Saturday, January 11, 2020

Winter Cycling Tips in 2020, Part 2: Hands, Feet, and Head

John's cycling glove collection and approximate temperature range
post by John Burnham

In part 2, we review keeping your extremities happy.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

        1. If your shoes are too tight, your feet will get cold.
        2. Cotton is not your friend.
        3. If your gloves are too tight, your fingers will get cold.
        4. Cotton is really not helpful at all.
        5. Keep hydrated!
        6. Hydrated cotton stays that way for a long time.

DISCLAIMER  This is intended to be a set of guidelines based on personal experiences and other sources of information dredged from the internet. If you find alternate methods that work well for you, by all means keep doing them. Don't say I didn't warn you about cotton.

DON'T FORGET HANDS AND FEET   The funny thing about your body is it will sacrifice blood flow to your hands and feet to save the vital organs in your torso, otherwise known as your "core." If your core is sufficiently warm, your body will keep the blood flowing to your extremities. That being said, you can take additional measures to ensure your feet and hands stay warm.

​The same rules apply to feet- keep heat close, moisture away. For socks, absolutely choose wool or alpaca over cotton. You also need sufficient space around your feet, too- even thick wool socks will lose their ability to insulate if your shoes fit too tightly (the air pockets get compressed). If you can’t wiggle your toes, you may need to go up in size or go with thinner socks. What about multiple layers? I have seen differing advice on this, and it may be a matter of what works best for you, given your physiology and the shoes you wear. One source says absolutely only one layer of thick wool or alpaca, another says wear a thin moisture-wicking liner sock with a second layer of wool (if your skin is sensitive to wool, which can be itchy). Everyone agrees that cotton is to be avoided at all costs. For what it’s worth I have tried both methods, and am leaning toward the single layer of thick wool or alpaca socks. I have also swapped out the standard insoles of my shoes for wool felt insoles.

The shoes you wear in warmer weather may be unsuitable for winter riding. There are shoe covers of various types which have taken me down to the low 30's, but I still get numb toes after 10 miles. Recently I have swapped out my clipless pedals for platform pedals and ride in waterproof hiking boots and wool socks. There exist somewhat expensive winter boots by 45NRTH and LAKE with SPD-compatible soles that have excellent reputations.

I have given up on shoe covers below 40˚F and cannot justify the cost of 45NRTH boots, so I ride in waterproof hiking boots (1 size bigger) and thick alpaca socks.

Mitten vs. Glove

ENOUGH ABOUT FEET! WHAT ABOUT HANDS?   Generally speaking, mittens are warmer than gloves when comparing similar materials and construction. Keeping your fingers together in the same space is the key factor in this difference. However, cycling requires frequent use of brakes and shifters, which may prove more difficult while wearing mittens. If you can operate safely wearing mittens, by all means use them and your hands will be happier in colder temperatures. Gloves provide more dexterity, but separating all the fingers exposes more skin surface is to heat transfer through the fabric, which gets worse as the temperature drops.

A good compromise is “lobster” (three-finger) gloves which group some fingers together but are not completely mittens, giving you back some of that missing dexterity. I have had positive results with thin wool liners in looser fitting insulated gloves (again, there are differing opinions out there on the benefits of glove liners). Like with socks, if a liner makes your gloves fit tighter, the insulating properties will be diminished. You may need to go through some trial-and-error to determine what works best for you in what temperature ranges.

Types of pogies

For very cold conditions (below 20˚F) another option I recommend are “pogies.” These odd-looking accessories borrowed from the kayak community and perfected by early Alaskan cyclists (and oddly named for an Atlantic forage fish) are essentially sleeping bags attached to your handlebars. Their primary function is to block the wind, making even minimally insulated versions surprisingly effective. They also allow you to use lighter weight gloves in colder temperatures. A quick internet or Amazon search will reveal a world of options from $20 to $200 (or more!) for flat handlebars.  For drop bars, the pickings are slim. Bar Mitts (what I use), Portland Pogies, and Dr. Ops are the only three drop bar options I can find so far.

KEEP YOUR HEAD   ...warm. Contrary to popular belief and your mother's advice, we do not lose most of our body heat through our heads. We do lose more heat through the head relative to other body areas if the rest of the body is covered, so covering your head and face become important as the temperature drops. This is where a thin skull cap/helmet liner comes in handy, or a balaclava in colder temperatures. I have a thin "micro sensor" fabric balaclava by Pearl Izumi that is surprisingly effective all by itself into the 20's. A snow sports helmet combined with ski goggles can take you into the single digits and lower, although you lose some peripheral vision with all that extra structure. Your eyes and ears stay toasty warm, though!

HYDRATION   It's a no-brainer to stay hydrated when exercising in warm weather, but you need to do it in cold weather, too! Water is essential to your body for regulating temperature, and as we have said, you still perspire when you're exercising in the cold. Since proper layering technique will draw perspiration away from your body, your skin has less opportunity to reabsorb lost water and electrolytes. Bring water with you on your rides and stay hydrated!

In Part 3, I'll wrap up with bicycle maintenance and other miscellany.

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