Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Techie Tuesday: PI Barrier Balaclava

I  normally save Techie Tuesdays for wrenching stuff, but given the amount of heat that can be lost through the head, the one extremity your body can't cut off blood flow to (although I've heard people say things at times that makes me wonder if they were the exception), a review of a balaclava seems worthy of an exception. 

Sunset on the ARPT near Hagen Park, Christmas Day, 2011
Fish Hatchery outlet at Hazel Ave Bridge, just below Nimbus Dam, looking downstream
I've done 3 rides for about 100 miles now using this balaclava, and think I made a good choice. Until the sun goes down, this, in conjunction with my PI headband, works great, and I thought this combo was bombproof, but that was until the sun went down.

Once the sun starts to set, temperatures drop like a stone, and the coldest air settles down in draws along the river within minutes. It's hard to believe how cold the air can get in spots, until you encounter it. I am just a tiny bit disappointed to have to report that the back of my head and neck were getting a little cold in what was probably 35-38 degree weather.

Nimbus Dam on the ARPT near Hazel Ave. This dam forms Lake Natomas and is well served by the Aquatic Center in the background to the right. If you're a competitive rower, you know this lake and facility well.
If it would fit under the very snug balaclava, the PI Barrier Skull Cap would offer the extra protection I'd need, but since there are no sizing options on either of these, it's a hard sell.

Although I generally hand wash my riding clothes, the amount of laundry on my last ride just became overwhelming, so I machine washed all of it. The dryer shrunk this substantially,perhaps 3/4" - in height, but AFAICT, not in diameter.

As it comes out of the package, the amount of material in front is very generous, and that in back about right, but once shrunk, the back is too short. It will cover when you can get out of the cold and rearrange all of your layering pieces for best fit, but after riding for an hour, and turning your head from side to side, it tends to leave a gap in the back.

The very generous length in front is greatly appreciated when the weather is warmer, or you're climbing, and need all of your layers wide open. This allows plenty of cold, dry air into your chest, and through your layers, to dry them and cool, while still protecting your neck.

I agree that the fit is tight, and I have a small head, but it does tend to loosen up a bit after wearing and laundering it a few times. They probably need 3 sizes though, as I got a compression headache wearing it around the house for an hour when I first got it in the mail.

I also noticed that once heat dried, the barrier fabric on the forehead is totally, and completely windproof. I held it over my mouth and cannot blow air through the fabric at all. I mean, it's like Saran wrap, and that's great. Well done PI!

It's not that thick, so it might not be the warmest insulator, but for the forehead I have the headband too, as it has holes for my clear riding glasses - something this balaclava should have too, as the stems on glasses create little air scoops where they go under headgear, which freezes your temples unless you have stem holes.

The new Barrier Headband doesn't seem to have stem holes, but is likely your best bet for holding your glasses in place anyway. Get the Barrier not the Transfer headband. You want the outermost layer to be windproof, or it's just a waste of cloth. Pull it down in back until your helmet band is resting on top of it. That seems to seal the wind out better.

One of the issues with each layer having a fleece collar, is they wad up behind your neck, and make it nearly impossible to hold your head up when riding. This causes painful neck strain, and headaches.

Since the balaclava typically goes under your base layer behind your neck, why not use the barrier windproof fabric, which is also thinner, to insure a deep, last ditch zone of wind protection running from your head, down your neck and well down your back? Less neck strain and the security of knowing bare skin isn't going to be exposed on the back of the neck.  Make it slightly longer than the front, with the shoulders cut away. This would protect your neck no matter how much opening and closing of front zippers.

I expected, being a garment for very active users, that the mouth area would have to breathe well, unlike those neoprene ski mask things. PI has done a great job in making the fabric covering the mouth breathe well. In very cold weather, the moisture in your breath will freeze in the fabric, and form an ice dam. When inhaling, this wet, 32 degree surface warms and moistens your breath before you inhale. It will keep your lungs from getting burned in very cold, dry conditions.

Also, as expected, the mouthpiece pulls down under the chin easily, and stays put well without pulling the forehead down - even when using a PI headband. If they made this in sizes I'd get the middle size and buy their barrier cap to use when riding after sunset.

For better visibility on those night rides, a reflective stripe in the middle of the barrier fabric that protects the cheekbones and forehead really is needed. Everything else is going to be covered by your helmet, but that area is well exposed.

With cheap, powerful lights, like the MagicShine lights, my clubs are doing a lot of night rides, and I also routinely ride solo, finishing the last half of the ride after dark, where temps often drop 10-15 degrees in half an hour or so, especially along the river where cold, heavy, air settles in draws. 50 degrees turns into 35 in less than 10 miles.

It's essential to get your clothing right, and have a good warmth reserve in case you crash, and EMS is an hour or more away. A convertible vest with zip on sleeves and SpaceBlanket foil blanket are as important as your cell phone when riding alone. Shivering with cracked or broken ribs is excruciating.

Keep working your clothing problem until you have enough tools to go properly dressed in all conditions. It's NOT necessary to endure discomfort when riding in the cold. Keep at it until you aren't.


Anonymous said...

The material of this Balaclava looks a bit thin. Is there maybe one you can get that's made out of fleece? I have a fleece turtle scarf now and it's super warm.

Grey Beard said...

I wouldn't mind a little thicker fleece on top, or maybe a windproof outer layer, but there's not much room under the typical helmet. My standard knit balaclava is far too thick to fit.

One thing I would be willing to try, is to have two, long, overlapping flaps in back, mimicking the way a scarf is folded over itself in front under your jacket in street clothes.

This would allow you to turn your head, perhaps pulling a small amount of fabric up out of the collar in back, but on just one side. Each side might be pulled up a bit, but since they overlap, you'd still have good coverage, especially if the material were stretchy.

Maybe the solution is just to wear a scarf around the back of my neck, crossed in front, under my shells. Hummm... think I'll try that.