Off-Season Travails: An Ode to Winter Riding

As a salute of solidarity to everyone who keeps getting out on the bike through winter, Hailey Moore shares three tales of off-season travails from riding through this most testing season.

In the preamble to the coldest time of the year—when the days sharpen their bite, the sun hunkers down low in the sky, and the nearby peaks don their snowy coats—I enter the season in a blissful state of amnesia, having forgotten just exactly what winter riding entails. But after the clocks have rolled back, the Winter Solstice has passed by, and the new year turned over, I’ve surely been reacquainted with the season’s jarring certainties.

It’s always the same breaking-in period, half logistical and half visceral. On the logistical side, there is the annual searching of closets for jackets and gloves and shoe covers; there is the bringing of lights on every ride in anticipation of the sun’s early adieu; there is the mental shift of accepting pavement-heavy routes, out-and-backs, or hill repeats for the sake of finding dry conditions; and there are layers—all the layers—carefully picked and fretted over, with a few extras always stashed on the bike, just in case.

On the visceral side of things there are windburned cheeks and chapped lips, icicles on your downtube and feet turned into bricks, screaming barfies, and reluctant descents. There is the shock of realizing just how cold you can get while doing your best to guard against ever getting there. The difference between inside and out is no longer as simply designated by a door and four walls; opening the door, at a coffee shop or once home, brings the delicious inside-ness of inside into sweet, warm relief and no portal to that cozy world of interiors can be crossed without uttering an audible sigh.

All this being said, compared to some locales, I’d only rank the extremity of winter on the Front Range of Colorado, specifically where I live in Boulder, as a 7 out of 10 (depending on the year). On the shortest days between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, the foothills that form the iconic western skyline lead to a false sunset at by 3pm, and the network of canyons that host much of the worthy climbing become frigid corridors, with the creeks at the bottom adding to their chilling effect. And yet, while it is cold, it’s not Minnesota cold. There is also snow but, at least down in town, the roads are well plowed and the sun works hard to move it along.

The double-edged sword about riding through winter here might actually be the trap of its mildish-ness; most of the time, you can make the argument for getting out on the bike. Sometimes you’re rewarded with sun while other times you get scorned, but come home with a story.

Photo credit: Aaron LaVanchy

The Old Man Winter Rally

The Old Man Winter Rally—with its 100k or 50k bike race options, 10k run, or the double that combines the run and shorter ride—is one of my favorite events in that it invites participants to come out and mix it up in the muck of winter. Typically held in the first half of February, the longer course takes riders from Lyons, CO out flat-and-fast gravel county roads to the base of Lefthand Canyon. From here, the first of three climbs ensues and leads racers to the crux of the event: a two-mile stretch of ascending singletrack on the Rowena Trail. Regardless of conditions on the dirt prelude and the pavement in Lefthand, Rowena is almost always guaranteed to be snow-packed (or worse). And, in a race that’s mostly for the roadies, this section of mandatory running/hiking/stumbling and shouldering your bike through mashed potatoes is the main reason I’ve lined up three times. Regardless of my overall placement and time, what I was most excited about from my 2022 performance was having the fastest women’s run on the Rowena segment.

I raced Old Man Winter for the first time in 2019. It was my entrée to bike racing and not exactly graceful; I missed the start gun by a few minutes, spent the first half of the race hating life while chasing back onto the entire field—in full noob style with a puffy jacket tied around my waist and Clif Bars jammed in my bibs so they wouldn’t break my teeth—but once I reached Rowena and its conga line of slow-trudgers, and passed A LOT of people, my day started turning around. Yes, passing people felt good but it was also just nice to be back amongst it with others who’d elected to be there. It was a light bulb moment of thinking, “it’s so absurd that we’re all out here knee-deep in the snow together, might as well make it fun!”

The following year, 2020, I decided to ride the ~18-miles to the start of the race with my partner, Tony, and a friend. It’s easy to find symbolism in retrospect and, looking back, this year’s event seemed like a harbinger of life-halting-pandemic things to come. We knew the idea of riding to the race was pure folly even as we went through the motions of getting ready. A snowstorm had blown in overnight, coating the streets with a fresh few inches, and the flurries weren’t showing any signs of abating. Tony frantically changed our tires to wider specimens while I agonized over what layers to bring. Riding in rain pants and a shell over my race kit, with a bag of extra clothes to stash at the expo, we arrived just in time to twisty-tie our numbers on and jump in the corral. It was snowing very hard.

