The Elements

T-Bone Farrar and Johan "Big Ring" Vansummeren ride in the elements. Photo: Pedale.Forchetta
Farrar and Vansummeren study the effects of cold and reduced friction. Photo: Pedale.Forchetta

Water is an asshole, at least when it comes to bicycles. So is wind, now that I think of it; I don’t love it, unless its at my back, but that rarely seems to happen even on out-and-back routes. Fire’s not winning any prizes either, unless you’re talking about the hunk-a-hunka burnin’ V. Even le soleil isn’t scoring points for either the bike or the rider, unless given in carefully-controlled amounts, a fact which has large portions of the Pacific Northwest – perhaps the gloomiest place on Earth – buying up more high-SPF sunscreen and sunglasses per capita than any other place in the civilized world.

In other words, Nature’s a bit of a beyotch.

As far as our bikes go, water seems to be the biggest of these opponents. When I rode the 7-hour Heck of the North over clay-gravel roads in wind and rain; the wind was unpleasant but it left no indelible mark on me, apart from some sore muscles. The rain, on the other hand, combined with the clay from the roads to form a slurry that destroyed every bearing in my bike save one – not to mention the quarter cup of slurry that found its way into my chamois. The replacement bearings took a few weeks to source and install; the damage from the sandy chammy took over a month to heal. Water – and the additional wear it imposes on the machine (and sometimes our bodies), is not to be under estimated.

Water also introduces direct challenges while riding, the nuances of which can be explored while climbing or cornering by means of spinning out and crashing, respectively. Things get particularly interesting right around the freezing point, where the laws of physics governing cornering take on The Price is Right rules.

I have long espoused the merits of riding in bad weather; it removes the seductive qualities of riding a bike that see the weekend warriors flocking to the sport in droves during the summer months. In bad weather, the simple act of going out is already enough to make you feel the strength of your resolve as a Cyclist. But the fundamental pleasure of riding remains the same, with the added bonus of the clothing we wear making us look like the hardmen from Belgium and the dripping of water from our cycling caps serving as a metronome as we tap out our lonely path towards Mount Velomis.

We don’t ride because we love tree-lined boulevards and sunny afternoons; we ride because we love testing ourselves against our minds and the elements. There is a simple pleasure to be found in enduring a challenge; to learn to face hardship with a welcoming smile is a gift that riding a bicycle uniquely helps us discover.

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137 Replies to “The Elements”

  1. @frank



    Wind and rain; these are the2 things you must come to love if you’re going to train in the PNW.

    Sounds much like living in the UK but with shit beer.

    You have obviously never been to the PNW. The beer here kills anything you can find outside Belgium, and you can find all the beer from Belgium here – including fucking Malteni.

    In other words: get fucked.

    I’m a pretty happy man these days, as I can now stop at my LBS (local beer store) and buy a tall of Genesee Cream Ale, a good brew for any Watercarrier bred in upstate NY. A friend in Seaddle told me he’s seen it in shops there as well. There are even some rumblings that Rochester’s Finest has the potential of becoming the next cheap-yet-cool beer; I hope not, as I’m worried that might drive up prices and cut into my CycloBudgetatus.

    By my math, for every 24 ounces I drink, instead of something like Black Boss, I’m 1/30 of the way to a new chain for my CX bike.

    Now that’s drinkin’, buddy.

  2. I got a tube of Evinrude Triple Guard grease from a chandlers a while back, it’s salt-water proof, hard as heck to throw off so not really affected by road vibration and it does a great job of keeping water and grit out of/away from your bearings…

  3. @Garrr When I saw the first bit of your post in the Recent Posts panel on the right, my initial thought was that you were contributing to the embro conversation and that marine grease was taking things a bit far in terms of home brewed leg warming potions.

    It might help ward off @marcus’ sharks though.

  4. @G’rilla

    The only one I’ve tried is Rapha, but it works well enough that I haven’t needed to try any others. Just be aware of the sting of shower water hitting the legs and reactivating it (if you shower before the chemicals have run their course…usually 3-4 hours after initial application).

    Rapha is the only embrocation that I’ve tried and it works pretty well enough for me too. On days when it’s not too wet out, it can still bring a tear to the eye in shower 7 or 8 hours after application.

  5. Great great article, even more so given living in the North East of the England it’s often shite weather wise when I ride. Being on the Coast only brings strong North Sea bitterly cold winds with the rain. As the southern softies love to say “It’s grim oop North”….

  6. @Chris   I think @Garrr may be onto something there for protection.  That grease you put in stern glands is one heck of a barrier cream.  You’d defo stay warm and dry under a layer of that.  Getting it off afterwards could be a bit of a problem though.

  7. @Chris   I did wonder after I typed that then thought “Nah, surely no one will go there”…….

