Gearhead Essentials: Winter Biking

Above Photo By: Tommy Chandler

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Winter Biking Essentials With Nate King

Winter is coming. Days become short, nights become long, and both become downright frigid, implying a shift from white socks, climbing high mountain passes, and fancy carbon wheels to merino wool-wrapped feet, flat rides deep into wilds long ignored, and bombproof aluminum training hoops. For those who keep the flame through months when the snow falls, the rain pounds, and the sun virtually disappears, there’s a method to the madness, and a small catalog of equipment purpose-built for life in the frost.

Let’s Start With the Bits Needed for the Bike

Fenders
SKS fenderA bad word in many fashionista circles, fenders are crucial to survival when the skies open and the ground is more than damp (in fact, I’ve even heard of organized winter group rides that bar those without them). Chances are your bike didn’t come with fender mounts, and you might be tempted by the “clip-on” style available. While these work well in a pinch, for more than casual or emergency use they’re less than ideal without full coverage of the wheels, resulting in wet feet, back, and riding buddies. For true wet-weather training on a bike without mounts, a set of Raceblade Long fenders (available soon) are key. They offer full coverage and use an ingenious brake stud/quick release mounting system with clips for easy on/off when they’re not needed. The only downside is that they limit tire clearance to about 25mm—any bigger and you’ll find yourself rubbing.

Tires
There are two schools of thought when it comes to winter tires. The first encourages buying the heaviest, most indestructible tire available to deal with winter road debris and potential punctures. Sanding, salting, and general crud kicked up by snow and rain (along with a lack of street cleaning when the weather turns inclement) can turn even the best of roads into a veritable minefield.  For this, I’m suggesting the Continental Grand Prix 4-Season tires, available in a variety of widths (28 is my favorite, but you might find it troublesome to clear the above fender recommendation, depending on rim width). The Vectran breaker belt is just as effective at preventing punctures as the infamous Continental Gatorskins, but with less weight, less rolling resistance, and slightly better ride quality. That said, the downside to the burly tires will become fairly apparent—they ride like a pair of lead cinderblocks, relative to your summer 320-TPI Vittoria Corsas, which brings us to the second school of winter-tire thought. Grippy, wider rubber designed around Classics racing. While these tires will wear faster and be slightly more susceptible to puncture than the likes of the Continentals, they offer superb ride quality and acceptable rolling resistance. The legendary Vittoria Open Pave EVO CG is easily my go-to for winter riding and training, with great traction in wet conditions and even snow. Rounding out the selection of racier bad-condition rubber is the standard Continental Grand Prix 4000S with slightly better durability and worse ride than the Pave, as well as the Challenge Paris Roubaix, a high-volume monster designed around its namesake with a compliant ride and decent weight.

Lights
exposure lightsWhen the sun peeks over the mountains at 9a.m. and drops into the ether at 4:30p.m., the reality is that winter riding often involves pedaling through dawn and dusk. Luckily, battery and bulb technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, leaving the days of huge lighting systems with massive batteries in the dust. Compact, long-lasting, and incredibly bright lights span the gamut these days, but for the shoulders of the day on the road I find the Exposure Sirius/Flare combo pack to do the job nicely in an affordable, lightweight package with a long burn time that includes a rear lamp. For more serious ventures into the darkness, the Exposure Race Mk7 offers a self-contained handlebar mounted lamp with a night-scorching 800-lumen maximum output. The Exposure lights also offer convenient USB charging, making for an easy top-off when you get into the office via your computer’s USB port.

Bikes
If your riding habits don’t change when the ski resort ropes drop, buying a second bike purpose-built for bad conditions might be a great option. Not only does it spare your pristine summer race steed the punishment of winter, a bike designed around riding in less-than-ideal circumstances can offer the best training, safety, efficiency, and comfort possible. While cyclocross bikes used as road bikes have been popular choices in the past, with the advent of the “gravel grinder” bike, road disc brakes, and electronic shifting, options are beginning to populate across many brands. One bike I’m very excited to ride and get my hands on is the Orbea Avant, which we should start seeing this fall. Offered in a number of build packages, I’m most keen for the disc-brake equipped versions. Discs still occupy a degree of verboten in the land of the road bike, but when it comes to stopping in wet conditions, there is no substitute. With SRAM and Shimano both offering road hydraulic disc braking systems, it’s a no-brainer to equip a winter bike with either. In addition to disc capability, the Avant also comes with hidden fender mounts, making any run-of-the-mill fender option a logical choice to keep dry. In addition, its relaxed “Fondo” geometry makes for an easier ride over rough surfaces and through tricky terrain usually encountered in the off-season.

For Yourself

With components addressed, let’s take a look at apparel. Dealing with cold and wet is all about layering. Trapping heat in air between layers is a primary method to staying warm, and being able to shed/add layers as the temperature changes or gear gets wet is key. For a typical day in Utah in December when the pavement is dry and the air temperature is 45, I’ll don a warm baselayer, an insulated jersey, and a windproof softshell jacket for my torso. The legs are easier to keep warm because they’re moving, and a wind-resistant bib tight coupled with an embrocation is usually plenty. If things get wet, a rain cape can also become essential. One of the most important things to remember about winter riding is that you’re only as warm as your coldest piece of apparel. If your gloves, shoes, and socks are toasty, but you’re in thin knickers or a jacket, the blood heading to your extremities is going to get colder traveling through more poorly insulated regions, leaving you with chilled toes and fingers. When it comes to which brands to look for with cold-weather apparel, one word comes to mind: Castelli. They’re one of the few ProTour clothing sponsors whose teams actually use the bad condition apparel supplied by their sponsor (in fact, other teams have been known to use blacked-out Castelli gear in wet weather). Anyway, let’s begin, shall we?

