hot bod

Can I Interest You in a Safer, Warmer Winter Bike Ride?

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“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

There’s a bleak Sylvia Plath poem I read recently, “Fever 103°,” that contains a number of assorted sinister images, including disgusting flowers, gross tongues, the atomic bomb, and death by scarf. “I’m in a fright,” she writes. “One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.”

A couple of months ago, her fever dream became my reality. Ever loyal to my stubborn, bitchy commuter-biker attitude that avoids all nerdy cycling clothes, I biked home from getting breakfast sandwiches in a fuzzy jacket and scarf-shawl hybrid. Four blocks from my house, my bike and I were flattened, both of us on the ground in front of a stop sign, with no idea of what had happened. The immediate disaster analysis determined I had only a bloody knee, my bike had only superficial scratches, and my loose shawl-scarf hybrid emerged as the only suspect. The long black wool fabric had untangled when I fell and had seemingly gotten wrapped in my wheel. What a totally unexpected, unavoidable accident!

Well, no, not really. “Wait, why would you bike in a scarf?” a serious cyclist I know asked me when I casually mentioned the wreck. Was it that obvious to everyone that biking in a scarf was such a danger? And was everyone else just braving it out there, nude-necked and risk free? Rifling through my amorphous “warm things” drawer, throwing all my scarf enemies on the ground behind me, I then pulled out my partner’s neck gaiter.

Sometimes, finding a solution to your problems is so depressing.

In addition to being the most unappealing sequence of syllables in the English language, a neck gaiter is also called a buff. It’s a fabric tube that exists to be slung around your neck, like a dewlap, and can be pulled over your lower face if desired. On the body, it takes a shape like a wormhole. To put it on, you must squeeze your whole head through it, which feels very humiliating. Aesthetically, they seem unable to decide if they’re going to rob a bank or snowboard ineptly, and probably they’ll just hesitate too much before doing neither. Like anything that exists to go around something else, there is something a little pathetic about them. There’s a tubular meekness. They look so cowed, so defeated, collapsing into wrinkles at every opportunity. Their fabric is often of unknowable substance, slippery synthetic, seemingly determined not to exist, the Diet Coke of textiles. They are spineless, self-effacing. They have no personality. And now I love them for it.

Everything that put me off of them — unobtrusiveness, acquiescence — I value so sincerely when it comes to what’s around my neck. On bike rides, I am now no longer reknotting my scarf at every red light. When I play chase with the dog in the park, I’m never once suddenly strangled as a scarf-shawl hybrid gets stepped on and yanked to one side. The neck tube just stays put. “I love it because I forget about it,” my boo says. “I don’t remember I have it on — I’m just, all of a sudden, warm.”

The neck gaiter is not needy. It requires no fussing, no adjustment. It does not ask to be thought about. It has no personality, but it also has no excess. It causes no drama. It might not have any spine, but it is reliable.

And you can find one in a real fabric. The Smartwool one my boo introduced me to only feels 10 percent slippery (coincidentally, I just looked, and it’s 87 percent merino, 13 percent nylon core). She cozy.

I still live for the ornamental. When I have the capacity to fuss, I immediately reach for my beloved impractical, bulky woolen scarves. I love that they each have a will of their own and they always want to get free. It’s just that, now, I appreciate the neck gaiter — the sound still grates — for everything they are not.

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Can I Interest You in a Safer, Warmer Winter Bike Ride?