Winter mountain biking

Often, during our trips to the woods, Peggy has wanted to hike farther or stay out later than I considered safe. Last Sunday, we biked five miles up roads so steep that she had to walk in places, often in dense, frost-laden fog. We are new to winter biking—in the woods, I mean, our bikes being our primary transport in town—and despite our efforts to dress adequately, our hands and feet were slowly getting colder. In addition, we were in an area unknown to us; it was mid-afternoon; and our maps were woefully inadequate. We had planned to do a loop, but we still hadn’t come to our turn, and we probably wouldn’t be able to tell for sure when we did come to it (most of the logging roads being either unnumbered or numbered differently than on the map). What’s more, we would have no way of knowing whether our turn was passable.

The decision to turn back was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned, so I was surprised when Peggy wanted to continue. I told her of my reservations and, after much discussion, we turned back. As we re-entered the fog, the chill factor increased dramatically, and its effect was heightened by the fact that we were going downhill. Despite the bad roads and having to go at schnauzer speed, we reached the van in less than an hour. By then, Peggy was in tears from the cold.

I had told her during our discussion that I felt badly about always being the naysayer. She said I should take comfort in the fact that we have always made it home safely. I do. A young and fit math professor disappeared three weeks ago during a day hike on Olallie Mountain, an area that we love. He left his extra clothes in his car, probably because the day was fairly warm and the hike only six miles each way. The search-and-rescue effort was scaled back to a search-and-recovery after a week, but when his guidebook was found, a renewed effort was mounted. No other trace has been found.

Every winter brings such stories, and every winter I ponder the suffering that is taking place somewhere nearby, somewhere that I love. Being just a little bit cold and disoriented when darkness is falling is such a horrible experience that I cannot imagine what it would be like to multiply that horror many times over and continue it to death.

I assumed that mountain biking would be much like mountain hiking but have found that it imposes entirely new challenges. For example, we can’t carry as much. We initially thought to wear our daypacks, but discovered that the extra weight on our butts was torturous, and that the high center of gravity was a safety hazard. I purchased large bike bags, but they are far smaller than our packs, so we take both, placing heavier items in the bags and extra clothing in our packs. Still, we are obliged to leave most of our emergency gear at home in favor of tools and an air pump.

Despite having taken a class, I’m largely ignorant of bike mechanics. Also, my Reynaud’s Disease is sufficiently bad that my fingers often turn white just from taking food from the freezer. So where does this leave me? I have neither the knowledge nor the physical capacity to repair a bike of any but the simplest malfunctions, and my bad knee would make it difficult for me to hike out over steep terrain. If we were not on a gated road, one of us could go for the van, but we usually are on gated roads, and I don’t like the idea of separating anyway.

Peggy was so miserable on Sunday that she vowed to give up cold-weather biking. Perhaps, she will, but I think it more likely that we will carry even more “extra” clothing, and that I will learn more about bike mechanics. If the latter doesn’t help, at least it won’t hurt.