Friday, January 09, 2015

Staying Warm

But not too warm, that is the battle with winter cycling. As easy as it sounds, the truth is that this is one of the biggest challenges that you will face in trying to remain comfortable on the bike, outdoors in the cold. Biking stands somewhat alone in terms of the diversity of energy output. We are often likened to Nordic skiing, which is close but I will argue not quite the same, at least for where we ride. The difference is that Nordic tends to be a more even power output. Also, you are using your arms and legs, which keeps them warm. Like running you can XC ski with very light clothing, even in extremely cool temperatures.

Biking is a little different though. Sure, if you ride at a consistent level of exertion, one that does not generate an over abundance of heat, you will be fine. Take for instance, a nice steady ride on a flat road that has little or no requirement for changes in effort, stops, starts, hills, descents. Things of that nature. Then it is fairly easy to regulate and meter.

However, most real world winter riding is done on varied terrain, with varied conditions. Cathy and I tend to do a ton of fat biking on snowmobile trails. For those who've never been on snowmobile trails in Northern New England, they tend not to be flat. This is partly because the trails tend to be located in out of the way areas, running through the wilderness. They also tend to frequently have grades that rival those of the streets of San Francisco, with sections often above 30% and sustained sections above 20% commonplace. Add to that the varied conditions of the snow surface and you quickly get into situations calling for a whole lot of energy output.

What goes up, usually comes down and there within lies the rub. You finish a two mile long ascent dripping with sweat even after stripping down only to then find yourself atop a cold, windy peak. Once the fire goes out you immediately freeze. If that freezing occurs before you get all of those clothes you stripped off, back on, you are in a world of hurt for the descent, which is often as long as the ascent was. Add to that the fact that the warm clothing you stripped off, which was probably at least a little damp, is now cold if not frozen and you can see that things just don't scale well.

So what is the answer? Honestly, I don't know that there is one. This is one of those problems that you need to isolate into many individual challenges and then attack one by one, I think. The core is pretty easy. Doesn't take much to keep that warm as your body works with you on it. Your head as well with the same thought being, critical systems take precedence when it comes to your body keeping them regulated. Keep in mind though that the single best place to regulate and vent excess heat is the head, and stow that away as an ace in the hole.

If the head and core are the easy parts, the extremities are the hard parts. Your body shuts them down at the drop of a hat so keeping them warm is the big challenge. I've come to find though that in trying to keep them warm, keeping them cool is the bigger key. You see, I sweat, a lot. My hands and feet included. Inevitably what happens is I get warm, sweat and swamp my extremities. Then as you would imagine, they eventually get cold. For my hands, I ran a test yesterday. Once I was warm I stripped my heavy gloves off and rode successfully with simple glove liners, in low single digit temperatures, until I started to descend. Then I put my cold, swampy gloves back on and it all went downhill from there. Within a half hour I had to switch to the standby, heavy expedition mittens. They are overkill but the only thing that keeps my hands warm, if also wet.

For the feet I haven't gotten it right yet. My new 45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD boots are the best I've had by far. That said, my feet still sweat, swamp and freeze. I made it three hours yesterday but once the sun was gone and the temperature dropped, I started to lose them. When I took the boots off, my socks were damp with sweat. I need to find a pair of silica gel socks I guess, or something that can deal with the moisture.

Getting back to the core, the key I have found is breathability. You need material that has loft, but also allows air to pass through, wick away moisture and regulate body temperature. I'm a big fan of fleece and zippers to help regulate between the layers. When it is warmer, I use the Pearl Izumi thermal jerseys. Not the ones with windblock though. For colder weather, I've been using a hybrid jacket that is Polarfleece on the back and arms and Primaloft insulation in the front. I regulate temp via the zipper. I also use a zippered thermal long sleeve jersey as my mid layer and will unzip that as well, letting air pass right through to my base layer. The jacket also has a hood. I love hoods for winter as they are like a free security blanket. Worst case, keep your head warm and you will survive numerous extra hours in the snowbank before dying cold and alone.

For the legs, no real secrets except that I've found wearing pants with a cuff that goes over the boot works better than a tight tucked into the boot. It tends to keep the warmth in and the cold out, of the boots. We both use XC ski pants which have a wind block front panel and lighter, breathable Polartech fleece back panel. Just throw on your favorite padded shorts and some knee or leg warmers underneath and you are good to go.

As for the head, I use a thermal beanie that also covers my ears. This fits easily inside the helmet and keeps me plenty warm. Again, I sweat a whole lot and having no hair, that lightweight beanie helps vent some of the excess heat and moisture. Often I will use a mesh top beanie to let more heat escape or I will remove it all together. The last piece of crucial clothing is a lightweight buff. I usually start and finish with it but strip it off for the bulk of the ride.When super cold or windy it is great for keeping the face warm.

The last bit of advice is that if you are planning longer rides in remote areas, be prepared. This means be prepared for having to walk, potentially miles. Be prepared for big weather changes. Think about what could happen and try and be prepared to deal with it. We always ride with extra glove liners, a wind jacket, chemical warmers, and a buff. If we are more remote, we carry a packable down jacket with hood in addition. You can always strip your wet base layer off and throw the down on and stay warm. The other piece of advice is stay dry. Strip stuff off before you swamp up and use breathable clothing. Save the wind layers for later or for emergencies. A wind layer over dry clothing will be warm but throwing it over wet layers, not so much.


Anonymous said...

My recent discovery is merino wool base layers. No avoiding getting sweaty doing winter cardio, I never nail the layers just right to prevent that. Smart Wool, and Icebreaker base layers are magic and wicking moisture and insulating when wet vs. typical cycling jersey, synthetic stuff. Crazy expensive but the most important layer is the one next to your skin!

Anonymous said...

Mike, did you make any changes to your foot wear for 15/16 cold weather riding? My feet tend to go first.

mkr said...

No changes to the footwear for this year. Still adore the 45NRTH Wolvhammers. The new model for 2016 looks even better in fact, though can't justify when I have perfectly good ones. I use a thin wicking sock with a heavy wool over that and it seems to work well. We haven't had extreme cold in New England yet this year but I've been good so far. For cool weather riding I picked up some of the Lake MX145. I bought them big so I could fit heavy socks as well. They are good down to about 25F and are tighter fitting and smaller, less a boot and more a shoe. I was hoping they would be good for spring gravel as they are water resistant and have a high cuff. Not bad.