By Michael Engelhard
Each fall I compile a to-do list for winterizing my bike, determined to get around to these things before the first flurries of white "termination dust" make tinkering outside undesirable:
- Slightly deflate tires for better traction on snow. (No money to buy studded ones.)
- Put on low-temperature chain grease. (Makes riding in low gears actually feel like riding in low gears.)
- Retrieve "pogies" from storage trailer and attach to handlebars. (They're mittenlike insulated shells that help keep your fingers from falling off, which is useful for shifting gears and applying brakes.)
- Install reflectors and change batteries in headlamp. (December nights in Fairbanks last 16 hours, and not even the gaudiest auroras give off enough light to navigate by.)
And then there comes the morning when I step outside my cabin to find snow piled on the seat of my still-unmodified ride.
When I relocated from Moab, Utah, to Fairbanks, Alaska, a few years ago, I feared that I wouldn't find terrain as exciting as the kind I was leaving behind. But I quickly learned that the joys—and tribulations—of riding the wintry range equal the best Moab's slickrock can offer.
Â No need for tight, pricey spandex here. Vital parts are safeguarded by heavy wool army pants baggy enough for two pairs of long underwear and with pockets deep enough to carry bananas home from the store without having frost turn them into slimy black slugs. If you think cossack-style hats look silly, imagine one underneath a bicycle helmet. A hooded down parka, knee-high homemade mukluks, and beaver-skin mittens complete the en vogue cycling ensemble. On breezy days, a face mask is also a good idea—as long as I remember to take it off before entering banks or convenience stores.
Instead of long wheelies or suicide jumps, the greatest challenge here is simply staying upright. Black ice demands that you not hit the brakes or try to turn when entering intersections, no matter what's in your path. After several falls on slick roads, I have perfected the paratrooper shoulder-roll. I've also learned how to steer one-handed between snow berms and bully trucks while flipping off drivers. On days when I'm too chicken to face traffic, I shortcut through the woods, though the trade-off is run-ins with snooty cross-country skiers.
In Moab, riders mostly complain about tires flattened by goat heads or cactus spines. Up here, the risk is from broken whiskey bottles and potholes that gape threateningly, like big-game pitfalls. Moose cross at unpredictable intervals, sometimes mistaking bikers for rival ungulates, or mates.
Although the streets of Fairbanks offer fewer topographic hurdles than, say, Moab's joint-busting Poison Spider Mesa Trail, significant weight loss and aerobic workouts can be expected. This is mostly due to snowdrifts and profuse sweating inside the Michelin Man clothing.
Â It's surprising how many people ride bikes in the dead of winter in one of the continent's coldest cities. There's the French expat (an accomplished classical violinist) who hauls bags of dog food for the huskies that share his backwoods home. Another guy pulls an enclosed bike trailer with a clear-plastic window. (Is he carrying babies in there?) My neighbor, a Zamboni driver at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, bikes to and from work wearing headphones and white inflatable "bunny boots."
With our snotsicles and waxy cheeks, our breath plumes and hulking silhouettes, we might look like members of Captain Scott's last expedition. But an inner flame fuels us, a deep-down awareness (call it stubbornness or call it pride): What is sport for some is transport for others. Regardless of trends, we are biking cool.
Michael Engelhard now lives and bikes in windy Nome, where, on a good day, he pedals just to stay in place.
Illustration by Tim Bower