Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Too Cold To Cycle? It's Not The Weather, It's Your Gear

This is my fourth winter cycling. Until this year, I always wimped out and got the train when it was "too cold". I've made every excuse in the book at some point. The biggest – and only "real" (as opposed to "imaginary", as I'd gaze out the kitchen window each morning) – problem that I've had each winter has been sinus infections.

This year? It ought to be worse: I'm no longer in south London, on the flat, sheltered by buildings. I'm now in a rural village on top of a hill. There are no cycle paths. The roads are narrow. They don't get salted/gritted, no matter how bad things get. Motorists don't slow down one iota.

So what happens?

Oooooh, look it's snowing! How pretty!
...brrr, it's cold!
Wowwee, what a wind coming out of the east!
Oh my Gawd, freewheeling downhill is gonna HURT!

But then… somehow… before I reach the "No way is cycling an option in that, no sirree!" stage – I step back and ask –

Or is it?

After three years of being a city wimp, I am now a rural-warrior-in-the-making. But I'm hearing a number of my London friends (who I'd normally consider much more hardcore than myself) saying, as I used to, "it's just too cold to get on the bike". Well, unlike some of them, I don't have an indoor trainer to fall back on. (And if I did, it couldn't get me to the train station each morning.) So what to do? I thought about the clothing and accessories I have and decided to give it another go. Commuting in the snow has gone so well that I thought it might be worth sharing what I've been wearing to keep dry and warm and, yes, happy on my bike.

Here's where I'm coming from with this: I use my Brompton to get to Luton train station each morning (3.5 miles). This is a mostly fast downhill descent on a busy, single lane main road that is never salted/gritted. I then use the Brompton to travel from Farringdon station to the office and then back. (Central London has been a breeze to cycle in, the only factor in common with my rural commute being the cold temperature.)

Temperatures have been freezing or just below, day and night for the past 10 days. The snow first fell in the early hours of Monday, 14 January 2012, and is still with us. It's been windy – with the direction varying most of the time but there have been a couple of days where it was steady from the east and thus bitterly cold. The snow has settled in drifts, in some cases producing lovely sculptural shapes. We have about 4 inches on the grass in our back garden and a uniform 6 inches on our patio table.

So, taking this from the ground up and from skin to outer layer, here's what I've been wearing on my daily commute:

FEET

Merino socks
I wear various brands and thicknesses. The key is wear socks that aren't so thick that your shoes/boots feel tight. Given a choice, go for slightly loose – a little extra room allows air pockets that help your feet feel warmer.
  • Thin – I have lovely ones from Pearl Izumi and dhb. Consider wearing two pair as an alternative to one thick pair.
  • Medium – DeFeet Wooleater, SmartWool (amazing choice), Icebreaker.
  • Heavy – DeFeet Woollie Boollie, Icebreaker Ultralite Over The Calf, Embers merino ski socks.
Shoes / boots
Waterproof and preferably insulated. I've been wearing my Northwest hiking boots (very similar to these). Pedalling motion sometimes creates a small gap between my overtrousers and the tops of the boots but this has been limited to just around the tongue area, which is actually gusseted so while I may get a little draught and/or dampness, it's very slight. I've cycled hard for half an hour in torrential rain and only noticed a little dampness after I stopped.

Another factor, if you're considering wearing shoes or boots that are quite different from what you normally wear when cycling, is how wide the outersole is i.e. its footprint. Width across the ball of your foot affects how your foot rests on the pedals and indeed how quickly you can find the pedal when setting off, which can be tricky if your boots are much wider than what you normally wear. For example, I absolutely cannot cycle in sports shoes i.e. trainers, with their big treads/lugs. But my hiking boots are fine – the outersole is only barely wider than the main part of the boot.

LEGS

Tights
I have been alternating between dbh Pace Roubaix tights and Endura Thermolite tights (the latter not being the best quality but a steal on ebay at £20, though I've found the womens' version is getting harder to find online.)

I also have a pair of Crane (Aldi) Roubaix tights, which are the heaviest/warmest longs that I own. These work well on less windy days and came in useful one day last week. Given my part-train commute, I wear a short skirt over them – it looks nicer!

