The plan was always to ride in the snow.
My mother would have never let me leave the house if the snow were already falling, so I promised to “squeeze” the ride in before the storm.
Beneath leaden skies and not a single flurry, I bundled up and headed out, covered north-to-south with balaclava, Oakely Factory Pilots (with yellow lenses), heavy gloves, Biemme thermal jacket, plastic rain jacket stuffed in the pocket of the thermal jacket, along with a banana, spares and tools, Giordana full-bib thermal tights, and bright blue Brancale booties to cover the Dettos.
I descended Summer Hill through the frigid cold while the windchill robbed me of what little heat I had, until I hit the shoreline and the effort of pedaling, combined with layer upon layer of kit, warmed me back up. My breathing left a trail of smokey puffs as I etched my way through the marinas and beach roads of Clinton and Westbrook.
The summer crowds were long gone, the beach houses stood sentinel, staring out across the gray expanse of Long Island Sound and dreaming of warmer days. The bullrush, yellowed and stiffened by the winter, bent beneath the wind and when the wind blew hard, it scattered flecks of sand across my face.
At Saybrook Point, the snow had started to fall, just a few flakes at first. The waves broke hard along the Causeway and intermittently sprayed sea water across the road, mixing with the new snow, stinging my face. I headed north, toward Essex and Deep River, along the main highway and away from the water. At the stop lights and intersections, drivers and passengers stared at me from inside their warm cars.
The snow was falling heavily now, coating the sides of the road and turning slippery. Cars drove by, stirring up a cold dust as they passed, until I found the quieter side roads again. The snow was collecting along the tubes of the bike, sticking to the brim of my hat, and in the creases of folded clothing where it started to melt and seep through to skin below.
I was alone, mildly uncomfortable and getting worse, and enjoying every moment. Like Lemond cutting a lone furrow across the scarred fields of northern France, covered with mud and frost on his way to Roubaix. Like Hampsten triumphing on the Gavia and Roll collapsing with hypothermia. Or the Planckaert brothers, training for hours through cruel Belgian winters, taking hand-ups of hot soup before heading out for another lap. They were the hard men of the sport. And I needed to be that tough, too, if I were going to race in Europe some day.
Ice started to form around the brakes and gears. The rolling hills and twisting roads of Ivoryton and Centerbrook became slick. I headed back toward the shore. My bottles were frozen. The gears were frozen. The cold and wet was seeping into the cuffs of my gloves and my fingers were starting to freeze. The kick-up from the wet road had soaked my shoe covers and my feet were cold and numb. I still had another hour and a half before I got home. Unless I stopped. I could duck into a cafe or restaurant. I could drink a hot chocolate. I could call for a ride home. But no, I wouldn’t stop. It would be too hard to get going again.
Stopping meant giving up.
I kept pedaling. I little harder now, to create some heat, to warm my legs and I felt better, back in control, ready to embrace self-inflicted suffering again. Years later, I would go to France and race. We would do early season training rides in the Chevreuse valley, along roads glazed with frost that had both car and rider sliding into the ditches. But not me. I would resolutely set the pace at the front, proving my skill and mettle for conditions like these. The team car would follow us and pass up bottles of hot, sweet tea. I would ride for four or five hours, return to a student’s apartment on the edge of Paris, and eat baguette and drink cafe au lait.
But still in Connecticut, I had eaten all my food and my fuel was running low. The storm had coated everything in white and had muffled the sounds of the world, save for the static of the falling snow and the hiss of tires on wet asphalt from the few cars that passed. I kept going because I had no choice. I had left myself no choice. It made me better. Stronger. It helped that I was the only one crazy enough to be riding in this stuff. That was my level of commitment and discipline. Others would crack before I did. It was visible and obvious to anyone paying attention.
Years later, I would come to learn that the real “pros” never really trained through this shit. They had the means to go someplace warm. Or skip a day because of the toll on the body for training through such inclement weather never quite paid back in improved fitness. Weather in Europe, as bad as it looked in the slick pages of Winning and Miroir du Cyclisme, was neither as cold nor prolonged as a New England winter. Racing through crap weather may be non-negotiable. But in training, there was always a choice.
Eventually, after many years and tens of thousands of kilometers, I would sour at training through the winter. I would discover skiing and running, and all sorts of alternatives to cycling outdoors. Skis made far more sense on snow. And it was nearly impossible to get cold while running.
I looked down the road, into the haze of falling snow. Just in front of me, a stag bounded from the woods, arcing over the stone wall that lined the sides of the road. A brown blur that touched down with a clip-clop in the middle of the lane, then vanished silently back into the forrest, leaving nothing but two hoof prints and its musk in the air.
The final few miles of that snowy ride, all the way back up Summer Hill, I was euphoric with a heat that overpowered my frozen hands and feet, the satisfaction of perseverance, the perfection of the country road in the snow and the promise that it would all end soon. I was nearly home and the cold discomforts would be stripped away and replaced with warm clothes and hot soup.
But the beauty of being in that moment, on a bike in the snow, alone, surrounded by the wide world I was about to set off and explore, would never leave me.