Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dressing for the Amgen Tour of California

Having ridden all winter here in Sacramento, in much colder weather than what the Tour of California riders have ridden in so far, I wanted to offer a few tips on how to dress for warmth with breathability sufficient to keep the heart from having to pump 20% more blood to cool the body during climbs, but with enough protection to avoid hypothermia on the descents.

Doing a head-to-toe, I'd like to start by recommending the Turtle Fur 2mm micro-fleece balaclava. For it's slight weight and low bulk it offers more thermal benefit than any other garment. As a bonus you get free wind-burn protection for your face, it tucks under your collar to keep your neck warm, and keeps your ears from freezing.

It allows enough air through to wick the sweat out of your hair, and keeps the rain from running down your hair into your eyes. I am wearing it here with a PI headband because where your glasses' stems go under the balaclava it forms little air scoops which will freeze your temples below 40 degrees. The PI headband has holes to push the stems through and solves this problem, but it's not nearly as helpful by weight or bulk as the balaclava is.

Before we go onto any more particulars, let me just say a word about coloring. When riding in the winter your eyes will often be teared by the cold wind, your glasses will often be fogged from sweating on climbs, and the short days mean starting out and ending up rides will often be done in poor light.

Having layers with dramatically different colors will be a huge advantage when groping for zippers stacked on top of each other in layers. Make your own zipper pulls, and make those as unique as possible too, but please use color to your advantage. It's free, and it's a BIG help groping for a zipper when cresting a hill.

I suspect everyone has their own favorite base layer, especially the jersey, but I will put in a plug for the Slice Kodiak Light Long Sleeve Jersey. Mine is bright orange, on sale at a great price, but I have noticed from group photos that it can be seen for at least a mile away. Not what you want when mtn biking, but on the road, a great color.

When the temps drop below 40 degrees I have an REI fleece sweater that I wear instead of a jersey (no 3 back pockets like a jersey) that is a big step up in warmth. It is very warm even when you're soaked in sweat. (note in hydration planning)

They don't sell the exact REI fleece base layer I have anymore, but this Mountain Hardwear Power Stretch Lightweight Zip-T is pretty close. Mine has the Napoleon pocket like the Marmot Mountain below, but this one's arm pocket should hold keys, cell phone, or ride fuels just as well. At 314 grams, this is the heaviest weight base layer Mountain Hardware sells.

This Marmot men's Power Stretch half zip is almost EXACTLY the same garment I have - except mine is a 3/4 zip. Use as a base layer only as it has no pit zips. Again, absolutely warm even when wringing wet. That Napoleon pocket will hold at least 4 Powerbars and the folded balaclava.

For the kind of low 50's temps we've had for stage 1&2, this is too warm. Stick with a good jersey. With snow levels dropping though, keep this in mind. Campmor has it on sale most of the time for ~ $75.

The best 2nd layer I have found is a Columbia Men's Ballistic II Windproof Fleece Jacket with pit zips. If it doesn't have pit zips, forget it. You'll never get rid of enough heat on climbs. You could even go with a short-sleeve jersey under this. Fleece is bulkier than say, a wind shell, but I've tried both and the nylon windshell had me soaking wet in 10 miles and steaming hot on climbs. Shells just don't work well. (if you stop and your skin is wet against your base layer, your outer layers aren't breathing well enough) This does. Both this and the fleece base layers above come in women-specific versions. .

Mountain Hardware makes a similar wind jacket. My Columbia Titanium is an '05 and has wind resistant material everywhere but the front of the chest. This sounds like it would fail as a biking garment, but with a mesh backed vest this gives you tons of venting options. Also, this jacket does NOT have a zipper wind-barrier on the inside, and this is not a mistake. It is designed this way to allow the maximum amount of air to pass through the jacket when you open the front zipper.

... inside-out view with no zipper barrier

So what do you wear over the wind vest on a day where the wind and rain are competing to make you miserable? My suggestion is a fairly tight, lightweight, but breathable water repellent windbreaker. Having both the vest and the windbreaker, especially if the vest and windbreaker have good venting in the rear, gives you a lot of options in letting air into your arms, into the pit zips, or into your core with all zips open.

The fleece jacket is bulky and I'm sure controversial, but doesn't weight that much, provides ready places to store energy bars, and will protect your body in a crash - always a concern in the rain. I almost never ride with a windbreaker over my fleece wind jacket because it seals off the pit zips too much, but I am rather barrel chested, so if you have trouble keeping your core warm, this is something to consider.

