The New Norm

Microfleece-lined cycling tights... check
Wool socks and Gore-Tex outer socks... check
Microfleece glove liners and Gore-Tex outer gloves... check
Long sleeve base layer and short-sleeve jersey... check
Water-resistant/windproof jacket... check
Microfleece skull cap... check
Fenders... check
Helmet, Camelback, and charged HID light system... check, check and check!

All systems are go. Mount the bike. Countdown to winter riding in three, two, one... clipped in... they're off!

Thirty-nine degrees, a light mist in the air, and trails that look more like streams. Welcome to winter riding in the Pacific Northwest! Last night's ride took us up a rocky, slippery, leave-covered trail in Issaquah to the base of Tiger Mountain. The going was tough as we climbed several hundred feet over extremely slick trail in the opening mile. Once on the plateau above town, we encountered puddles so deep we would unclip from the pedals and hold our feet up near the bike's top tube to keep them dry as we coasted through.

From there we ducked under I-90 and started up the forest road towards the base of the Grand Ridge trail. Even the forest road was soupy. As we drew closer to the trailhead we heard a noise and noticed an increase in the water... there was a startlingly new waterfall cascading right off the hillside and onto the road, at least thirty feet in height. The trailhead was saturated, but the trail is rocky so we continued.

It was tough to go more than 30 or 50 yards at a time between dabs in the early goings due to the incredible slickness of the rocks and the two inches of flowing water running down the trail. It's a pretty tech trail in dry conditions, but this was ridiculous. Finally I realized I forgot to unlock my front fork. Ahhh... much better now. Still a challenge, but better. We soon came to the tiny stream we always dismount for (it's in a wide trench), only this time it is a raging torrent of water. Using the bike to brace myself against the current, I gingerly rock-hopped across the stream without getting pulled in. Phew!

As we climbed, we found the trails to get increasingly wet. The two-inches of flowing water deepened and numerous puddles required more of the unclip-and-lift technique. Then the mud came. Thwuck is the sound of one's front wheel sinking in quicksand-like mud up to the hub. Over and over. Yet we continued on. The bridges on the trail were as slick as could be, but conditions improved beyond them. Soon we came to the residential road the trail crosses. The decision was made to continue climbing to the top of the ridge, but not descend the other side (as it crosses a swamp). And so we did. The trail near the top of the ridge was nice and rocky and offered good traction, but the way down wasn't quite as fast as normal.

At one point, I wheelie-dropped off a small root or rock and my front wheel got sucked into the mud and I, full of momentum, found myself balancing precariously on my front wheel staring down into a foot-deep puddle of muddy water. I was able to shift my weight sideways and unclip and avoid a total soggy faceplant, but Ross wasn't so lucky. I yelled back to warn him of the mud-suck but he got swallowed up nonetheless and fell sideways into the mud. With my feet soaked and Ross' leg a muddy mess, it was good that we were heading back to the cars. We rode fast through the rest of the ride to keep the heart rate up and to get back to dryness sooner.

The big concern for me with winter riding is my toes and fingers. My torso and legs never get cold, nor does my head. It's always the toes. Last night was no different. The Gore-Tex sock liners definitely helped a lot and it was only in the final 5 minutes of the ride that my toes started to get really cold. Had I not have stepped in that puddle I probably would have been okay. Nevertheless, it's only November. If I'm to ride all winter long outdoors, then I need a winter cycling shoe. There's no way around it. If you have a suggestion for a good winter riding cycling shoe, please share. The toes you save might be mine.

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