January 8, 2009

Don't get wet, stay cool... especially in the cold.

Dressing for the long haul when its cold outside is not an easy thing sometimes.
I’ve mentioned before that wool is nearly essential for long-distance rides in winter. This holds true. To be perfectly clear, I’m not a wool snob, or a retro rider; I sport the wool because it simply works – at ANY price, it’s simply the best investment you can make for a winter rando wardrobe if temperatures in your area are going to be below 50 degrees for the duration of the ride. Some of us can’t $$$$ put wool everywhere, so if you have to choose between tops and bottoms, choose tops – keep your core happy, and the rest will follow. While there are excellent deals from Woolistic, Jones Wear, Portland Cyclewear and more, for those that prefer to hit the LBS there are now many offerings from major players like Pearl Izumi and Specialized. Check it out. It’s no longer a fashion statement for the retro-crowd.

One thing, however, I have to stress that is often forgotten: remember to shed layers when you warm up. FAST. I made this mistake on my most recent 200K, by keeping the outer windbreaker on too long. It’s hard to judge, and it’s all personal based on your comfort level and acclimation level – but the common factor reads “dress so you are a little chilly before you begin, and you’ll be fine once the ride enters mile ten.” I made the mistake of being rather comfortable at the ride start, simply because I didn’t want to be cold. With the headwind, it was more of a challenge: I simply didn’t want to unzip my outer layer, and the continued cold air blasting against us definitely made it difficult to determine if my efforts against it were generating any heat at all. The result, my core was nice and warm – but WET by the time we turned north and west, slightly out of the wind. That’s right when the hills began, which was a good time to unzip – but still, I didn’t. The wetness was making me feel colder than I really was, and the results can be actually quite dangerous. While NOT sweating is never an option on a long bike ride, one should remember that relative dryness is paramount. I should have unzipped, suffered through a little bit of chills while still under effort – the airflow under that outer layer would eventually dry my core layers out, and return me to more comfort than before. Another good option would have been to start the ride with a wind VEST, instead of a full wind jacket. The arms can act as heat exchangers – assuming they are protected from the air itself with wool sleeves, or fleece. This can assist with keeping the core from overheating, keeping sweat at bay. The reason I felt so stiff and had mild shivers at the halfway was because of the cushion of sweat I’d built up under my jacket. If I had been wearing ANYTHING OTHER than wool, I would have been hypothermic, miserable.

So, when in doubt, use your zippers for temperature and moisture control, though at times it may seem counterproductive to your immediate comfort level. Do as the pros do: during a hard climb, unzip – let the excess heat escape. When the summit comes, even if it’s a short roller, zip back up – keep the heat you have generated, but keep the cold blast of the descent from robbing your core of too much. Repeat. The result should be even comfort for the whole of your 200K or more, even in the coldest temperatures. Enjoy!


MathDadd said...

I can't get too excited about wool as a miracle fabric.

Don't get me wrong. Wool doesn't get stinky. It's sustainable and organic. In the case of my Rivendell merino long-sleeved T and quarter zip jersey, it's even fair trade (made in Kiwi Land, not by slave laborers in you know what country).

Look at these pictures. Which is more appealing? This?


Or this?


Your post however wasn't about ecologic concerns, it was about staying reasonably warm. In this, the synthetics have a lot to commend them. Companies like Patagonia, which led the synthetic performance-wear revolution, and are environmentally conscious, are making wool products, but they haven't abandoned polyester, because polyester works. Wool retains heat when wet. It does get wet, because its proteins are hydrophilic.
The synthetics are hydrophobic. Polypro is the most hydrophobic material, and stays drier than anything, although it lacks the durability of polyester and wool. It is, at the same time recyclable.

I tend to ride 3-4 hours a day. I'm not worried about weight, so I carry a dry undershirt and trade it for my damp one to feel instantly warmer. If I wanted to, I could probably drape the damp one over my panniers and clip it to air dry, for longer rides, then re-don it.

On very cold days, I carry a down jacket onboard. It takes the chill off faster than anything short of a wetsuit (which is highly effective BTW, I once used one for skiing in temps down to 5 F) or an animal-fur-skin coat.

One problem with starting out cold, in order to stay drier, is that the body may react to preserve core heat by triggering arteriole vasoconstriction of the hands, which can be very problematic for oldsters.

Starting out with as many as 2 baselayers and 2 fleeces allows much higher rates of sweat transport to the outer layer and evaporation than 1-2 inner layers covered by a jacket. For jackets, models with pit-zips allow the greatest adjustability for balancing sweat dumping and heat retention.

Finally, if you want to go all wool, at least on top, check out oiled wool. It's been used by northern European fishermen for centuries.

kG said...

You do make some very valid points that, in fairness, I hadn't touched on.
Wool is indeed a hydrophilic fabric, and tends to get wet and stay wet -- the main issue for me is the fact that I tend to sweat a lot, and sometimes polyesters don't keep up with me. Since wool tends to stay warm even when wet, it works rather well. Although, synthetics have taken on a lot more technology in the past couple of years, and my cycling wardrobe has aged a bit. I'm riding a lot of "old tech", as it were. In that vein, I do need to audition some of the newer PolyPro and advanced fabrics to see if technology has caught up with my notions. I tell ya tho, after 12 hours in the rain it's hard to discount wool as possibly the best fabric for any rider. For shorter rides, like this morning, I was layered in cozy fleece, and it's hard to discount that stuff -- but for longer rides I start running out of places to store extra layers. Good points, and thanks for your comments!

MathDadd said...

You can get a Helly Hansen hybrid-material half-zip "Freeze Prowool" top here for $52.


The skin layer is polypro, interwoven with an outer layer of merino wool. The polypro fibers are hollow, like polar bear fur and Quallofill. HH claims that this wicks faster than regular polypro, and the hollow fibers retain warmth better than conventional solid-core fibers.

IMO, this makes great sense. Sweat moisture should differentially accumulate in the more hydrophilic outer wool layer, and wool insulates even when wet.

HH is a Norwegian co with a long history in skiwear., so they're very knowledgeable about very-cold-weather gear. I see Nordstrom sells the women's version (HH USA and Nordstrom both HQd in Seattle), which indicates that this is a hi-quality product.

Here is a review:


I've just ordered one.