  8. @Nate


    Embro? I make my my own. Pretty simple mix of Bag Balm, olive oil, clove oil, and extra hot Tiger Balm. The Bag Balm keeps it “thick” and not oily while providing a coat that acts like a base layer. The clove and Tiger Balm provides the “heat”. Been thinking about experimenting with some of the Thai peppers I grew this year. Not too many since I prefer to eat them.

    DIY embro? What could be more Portlandia? Have you moved across the river?

    That’s true sir. And no, I live in Vancouver, but I never tell anyone that for a myriad of reasons, the top one being people would think I was Canadian, and I don’t need any of that.

  9. Can anyone tell me how the Rapha embro compares to Royal Tendon Balm (JVA)?

  10. @frank


    Anyone else feel just completely cold for hours after some rides? Not a real tangible cold, but a deep-seated sort. Sometimes I just kind of have to build myself a nest and hibernate for a good minute.

    Yes. Yes yes yes. Cherish those times. I’ve tried long hot showers, long hot baths, down jackets…nothing works except a bunch of embrocation to the crotch to stop the shivering.

    After the cold has seeped down to the bones, I’ve often found comfort in the arms of a good woman. Haven’t tried the embrocation to the crotch just yet.

  11. @Rom As my office mate once said “I’m a follower not a leader” – I have the organisational skills of a gnat, but I’m up for it. Doing the 3 Peaks in March so a hills ride in the New Year could work for me. Failing that a bit later. There’s a couple of other Perthies on here and they organised a Festum Prohpeta last year but it coincided with my son’s birthday – and there’s a story about a dog bit in there somewhere….

    Probably best take this discussion outside (i.e. the Rides thread)

  12. @Rom



    What are the relative populations?

    Gotta be honest but Australians are probably a lot more appetising to a shark that Hawaiians. I’m gonna expect that Hawaiians are generally a lot better in the water than your average fat fucker lolling around on an Aussie beach before waddling into the water, having marinaded themselves for a lifetime with bacon and chips.

    Don’t the Hawaiins have a propensity for obesity as well? I thought the difference was bacon & pineapple V bacon & chips.

    Sharks here in Aus usually prefer stringy surfers or divers. One poor diver recently had his second attack And got bitten in the head.

    I refuse to eat anything that looks like vomit. And knowing Domino’s, it probably smells like it too.

  13. @Chris



    Wiki tells me there have been 9 fatal shark attacks in history in Hawaii (which I found surprising). Australia has 219. Next closest is the whole of Africa with 89.

    Grow some balls Gianni

    Is this really a reflection on the appetites Hawaiian & Australian sharks and the perils of swimming there or more likely a result of the intelligence of the respective populations?

    Nah, it just means that we breed our Great Whites and Tiger sharks bigger, badder and faster down here!  Pretty difficult to outrun one of those suckers when they are peckish !

  14. This past August Cliff, Meredith, Cole and I headed up to Harriman Park, NY for a long ride in the hilly terrain to add some climbing to our training. On this particular day the forecast was for a little drizzle. We decided to press anyway. Not being an early morning person sometimes I lag in motivation at the 445 wake ups. The good humor in Cliff’s truck, mostly provided by Cole’s sense of humor, complimented by Cliff’s SNL Trebek/Connery imitation definitely was helping. Unfortunately, on the ride up it started to drizzle. Not bad enough to call off the ride. Everyone still seemed excited about a grand Friday ride. As we approached the Bear Mt. parking lot the rain really started coming down. There was hope for Dunkin Donuts and an easy morning off. Cliff, Meredith and I were beginning to resign to a missed Friday ride, and an easy jaunt to the Donut shop. As we sat in the truck thinking of other stuff, Cole was talking about how climbing Bear in the rain should be pretty cool!….  Huh? – was my thought. Doesn’t Cole see that it is not only raining, but coming down in buckets?!  “You can get stuck riding in the rain…..but you never “Start” riding in the rain; especially “pouring” rain” was always my thought. I guess Cole missed that one.

    Because Cole was with us we rode up and down that “son of a bitch” for 4 hours in the torrential rain laughing and riding like fools. We really put in some hard efforts, but Cole kept the spirits high and we had a grand old time. He helped Meredith down the mountain staying by her side the entire first descent in quite precarious conditions to ease her fears.  She’s since gained a new confidence in her descending ability. On one of the ascents, Cole and I really talked a lot about racing, training, coaches and more importantly about our families and life stuff. I had previously been impressed with Cole’s athletic ability, but this sense of family love and responsibility really let me know what kind of special guy he was. Megan his wife and his family was the apple of his eye. They meant more than all the athletic stuff. It was always family first on his mind, even as he was suffering on the ascents of Bear Mt.

