Almost as bad as 1982?

Sitting pretty

Apparently this is the most severe bout of proper cold winter weather since 1982. Thing is, while I do remember parts of the winter of 1982 quite clearly, I don’t remember it being thought of at the time as being particularly harsh. Maybe that’s because the winter of 1980 had been severe as had several immediately before that and because back then a winter without a decent helping of snow was rare.

In any case, most of what I recall about the 1982 cold spell involved cycling, which was how I got to work in London’s West End from the ‘burbs after a journey of about 14 miles. The day after the first heavy snowfall, I set off as usual on my  63″ fixed Youngs.

Past Penge, I reached the climb of Crystal Palace Park Road, which has a distinct increase in gradient halfway up. Below this point, a large number of cars had gathered, it being the highest they could get before finding themselves defeated by the lack of traction. Beyond lay an expanse of virgin snow broken in places by the tracks of vehicles that had started higher and made their way downhill. This proved no barrier to my machine, shod as it was with Michelin 27×1 1/4 clinchers with a zig-zag tread pattern.

At the top of the hill, little traffic was moving, but then there wasn’t that much about on a good day in 1982. As I reached the top of Fountain Drive I observed a motorcyclist attempt the descent, both legs splayed out to catch any slide. I managed the steep hill easily enough by avoiding the front brake and instead locking the rear wheel with back pedal pressure until it began to slip sideways, at which point I would turn the pedals to regain control before locking the wheel again; simple.

One weekend, I set off into the wilds of the North Downs with Adrian Hills, another South Eastern Road Club member, for a spin in the snow. We both rode our racing bikes and set off for the ridge of the Downs near Knockholt. When we got there, having gone at least 10 miles through mostly untouched snow in places some two feet deep, we found one of the many  little lanes that goes straight down the steep side of the Downs and decided to see how far down we could get without falling off. Not very far, to be honest, since the gradient is about 1:4, but the landing was so soft we simply repeated the process all the way down.

After riding along the Pilgrim’s Way, we reached Westerham Hill and found a similar scenario to that on Crystal Palace Park Road. Again, but this time on lightly-treaded tubs, we rode easily beyond the point where cars got stuck and, having reached the top, rode home to record a good three hours of riding and falling off, all without damaging anything including ourselves.

If we could do it then, why not now? With this in mind, I wheeled my trike out of the garage and set off for the wilds of Headley Common. The main difference made by 28 years, in my estimation, is the effect of a quadrupling of traffic volume on whatever snow falls. Around London and, presumably, other urban areas, it either gets compacted into sheet ice, making two-wheeled cycling very hazardous, or gets gritted and then swept aside, leaving a foul sludge to coat and corrode any lightweight machine.

The tricycle, of course, takes ice in its stride, which is why I preferred it to, say, a ‘cross bike although the crosser would surely be faster, if not more fun, once into the snow. I left the front mudguard in place only because I hate getting covered in sludge. It soon got packed with snow but the front wheel didn’t jam, so no harm done.

Fact is, around Surrey right now there is nothing like two feet of snow anywhere east of Guildford, although there are plenty of owners of large four wheel drive vehicles who, going by the way they drive on one inch of the stuff, would clearly love to have to blast through deep drifts. Nor is there much untouched snow, every back lane I found having seen enough motor traffic to pack the snow down not quite hard enough. In this state, more or less that of a lightly baked biscuit, it continually breaks as the wheels roll over it to double the effort required. It also kicks the front wheel around in a way that makes contol on two wheels pretty tricky.

Not on three, however. Yet again, Ruby proved herself mistress of the conditions, doing so well I decided to ride three wheels into central London today – just in case I found any virgin snow-covered hills.

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