A thin layer of cold, dry snow provides surprisingly good traction.
Bike tire tracks snaked across the snow-covered trail plotting my course up the mountain. They signaled the official start of winter riding season.
Last year, I didn’t know there was such a thing. Yeah, I knew there were some devoted riders who pedaled year round, but I wasn’t among them. I tried riding in frigid temperatures once and decided it was great if you wanted to blast-freeze your fingers and toes and get hoar frost in your lungs.
But my riding buddy, Jesse Taylor, assured me it wasn’t bad if you dressed properly, and much to my surprise, he was right. Last summer when I was climbing a trail drenched in sweat and feeling the sun’s rays pummeling my back like a solar fist, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait for winter.”
Strange, but it gets weirder.
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We drove up to Eastside Trail near Bogus Basin to take one more crack at that deep-woods roller coaster of a trail. There were a couple inches of fresh snow, and the trail looked more like a fresh bobsled run than a bike trail.
We had missed our window, and decided to return to the lower Foothills trails.
We left Military Reserve, and I realized the weeks since my last ride were actually more like months. Hiking during hunting season keeps me in reasonably good shape, but it’s not the same as mountain biking. I mentally prepared for the 15 minutes of suffering before my muscle memory overcomes my mind’s desire to retreat to the warm cab of a pickup.
So we climbed, and Jesse, who rides several times a week year-round, pulled away like dragster while I tried to warm up the rusty diesel engine.
The climbing was relentless, which was the intent. We had several hours to ride and we wanted to make the most of it. Also, nothing warms the body on a chilly day like a long, sustained climb.
We topped a chilly, wind-swept ridge and dropped into the calm of Rocky Canyon. I locked into a climbing cadence. Pedal, two, three, four. Pedal, two, three, four.
“Where the heck is that trailhead?”
Two, three, four.
“It wasn’t this far up last time I rode.”
Two, three, four.
Jesse was waiting at the trailhead, which marked the end of the road climbing and the return to single-track. We had climbed high enough that there was snow in the shady spots, and as we rose farther, an inch of fresh snow coated the entire trail.
Snow has an odd, counterintuitive effect on trails. A thin layer of cold, dry snow provides surprisingly good traction. It freezes or hardens the dirt beneath, and there’s a soothing, rhythmic sound as your tires plow through it. Your ears lock into the sound and strive to continue it with each turn of the pedal.
Snow also shows the recent history of the trail. Fresh sets of deer tracks show where a herd passed though hours earlier, and there were faint tridents of quail tracks.
My eyes detected these things as they were locked in the 10-yard stare beyond my front tire as I slowly chugged up the trail and my legs starting pleading like impatient children asking, “Are we there yet?”
A short section of trail pitched upward and was peppered with rocks jutting out of the snow like broken teeth. This is the time when you learn what your legs are made of, and after an hour of steady climbing, mine felt like a combination of couch cushions and Halloween candy.
I rose from the saddle, shoved down on the pedals while gripping the bars and aiming the front tire through the mini maze of rocks. My chest heaved and the temperature in the beanie beneath my helmet instantly rose about 10 degrees.
I felt a surge of pain-derived runner’s high and wondered if I was better suited to be teetotaler than an endorphin junkie, but the lure of a long, sinewy downhill was too much to deny. I was in it this far. Turning back was not an option.
I spotted the final switchback that marked the turning point on our 16-mile loop. Jesse was waiting, and we briefly rested before starting the swooping sidehill of Watchman trail. It’s a mix of short drops and climbs and tight corners made tricky by patches of snow and ice.
But navigating those traction-dubious sections actually added to the fun, especially because it meant a reprieve from the relentless, grinding climb.
As Boise’s skyline came into view from a windy ridge, the long descent began, and we traversed the Foothills propelled by clean, pure gravity.
Our tires traced the ribbon of dirt through waterbars, rock gardens and banked corners, and that runner’s high faded into a downhiller’s delight.
In about 14 miles of riding we saw only one other person, but the morning hikers and dog walkers were on the lower trails as we rode back into Military Reserve, so we slowed and coasted down the final leg to the pickup.
We chugged drinks, gobbled snacks and giggled as if we had just gotten away with something, which we had. While others had tucked away their bikes for the season, we were starting a new one. And with months of cold weather before us that keeps the moisture in the trails locked into a solid or semisolid state, we know there are many more rides ahead.