Scott Mercier: Beating the winter blues by cycling during ski season
Special to The Aspen Times
Let’s be honest — riding a bike in the winter does not sound like much fun. The cold temperatures and short days can make winter cycling and maintaining fitness very challenging.
Plus, with great early-season skiing conditions, it’s even harder to find the motivation to hit the roads. Quite frankly, it’s just way more fun to ski powder than it is to ride a bike in freezing-cold weather.
But, while the days are still getting shorter and the temperature continues to drop, it’s an important time of the year to put in a few miles — just to maintain a baseline of fitness. And, while gearing up for a winter ride is a challenge, actually riding, even in the cold, can be a joy. The feel of the sun and wind on your face is a great way to help beat the winter blues and improve both your mental and physical health. But it does present some unique challenges that typically don’t present themselves in warmer conditions.
This is the biggest risk, and the chances of a crash increase greatly in the winter. Ice and snow on northern-facing roads are the most obvious risk. But even on dry roads there can still be a lot of gravel and debris.
On the descents, be sure to pay attention and ride much slower. The sand used by CDOT to provide traction in the snow is like tiny, little ball bearings that can cause you to slip at high speeds in a corner. Try to ride in the car tracks, which are usually clear of sand and debris, but still use caution. At this time of the year, the risk of hitting a deer also is real.
If you find yourself in a patch of snow or ice, just relax and coast across it. If you pedal or brake, your chances of crashing are greatly enhanced. Fortunately, if you do crash, at least you will be wearing a lot of clothing, which will greatly reduce the road rash and bruising.
Layering is the most important aspect for staying warm. I will usually ride with three layers of polypropylene and wool, a long-sleeve jersey and a winter riding jacket. I also ride with tights that have a nylon front to block the wind and keep my knees warm.
The extremities get cold easily, as well, so wear ski socks and thick shoe covers. For a ride longer than two hours, I will usually wrap the front of my shoes with tin foil and then put the shoe covers over that.
For my hands, I bring two sets of gloves: a thick pair of ski gloves and then a lightweight pair. On the climbs, wear the thinner gloves. Your hands will probably sweat. Then switch to your warm and dry gloves before a descent. Cold hands can make it difficult to break.
A hat or a balaclava is a must. I’d also suggest front and rear lights in case you mis-time the sunset, and find yourself riding in the dark.
Finally, make sure your tires are in good condition and don’t have any small cuts or tears. Changing a flat tire on a cold, winter day is a miserable experience.
Unless it is an exceptionally warm day, I would limit the ride to two hours or less. Keep your effort down and don’t go anaerobic; especially on colder days. You don’t want to sweat too much, which will make your clothes wet and the descents extra cold. For the most part, spin in the small chain ring and keep your cadence high. Take it easy. There is still plenty of time to add intensity.
If your friends are riding too hard, assuming you can find someone dumb enough to ride with you in the winter, just sit on their wheel and let them push the wind. Or, be more forceful. Grab the back pocket of their jersey and tell them to slow down! This is not the time to be competitive. Enjoy riding without the stress of worrying about an event just around the corner.
The roads up Missouri Heights are great for winter riding. The climbs aren’t too steep, and it gets lots of sunshine. Plus, the views of Mount Sopris, or the Lonely Mountain, are out of this world. Half the time I look at Sopris I expect to see an army of orcs streaming out.
Riding in the winter can be tough, but if you can manage to do it, you’ll reap the rewards with a great summer season of riding. So, dust off your bike, and hit the road.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a financial advisor in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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