Adventures in Ice Biking

The Fine Line between Cold and Colder
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The author takes to the ice (Courtesy of Michael Piniewski)

There's a fine line between excitement and idiocy, and I have just crossed it. I'm on the idiocy side. I'm also on my mountain bike. It is mid-January, at dusk, in Vermont. Exactly zero birds are chirping. Why should they? It is so cold out that each of my breaths lingers like cigar smoke in front of me. My water bottle has become a bomb-shaped block of ice. The sky is gray.

In addition to a layer of polypropylene and a full ski outfit, I'm wearing a thick ragg-wool ski cap, which I was unable to cram beneath my helmet. So what I've done is sort of balance my bike helmet atop my hat. My helmet is protecting my hat. Clearly, bicycle helmets were not designed with winter in mind. It dawns on me that perhaps there is a reason for this.

I'm moving at about two miles an hour, maybe slower. The trail I'm riding up, the Rattlesnake Mountain Trail near the tidy hamlet of Brattleboro, is steep. Very steep. You could round it up and call it vertical. Under normal conditions, steep isn't that big a deal. Sure, I'll bitch with the best of them, but I can get up steep. Under normal conditions.

This, however, isn't in the same hemisphere as normal. The last three days have seen a disturbing pattern of torrential rains followed by sub-freezing weather followed by more rains followed by frigid cold. It's been the type of week where if you tap your car's brakes at the wrong spot you do a swift 720, then take out the guardrail. Every 15 minutes some guy gets on the radio and says you shouldn't leave your home unless it's a dire emergency.

So I've gone bicycling. The Rattlesnake Mountain trail looks as though it could be ascended only by a team of mountaineers. Ice is everywhere, steel blue and frozen midwinter-thick into overlapping layers, like a multitiered waterfall. Leaves a foot below the surface can easily be seen, captured in fall colors as if encased in glass. I am riding my regular mountain bike, with one essential alteration—each of my tires is studded with 364 small, sharp sheet-metal screws drilled through the tire from the inside. My tires look like something punk rockers might use as Hula-Hoops.

Michael Finkel is the author of Alpine Circus: A Skier's Exotic Adventures at the Snowy Edge of the World, and his work has appeared in National Geographic Adventurer, Audubon, Outside, Skiing, and numerous other magazines. Michael's adventures in Big Sky biking, snowboarding, and his discussion with GORP readers, have been featured on GORP.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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