    After the ride was over Cole told me that was his favorite ride he’s ever done. I smiled and felt really good to be a part of Cole’s favorite ride. I also realized Cole probably had a lot of favorite rides….That was the kind of guy Cole was. He elevated you. He elevated the endeavor. He made it all a little better. It was great to be a part of that.

    We’re all gonna miss you Cole!  You trained harder and smarter than anyone I’ve known, but you were always the first to be happy if one of us could put you on the rivet.  You were competitive with all the right attitude and balance.   You truly were one of the special ones who got it right.

    Cole died in his first bike race this summer.  Freak accident where the Race director was trying to get the race radio out of the street after he tried to toss it into the pace vehicle.  It happened right when Cole was making his break away move.  Cole was an extremely strong triathlete who totally respected the “Rules” and was an accomplished Road cyclist. 

    The picture is of Meredith getting ready to ride on the day I will always remember Cole and our epic ride in the rain.  It was taken 2 weeks after Cole did Ironman Lake Placid about a month before he died.  The pic of Cole is from another day we trained in Harriman.


  15. For two days I’ve been meaning to comment on this article, but keep getting interrupted by things I get paid to do.  Each time I come back someone has already posted a comment similar to what I was going to say.  This either means I’m incredibly intuitive, or I don’t have a single original thought.  I’ll go with intuitive.

  16. @Optimiste  Thanks.  Didn’t mean to counter anything.  Just found it therapeutic to write about  my friend and a great ride we had in the rain.

  17. @tessar

    +1 on my part. First ride with arm-warmers always brings joy to my heart. If I have to break out the raincoat, I’m downright giddy.

    Let me make sure I understand this correctly. First, you point out how warm the place is where you ride…

    Neoprene works by trapping moisture inside. If you wear Neo only after you’ve started cooling down, you only trap your cold fingers inside – in cold weather they don’t get enough circulation to then reheat. Try wearing Neo gloves (on bare skin) right as you head out the door on a cold day – if you start the ride with hot fingers, it should form the right sweat-barrier to keep you warm. Incidentally, that’s why triathletes and surfers pee in their wetsuits (or the more civilized option of stepping into a warm shower pre-swim, or scooping some lakewater by your neck) – warm moisture that helps it insulate.

    I’ve ridden Assos’ rainGlove and Castelli’s Diluvio in hail and low single-digit temps and retained mobility and a bit of feel in my fingers – more than any other glove I’ve tried.

    …And then you go on to explaining how cold weather gear is designed to work?

    In my experience, the neoprene works fine for a few hours max, after which they are less than useless, especially on a cold rainy day.

    And I’m not talking about when its raining and 30C; I’m talking raining at 1C.

  18. @Chris It might be worth a try if you don’t mind having your legs stained the same blue as Mel Gibsons Chops in Braveheart… :)

  19. @Giles & Rom – I’m up for a ride in Perth Hills on NY Day – early start as likely to be opposite end of Rule #9 spectrum – see Rides thread

  20. Went for a ride yesterday here in Minneapolis. -6 Fahrenheit, lots of hard packed snow and ice. Stopped for coffee hallway through. Mistake. I was all sweaty, and my gloves were cold and wet when I put them back on. No feeling in fingers by the time I got home. Had to wait a few minutes before I could get my helmet off. Still, worth it.

  21. @G’rilla

    Nice pic but I’ve been feeling vaguely ill, realizing that I’ve been choosing the mtb and She Who Will Be Worshipped has been privileging the road. Twilight Zone shit over here, like trying to shake water out of your ear while being probed by aliens.

  22. @scotjonscot

    Went for a ride yesterday here in Minneapolis. -6 Fahrenheit, lots of hard packed snow and ice. Stopped for coffee hallway through. Mistake. I was all sweaty, and my gloves were cold and wet when I put them back on. No feeling in fingers by the time I got home. Had to wait a few minutes before I could get my helmet off. Still, worth it.

    Way too late responding to this, but, what exactly does one ride on “hard packed snow” (besides skis)? Fat bike thing? I had a “bike” as a kid that instead of having wheels, had skis. Wicked fun until I ran it into a culvert and needed a trip to the ER.

  23. @scaler911

    CX bike, of course.

    I have very fond memories of winter traing for ‘cross in High Park, Toronto.  Moonlit night, no lights, following a ribbon of barely visible hard packed snow that defined the track where the rest of the forest floor was frosty dry leaves. The track also happened to pass over a short expanse of frozen pond. It’s interesting going from perfect equilibrium to experiencing an instantaneous two wheel drift when each are going in the opposite direction.

    Good times.

  24. My mate Jake winter CX training in Crested Butte before the ski season opened…………

  25. Living in Canada’s wettest city (town), I appreciate this article sincerely. Some good motivation to keep riding through the wettest winter months. Hell, there’s only 100 days per year without rain here, not much choice but to suck it up, gear up and get out.

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