One of the pleasures of cycling in the UK is the Seasons. As we start a new year I’ve therefore decided to record my thoughts and experiences on a bike over this year’s four seasons, starting with winter. Mileage inevitably drops but there are many rewards for venturing out on the typically shorter and colder days.
The seasons mark the annual march of time through changes in light, weather and the accompanying development of fauna and flora. I’d say that these changes significantly contribute to the cycling experience, mostly good but sometimes bad. Still recovering from last year’s knee replacement operation my rides continue to be shorter and slower than before but as a result my observations of the seasonal changes have become more acute and as a result more pleasurable. It’s an ill wind.…..
There’s no question that so far this winter has been unusual:
- Mild: I honestly can’t remember a milder December, as a result of which animals and plants have gone mad – sheep lambing early + snowdrops and blossom on some trees;
- Wet: It’s been wet in Surrey with some ‘normal’ localised flooding in the countryside but nothing catastrophic. However, other parts of the UK have seen unprecedented rainfall with terrible flooding over the Christmas period;
- Overcast: As an astronomer I know as there have been very few clear skies since October.
Against this background I have manged to get out on the bike a few times in the New Year appreciating the winter season’s unique atmosphere, which this year has been further influenced by the above traits. Scenically the country landscape is characterised by the open expanse of beautifully ploughed fields, often punctuated by skeletons of leafless trees. The cows and sheep continue to munch grass, whilst those horses not in stables stand forlorn in their coats enduring rather than enjoying the weather. Having flown inland due to bad weather, I occasionally see flocks of geese and seabirds in the farm fields feeding on worms and grubs they might find on the ground; the flooding and general wetness also seems to appeal to them. Cycling past Wonham Manor at the moment is also a seasonal pleasure, as the deer herd come close to the road to be fed by the keeper.
Aside from low temperatures, light is probably the other most noticeable characteristic of winter, which impacts both the ambience as well as sometimes producing difficult cycling conditions. Whatever you are doing the days are significantly shorter and only bike commuters and desperate tourists will venture out in the dark; most of us count the days until late evening and early morning rides are again possible in daylight. Of more practical significance, when riding during the day on a clear winter’s day is the position of the sun. With the winter solstice on or about 21st December, in early January the sun is still very low, being just over 15o above the horizon at midday compared with over 60o in the summer, which can produce difficult seeing conditions when in your eyes or as it creates a strobe affect through closely spaced trees and bushes when cycling past. The low sun can also create dangerous circumstances for cycling when snow and ice are about – more of which later.
On the bike things are also quite different. Despite having been relatively mild it is necessary to dress up well, in particular to ensure the vulnerable extremities of feet, hands and head are well wrapped up and, if necessary, protected from rain and mud; it is an endless challenge to find and wear the right gear. Roads can be wet, muddy and slippery, in general requiring greater caution, especially when braking, at speed and rounding sharp corners. Later in winter as the weather takes its toll on the already poor roads, it is important to look out for and avoid the development of often dangerous potholes. In addition the rain and water that seeps from the roadside in the winter often spreads various detritus that includes sharp pieces of metal and stones (flint in my case) which can and has led to punctures.
If it is dry I will use my Audax road bike but in these often unpleasant and sometimes difficult conditions I usually ride the Trek MTB bike; the wider tyres and deep tread pattern provide better grip and it’s better suited and easier to clean the mess that inevitably covers the bike after cycling at this time of the year. However, as I still need to transport the bike to a flat area following my operation last year, I have only used the Joey bike so far this winter. With Marathon 1.5” tyres the grip has been good but to enable quick folding I’ve unusually left off the front mudguard and as a result have got wet and dirty at times. I find it amazing how some of those riding road racing bikes never use mudguards in the winter and naturally get wet and dirty but then they seem more interested in what they look like than comfort – though I can’t see how a muddy back + a wet backside and dirty bike looks good!
Last Thursday night, with the combination of clear skies and a northerly wind the mild winter finally came to an abrupt end as temperatures dropped below freezing overnight. With clear skies and the sun shining the next day it was perfect for a ride but as is often typical in the winter, the conditions flattered to deceive and recalled a less successful winter ride in early January 2012.
On this occasion, having been holed up over Christmas I was desperate to get outside for a ride early in the New Year. The weather was more typical of winter being very cold, with some slushy snow and ice on the roads. However, I’d been out in such conditions in previous years so it would be OK, right? Wrong!
My first mistake was even going out for a ride. My second was taking the Audax with its 28 mm tyres, though I had cycled in these conditions with this bike before. My third mistake was taking the country roads rather than staying on the main roads, which had been gritted and salted. My route took me to Leigh and then uphill towards Rusper. I rode slowly and carefully but as I ventured onto the minor roads and the altitude gradually increased, the snow became thicker and ice became common on the road. Still I carried on i.e. fourth mistake. Once at the top of the hill where the road winds towards Rusper, I cycled gingerly onwards but to no avail. Although now moving slowly, out of the blue I suddenly fell and hit the road. Laying there in for a short while I failed to see what had happened but soon all became clear and a lesson was learned, as is often the case too late.
Going very slowly round a gentle bend the combination of a roadside hedge and seasonally low sun had cast a shadow along the edge of the bend, sufficient to preserve the ice at that point. On close inspection afterwards I’m fairly sure it was the so-called black ice: transparent to look at and super slippery – I could barely stand up when I went to pick-up my bike. As a result I just quickly slammed onto the road and was unable to break my fall in any way, hitting my head hard on the ground and cracking the outside of the helmet, which probably saved me from concussion. Apart from a few bruises I thought I was otherwise OK, until I tried to move my left thumb, which resulted in a searing pain.
On mounting the bike with some difficulty to head home, at first I did not think I would make it: I was shaken up, the conditions now seemed to be getting worse and because of my thumb I was almost completely unable to operate my gears and rear brakes. I did make it home but to this day the base of the thumb is painful. At the time I thought it was just badly sprained but in time it now seems more likely that it must have been broken and has not healed properly.
I therefore now avoid cycling in such conditions and, furthermore, will refrain from cycling in even slightly icy conditions. On Friday I therefore only ventured out late in the morning when the temperatures had risen to nearly 3oC, sufficient to dry out the roads and soften the ice. However, in places then the shadow caused by hedges had still left some areas of ice, which this time I was careful to avoid. Once bitten, twice shy!
Notwithstanding such seasonal problems, a good winter ride can be uplifting and very enjoyable. Last night it finally snowed here for the first time this winter, so I will be using the turbo trainer for the moment and looking forwards to Spring which will be here in a few weeks.