March can be a great time to be on skis. It’s one of the treasures of the month; warming days, high sun, new snow; it really does not get much better.
We skied, Sally and I, on a day of some falling snow with temperatures in the low 30s. We skied slow and easy. It felt good. If you did not know that it was well into March, if you did not have the calendar close at hand, you might have misjudged the month on that day for the simple matter of all the snow.
I pulled to the side of the trail, and stabbed my ski pole into the standing snow next to the trail. It was very deep. It was mid winter deep not late winter deep. It was January deep or February deep. But it was not normal for March.
That’s the way it’s been. Two years ago this week it was 78 degrees. Two years ago there was open water and clear road and on this same day in this same week Sally paddled her paddleboard on the river where the current broke open.
That day was in the high 70s and the snow was bright and white and in the distance swans and geese and ducks lounged as they paused in their migration. You knew that week that we were part of something unnatural and unprecedented.
You know in this year, we are part of the same, part of something out of the ordinary, for this winter has been one for the books; it started cold and it stayed cold and while we may have snow this late it’s usually not after the long stretches of seemingly unending cold.
So it goes. It is, as they say, what it is. So on this day in late March, we skied under spare trees along banks of deep snow under heavy sky that promised more snow. It was a long way from the weather two years ago. We’re not done with skiing this season, not even close.
We skied for an hour. Then we went home, dried off, got a bite to eat and I got the bike out.
That’s something I like about spring, when breakup comes down hard and fast. You can ski in the morning, ride a bike in the afternoon, put a boat in the water sometime in between. You can do it all.
On this day thaw was a long way off but I got a bicycle out anyway, a somewhat new breed of bikes, having been on the scene for only a few seasons. They call them Fat Bikes or Snow Bikes or some variation on that theme. It’s a normal looking mountain bike until you look at the tires; they’re huge. They are the same diameter of a normal mountain bike but they’re wide, really, really wide. A standard mountain bike has a tire that’s maybe two inches wide. The Fat Bikes sport tires that run four and half inches wide. Or wider.
Put it this way: If you were splitting firewood and picked up a piece of wood the same diameter of a fat bike tire you’d probably split it; it would be too large by itself to fit in the stove.
The tires are fat and they have stubby tread and just looking at them you can tell that they’d go through some pretty messy stuff without bogging down. Fatties; that’s what a lot of folks call them and they’ve made winter riding possible.
That’s what I had, a Fatty, a Fat Tire, a Fat Boy (actually the model name of the bike I have). I had the bike, I had the time, and there is plenty of winter left for a test ride. That is how on a day in late winter I came to ski in the morning and ride in the afternoon.
I drove the truck to the end of a plowed road. Beyond the plowed area the road continued, snow-covered. I unloaded the bike, swung a leg over the top tube, put a foot on the pedal and transferred my weight in full to the pedal. The big tire grabbed snow, gave traction and I was off.
They say you never forget how to ride a bike and I suppose that’s true. But riding a wide tired bike in a couple inches of snow on a winter day is a different way of riding. The bike wobbled and steadied and lurched forward.
The old logging road was rutted and uneven and crusty; trucks or snowmobiles had passed this way at some point and left tracks. A rut pulled off to the side and the bike followed the line. I leaned left; the bike went right and I toppled over.
I sprawled into the snow, my arm up to the shoulder in the untracked snow alongside the road. I was none the worse for wear but a bit sheepish. I lifted the bike upright, swung leg over bar, hoisted myself to the saddle and pedaled on.
I made it another hundred yards before the tires dropped into a rut and I was not expecting it and I went down. Again. Then up again and on the bike. Another hundred yards, another rut, another fall.
This one pitched me off the road and when I stood I was in deep snow, one leg on the road, the other up to my hip in the deep stuff. And I thought to myself: This is interesting. Interesting but not a lot of fun.
Up again and at ‘em. Down the road, wobbly but upright, pedaling on.
I did not fall again but there were times when I slipped on the bike, put my foot down and caught myself. When I did I stood next to the bike and looked back at my single track in the new snow, a track that was a series of “S” curves like a snake along the sand, the track of a rider that could not hold a straight line.
I persevered and at times I felt what I love about riding; the hard effort of legs working in unison with machine, of bicycle moving easy and free, of the wind in my face and the trees along side a blur. And about that time I’d slip again, and lurch like a drunken rider on a dark night on unfamiliar ground.
After half an hour I turned back; an hour-long ride had been my goal from the start. When I turned the bike around I could see, now ahead of me, the trail I’d made on the ride. Now I an idea of where to ride.
I lifted back onto the bike, leaned into the pedal and pointed the tire down the tire track I’d just made. And then I rode.
Then I rode like I was supposed to ride. Then I rode as I remembered riding. Having that single line in the snow told me where to go, told me where to steer the bike, gave my eyes a focus. On a road bike I follow the white line alongside the pavement. On a mountain bike, on a narrow trail, I keep to the middle of the track. Now, on the snow, on the fat bike, I did the same.
The ride that took half an hour on the way out took me considerably less on the return. But more than that, on the return, with me in tune with the bicycle and the bike going where I wanted it to the ride what was interesting earlier now became fun. And riding is about fun.
At the truck I loaded the bike, careful not to set it down hard on the ski poles still there from earlier. And I thought: ski in the morning, bike in the afternoon. I can live with that.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.