Inspiration and motivation can be hard to come by this time of year when the clouds hang low, days are painfully short and the sun doesn't seem to come out at all. In order to spur myself to get out the door and onto the roads, I've decided to participate in Rapha's Festive 500 to lay down a block of quality base miles in a season when most of my competitors would be lazing on the couch. The goal for the challenge is to ride 500km (no rollers or trainers allowed) between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve to avoid falling too deeply into the slothful season; a sizeable but not impossible tally of distance that requires an average of 62.5km (just less than 40 miles) for each of the eight days. Despite the apparently achievable distance, I'm going to need a little preparation to have a chance of successfully completing the Festive 500 without doing myself more harm than good.
I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic about getting out on the bike when I woke to near-freezing temperatures and a thick, gray sky one week before Christmas. But then the snow started to fall. Snow is such a novelty in Portland - the land of the rainy, sunless 40-degree winter - that it actually made the prospect of being out on a bike more enticing than before. I resolved to finish my breakfast, layer myself in lycra, take to the road to explore this wintertime anomaly and put in a couple of hours to loosen the legs. After the snow shower slowed and the clouds lifted slightly I was treated to a view of the West Hills dusted with white and knew I had to get myself up there, up in the woods of Forest Park.
Even though I love to climb, the inevitable bone-chilling descents on wet, mossy roads typically keep me confined to the lowlands during all but the warmest and driest winter days, but this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. After all, winter training (unless you're in Mallorca, Australia or Southern California) is about hardening the will along with the legs. The rider in those sunny climes may return with intimidating tan lines but the pale-skinned who trains through the worst that winter has to offer starts the season with a finely-honed mental toughness that is less visible but sharper. This is the time when we re-learn how to suffer after an off-season spent in comfortable lethargy. So, into the snowy hills we go.
I saddled up and pedaled north to cross the St. Johns Bridge into an aggressive headwind blowing in from the West. Once in the shadow of the hills the wind abated and I made quick progress along Highway 30 to the base of Saltzman Road. A light rain began to fall just as I made the turn off the highway onto the first uphill stretch of pavement. I knew my body temperature would rise as I climbed faster than the temperature would drop so I rolled back the earflap of my cap and cracked the collar of my jacket to allow the 36-degree breeze to cool my core. I was obliged to fully unzip the jacket before I rounded the second corner.
The precipitation transitioned from rain into a wet, icy mix as I splashed through the muddy puddle - present in all but the driest times of year - on the left of the Saltzman gate. I put the pavement and city behind me in favor of the mud and trees. Every time I ride in Forest Park this line of demarcation precipitates a nearly instantaneous change in my mood. The grit-your-teeth-and-get-it-over-with run across the St. Johns Bridge and down the industrial highway isn't always the most pleasant way to start a ride - especially on a Tuesday morning when all the dump trucks and semis are out in full force - but any angst accumulated during those few miles floats away like steam through helmet vents once tires strike dirt and tree branches reach across the road overhead.
The falling slush began to freeze a little tighter and had begun to accumulate on roadside ferns and fallen leaves as the road climbed away from the river. I spun my lowest gear, kept my effort and heart rate in check to prevent overheating and the chill that comes from generating too much sweat on a near-freezing day.
Before I had gained 500 feet of elevation the snow had really begun to collect on the roadside leaves and fell in wet, heavy flakes on my shoulders. The road was still a soggy bog but the beauty in the trees kept me from thinking too much about my skinny tires sinking into the slop.
The snow got thicker farther up the climb but still wasn't accumulating on the road.
Ira recently wrote that a full wool cap is too warm for Portland. I'm inclined to agree until the temperatures drop into the low thirties! My wool cap from Little Package was the perfect choice for this day; never too hot on the climb and kept the snowflakes out of my eyes.
The snow grew thicker and began to encroach on the road with around a kilometer left to climb.
Two tracks diverged in a wood. Turns out they were both mine.
I plowed my way through an inch or two of snow to reach the summit, crossed through the gate, dodged the slushy potholes on the access road and arrived at Skyline Blvd where a heavy winter stillness hung in the air. Snow covered everything in a light blanket that blended seamlessly into the dull white of the clouded-over sky.
The road only had a light coat of snow and some tire tracks to follow so I tested the traction and decided to give the pavement a go. I kept my speed in check and chose cautious lines but still felt a bit anxious on the frosty asphalt. I didn't expect much traffic as Portlanders are terrified of driving in snowy conditions but neglected to take the Christmas shipping season into account. Over just a little more than a kilometer on Skyline I was passed closely by no fewer than three delivery trucks. I also witnessed an SUV spinning its wheels in an attempt to climb out of its driveway.
The only other mammals I had seen on the ascent had been the chilly-looking squirrels, but I passed a dog-walking couple and a young lady out for a run as I started down the hill. They all looked a bit surprised to see me but smiled and waved back in an expression of shared excitement.
A little farther down I passed a pair of fellow cyclists on their way up and felt a hint of satisfaction at having laid down the first tire tracks on the snowy road that morning.
My fingers and toes began to get chilled on the descent - despite my insulated gloves and shoe covers - but my head and core stayed warm all the way to the bottom. I'll be sure to tape over the vents in the soles of my shoes before the next cold ride! A weak ray of sunshine greeted me as I re-emerged onto Highway 30 and headed towards downtown Portland to finish the ride with a cruise through the Northwest Industrial area and the Pearl District before crossing the Broadway Bridge and heading home.
The numbers are less than inspiring but I was happy to have tallied two good hours on the bike (plus a little extra time for taking photos and looking around in awe at the snowy scenery) in proper winter weather and gained a bit of confidence heading into the Festive 500. Now for a quick clean of the bike, a good stretch and a steak-egg-and-cheese burrito for a solid protein fix!
I'll be posting stories and photos from the upcoming challenge on this blog and my flickr page, with the chance of some occasional tweets from the road to spice things up. Follow along and be sure to get out and ride yourself this winter to start the new year off right!