I am not sure where the phrase “The Dead of Winter” came from. In fact, I am not even 100% sure people still use that phrase (in 2015). But, I do recall hearing that phrase growing up in both New York and Illinois, referring to the period of time from roughly New Years through President’s Day.
My best guess is that the phrase comes from scenes like this one appearing in many major Northern Hemisphere cities. Trees having long since lost all of their leaves, the grass taking on a lifeless brown-ish color, and overcast skies combine to create a cold, lifeless image that can persist for long periods of time.
No month epitomizes the depths of winter more than the month of January. By January, most northern cities have already experienced a significant amount of winter. Residents of these cities have typically been through a dozen or so days they would consider “very cold” (which does vary by city). Also, by January, most cities have experienced their version of lousy winter whether, whether that be lack of sunshine, heavy snow, ice storms, that cold drenching rain, or some kind of combination of the four. With the holidays over, if winter is going to wear you down, it will most definitely do so in the month of January, as it runs its course.
For many, winter (and particularly January) is something of a metaphor for a rough period of time, or a low point. In American history, the winter at Valley Forge is remembered as a low point for the American Revolution. Winter is also used periodically to describe low points in people’s individual lives. With the chill, darkness, and frequent inclement weather, there is not only commonly more hardships, but also more limitations.
This is true even when mother nature offers periodic breaks from cold and gloomy weather. After a cold start to 2015, the middle part of January brought warmer conditions to Colorado, including several consecutive days with highs in the 50s or 60s here in Denver. And, while today ended up being one of the best possible January days for a bike ride, the amount of riding I could do was still limited significantly by the sheer fact that it is January.
Even on a mild day, it is typically too cold to start riding at sunrise, the coldest part of the day. As the day began with temperatures in the 30s, I waited until roughly 9:30 to begin my ride. Even with this later departure, I still encountered significant amounts of water, and even ice on the trails. In several sections, I needed to stop and dismount my bike for safety reasons.
The mere possibility that ice like this will be present on the trail also makes it extremely unsafe to ride after dark. With sunset occurring right around 5 P.M. at this time of year, the window of time for a bike ride is significantly shorter than it is in other season.
Another major limitation to what places I can bike to in January is the wind. In winter, wind can be quite unpredictable, and can lead to unexpected slow-downs. Also, higher terrain can get quite windy, even on days where there is little to no wind in town and in the river valleys.
Therefore, I decided to ride up Cherry Creek trail, and make the 50-mile round trip ride from Denver to Parker, an exurb 25 miles to the Southeast.
Despite the slow-downs associated with random standing water and ice on the trail, I was still able to reach Cherry Creek Dam in roughly 45 minutes. Here, the only “climbing” portion of the ride appears in the distance. For those with little to no “climbing” experience, the uphill sections can actually be a bit exhausting. However, for anyone that has previously ridden up a mountain, or a large hill, the climb up the hill is quite tame. With the mountains still appearing in the distance, there is a clear reminder that even after a mild stretch of weather, climbing too high in elevation would also lead to slippery conditions. In essence, this “climb”, although quite tame, is the most significant climb one can make safely in the month of January.
Behind the dam, the trail winds around Cherry Creek Reservior. Only half covered with ice (and probably thin ice), I am relieved to see nobody trying to ice fish, or stand out on the lake at this time.
With some amount of wind, and having not ridden a significant amount of miles in one sitting in quite some time, I ended up taking it a bit slower on the trail today than I normally would have in mid-summer. As a result, it ended up taking me nearly another hour to reach Parker, where the 470 trail, another major trail in the metro Denver trail system, terminates at the 40-mile long Cherry Creek Trail.
And, while it took me a bit longer than normal to ride 25 miles, not exhausting myself to achieve a better time had it’s reward. Neither overly exerting myself, nor traveling too slowly, the return trip flew by! Mile after mile passed, almost as if I was living out a montage of my own life. I passed mile 25, 24, 23, winding around, smiling at nearly every person I passed by as the wind, and my direction shifted back and forth.
Before I knew it, it was mile 15, 14, 13. On a typical ride, exhausted at the end of the day, I am anticipating each mile, and tracking how far I am from home. Today, I achieved somewhat of a state of euphoria. I almost feel as if I had achieved the “runners high” often discussed (albeit on a bicycle, as opposed to running).
In the end, despite my slower than usual pace, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and was actually only passed on the trail once!
For those wanting to take advantage of a mid-winter warm-up, and get on the trail (or roads), I offer the following tips
- Plan extra time (maybe half an hour) for your ride. There is a distinct possibility that mud, ice, or snow on the trail can slow you down, as well as unexpected winds. It is not safe to ride at night, and it will get cold again. You are better off taking on a goal that would be considered modest during the warm season than ending up in trouble.
- Listen to your legs. I know “shut up legs” is a popular poster to hold up at long distance rides, but often times a ride can be done more effectively if you allow yourself to downshift when the ride feels exhausting. This may mean being on a specific segment of trail, or road, in a lower gear than what you would typically be in. But, maybe that combination of the 5 pounds you gained over the holidays, and that 8 mph cross-wind is enough to warrant being one gear lower. It is best not trying to exhaust yourself early just to be in your usual gear regime. That being said, there also may be opportunities to shift up and go faster where there is an unexpected tail wind.
- Don’t shy away from undertaking a major bike ride immediately after a hard day of skiing. Cycling uses mostly different muscles than skiing, and I have been surprised by how little recent hard core skiing has impacted my cycling performance on rides like the one today.