Overtrousers
Craft Active Rain Pants are the biz:  fabulous fit, well-thought-through design and features, impressive fabric performance. (The only downside is the hard-wearing insert on the seat doesn't agree with my saddles with smoothest leather surfaces – I notice slipping with the B17, gripping/bunching with the Swallow, but no problems at all with the Velo Orange. They may be just fine on non-leather saddles.)

I received a new pair of Gore over-trousers for Christmas but they're 1-2 sizes too small – looking forward to testing them next winter.

BODY

Baselayer
Merino. Merino. Merino. Nothing else will do. For me anyway. (Your mileage may vary, as they say.)

I have built up quite a selection over the past 3 years. Generally, I love the half zip styles layered over tees and/or under cardigans. In this cold-weather, however, I have found crew necks to be the most comfortable. With the jersey and jacket that have to fit over this, it's best that they don't all come up around the neck, otherwise I feel strangled!

As to brands, I prefer SmartWool as it feels nicest against skin. Their Microweight 150 is warm enough. My Endura Oasis crew works well too. (The Endura was the very first merino bodywear piece I bought, in 2010, and is holding up well.)

Jersey / jacket / heavy jersey
What you layer over your baselayer depends on the temperature and/or wind chill and your own personal tolerances. I have been alternating between:
  • SmartWool TML Heavy Full Zip on the very coldest days. I purchased mine in a SportPursuit flash sale. Unfortunately, it appears SmartWool has discontinued this particular model which is a shame because I really love it and am shrinking right out of the size XL I have.
  • Icebreaker Cascade 260 full zip in Realfleece merino – also purchased in a SportPursuit flash sale). This is lovely and soft – much lighter than the TML though still packs a punch in terms of warmth. This is a good option if the top layer over it is a snug fit.
Windproof jacket
I've been wearing the dhb Ladies EQ2.5 jacket every single day. I put it on my Wiggle wishlist a few months ago while I was searching for that "perfect" waterproof jacket. Then Adam bought it for me for Christmas. It got a bit of a drizzling on The Friday's Architecture Ride over Christmas but I haven't really had an opportunity to thoroughly test its water-proofness, since our winter has featured more snow than rain so far!  However, straight out of the package, I was astounded by the quality and thoughtful design of this jacket. (In fact, I should be getting more blasé about this now, as every dhb product I've acquired has far exceeded expectations – I rate their bib tights over Gore's and that's saying something.)  Out on the road in snow and cold winds, this jacket's performance is amazing. I cannot imagine any jacket performing better in getting that balance right between wind blocking and breathability. My morning commute involves a long fast descent and then a short sharp climb (where I do get a bit breathless) followed by another, even steeper, descent (where it's possible to reach 30mph... in traffic with the brakes on!) I don't get too hot in this jacket on the climb, and it really cuts the wind and cold going down those hills.  I'd recommend it at virtually any price point, but under £100? Better yet, under £75? If your jacket is not already 100% perfect for you, then I highly recommend you try this one. At this price, you can't go wrong.

I recently picked up a Gore Bike Wear 3-in-1 WindStopper jacket on Ebay (for much less than the store price). I haven't worn this yet so perhaps I shouldn't even mention it here in the context of a tried-and-true cold weather system, but it looks amazing and I'll be testing it and possibly reviewing it as soon as I get the chance.

HEAD / NECK / FACE
What you wear on your head and around your face and neck is perhaps the element to this cold-weather system that most comes down to your individual preference. My head sweats profusely with the slightly exertion, even in cold weather. I suffer with sinus pain and congestion (which can trigger migraine) if I regular breathe in cold air – fast descents are a real problem here. But I don't much like the sensation of things around my neck. So – what to wear to ward off the worst of the cold wind yet allow maximum movement and breathability. I'm going to say it again – Merino. (Merino. Merino. Merino. Yes, it's a mantra.)

So I wear a Merino BUFF® folded in half round my neck. I put it on so that the BUFF comes up the back of my head high enough to cover my ears at the sides. Then I make sure the lower edges are tucked into the top of the mid-layer jacket I'm wearing. With the remaining loose folds of the BUFF, I can pull the fabric up over my mouth or even my nose with just one hand (even while travelling at some speed), and tug it down just as easily.

