Monday, February 14, 2005

In Search of Spring: a ride report

In Search of Spring (accompanying pictures:

It's that time of year in Montana. False thaws have at least half of us looking for spring. "Think we might have an early one this year?" becomes a common greeting. Oh, and the other half? Those are ski bums who look at the same blueing skies and puffing clouds, the same warming winds, and draw different conclusions. We see what we're looking for, most of the time.

Yesterday was one of those false spring days that makes the skiers climb high and keep their goggles on, lest visions of the fine day below haunt their dreams. Rachel and I spent yesterday on a small stream near Missoula, soaking up sun like the cold creek around us and pretending--not very hard--to flyfish.

I've been riding all winter. Missoula's valley is a banana belt compared with the eastern reaches that share our latitude. Winter riding is different for me, though. Winter days never invite me to ride, never even offer. To ride in winter, then, is to ride uninvited. So, we cyclers look for spring as hard as anyone. Yesterday's fishing trip was full of the guiles of spring and had at least this cycler fooled.

I rose this morning as the sun peeked over our bedroom mountain, around 8:30. I had fallen asleep with visions of riding our mountain--whose road was mostly thawed now--bolstered by the warm wind that accompanied our fishing trip. A few minutes rustling through piles of riding clothes and then a look out the front door, which revealed only an innocent fool looking out.

Huge, wet snowflakes were blowing sideways onto our little porch, coating the baskets of our commuters until they looked like strangely cobbled snowshoes. Unable to muster rosy enough glasses, I ceded the morning to the ski bums, put some water on for tea, and settled in to catching up on the BOB-list.

The delay turned out to be beneficial. Not only did the list reading give me lots to contemplate (thanks as usual!), but I also had time to take care of a few tasks on the Huffeigh road bike (actually a Raleigh USA, part of Huffy at the time, though, and I deviously enjoy the reaction it brings!). I finished the onerous task of hacksawing the fender stays flush, ending the obnoxious toe overlap. I also installed my fresh new "Flippy Flap" from our own Greg Achtem. Thanks, Greg, for a wonderful product, and might I suggest you quit your day job and spend more time tinkering! The mudflap fits my definition of a perfect product because I didn't find myself thinking of ways to improve it!

Spring seemed to be making a good push shortly after noon, and by 1:00 I had the Hobo bag packed and was riding off of our porch. It seemed like an afternoon for the quick, and so pockets stuffed with dried fruit--figs, pineapple and apricots--seemed appropriate fare. The weather reminded me of a quote from the Rambouillet catalog, which paraphrases to "If you don't ride in iffy weather, you miss the best clouds!" In describing my own day, I would only add to that: and the best winds, the best skies, and the best cycling!

I started from home through the university district, followed by a quartering tailwind. Such a wind, I've found, is the best aid to spontaneously ambitious ride planning. "I wonder if the road's rideable clear up to Sawmill Gulch?" I found myself asking, and, as if in answer, the bike seemed to head that direction. Through the traffic light (green), I crossed Broadway (hideous) and passed under the freeway. This particular passing under the freeway is perhaps the best such passing anywhere. As the freeway passes behind, inarguably majestic mountains and a narrowing road are all that take its place.

I downshifted (the Huffeigh has multiple gears now, sorry Kent et al!) and settled into the steady climb toward the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. Actually, I settled into the vistas, the warm--but now stiffening--breeze and the pleasant sun on my wool-clad back. I was perfectly comfortable in thin tights under old Levi's, two thin wool shirts, thin wool gloves, and two layers of wool socks inside suede sneakers. I'm gunning for a partnership with Kent in which he takes care of nutrition and I advise on clothing. (Oh, and a helmet, I'm officially undecided but can't ride around town without one after spending an entire summer teaching kids to wear theirs!).

A few miles later, I make the right angle turn at the edge of an old farm and turn away from the wind for a quarter mile or so. Then another right angle turn puts me right into the glorious brunt of this warm, wild wind. I gear down and dig deep, struggling uphill and enjoying every slow tenth of a mile of it!

Eventually, I creep into the trees, the beginning of the Rattlesnake, and out of the wind. My spirits drop with the temperature as winter seems not to have lost its grip here. I weave back and forth, dodging the worst of the snowy ruts. The warmth of the climb sneaks right through my careful layers of wool, and I find myself shivering when I make the hard left onto the Sawmill Gulch Road.

The road is covered in a churned up mixture of mud, snow, and gravel. It makes a horrendous racket in my fenders, but they keep it off my feet in a much appreciated effort. The road crosses a trail, where I wave and hullo a hiker and his dog. Both of them look a bit surprised to see a cycler up here so early in the year. I swoop down a hill to the little bridge over Rattlesnake Creek and stop for a recharge in the sun. Spring, to my mind, has arrived when a cycler can hope for warmth en route, instead of jealously hoarding every calorie of declining heat. By my definition, Spring is close enough, and I relish my stop in the sun.

