By Susan Bickelhaupt
Just because certain cyclists will get out of bed on a winter Sunday morning to ride 20 miles or so for fun does not mean you have to be a maniac to enjoy biking in winter. At least that's what they say.
But on a recent weekend on which I had promised to check out the Charles River Wheelmen's "frostbite" ride, I had my doubts. With rain and sleet forecast for Sunday morning, I called club member Joan McNeil, just to make sure the ride was still on. No problem, she assured me. She and her husband, Walt, leader of the so-called winter "show-and-go" rides, would be at the Stoneham Zoo at 10:30 a.m., weather notwithstanding, ready to venture out with anyone else who might show up.
As it turned out, the weather prognosticators were wrong, and when I looked out my window the next morning, there was neither rain nor sleet. It was snowing. That was all I needed to decide that my bike would stay in the house and my exercise for the day would consist of shoveling out my car so that I could drive to my meeting with the riders in Stoneham.
The McNeils were there, as promised, plus one or two others, and gradually the group grew to a total of eight. According to Walt, the now heavily falling snow was an abnormally strong deterrent.
"We usually get 40 to 50 people," he said, donning his rain gear in the back of his truck. "What it comes down to is an average of at least one person per degree." He said the rides have become so popular that winter could really be called the "second season" for the Wheelmen, who run organized rides every Sunday in the spring and summer. The winter rides are much looser: The length and routes are determined by those who happen to show up at a previously arranged starting point. McNeil would rather not refer to them as "frostbite" rides, which is what they originally were called. "Using the word 'frostbite' is really a misnomer and tends to scare some people away," said McNeil.
Can't imagine why.
As the snow crunched beneath my sneakers and turned my notes into wet smears as it fell, I figured these guys must be having more fun than I was. While I sipped a cup of hot coffee, they seemed oblivious to the falling snow as they either rode up on their bikes or took them down off car racks and got ready to roll.
The club likes to stress punctuality on its summer rides, but McNeil cut his group a little slack. The weather alone might make people late, so he usually waits a few minutes before directing the pack out. He hands out mimeographed maps of the area and then defers to Scott Croan, who lives in the area, to decide on the best route to Winchester Center (which, I have convinced the group, would be a great place for me to rendezvous with them).
Before heading out, I couldn't resist asking why they prefer this to staying home in front of a fire and lounging over the Sunday paper. Jack Donohue, who has ridden to Stoneham from Malden, shrugged, saying, "Well, it's not too early. Besides, it's fun. I usually ride alone, so it's nice to ride with some other people for a change."
Robin Schulman of Lexington, the only one in the group who showed up with a l0-speed instead of a mountain bike, also brushed off the inclement weather. "There's not enough snow to ski, so I might as well be on my bike." she said.
McNeil pointed out some other reasons, such as that it is a great way to stay in shape or get in shape by spring. Also, "it gives you a nice tolerance to different weather conditions. I used to do nothing once October rolled around. Then, one year, I said I'11 ride until I'm too cold." That was eight years ago. He has been riding year-round ever since.
By then, I was feeling like a wimp, especially as I climbed into my heated car to get a head start on the riders. I went on ahead, keeping the riders in view in mv rear-view mirror and watching for Croan's hand signals to tell me when to turn. The eight bikers clad in blue and yellow rain gear, gloves and galoshes were a curious sight to residents who looked up from their shoveling to shake their heads in wonder. Just as I started to feel sorry for these crazy riders slugging it out, my car swerved uncontrollably into a curb. I recovered, but it was obvious that the trekkers on the two-wheeled fat tires were faring much better than I was.
When we stopped in Winchester, the group told me the secrets that can make riding in December not only tolerable, but fun.
Most agree that mountain bikes, with 15 gears and fat tires, are ideal for winter, particularly for going right through snow, although Schulman has proven it can be done on a touring bike, too. But all were unanimous on dress, and echoed McNeil's sentiment when he said, "layers are the key." Long underwear, long pants, and rain gear for wet days. Gloves with liners (mittens for when it's really cold), glasses with vent holes (so they don't fog up), galoshes, tights, wool hats under helmets, turtlenecks and sweatshirts round out the wardrobe. Basically, says McNeil, all it takes is anything that works to keep you warm and dry. Polypropylene material is good, but McNeil points out, "There's no need to get high-tech clothing. Long underwear that you get at the Army-Navy surplus store is fine."
It may sound like a lot to go through for a Sunday morning bike ride, but, according to McNeil, the rides are not meant to be a macho test, just to have fun and see cycling from a different perspective. "With no leaves on the trees, winter riding allows new vistas to open up," he said. "Roads we've been traveling on all year look different."
He said he could remember no time in the past eight years when just one other person showed up for a ride, even if it just meant test-riding bikes around a parking lot full of snow. But wife Joan recalls one Sunday above all others.
It was a couple of years ago ... Super Bowl Sunday. Walt had worked the night shift, and also was suffering with the flu. "It was pouring out - cats and dogs - and I convinced him to stay home in bed," Joan relates. "There's no way anyone will show up, I told him Three people did show up, rode 18 miles, and then called Joan asking where Walt was.
"I said, he's sick, and so are you!"
Article first appeared in the Boston Globe, January 1, 1988