Endura BaaBaa merino hat (with peak aka bill)
With the BUFF in place over my ears as outlined above, I then put the merino hat on so that it overlaps around the back of my head and – crucially – over my ears.

If I've got these two items overlapping just right – and it did take a little practice to perfect the technique – then my ears are well covered and I have ease and flexibility over whether to cover my nose or mouth or both or neither.

I have tried a balaclava in the past but once it's on, it's on and there's not much you can adjust. I found it aggravating and claustrophobic and always ended up pulling it off after less than a mile.

HANDS
I'm lucky in that my hands don't suffer in the cold the way some people's do. My usual approach is to wear regular full-fingered gloves and then, if necessary, pull on a stretchy pair of merino gloves over them. I have Hincapie ones. (I've had Ibex Knitty Gritty gloves too but have somehow mislaid them. They're just as good.)

During this recent cold and snowy spell, I tried:
  • waterproof gloves (Sealskinz) – too hot
  • windproof gloves (Madison). Despite its stated purpose/design, I found they're not quite wind blocking enough. Additionally, sometimes my hands felt a little too cold, while at other times (on the same commute with not much change in effort) I felt a little too hot. I think overall the fabric isn't quite right to do what they claim and/or the alternating strips of different fabric on the back of the hand let too much wind in.)
  • the Hincapie merino gloves over the pair of glove liners that came with my Altura Night Vision gloves. This was a surprisingly good combination. It wasn't nearly as fussy taking them off and on dealing with train tickets etc. as I'd feared – especially crucial when putting them back on, as that often has to be done in a hurry... with a bag on my back, a bag in my left hand and a folded Brompton in my right!
I would have happily carried on through this winter with this two-glove combination but then I couldn't resist picking up a pair of Gore Bike Wear Power SO Lady Gloves (with WindStopper membrane) in an Evans sale. I expected to find them too warm and planned to put them away til the weather warmed up a bit, but lo and behold they've been perfect and in use every day this week.

OVERALL
In the weather we've had the past 10 days, water-proofness hasn't been an issue. Even when cycling in heavily falling snow, not much sticks to you. Whatever snow does land on you may produce slight dampness but I think that, so long as your feet are kept dry (road spray/slush being the main threat), the main priority is to protect yourself against the cold and especially the effects of windchill on the face and hands.

All too often, when I mention merino, people think "oh, that's way too expensive!". However, most of the items I have were bought in sales over the course of several years. If merino works for you and you value that kind of comfort, then patience and perseverance in searching for it in sales will pay off.

As to particular products - I'm not connected with any of the brands/companies who make any of the products I've mentioned. But I'm fussy and believe in gear being fit for purpose. So I'm on the lookout for clothing and accessories that do they claim to, what they're supposed to do, and at a price I can afford (or justify!)  Having said that, SmartWool and Gore are tops in my book. Wiggle/dbh and Madison offer impressive design and quality at amazingly low prices.

So, in summary, my approach is:
  1. Merino next to skin.
  2. Then layer according to temperature. It can take some time but it's worth figuring out which fabrics you prefer. I tend to stick with merino here too.
  3. Lastly, choose an outer/top layer to address windchill and/or precipitation. There are a lot of jackets to choose from (even for women these days – hooray!). Until I discovered dhb and Madison (another story), I assumed "you get what you pay for". Fortunately, that isn't true. Wiggle's dhb brand is, as I've already said but am happy to repeat – amazing. Highly recommend.
At the end of the day, I have preferences. You will too. You won't know what works for you until you try different stuff. Borrow/swap with a friend if a jacket or something else looks promising but you can't quite make yourself spend the money. Don't be afraid of return and refund policies! Most of the online retailers I've linked to are very helpful – although with SportPursuit, do carefully read how they operate, as they get stock in on a type of pre-order basis which means they don't hold stock and so can't do exchanges. 

Above all, don't give up if you have a miserable wet/cold day out on your bike. It's not you being a wimp – chances are, you haven't yet found the right gear to make life out there comfortable, dare I say enjoyable. Sometimes a small but significant change in just one critical piece of kit makes all the difference. 


My winter outfit for road cycling is here


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