One of the primary things I love about cycling is playing outdoors. Sure, it’s great exercise and it’s been shown to increase memory and all that, but you could probably say the same thing about doing step aerobics. And to hell with that.
So what happens when winter sets in, stealing away warmth, light and all your good riding opportunities? For many of us, that means either riding inside or grumpy depression, neither of which sound much more appealing than step aerobics.
But fear not, gentle reader. I’ve found a few good solutions recently to keep me from pulling out my hair. Maybe one of these might work for you, too.
Specificity: Set and achieve a target
Just riding along outside in the spring air, without any purpose or even direction, can feel grand. Just riding along inside, however, feels absolutely horrible. For one thing, you’re not riding. You are pedaling a fixed object. This isn’t recreation in any way, shape or form. So, approach it like the mechanical task it is. You fix a flat to maintain good working order of your machine. You do intervals inside for the same reason. And there is no sense in spending an hour fixing a flat, right?
Don’t climb on the trainer (that’s turbo trainer to you, Brits) without a specific goal and/or workout in mind. I love TrainerRoad for its hardcore specificity. You can search workouts by duration and physiological type (VO2 max, sweet spot, etc.), select one and go. Warm up, do your intervals, cool down, climb off. It works, and there is satisfaction in a job well done.
Entertainment: Engagement is the key
Watching pro-race or riding videos while riding a trainer never did anything for me. It’s like watching other people eat. I’d rather just eat food myself, thanks. But if what you’re doing with your cranks affects what’s happening on screen, now you’re getting somewhere. There are a few new-school interactive options out there, from the humble Tour de Giro to Spain’s Bkool to the Bay Area’s Zwift, which is still in beta but is far and away the most promising. (Yes, old guys, CompuTrainer still exists. But it’s a closed and increasingly irrelevant system.)
All three are web-based multiplayer trainer games, allowing you to race friends, random strangers, and computerized ghosts in real time around the world. This format brings with it some positive and some negative aspects of your regular group ride. Like in the real world, you can set a time and meet people to ride. Then you can ride out of your skull trying to drop them. It’s not exactly the hyper-specific training plan your coach called for but it’s guaranteed to be 300 times more interesting than just riding along.
I was riding Zwift the other day when my 13-year-old son walked in from school. He has seen me on a trainer throughout his life, and his reactions usually range from a blank stare to downright disgust. He’s never asked to ride a trainer. Evidently it looks about as fun as it actually is. Anyhow, he watched the screen for a few seconds and got the concept: There are other people riding. You can beat them. “Let me try that.” I dropped the saddle and let him hop on. Within a minute, he was yelling at the screen: “Get wrecked, fool! I’m coming for you!”
Fat biking: Don’t knock it ’til you try it
If the roads and trails are covered with ice, and it’s dark by the time you get off work, you can still ride. You just need the right tool for the job. I was definitely in the “I don’t get it” camp regarding fat bikes for a while. They just felt like comically slow and heavy mountain bikes. What’s the point? Well, I discovered this winter, the point is that you can ride when and where you can’t ride a normal bike.
With the proper clothing and lighting, you can fat bike in downright ridiculous conditions. BikeRadar‘s James Huang, Colin Levitch and I went out recently on a 10F/-12C day after a night of sleet had coated everything in ice. It was so icy that we had trouble walking in the trailhead parking lot. But once on the fatties, with their enormous rubber footprints inflated to 4-5psi, we were good to go, climbing up frozen snowpack, icy roots and loose trail. Again, they felt comically slow, but in a positive way; with so much mass and momentum, going forward was fun and easy. I couldn’t tell you the last time I laughed that much while riding a bike.
Many places are renting fat bikes now. Check one out.
Cross-training: From bici to Nordici and back
Perhaps I should say cross-playing, as cross-training sounds too much like, well, training.
In any event, there is something to be said for taking a break from the bike. If the above solutions don’t work for you, try another sport that’s appropriate to the season. Here in Colorado, I’ve fallen in love with Nordic skiing. There is some crossover from cycling in terms of musculature, aerobic base and dorky Lycra clothing. But it’s a completely different animal. I’ve enjoyed learning about the gear — wax is to skis what air pressure and tire choice is to bikes — and the technique. Sure, it’s been humbling to stumble and learn while children gracefully excel. But I still get that familiar endorphin buzz. And embracing the winter weather with outdoor sport seems, at long last, like a more sensible way to play than riding inside.
And when the days are warmer, you know I’ll be eager to get back out there on the pavement on the road bike, the way God and Tullio Campagnolo intended.