Winter cycling, not exactly a staring contest with Sauron’s eye

Winter wonderland? Meet morning ride last year

Winter wonderland? Meet morning ride last year

My blog has been on hiatus for a number of reasons. I have a long list of comments, rejoinders, articles, anecdotes and the like that I would love to write. But I’m supposed to be either tudying Hindi or writing scholarly things about fish.

However, I can’t restrain myself…

Atlantic Cities has a post this week about prepping for winter cycling. Lots of good and thoughtful and helpful tips. While we’re at it, I have two names: SmartWool and Icebreaker.

But, if you read the comments, there is also a fair bit of subtle bragging which may be read by the wary as a sign that we all believe this is indeed something difficult. Here’s a counterpoint that can’t be emphasized enough: Winter biking is absolutely doable and not much more difficult than many other types of weather, terrain or distance, or even other manners of commute.

Still the post and in particularly the comment thread rings with such talk as “how to survive” or “how much money it’ll cost” or “here’s what the hardcore pros do” or “I do it because I care so much” or “look at me I’m tough” only reinforces the fallacy that to ride in cold/wet/slush/snow is actually Herculean.

As a winter cyclist during the two years I lived in DC, I may have fallen prey such mild self-congratulatory behavior. Here’s the truth: Is cycling in the winter as easy as sleeping in? No. But it’s probably not much more difficult than getting out of bed some days. Or, say, walking a mile to Metro on unsalted sidewalks.

However, if we constantly suggest that “Winter cycling is difficult but you too can overcome adversity,” the perception of reality begins to mold to the outlines of the discourse. We (society) begin to think winter cycling actually requires some beyond-normal capacity. Furthermore, we (cyclists) tend to reinforce this through our own egos, because we believe that we have now conquered such difficulty. Which isn’t really fair, because winter cycling is hardly a journey into Mordor.

Meanwhile, such suggestions that winter cycling is difficult fit neatly into the larger but false narrative about cycling (sold to society by a certain brand of development ) — that a cycling-dependent mobility strategy requires some combination of guts, desperation, fortitude, eccentricity and, of course, a willingness to defy social convention. Reinforcing said narrative is the real damage, because while both cold fingers and a snotty nose can be solved by a good pair of gloves with a fleece patch for wiping, no technical gear or stylish-but-functional hat (both recommended in the post) will weaken the stereotype that cycle commuting is abnormal.

I’m reminded of Darren Zook’s great discourse analysis in Agrarian Environments, titled “Famine in the landscape: Imagining hunger in South Asian history 1860-1990.” Boiled down, one of Zook’s arguments is that both Indian nationalists and British overlords tended to overstate or manipulate the issue of famine and hunger in India and use it for their own purposes. Nationalists seized famine — an inherently social construct — as proof that British were ruining the country. The Brits said the opposite: India can’t even feed itself; we need to stay. In both cases, the discourse shaped the perception of reality according to prevailing political or egotistical interests.

Perhaps a discussion of colonial politics is a bit heavier than cribbing about biking in winter. But the parallel is there: The discourse can shape reality and, as such, we must be careful how we speak.

On the one hand, discussions like this one at Atlantic Cities are trying to encourage more cyclists, which is just plain good in uncountable ways. But on the other hand, when we make it sound like an extraordinary challenge that must be overcome, then we may actually do the cycling cause some disservice.

Not suggesting that everything in the AC post is even remotely bad, but just something to keep in mind the next time we’re about to respond to that familiar: “Oh my lord, how do you manage to cycle all winter long?”

P.S. I miss biking and am very excited to finally get back to the road when I shift to Bangalore.

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Why I ride in freezing weather…

DC's understanding of snow this winter

Because my first downhill into the park makes it all worthwhile.

Well, my wrists were exposed and are now burned by windchill.

But it’s worth it.

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Delhi winter: Keep the home (and street) fires burning

Not exactly a warm hearth

Delhi winters are cold. Maybe not by U.S. standards, but here only the very rich (and not even most of them) can retreat to insulated buildings and central heating. Hence, if it’s 38 degrees outside, it’s pretty close to 38 inside.

The middle class survives on electric space heaters. The poor and laboring classes make due with nightly fires of wood, scrap and garbage. The extremely impoverished huddle together under blankets.

Here, some chowkidars and drivers sit around a burning piece of chipboard in posh Hauz Khas village in December.

Obviously, it’s not exactly chilly in Delhi anymore. But, as usual, I’m behind on posting photos.

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Delhi’s ghost fog

Ghostly...

Ghostly...

Above, my roommate, Rachel, climbs on the weird playground equipment not far from our apartment.

Delhi has been overcome with temperature inversion-inducing fog in recent weeks. The mess has been compounded by the fact that Delhi is dusty from its ongoing renovation.

Flights have been cancelled, accidents have occurred, we became lost briefly during a stroll through the wicked atmospheric soup.

It’s awesome.

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