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Dear Frank : The tough get going

Frank Strack
23 Feb 2016

When does the weather become too bad to ride in? Frank Strack, arbiter of cycling etiquette and curator of 'The Rules', lends his view.

Dear Frank

How bad does the weather have to be before it’s OK to skip a ride? There is surely a fine line between being a ‘badass’ (Rule #9) and an idiot. Jered, by email

Dear Jered

The problem with your question is that you’re asking an idiot, so this is a lot like asking your coke dealer if you should be doing drugs.

Bad weather is a relative madness, not an absolute one. A friend of mine recently rode up a mountain pass in Denver, Colorado, in high winter. That’s a double ‘high’ because Denver is already the Mile High City, and December in Denver is cold. More to the point, this friend tackled the pass in lightweight autumn attire consisting of knee warmers, a long-sleeve jersey, no hat, and what amounted to steel worker’s gloves. This resulted in a lot of whinging later, some improvised heat-generation techniques involving the classic ‘pedalling while braking hard’ tactic, gratuitous climbing up anything that looked steep and paved, and some blasphemous talk of a future ‘backpack for extra kit’. It must have been good training, but a horrible experience.

It doesn’t have to be like this, but it often is when we don’t prepare properly for what the weather has in store. This is complicated by meteorologists proving themselves to be just as poor at predicting the weather as we are at selecting our kit. 

Bernard Hinault won the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in near blizzard conditions, wearing a long-sleeve jersey, bibshorts, a coating of embro and some crap winter gloves. He claims the only reason he won was because he wanted to get back to the team car and out of the cold and wet as quickly as possible. He also claims he still has a loss of feeling in his fingers as a result of the cold to this day.

Andy Hampsten won the Giro d’Italia in 1988 because he was living in Boulder, Colorado (which is even higher than Denver), and I’m sure he did even dumber things during his long training sessions. It didn’t hurt that his team management was from the American Midwest, which can be even colder than Colorado, and when they read the weather report for the stage over the Gavia Pass, they popped out to the local ski shops and bought all the cold-weather gear they could find. Even with that, the tales of the terrible cold they endured that day are legend. Johan van der Velde, who led over the summit of the Gavia, finished an hour or so behind Hampsten and stage winner Erik Breukink because he had to make so many stops on the way down to warm up.

I’m no legend, but I’ve ridden in my fair share of bad weather. My favourite kind of ride in winter is the sun-up to sun-down endeavour, usually held in horrid weather. Where I live it rarely involves good weather. I have fond memories of one such ride two years ago – a 200km route laid out on a day of constant rain at or near the freezing point. This meant rain at sea level, sleet at mid elevation and snow on the cols. The snow on the cols was the warmest I felt all day because rain and sleet offers the kind of hospitality that I believe waterboarding is intended to provide, but without the charm.

My hands got so cold I could no longer shift without the use of both hands on the lever, which added an undeniable degree of excitement to the act of changing gear.

The point is that these terrible experiences are ones that make us stronger, better people. They are acts of idiocy to most, and even to us they can be miserable at the time. But they develop into the sort of experience we would be poorer without, and that alone makes them indispensable to the building of our character. 

The only time I stay indoors due to weather is when black ice is a threat. I flirted with this risk one too many times and crashed so hard I tore the cleat out of my shoe and punched the pedal axle through the crank arm. It didn’t do my hip or elbow any good either.

To paraphrase Merckx: Be safe, be hard on yourself, and ride as much or as little as you like. But ride. You will be a better person for it.

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