Cabin Feverby Mike Sicard
Cabin fever. It’s a dementia that befalls otherwise sane people when they get cooped up too long in the winter. It caused 19th century miners to run naked in the snow. It brought the Donner Party to cannibalism. It explains curling and that other great Olympic sport where you ride snow shovels down a mountain. And it convinced me to recently bundle every extremity I could find and take off on my first winter bike ride.
I’m not yet an experienced, diehard cyclist. I usually wait until spring’s first delicate buds clog the sinuses before I de-mothball my bike and ease into the season. I’ll work my way up to a century ride by the summer, and leave the fall in peak form with tanned neck, elbows, knees and hand tops sadly fading. But while riding an exercise bike last Friday night, I got sucked in by that darn Travel Channel. They broadcast “Bike Tours of the Serengeti” or some such exotica. I only saw the end, but it was enough to re-ignite my senses. Tomorrow, I shall ride!
I called a couple of friends, who instantly climbed on board, once I clarified a few of the details. “Yes, in fact hell has frozen over. Great, I‘ll see you at eight, just as the pigs start flying.”
But first a quick evening bike check. Now as any serious cyclist knows, after the last ride of the fall you should prep your bike for winter storage, including a thorough inspection, painstaking cleaning and complete lubrication. I cracked the door of my garage to see my dirty steed, leaning against the wall in the exact spot it had come off the bike rack in the fall, and there it stood now, cyclometer still showing the last ride of 2001, tires pressed flat to the cold concrete. Oops. I guess I never quite got around to that winter cleaning. Just as well I suppose. A gleaming bike would have clashed terribly with the Jurassic dirt color scheme of my car. I’m still waiting for Kenmore to invent a self-cleaning garage.
I performed the belated mechanical overhaul. Tires inflated? Check. Well, that should about do it. There endeth my tinkering prowess, plus I needed to sit down and recover my breath from the strain of pumping two whole tires. Maybe I’ve lost a bit from my peak season form.
While I recuperated, I thought about the next key ingredient — clothing. Just like the red carpet at Oscar night, what you wear is everything, and like a game of strip poker, layering is key. I piled up garments on the floor until the carpet started to sweat, then climbed into bed, eager for morning light.
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! “Honey, time to get up to ride,” she said gently with an elbow to my ribs. “Wake me when it’s spring!” I snapped, prompting her feetsicles to cross the mattress DMZ into my cozy warm camp. “Yikes!” With that I bounded out of bed, energized by the dull gray sky, the ability to see my breath inside the house, and the patriotic zeal inspired by my neighbors flag being shredded by the itsy-bitsy headwind awaiting me outside.
OK. Just think up an excuse and call the guys and tell them you can’t make it. But a good excuse is like committing murder: easy to do, the hard part is not getting caught, particularly if you subscribe to the “sudden stunner code.” That code states: if you are going to excuse yourself from a ride, you must do it at the last minute and with the grandest possible excuse that defies challenge. You are not allowed to simply call and say, “I’m tired.” While honest, that opens you up to too much ridicule. You can try the “I’m sick”, but you then have to pretend to be sick for a few days into the workweek. Those friends with small kids have a built-in treasure trove of unchallengeable excuses, including the timeless classic “sick child up all night.” The best one our group had come up with so far was the “I was out the door and my dog got sprayed by a skunk.” The genius behind this one was the utter surprise. It left me speechless when I heard it — the exact reaction you’re looking for, since you are trying to register your excuse quickly, avoid interrogation, and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, my brain couldn’t surface an idea to rival the skunked dog, so I started getting dressed.
I was already running late, as the layering process took its time. I wrapped me like an ankle sprain, and when I looked in my closet and saw only an old Halloween costume and a sweater my mother gave with a horse on the chest and an actual mane and tail of yarn protruding in 3D, I realized I had mined that closet for all it was worth. Time to go.
On the drive to the rendezvous, I received a few odd stares from early risers. The bike on the roof made them wonder, like visiting an Eskimo relative and packing a surfboard. “Just what do you expect to do with that in this weather?”
As I pulled into the parking lot start, I happened upon the U.S. Bobsled team. Wait, maybe that’s just my friends in full winter body condom. I made a quick positive nostril identification, that being their only exposed skin, and we each proceeded to chip our bikes free from their racks, as each had spot welded when we drove through a foggy moisture cloud at a balmy negative wind chill.
The first few miles of the ride were exhilarating. The wind whipping, the cold prickling my lungs as I breathed deep through the first hill. We each shared that quiet satisfaction that Rocky felt running the Philly streets alone, or frat boys feel during a moonlight cow tipping — “This is so cool! No one else in their right mind is out here doing what we’re doing.” We swelled our chests with pride, causing me to gasp under the corset restrictions of the seventeen layers I was wearing.
The route itself was beautiful — rural backroads with an icy creek bubbling by the roadside. But the time for sightseeing was short-lived. The first descent rounded a shady corner and tufts of old snow and patches of black ice dotted the course. I went first, steering gingerly across the centerline to avoid triple-salchowing my way down the hill. Somehow I managed my own little miracle on ice, and stayed in the saddle, now a little wiser and more attentive, which served me well, because we were about to enter the portion of the route we affectionately termed “the kennel.”
Turns out that after the Civil War, the federal government instituted its famous “40 acres and a mule” program to encourage new landowners. Evidently, by the time they got to this part of the country, that got reduced to “Half acre and a dog”, because each house, barn, and trailer we passed came equipped with at least one Rotthound, or Greyweiler — some heinous crossbreed with the meanness of a Rottweiler but the speed of a Greyhound. Luckily, I had a choice spot in the paceline. The first rider went by and caught the attention of the little Cujos, who would start their snarling sprint to the roadside. Just then I would pass, just out of reach of their snapping jaws, leaving the mutts frenzied and seeking blood. That’s about when our third rider would pass — let’s call him Milkbone, shall we. At least he discovered that layering provides both thermal and canine attack prevention. He is now marketing his new line of clothing to Arctic explorers and jailbreak fugitives.
We gathered at the rest stop, confirming to each other that rolling hills in August had somehow become alpine ascents now. But the sun was starting to peak out from behind the clouds, and we headed for home with a renewed sense of purpose — stay ahead of Milkbone.
When we arrived back in the parking lot, we began de-mummifying; shedding layers in an attempt to find an orifice to stuff a well earned post-ride meal through. And we found the perfect hole — hole in the wall that is, a restaurant where even the vegetables are fried, and you leave your belt at the door. As we ate and drank, we chattered happily. It wasn’t the longest or the hardest or the fastest ride we’d ever done. But we got out there when every rational urge said to throw another log on the fire and cozy on the couch. Don’t get me wrong, that’s exactly what I did when I got home. But somehow, my saddle sore butt settled easier into the sofa because I had wrapped it and whipped it on a morning, winter ride. If you haven’t before, give it a try. I can give you Milkbone’s number.
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web posted: 28 April 2002
last updated: 9 May 2002