Chaos quickly ensued after turning onto the first “dirt” stretch—the pace line of the peloton rapidly devolved into survival mode as the surface was a mix of unconsolidated snow and thinly covered ice. Wheels slid out at all angles, brakes squealed, and we took every corner with a dogleg. Just as I was genuinely beginning to wonder if I would make the new, stiffer cutoff time to reach the single aid half-way through, a chorus of brakes alerted me that we were slinky-ing to a collective stop. As a few cops standing in front of barricades turned the front riders around, word spread telephone-style that the county had revoked the permit due to the conditions. At 10 miles in, the race was canceled.

While I was secretly relieved—I could only imagine how hair-raising the conditions on any of the steep descents would be—we still had our work cut out for us commuting back home. The shoulder of the two-lane highway, popular among cyclists, that runs between Boulder and Lyons is usually ample but on this day banks of dirty snow took up half the space and the salt-warmed road was running with water. Every car that passed us—many probably containing our fellow racers of just a few hours before—sprayed indiscriminate streams of snowy brine, soaking us through. The saving grace was the heated hose outside of one of the local bike shops that we were able to use to thaw drivetrains and clean our frames. The last step was thawing ourselves at home, over hot drinks and with hot showers where—finally warm and dry after 60+ miles of sloppy riding—from the window we were able to look outside and watch the snow continue to fall. Funny how it never looks that bad from the inside.

“And the sky is a hazy shade of winter.” – Simon & Garfunkel

Idaho Springs Ride 2022: Hypothermic to Hot Springs

For the longest time, Tony and I had a running joke that one day we would bike tour to a hot springs together. On one of our first tours, a route through central New Mexico, and still early in our relationship Tony casually mentioned there was a hot springs on the route. Equal parts romantic appeal and creature comfort incentive, I got very attached to the hot springs carrot. But the timing just didn’t work out: after battling fierce headwinds the entire second day, we ended up reaching said hot springs town at midday on day three (rather than the night before). After a huge breakfast and with rising temps (already hot in late February), soaking in a steamy sulphury pool didn’t sound too appealing. Later tours would take us right past the famed Mt. Princeton pools and the Cottonwood hot springs but we never stopped and it just wasn’t our style to drive for a soak. Finally, when a snowstorm thwarted a White Rim trip we’d planned for my birthday in March 2022, the search for an alternative riding mission landed us on the idea of a mini credit card overnighter to the Idaho Springs hot springs, about 75 miles from our doorstep.

That winter had been exceptionally dry; we started the ride on dry dirt in town and only found snow once we were a few thousand feet higher up one of the canyons. The sky was the crisp hard blue that so often characterizes Colorado winters but the swirling wind was keeping us on our toes and our brakes. As the crow flies, Idaho Springs, at 7,526 feet, is only ~2,000’ higher in elevation than Boulder but the undulating nature of our ride would climb almost 9k’ before arriving. After a fireside lunch and pie stop at our favorite Nederland outpost, Salto, we forged on.

All day, I rode the edge of comfort, staying warm enough on the climbs but getting chilled on any downhill. However as the purple curtain of dusk lowered over the distant peaks, the final serpentine descent of Oh My God Rd sent us both into the irreversible shivers that only an emergency gas station hot chocolate stop could cure. Hovering over the hotdog roller while sipping a scalding cup of pure refined sugar, the thought of a whole-body dunk in a hot spring had never sounded better.

The website for the questionably-named Indian Springs Hot Springs Resort advertises itself as “the Best Relaxing Resort” in Colorado but, upon arrival, I’d say “most accessible, semi-relaxing resort-ish place” might be more accurate. It is right off the I-70 corridor in a tourist trap-tarnished town. Of course, I’d checked out the website before our departure and although the lodge looked dated I thought well, let’s give it a shot. Afterall, if riding there was the goal it really was our best bet as the other possible hot springs destinations were either prohibitively far, or prohibitively guarded by high mountain passes.

The crowded lobby was pretty far from giving off any spa vibes: the room was low ceiling-ed and dimly lit by fluorescents, wall-to-wall beige carpeting stretched underfoot, and there was a noticeable lack of any eucalyptus fragrance, or other calming essential oil perfume for that matter. An indoor private bath had been the only booking option online but I was hoping we would get lucky and be able to swap for an outdoor pool. No dice. We got our keys and a couple of stiff white towels. The hallway was lined with historic photos and doorframes were settled and slanted. It could have been called quaintly rustic in the right light. The door to our room opened into a small space with a double bed and floral cover that didn’t quite earn the moniker “granny chic.” We rolled my bike into the closet (the room was very tight!) and leaned Tony’s against the wall and ordered a pizza for delivery as we transitioned to check out the bath.

With a pizza waiting in the room, we made the walk to the lower level of the lodge to find our private room. Walking through the close corridor, I felt like I was in the bowels of a ship, or on the set of a horror film, rather than a so-called resort. The walls, again, were beige as was the ceiling. Aside from some spare decorative tiling, the door to our little bath revealed a hot windowless chamber that was also beige.

