Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Appalachian Gap, 2-0

Last year, I had an informal goal to climb the Appalachian Gap at least once a month throughout the year. I might have pulled it off, but I missed December. I really could have made it happen, but I let the two opportunities that month slip by for various reasons. I am now 2 and 0 this year, having slid in the February ride on the 28th. The strong sun and temperatures hovering just below freezing in the afternoon invited me out. The roads were generally clear, since we have not had any snow for a few days and the skies have been clear. The snowbanks are right up to the edge of the road, but the pavement itself is pretty clear. The tricky spots are in the shade and where enough melting snow has flowed across the road to wash away the road salt. Water freezes quicker and slicker here than where the salt keeps it slushy for a few degrees below freezing. Here's a link to a RouteSlip map of the ride.

The Gap climb was the trickiest, as far as frozen stuff was concerned. There were several places that I marked on the way up to be especially careful of coming back down. There was more traffic than usual, with skiers coming back from the resorts on the other side. The road crews dump a lot of sand and salt on the Gap, as it is kept open throughout the winter. This junk tends to accumulate in the center and on the shoulder, forcing you out into the traffic lane. Cars are not usually going fast enough for this to be a real problem, but when they drift over to pass you, they get into the center and throw up a nasty cloud of fine dust.

There are several important factors to consider in winter riding. Most important is the weather and road conditions, as both can change in a very short time. Online weather services like WeatherUnderground are a real help here. If there is any chance of running into sections of snow or ice, you MUST have studded tires. Don't cheap out here. Get the best carbide-studded tires you can. I have a set of Nokian studded tires on my snow bike (an '84 Fat Chance mountain bike). These tires have about 110 studs per tire in two rows and there are times when I would gladly give up a little energy for more studs. You are already farther out in the road with no place to go. Go down on unseen broken pavement under slimy snow in front of overtaking cars and your riding days might be over. You want every advantage. The problem is that studded tires are higher profile and most road and even hybrid bikes lack the clearance for them and the absolutely necessary fenders.

Eventually, I'm going to build a frame with clearance for 700C studded tires, but for now I'll stick with the Fat Chance for commuting in snow and the Bianchi Axis (Volpe) with knobby cyclocross tires and the Atala for salty, muddy, but clear roads. The Atala is what I rode up the Gap yesterday. It's a low-end model that rides surprisingly well and which I've turned into a lousy-conditions road bike. All three of these bikes have been offered as sacrifices to the salt gods, and that's the second consideration of winter riding; you don't want to use a bike that you want to keep looking good, because it's just not going to happen. Salt will destroy your bike no matter how careful you are to clean it after every ride. It is much better to have a bike that you dedicate to this purpose, so you don't spend the summer looking down at an ugly, corroded bike.

Finally, you need to pay attention to clothing. Anything cotton is out. You need several layers, and don't be afraid to stop and take a layer off when you get too warm. Bring something extra to put on if necessary; a rack-top pack or pannier works well to stash extra items. The temperature at the top of the Gap was around 20 degrees F, a critical ten degrees colder than at the start. With a long descent on which to cool down, it got pretty chilly. I picked up a headwind on the way back, making things even worse. I wished I had packed an extra shell and some ear warmers. It was all worth it, though. Don't let the cold weather keep you indoors!