Base Layers
baselayerIt’s tough to go wrong here, as long as it’s warm and wicks sweat away from your core. There’s nothing worse than getting sweaty and clammy in frozen conditions. The go-to in my book is the Castelli Iride baselayer. Warm, but wicks well. They are a bit on the spendier side, but worth every penny. If you’re doing battle with sub-zero winds, they also offer a Wind baselayer with a wind-resistant front panel, but not quite as form-fitting as the Iride.

Jerseys
I prefer a slightly lighter jersey without any windproof or waterproof capabilities, deferring those duties to the jacket I wear over the top. My suggestion is the Castelli GPM jersey for dry and chilly days. Breathable yet still warm, and subtle styling for those days when the sun rears its head mid-ride and you need to stash your vest or jacket in one of the big pockets. When it’s just a bit too warm for a jacket and the local climbs are melting out, I defer to the Transparente Due wind jersey. The breathable and insulated back panel makes for comfortable high-exertion (read: sweaty) efforts, while the windproof front panel and high collar keeps the downhill breeze from turning your perspiration to ice.

Jackets
JacketWhen the temperatures have slid to freezing, there is little substitute for a heavy-duty softshell jacket with wind and water resistance. My jacket of choice is the Castelli Espresso Due. It’s a very warm, technical piece with a degree of windproofing/water resistance that lacks the “puffy” look and feel of a lot of other brands. I hate having a jacket that feels bulky/billowy, and Castelli has done a superb job keeping it at bay with the Espresso while still offering very competent protection against the elements. Of course, when conditions become sloppy, it’s hard to deny the allure of the legendary Gabba jacket. It’s totally waterproof, and has seen duty in some of the most heinously wet European races.

Tights
Again, I’m going to default to Castelli here. The  Nanoflex bib tights are a go-to because of the water and wind-resistance offered by the Nanoflex fabric. I’ve never found heavy duty insulation to be very necessary for my legs beyond a good pair of tights over emborcation – they’re simply moving enough that if the windchill is kept to a minimum by decent fabric, the pistons stay nice and toasty.

Hats
Most of your body heat gets away through your skull, so covering your cranium is only logical, and covering it with something with windproofing is necessary when they windchill drops. The WS Skully fits nicely under a helmet and keeps the heat in your brain-bucket instead of vented into the crisp February air.  I also have a hat addendum, and that’s covering my face. I prefer something that can be converted into a hat, like the Castelli Converter Cap. A numb nose from a descent or especially chilly day is miserable, and being able to sweep a neck covering up over my face as needed is invaluable.

Gloves
Winter GlovesI have the misfortune of having perpetually cold hands. It seems that no matter what I do, my hands will always be cold. Hence, with gloves, Castelli is not king, but concedes to its Swiss counterpart: Assos. I work in layers, starting with the Assos InsulatorGlove. Realistically, a good wool base glove will do the trick, but Assos does it with supreme construction and insulation. On top of the base glove, I layer with the Assos FuguGlove. It’s truly one of the few cycling-specific gloves out there that can hold its own in deep cold where almost all others fall flat. The price is high, but frostbite sucks. When it comes to the outer glove, I always size up. Tight digits result in reduced blood flow, and reduced blood flow results in hands as useful as frozen stumps. Always size wise in cold temperatures.

Socks
Again, Assos rules the roost when it comes to winter woolies. Or, in the case of the fuguSpeer_S7, no wool at all. Instead, these pricey-for-socks numbers will keep your feet well insulated and windproofed (socks that are windproof!) on the coldest of days when coupled with a good winter shoe or bootie. If something a bit less harsh on the wallet is in order, the fuguSocks_S7 offer industry-standard merino wool insulation and wicking.

Shoe Covers
bootiesRequisite to every winter outfit is the inclusion of shoe covers, or “booties”, as they’re more popularly known. These span the gamut from little more than large socks with holes cut for cleats, to full-on neoprene pseudo-SCUBA gear covers. My feet, like my hands, are notoriously numb in cold conditions, so I go to extremes to stay warm. Once more I present a premium—but always worth it—item from Assos, the fuguBootie. Short of going for true winter shoes, these are the best you can do for insulation. Always size big with booties, going back to gloves. Restricted blood flow means numb digits.

Shoes
If shoe covers and warm socks aren’t cutting it, or if you’re riding in consistently very wet conditions, a true winter boot/shoe is in order. A standard road shoe is designed around summer conditions, and the weakest point is always the cleat mount. So, when it comes to water and weatherproof, the Sidi Hydro GTX is going to be the best choice available for a road cleat. While the insulation isn’t the thickest, it is the most impenetrable shoe available for three-bolt road cleats, and coupled with a warm shoe cover will keep your toes warm into the 20s.

Honorable Mention
Chemical hand warmers. Those cheap, unwrap-and-shake numbers from gas stations can be lifesavers when all of the above is failing to keep your hands or feet warm. Hot coffee at gas stations gets a nod for heating up the core, and paired with a piping hot muffin at a coffee shop two hours from home in the midst of a snowstorm can lift morale enough to save even the worst of rides. Skratch Labs Apple and Cinnamon drink mix after a ride, hot, with a dash of rum. Hydrating and dulls the pain of your hands and feet coming back up to temperature.

With a small pile of new gear, winter can become tolerable—even conquerable. Hopefully I’ve been able to point you in the right direction!

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