Monday, October 4, 2010

Guest Blogger Jill Bernard: On (Winter) Biking

Jill Bernard is an improvisor who says "yay!" a lot. She taught me how to morph, like a Power Ranger. Go to her website, then buy her book. Or the other way around, that's fine too.

Max asked me to write a guest blog on biking a while ago, and I wasn't inspired until now. Why now? Because it's October in Minnesota, which means we're just weeks away from winter biking. Winter. Biking. It's a different beast. Summer biking is like an open mic, anyone can do it. Winter biking takes a level of seriousness.

First, you'll want to think about the tires. If you get skinny tires they have the advantage of cutting through snow like a blade. But when you slide, and you will slide, it's going to be spectacular. Suddenly you are Apolo Ohno, emphasis on the 'oh no'. Maybe you choose big fat tires with tread instead, but the treads fill with snow and the tire becomes a flat, slippery, surface – a round ski. Suddenly you're sliding again, less dramatically than before, but sliding nonetheless.

Biking down a city street one Thanksgiving eve, the buildings shielded me until I entered the intersection, and then the wind blew me into the middle of the street, sideways, directly into traffic. My direction did not change at all, I was merely suddenly five feet to the left. There is no stopping winter wind. It is bigger than you.

Your brakes. They won't work. Winter biking is about planning ahead. There's occasional Fred Flinstone braking, let's be honest. And snowbank braking, when absolutely necessary. Mainly, it's going as fast as you can to make headway while going as slow as you can so you have a chance in hell of stopping.

In terms of facewear, I skip the ski mask. It gets too hot, too itchy, and you look like a police sketch. I prefer a gaiter, even though I can't say gaiter without thinking of goiter. I wish they were called 'tube scarves' but it's just not catching on. I keep the gaiter over my face, pulling it down at stoplights to freeze my lungs with sharp breaths of air.

Your hands. They will be cold. When your knuckles are leading the way through a self-created airstream, no number of extra layers of gloves keeps you safe from peeling red knuckles you warm between your thighs at your final destination for as long as you can while no one's looking.

Once I was biking downtown and a bus driver slid open her little window to say, “I don't know if you know, but your ankle's showing.” She was right, I didn't know. My pants had slid out of my sock and an inch of flesh was exposed to the air. It was pink as a hibiscus and completely numb. As it came back to life under water in the restroom it prickled then burned. Exposure, that's the enemy of the winter biker. Exposure to cold, exposure to drivers who don't expect you and also can't really brake. Exposure to snow drifts that rust and snowplows that crush and snowstorms that temporarily blind. Exposure to brain freeze and flushed cheeks and hot sweat against cold air.

I winter-biked one year, in about 1997, just to see if I could do it. I did it, and then decided that was stupid, I would never do it again. I am considering it this year, not because I think it's any less stupid, but because I live just far enough away from the theaters to make walking and busing commutes seem too slow. Does a mile to and fro seem like a manageable amount of winter biking? Enough to wake you up but not enough to get you killed? It seems possible.

See you in the middle of the intersection.

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