I think you'll find the wind fleece jacket's arms are very wind-tight, but if your core gets chilled easily, go with the thick fleece base layer, the fleece jacket, and a vest or convertible vest that has zip-on arms. This should take you down to below freezing weather, or gale-force winds.

For the kind of temps encountered in the first 2 stages of the ATOC, I would recommend a jersey, Titanium wind fleece with pit zips wide open, and the Novara wind vest with a full mesh back as pictured below.

The Novara vest's back zip pocket is HUGE. You can fit a small loaf of bread in it, and can stuff your windbreaker in it if you need to take it off and put it back on. I wouldn't wear the windbreaker - too warm - and the fleece jacket probably eliminates the need for a long sleeve jersey or arm warmers while providing better protection. On long descents pull the pit zips shut and zip the vest all the way up - it's windproof to 60mph. How good of a descender are you?

I usually have a thin piece of cardboard I fold to 5"x10" that I slip inside my leg warmers or tights before putting them in the back pocket. It not only keeps them from wadding up at the bottom of the pocket, it helps them dry out and keeps my kidneys and lower back super warm. Packaging from stuff at REI seems to work really well. Thin, but quality cardboard.

Gloves are a sore spot with me, as are Shimano shifters. I have the Pearl Isumi AmFib and have a friend with the Gavia gloves. Neither of us is completely happy with the warmth nor the dexterity they provide. I sure wouldn't try riding with fingerless gloves in this weather.

I love the Novara gel shorts, but find in weather below about 45 degrees the gel gets very hard and cold, so I am riding PI 3D shorts like everyone else is. I do think bib tights with a full chamois is a great way to go, as long as your cadence doesn't suffer.

I wear snowboarding knee socks with the thicker calf pads, then PI MicroSensor leg warmers and then pull my shorts over that. I wish I had bib shorts because my lower back tends to get chilled and that would help keep it warm, but right now I don't.

I noticed that Lance Armstrong gave up on the macho but self-defeating "Belgian Knee Warmers" and rode with full tights, or at least leg warmers today. I'd recommend the rather hard to find Pearl Izumi MicroSensor legs warmers. They are far superior to the more commonly available ThermaFleece ones. In fact, they are warmer than full ThermaFleece tights!

They have sticky rubber stuff both top and bottom inside and spatters of it at the top of the legs on the outside. Also, the zippers are in the rear, so you can wear tights with side zippers over them without issues. (yeah, laugh, but when the temps drop below freezing your 'nards will freeze with just leg warmers!) They also have loads of reflective piping to silhouette you at night.

The reason mammals succeeded where reptiles failed is because we have the ability to regulate our body temperatures and keep ourselves warm and fully functional when the weather turns cold. Turning glucose into ATP in the Krebs/citric acid cycle is a chemical process that works faster with heat. Don't be a reptile, ride like a human. Mother Nature worked hard to give you that gift, use it!

Now for the shoes. I bought a pair of full length PI AmFib neoprene road shoe covers in early December and still my feet got cold. I tried putting aluminum foil over my shoes before putting on the shoe covers, and that worked for 2 rides and then tore. I happened to be showing a neighbor what a space blanket was and got the idea to try folding a swatch of space blanket over my shoes and taping the ends together behind the cleats. PROBLEM SOLVED.

Space Blanket - the crazy tough winter shoe covering material

The stuff is crazy tough. My first attempt is still going strong after 2 months. 100 lbs of pulling on it won't tear it, it is more reflective, absolutely windproof, and seems to move heat around inside the shoe somehow. If you drag a toe it will tear through, so you might want to tape over the toe with duct tape, but this is an amazingly effective solution for keeping toes warm. You may well decide to ditch your shoe covers entirely - and your cadence will thank you!

Speaking of Space Blankets, keep one like this in your seat bag just in case. If you crash and go into shock, this may very well save your life.

"She froze to death 30 ft from the road..." NOT!!!

This is a high dollar wool blend snowboarding sock, but Thoro and Burton snowboarding socks are also excellent. Snowboarding socks have extra padding over the calf to pad it when leaning to carve when heel-side on the board. For cycling, this extra thickness keeps your calves much warmer under tights or leg warmers (or both on a really cold day).

UPDATED: 1/22/2010 to update links and refresh content

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