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The Art of Clothing: Part 1 of 2

Every time someone asks about biking in the cold, I guarantee them they will dress too warm and sweat within the first fifteen minutes. We’ve all been there and it’s challenging to avoid a repeat experience. Although, it does feel good to sweat on a fast trail ride when it’s 25 below, but we’ll get to that later.

Living in Alaska has given me the opportunity to bike in everything from 90 degree, 24 hour sunlight, to the bitter cold darkness of our -50F winters. As I can’t exactly wear one or two outfits for this 160 degree temperature range, I have kept a pretty good record of what works and doesn’t for the two seasons we have up here, including the dual, three week transition periods between them.

Before I begin the rant on what to wear for every weather condition and riding event possible, let me say, ‘GET OUT THERE!’ Grab your bike and an assortment of clothing options and go ride. Try out different shirts, hats, gloves, etc. Focus your efforts on doing this when you have extra time to play around with things, not when you’re in a rush to get somewhere.
Riding a bike is fun. Figure out how to be comfortable and not sweat and it will be even better.

Finding beautiful weather in the Alaska Range. Denali National Park, Alaska

Finding beautiful weather in the Alaska Range. Denali National Park, Alaska

I also write this with the disclaimer that whatever I recommend is what works for me, specifically, including where and how I ride. Usually, I like to ride hard, to get some exercise and keep my heart rate up, as well as body heat. But for commuting, I don’t want to get to work sweaty & stinky, so I typically take it a little easier on the way in, although, my workplace does have a warm shower for post-ride clean-up.

For all intents and purposes, there’s not much need to discuss summer riding clothing. Basically, it’s warm, it could be windy, and it might rain. A t-shirt, shorts, a fleece, and rain gear or a windshirt can probably get you through just about anything. So, let’s focus on when the sun begins to say goodbye for a while.

Essentially, cold-weather biking involves producing a lot of body heat from rapid and consistent pedaling, with significant exposure to self-created wind chill. Clothing challenge: high activity & body heat requires good breathability but also wind-stopping ability to reduce the effects of convective & evaporative heat loss. Some garments have implemented windproof fronts and breathable, stretchy backs, like Mountain Hardwear’s Effusion Power Jacket, one of my favorite cold-weather biking garments.

In general, wear light base layer top & bottoms, with windproof top & bottom over it all. Focus your attention not so much on staying warm, but staying cool. You may be a little cold for the first mile, but that should turn out to be perfect for later in the ride.
For more information on how to keep your hands warm, see my previous article, Hand-ling the Cold.

The first type of riding to address is commuting. Hopefully, you don’t live 30 miles one-way from work. If you do, I hope it’s a sweet little cabin off the grid. Riding to and from work, the grocery store, and a local shop or two, shouldn’t expose you to adverse weather conditions for too long of duration. This means your clothing system needs less dialing in to stay comfortable. If you’re a little too warm or cold, you’ll be at your destination soon. Also, you shouldn’t have camping gear and food for multiple days, so there should be room to spare in your frame bag, backpack, or panniers for an extra jacket or lighter shirt & gloves, etc. Drop or add layers as needed. If you have the ability to shower at work, bring work clothes along and change into them after you get to work or shower. This helps keep them clean and if you get a little sweaty, wet from rain, or full of road grime, it’s not on your work clothes and you can wash up before you start cubicle time.

Bring what you might need for a little longer than it takes to get to your destination, in case you forget something, get a flat, have to push a broken bike, or some other unexpected event pops up. The nice thing is, you can always change what you wore or did for the ride home or the next day in. Conditions will probably be similar enough that changing one thing might perfect your system. Unless you’re running multiple errands, your route should be the same, day-to-day. You’ll know at what point you begin to warm up, when you should let off the pedals a bit to prevent sweating, where you may have to stop and wait for traffic, etc. This type of riding provides the fastest turn-around times for advancing your system, as you have multiple rides in the same day or over a few days total to change what you wear or do to stay comfortable.

Stay tuned for Part 2, discussing recreational day-riding, both on- & off-road trips, cold-weather, & racing clothing requirements & techniques.

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