In terms of the most basic requirements, our “hot springs” experience did supply us with a hot pool of water and a place to stay, but I’d say that was about the extent of its success (and the water, which we couldn’t figure out how to temper, was so hot we ended up doing more of the hot-cold plunge approach, making a few laps to the nearby cold shower in an effort to make the pool more tolerable). It was a bit like making a reservation at a highly-rated restaurant only to find paper tablecloths and plastic cutlery in the dining room. Still, the boiler room experience didn’t end there. Once back in our room, we sweltered the whole night at the unadjustable mercy of the radiator that was absolutely cranking, so much so that we eventually opened the screenless, human-sized window (on the ground floor). By the next morning the memory of our hypothermic descent just hours before had dissipated, in all that steam, completely.

We made the real hidden gem discovery of the trip on the second day, which was breakfast at the Main Street restaurant. Hearty diner-style servings of well-made omelets and banana bread set the day off right, so much so that we decided to tack on a climb up Little Bear Creek for a closer look at the mountains that, on the bike at least, feel so inaccessible this time of year. The climb and ensuing ridge rolling was a glorious reminder of the mountain’s grandeur but we paid a dear price on the descent back to Idaho Springs to close the lollipop. Numbed to the core, a second coffee felt vital. Sitting outside, the sun’s late appearance eventually revived us for the long return home.

There is a concept in psychology that, in essence, states the more one looks forward to something, the less satisfying the actual thing is. In short, through the excitement of the anticipation, you’ve tricked your dopamine receptors into firing too soon and too much and the real thing never has a chance of eliciting an equal response. While there may have been some of that at play in my long-awaited hot springs initiation (though I’d still jump at the chance for a Mt. Princeton or Strawberry Springs dip), it was the unexpected small happinesses of the trip—like a simple and delicious breakfast and a winter ride over 11k’—that were always going to be the most rewarding. I guess that points to the reason it took me over three years after embarking on my first tour to make it around to nature’s jacuzzi: it was always more about the ride there anyway.

“Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness.”

– Mary Oliver

An Unforecasted Adventure

After starting 2023 with a nagging hamstring injury and, as a result, actively working to forget the great fun that is skiing this time of year, I set out on a late January ride with Tony on a day where sliding around on the snow would have been much preferred to riding through it. We pointed our wheels towards a bakery that’s a croissant-worthy distance away and rode an hour under thick humid clouds, arriving just as I was wishing for another layer.

Feeling very snug and satisfied with our treats and hot drinks, we looked out the window to see a swarm of flurries descending on our bikes, and everything else. Hmmm, I thought, this wasn’t forecasted. We had planned a longer leg for the post-coffee part of the ride but the unexpected snow was giving us pause.

There are times when adverse circumstances can feel like a precarious threat to group morale and even thinking about bailing can have a souring effect on the tone of the day. Tony and I have certainly been there many times and I could feel in this instance, almost telepathically, him deferring to me to make the call if we should continue with our planned route or tuck our tails and head home. Feeling game, I proposed we just go for it. Our intended outing wasn’t anything extreme—the terrain would be flat or rolling and there were both dirt and paved options—but would entail being out for several more hours rather than just the one hour needed to ride home most directly.

Keeping my insulated synthetic jacket on as we got rolling again, I figured I’d be stopping to take it off a few miles later, once the flurries lightened. In the end, I kept it on for the next three hours and the snow never let up.

I’ve heard people try to describe the sound of snow, or rather its absence of sound. The most idyllic storm is made of silent, heavy flakes whose ethereal descent muffles the sound of the streets and puts life on hold. The kind of snow you want on Christmas Day, a romantic snow, a Snow Day snow, a snow that brings life a little closer and makes time a little slower. The weather doesn’t care how busy you purport to be.

On a long stretch of road nearing our turnaround point, I watched the snow dance in the distance. Rather than feeling like an affront to our ride, it made our otherwise casual spin feel all the more singularly special and intimate. The roads were windless and quiet and we hardly encountered any other riders. The few brave souls we did see over the course of the afternoon all waved to us in acknowledgement. Perhaps their limbs were just as stiff as ours, but it felt like there was an extra tenth of a second pause in their raised, gloved hands, a meaningful nod our way.

I still readily bemoan the foul conditions and I haven’t ruled out ever getting a trainer to skirt the hassle of suiting up on the most bitterly cold of days. But, for the first time ever, I’ve also entertained the possibility of getting a fat bike and more and more have been finding, maybe not peace, but at least a truce with winter. Rest assured though, as soon this is published, I’m off to the desert for a sun-soaked holiday. Even still, April is historically the snowiest month of the year in Colorado so I know there will still be plenty of “winter” when I get back.