I know Sawmill Gulch Road well. In the warmer months, it takes me up and up a winding road to one of my favorite, sky-filled valleys. On those days, I tend to look past the narrow road itself in anticipation of the open valley beyond, but today, the road is the destination, and a real challenge.

I round the bend and downshift to my strangely low gear (38/28), after a year of singlespeeding, just as the sun disappears. That line of sun/shade marks Spring/Winter as well, and the road becomes snow covered immediately. I quickly find being able to sit down in a low gear helps considerably with traction. I don't think I could make the long climb standing and thrashing around (I'm no form coach either). The road narrows and winds through ever encroaching pine forests, friendly encroachments, despite the darkness. On the steepest pitches, I feel my rear Pasela "32" alternately slip and catch, proving the unroundedness of my strokes.

I make it to the Y in the road. The right fork continues half a mile, unpaved and unplowed, to the Sawmill Gulch valley. The left fork heads even more steeply up past a "Private--Keep Out" sign that I've always happily obeyed.

A car has been creeping behind me for the last half-mile or so, but, other than the droning, hasn't much diverted my attention. There's no room to pull off, just close in ditches, and even if I could, I doubt my ability to get into the toe-clips and restart on this final, snowy pitch.

"HONK...HONK!" I'm shaken from my determined cadence and very nearly slide for the right hand ditch. I try not to think bad thoughts as I slide to a three-point stop down the right hand road fork and look behind me. A woman and two children peer at me quizzically from behind a lowering power window. I outquizzical them and peer right back, looking, I'd guess, like a confused, possibly dangerous, and probably unbalanced, vagrant.

The mother decides to be brave and asks if I know where we are. Such an open ended question, but I tell her all I know. She's trying to find an address, and I point up the private road toward the only possible addresses around. She ends with a surprisingly shrewd observation that will tumble around my head the rest of the ride. "These directions," she says, "are meaningless. Distances only exist in the mind." I think for a moment, and agree. I have no idea how many miles I've ridden, but I know I'm at least a season from home.

I start cautiously up the snowy lane, and the family motors noisily up the other. I feel like a trapeze artist, using every trick of balance and traction I can make up to avoid losing traction or sliding downslope into the ditch. I try the rut, then the powdery middle hump, first the tops, then the hoods, to the drops, butt back, butt forward. It must look ridiculous to anyone or anything watching as I move along at a few miles per hour (rounding up).

I feel like I'm doing endorsements sometimes when I write these, but equipment can't help but become part of my rides. I enjoy it. I enjoy how the cotton tape (1 coat of shellac) grabs the wool gloves. I enjoy how--on only my second longish ride--the Noodle bars make my hands feel at home. I enjoy how effortlessly I can glide back and forth on the B-17 (even in jeans).

I keep jockeying the bike, even walk a few sections, and suddenly find myself about to run into the rear of a Jeep. I can't believe I've made it up that on the Huffeigh and had enormous good fun doing it. I feel like hooping and hollering and clapping as I walk carefully around the Jeep, the bike and my feet alternately threatening to slide back to the bottom. As I approach the open valley, I realize that the sun looks awfully inviting and also that my fingers are mostly numb. The trail is an embarrassing etching of knobby tire on mud canvas. I look back to see bike racks and an IMBA sticker on the Jeep.

I cut through the grass to the nearest patch of sun and snap a few photos before collapsing in the warm grass. I think I've discovered something today. The skiers ignore this middle season in hopes that winter will linger. The mountain bikers ruin their own trails (and hopes of new ones) by rushing headlong toward spring. My ride today has taught me that 4 seasons are in fact far too few. There are another hundred in between seasons that I'd like to linger in. Like this one, in which an aging, softened winter gives way to a boisterous young spring. I can enjoy it as a cycler. From now until true spring arrives, I'm changing my greeting to "I sure hope this weather lasts a while" and enjoying every minute of it!

Postscript: After picking my way carefully to the road fork, I was greeted with a strange version of gridlock in the woods. It seems the lady and her children couldn't make it up the snowy hill, had tried to back down, and were now blocking a half-dozen cars trying hopelessly now to turn around. After surveying the scene and determining there wasn't much I could do, I caught the eye of a hiker above the road on a trail. We exchanged knowing smiles and shrugs and each continued to ease our way off the mountain. I maneuvered between the cars, too large and clumsy for this road in this season, and rode carefully downhill, keeping the rear brake right at the lockup point. A tailwind gathered me up and eased me back to town in high gear, happy to have experienced a season new to me.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy your own rides. More pictures at