WINTER KIT YOU CAN'T DO WITHOUT
Call me a Lycra lout. I don’t mind in the least. Sneer the word, “cyclist” at me, in the manner of Beckett’s glorious tramp Estragon, spitting out the withering insult, “critic” to his fellow derelict, Vladimir. I don’t care. But accuse me of being a fair-weather pedaller and you’ll have found my soft underbelly. Don’t you dare!
In fact, I cycle all year round, in all weather, except for deep snow (and that’s purely a logistical decision). That doesn’t mean that winter commuting by bike is easy.
I’ve been spinning out in Arctic conditions for long enough to have built up a reliable system for keeping the chill at bay – even in the saddle. This can be summed up in the single word – layers.
Certain products have also played their part in keeping me on the bike, come rain, sleet or icy-blue-sky.
Here’s a summary of five pieces of winter kit I couldn’t do without (in no particular order).
1 – ANYTHING MADE FROM MERINO WOOL
I pay homage to the humble sheep. Sometimes esoteric-sounding products are just a gimmick designed to enable sellers to fleece (yes, pun intended) gullible consumers. Not so, the merino wool cycling garment. Pick just about any piece of cycling kit – jersey, gloves, socks – made from the wool of this, originally Spanish breed, and you’re guaranteed to feel much warmer than you really should. I regularly wear merino base layers and socks through the winter months. They do the job exceptionally well. For once the reality matches the hype.
2 – OVERSHOES
Shoe covers are a problem. They promise much. Water-proof, wind-proof, lightweight etc… I have had covers whose rear zips have been impossible to fasten; overshoes which are too thick underneath to allow my cleat enough clearance to clip into the pedal and versions which disintegrate after a couple of rides. By far my biggest bugbear with shoe covers – of all stripes – is lack of tightness around the ankle. It doesn’t matter how water-resistant, shower-proof or moisture-repellant, they claim to be. If the top does not form a tight enough seal around the lower leg, it won’t stop rainwater trickling down inside the overshoe and into your socks! This has been my experience with pretty much every brand I’ve tried, and that’s nearly all of them with the odd exception. One particular brand actually does look promising from a water-repelling point of view, even if they do resemble gaudy condoms for feet. Maybe one day I’ll take them out for a splosh.
My general antipathy to overshoes is why I’ve been wearing specific winter boots for the last four of five years. They accomodate cleats and are a good barrier to the cold. They’re also billed as being waterproof but there’s still a trickle-down issue in extremely heavy rain. My current pair have lasted at least four winters and will definitely be replaced when they ‘die’.
They provide decent protection from the icy winds of winter and in a moderate shower can keep your toes dry for a portion, if not the entirety, of the ride.
3 – ARM WARMERS
Talking of longevity, my non-descript blue arm warmers have been saving my limbs from goose bumps in the saddle for the last 11 years! That’s just one pair. They still grip the upper arm firmly enough not to slip down (even when I wore them when running the Dublin Marathon a few years ago). They do what they ‘say on the tin’, namely keep your arms warm. I bought these for the epic Etape du Tour 2006 which took us to an Alpe d’Huez finish. I only needed to put them on in the early morning before the temperature soared like the surrounding Alpine peaks. I’ve been wearing them ever since. Caught out at work one bleak winter’s day without these trusty sleeves, I nipped into a bike shop along my route and bought a pair from another well-known brand. They were falling down round my wrists before I’d pedalled all the way home!
In addition to sleeves for the arms, it’s also worth covering your legs in the cold.
4 – NECK WARMER
Skiing in Italy is a joy and a privilege. The neck warmer I habitually wear (tartan of course) was bought for skiing in Courmayeur many years ago. Swapping ski gear for my commuting bike, my neck ‘thing’ (what exactly is a ‘snood’ anyway) has become an irreplaceable weapon in my battle against the elements. The fleecy section of keeps my neck warm as I cycle and the fabric tube can be pulled over my head and held in place by casquette and helmet, so that my ears are covered on those excessively bitter and frosty, early morning rides into work (and I’m regularly setting off on the bike at 4.30am).
5 – WINTER JACKET
Confession time. I have lurking in the back of the wardrobe a US Postal Service team, replica jacket. I even used to pedal out in it when Armstrong was winning ‘bigly’ (to paraphrase the current Twitter-president). The disgraced Texan’s fall from grace may have tarnished his ‘brand’ beyond redemption but it does not by extension detract from the quality of his erstwhile team’s jacket. The USPS garment is actually quite an effective piece of winter kit. It still ‘lives’ in the depths of the cupboard though. My actual, indispensable item of cold-weather, upper-body attire is an orange jacket which insulates me perfectly on the coldest of days. I used to think there was something wrong with the lining as the material inside the back used to bunch up uncomfortably when pressed against my commuting rucksack. Then I discovered that the errant fragment of lining was in fact an attached balaclava which you can store inside the lining. What’s more it has thumb holes at the end of the sleeves (like most modern ski jackets) to eliminate drafty gaps once gloves are put on.
Layered up with one or two base garments, arm and leg warmers (or long cycling tights), jacket, gloves, neck ‘thing’ and boots, I can venture out like Scott of the Antarctic into the teeth of a winter blizzard and jump onto the bike feeling pretty toasty regardless. And once I get the pedal revs up I often reach work feeling a little bit too hot.
In conclusion, I return to the issue of wet feet and the fact that it’s best to manage your expectations when it comes to the overshoe issue. If it’s a light shower I might get away with dryish toes – that’s a result. And if I want protection from cold and wind only, overshoes can be ideal. But when it’s chucking it down, just forget it. I then deem an initial twenty minute spell of moisture-free feet at the start of a one hour ride, to be an overshoe success.
Similar irritations apply – in a converse way – to my latest discovery, waterproof cycling socks. The problem with these garments is the opposite to overshoes. They actually work!
However, the trickle-down principle also comes into play. Once inside the sock, the water stays there, such are the waterproof qualities. Your feet slosh through the rest of the ride like goldfish in plastic bags, won at a fairground.
All this cycling kit can cost the earth. If you’re willing to pay big bucks, it may be possible to get a rain jacket that actually keeps the rain out or a shoe cover which makes a decent attempt at keeping those feet dry. But is it worth paying three hundred pounds for what amounts to a designer cycling jacket? Don’t forget, many of the pros still resort to the tried and tested method of the earliest racers. Just before embarking on a mountain descent, they grab a sheet or two of newspaper from a roadside soigneur and stuff it inside their jersey. The technique may be over one hundred years old but evidently, it’s still seen as one of the most efficient ways of keeping the wind chill at bay by riders who’re about to scream downwards at ridiculous speeds. Not only is this cheap – effectively free – it’s also a form of recycling.
So I don’t think I’m going to splash out (pun intended) any time soon on an ultra expensive pair of shoe covers which will eventually leak like a sieve just like the cheap versions. The next time I find myself pedalling into a downpour maybe I should cut my losses and just slip my feet inside a pair of arm warmers, for all the difference it will make.
I leave you with Vladimir and Estragon waiting for you know who. The existential hiatus in which they are trapped as they yearn for something to happen (even for Godot himself to show up) is familiar – it’s like waiting for manufacturers to come up with weather-proof kit which truly keeps you warm and dry for your entire ride. I’m waiting.