FAIRBANKS — Each fall I compile a to-do list for winterizing my bike, determined to get around to these things before the first flurries of white "termination dust" make tinkering outside undesirable:
• Slightly deflate tires for better traction on snow. (No money to buy studded ones.)
• Put on low-temperature chain grease. (Makes riding in low gears actually feel like riding in low gears.)
• Retrieve "pogies" from storage trailer and attach to handlebars. (They're mitten-like insulated shells that help keep your fingers from falling off — always useful for shifting gears and applying brakes.)
• Install reflectors and change batteries in headlamp. (Not even the gaudiest auroras give off enough light to navigate by.)
And then comes a morning when I step outside my cabin to find snow piled on the seat of my still-unmodified ride.
Wool Army pants, not Spandex
When I relocated from Moab, Utah, to Fairbanks, Alaska, a few years ago, I feared that I wouldn't find terrain as exciting as what I was leaving behind. But I quickly learned that the joys — and tribulations — of riding the wintry range equal the best that Moab's slickrock offers.
No need for tight, pricey Spandex here. Vital parts are safeguarded by heavy wool Army pants baggy enough for two pairs of long underwear and with pockets deep enough to carry bananas home from the store without having frost turn them into slimy black slugs. If you think Cossack-style hats look silly, imagine one beneath a bicycle helmet. A hooded down parka, knee-high homemade mukluks and beaver-skin mittens complete the en vogue cycling ensemble. On breezy days, a facemask is also a good idea — as long as I remember to take it off before entering banks or convenience stores.
My Moab friends complain about tires flattened by goat heads or cactus spines. Up here, the risk is from broken whiskey bottles and potholes that gape threateningly, like big-game pitfalls. Moose cross at unpredictable intervals, sometimes mistaking bikers for rival ungulates or mates. Although the streets of Fairbanks offer fewer topographic hurdles than, say, Moab's joint-busting Poison Spider Mesa Trail, significant weight loss and aerobic workouts can be expected. This is mostly due to snowdrifts and profuse sweating inside the Michelin Man clothing.
Instead of long wheelies or suicide jumps, the greatest challenge is simply staying upright. Black ice demands that you not hit the brakes or try to turn when entering intersections, no matter what's in your path.
After several falls on slick roads, I have perfected the paratrooper shoulder-roll. I've also learned how to steer one-handed between snow berms and bully trucks while flipping off drivers. Snowplows can suffocate or fillet you, or mangle your ride. On days when I'm too chicken to face traffic, I shortcut through the woods, though the trade-off is run-ins with snooty cross-country skiers.
Burned bronchial tubes
Another hazard is air quality. Freezing moisture blends with the reek from too many households that burn green wood and cars left idling because the owners know they likely won't restart. Even on clear days, deeply inhaled cold-and-dry air burns in your windpipe and bronchial tubes. In the summertime, the chokehold of wildfires that consumes the state can make you hack like a consumptive. It's as much fun as having your respiratory system sandpapered.
During my first winter of riding at 40 below, I wore a sweater with a metal zipper. Had I remembered that metal is an excellent conductor, I could easily have avoided the nickel-sized frost blister on my Adam's apple. On a different day, my tongue stuck to the bike's padlock when I tried thawing it out with my breath.
In short, while desert bikers worry about dehydration or sunburn, their sub-Arctic counterparts work to keep their noses from turning to stone.
I'm not that exceptional though. It's surprising how many people ride bikes in the dead of winter in one of the continent's coldest cities. There's the French expat (an accomplished classical violinist) who hauls bags of dog food for the huskies that share his backwoods home. There's Bob, who is wearing felt Viking helmets he sews and who wraps birch bark around his bike frame, which appears cobbled together from saplings. Another guy pulls an enclosed bike trailer with a clear-plastic window. (Is he carrying babies in there?)
My neighbor, a Zamboni driver at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, bikes to and from work wearing headphones and white "bunny boots."
With our snotsicles and waxy cheeks, our breath plumes and hulking silhouettes, we might look like members of Capt. Robert Scott's last expedition. But an inner flame fuels us, a deep-down awareness (call it stubbornness or call it pride): What is sport for some is transport for others. Regardless of trends, we are biking cool.
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, "American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean," and of "Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon." He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.