Baby, it’s cold outside!

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we are one-third of the way from the Winter Solstice to the Vernal Equinox. Spring seems far away if you live north of the Florida border. My apologies to those of you suffering heat waves and wildfires. Maybe you can bookmark this space until the fires move back to North America.

A long time ago, I used to think that snow meant the end of my bicycling. However, over the years I have learned some tips, and read about others, which might allow you to continue riding through the cold months. At least, you could find yourself still in shape when the snow melts and the flowers bloom. You know that I am a cyclist, but my thoughts would apply to runners, hikers and others whose outdoor passion tends to wither when the mercury falls below freezing.

This post has nothing to do with weight management. Humans naturally put on some fat in the winter, to ensure survival in our natural environment (which is not heated and air-conditioned). Keeping fit when smart bears hibernate is our objective.

The gym.

This is the first thing that comes to mind. It could be a private gym membership (the prices are all over the place), an exercise room at a local school or the YMCA, or the fully equipped basement of that high school friend who bought the millionaire’s mansion on the hill.

Personally, I hate going to the gym for the same reason that I hate running on a track or doing loops in the neighborhood: I don’t like to go in circles. The bicycle suits me, because it takes me somewhere, even if it is only to the grocery store or the post office.

photo: Bryan Derballa, TIME

Nevertheless, I joined Planet Fitness, which has 24-hour locations throughout the United States. I passed many of them on my travels in the last two years, and I even stopped in a couple of them. I used to belong to a local gym (ACAC), which had more fancy equipment, including a pool, but did not have branches where I was travelling.

Private gyms may also offer hydro-massage beds, muscle massage, tanning salons, day spa and other perks. You get what you pay for.

You could buy new or used equipment for a gym at home, depending on the room you have, your budget, and what is important to you and the person(s) with whom you share the home. I imagine an indoor bicycle or rollers for your road bike would be the minimum, but it you are a runner or walker, a treadmill would be the thing to buy. If you need a total-body routine, some free weights and a pull-up bar installation would trick out your home gym nicely. Most of these things are available by mail-order, at athletic equipment stores and used sports stores with names like Play it Again Sam.

What features? This depends on what will make you use the equipment. A treadmill should have at least variable speed. A spinner (stationary bicycle) should have a control that increases the load. Beyond that, see what you can get for the money. Some treadmills will tilt to give you a climb. A spinner with a computer that reads out power, speed, distance and RPM is ideal, especially if you can get electronic control of the load instead of a friction drive. Electromagnetic load control may be pricey, but often it can be programmed to simulate a particular ride (e.g., the Alpe d’Huez or Passo dello Stelvio).

The television ads show models in front of large screens with both television programs or video presentations of actual rides (sometimes linked to the load). A less expensive alternative is a holder for your phone, book or e-reader (Kindle/Nook).

I tried a trainer for my bicycle, but I did not like the instability or the extra wear on the rear tire. I even blew out one during a workout. Trainers and rollers have come a long way since then, and if I were inclined to try them again, I would try them out with my bike, look for features that resemble the ones for a spinner, and find out if different tires would improve performance and durability of the rig.

A word of caution about terminology: rollers have three cylinders, and you ride your bike as you would on the road, weaving back and forth (as little as possible). Trainers provide a stand to hold the bicycle up while you pedal. The rear wheel then runs in two cylinders. The feel resembles riding a stationary bike (spinner).

No equipment will be worth your money if you don’t use it. If you are already a regular exerciser of any kind, then adapting to an indoor routine won’t be as hard as it would be for me. On the other hand, if you think you would like to find out, I would suggest borrowing or renting before buying, or going with second-hand sales or online (craigslist, freecycle, ebay, etc.).

You may put out a lot of money and then find that wielding a dust rag over the equipment is the extent of your routine. Staying fit is not a competition, and you are no less a person or stupid because you found out that gym routines don’t work for you. I did the guilt run; it’s not worth it. Consider the money spent an investment in learning about yourself, then sell the gear without feeling bad.

Getting out there

Okay, I don’t do routine and I hate the gym. My only choice is to get outside.

“In the snow?”

“Sure!”

“Are you crazy?”

“Well, yes, but it’s fun.”

First of all, it isn’t snowing all the time, even in Montréal or International Falls. Before the Schwalbe Company was established, I lived in New England. I rode Michelin 50 tires, which had a subtle crisscross pattern on the tread. The shallow tread would pick up a layer of snow, then that layer would stick to more snow until the fenders were cleaning off snow and limiting its depth. If you have ever rolled a snowball to make Frosty the Snowman, you understand the principle. The stickiness of the snow allowed me to ride normally, and I commuted regularly during the four winters that I spent in Rhode Island.

I had to ride straight and turn gently, but it was doable. Also, I could cross the inevitable patches of ice if I maintained an absolutely straight line and did not pedal. One intersection on my commute had a frozen pond three meters across, but I made it every day. When snow was actually falling, the stickiness helped with the ice patches.

The fat-tire bike had not been developed yet, and I have only ever owned one bicycle at a time. However, I have seen enough video of fat-tire enthusiasts enjoying the winter landscape to know that it is much easier than what I had to ride.

As they say, “there is no such thing as cold weather, only inadequate equipment!”

Given that there are sunny days even in winter, I make a point of having my road bike ready to go all year. When I can, I get out on it. In fact, the leaves on wet roads in the autumn worry me more than snow and ice on dry roads in the winter. Maybe some day, I’ll own a fat-tire bike, too.

If you ride in the winter, remember to wipe down your bike every time you come back in. The salt and other chemicals used on the roads are highly corrosive to bike parts and frames. Also, the snow itself carries dirt, salt and, of course, water to rust your bike.

Falling down is inevitable. You fell down when you first started riding, didn’t you? The trick is to fall down without injuring yourself. As far as I can tell (anecdotal experience here) the first rule is: DO NOT put your arm out. The two times I cracked or broke something were when I tried to stop my fall with my arm. All other times I have fallen (usually on oily or wet surfaces, only once on ice), I grabbed the handlebars hard, and let the impact distribute itself along my side from my shoulder down to my foot. Twice, the helmet did what it was designed to do (protect my head while smacking the asphalt), but my body took most of the energy with nothing left to hurt my head. A surprise fall is actually better for me, because my instincts are better than my thought processes. Thinking made me put my arm out both times.

Finally, something I have read about extensively, but could not try until I got my new hips (and straight legs) is cross-country skiing. This is highly recommended for cyclists, runners and others to maintain fitness during the winter. It uses all the muscles needed to ride, plus gives an upper-body workout. I am looking forward to the next Snowmaggeddon, so I can rent a pair of skis and learn how to do this. I may even move back to New England or Canada.

This is just one man’s meager experience with winter weather. What have you done in the winter? How do you make the gym work for you? Do you have special gear or a bike for riding in the snow? I would love to read comments from cross-country skiers and fat-tire bikers. Thanks in advance.

Smooth roads & tailwinds,

JT

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