassette and you can see why I was having trouble shifting. What you are looking at there, my friends, is a solid block of ice.
You can also see the amount of ice on the frame, and a pretty good reason why the rear wheel was feeling unbalanced to me. I also had ice worked into the folds of my shorts, and the most amazing wind sculpted ice block on the front of my helmet, about an inch thick at its deepest point, and covering the entire front, including the vents (not that cooling was an issue today!). My neoprene booties were so ice-encrusted that they cracked when I took them off.
When I managed to warm up enough to stop the uncontrollable shaking, I started for home. I’d intended to hang around, see the last people in, and join the team at the nearby barbecue joint, but I’d over-done it, and I knew it. It was now snowing heavily and I was also worried about the drive home. I felt bad abandoning the team, but as it was, after a long, crawling trip back down River Road, it wasn’t until about ten minutes from home that I finally stopped shivering.
So, if I had to do this again. . .I wouldn’t. This now ranks as my worst ride of all time. Worse than the 90-miles-which-became-80-in-the-rain last year with the team. Worst than last year’s blowing-like-forty-bastards-century. Worse even than the duathlon raced for three hours in a sleet storm. At least on that ride I wasn’t worried about dying.
Food for thought. On the next TT, even if it isn’t snowing I will bring a thermos of coffee for after the ride. Which I may end up using to take a warming shower.
Mabel suffered badly under these conditions, as you can see. Everyone’s bikes were getting ice encrusted, but the people I passed on road bikes didn’t seem to be producing the kind of spectacular iceberg formations I was, and still seemed to be able to use most of their gears. The problem here seems to be the aero tubing. When water hits the downtube it doesn’t simply splatter down or off to the side as with a standard road bike. Rather, it is shaped around that nice aerofoil into a fine mist that slides smoothly over all the rest of the components at the back. . .unless they are ice cold in which case it freezes to them. I’ve noticed this in past races when the road surface has been dirty, you can see the debris trailing in lovely smooth shapes along the bike frame, as if they are wind-tunnel directional strips. In retrospect I should have stopped as soon as I felt the shifting problem and knocked as much of the ice off as I could. But I was cold, eager to get home, and still laboring under the illusion that this was a TT rather than a “try and extricate yourself safely from your own stupidity” ride.
Several team members had rear blinkers on their bikes. That was smart. I was less so.
Pretty happy with what I wore, except I should have gone with the heavier weight gloves, which I had with me. If I’d known it was going to snow I would have taken my shell vest. I would probably also not go with the leg warmers but opt for tights pulled over my shorts to give my lower torso a little more warmth.
So I think I’m done with the Mid-Life. . .er, Grand Existential Quest to Plumb the Chaos of Modern Existence, for the time being. Until next week.
And another crazy Team Z ride passes into legend.