Bundled up in Layers.

So here’s the thing: it’s December – which means things get cold here in the Midwest.  I’m well aware of this fact. And yet…

…and yet, I shaved off the beard I’ve worn for the better part of the last thirty years anyway, never for a moment considering how this mat of hair insulated the lower part of my face from the wind and chill and elements.

Seconds after pedaling down the road today, it becomes abundantly clear that my fuzzy protection is absent. Wow! I can’t remember my cheeks feeling so sensitive! The temps are in the upper 20’s or low 30’s, cold enough that the hairs along the back of my neck are stiff, feeling as though they might snap right off if I brush my gloves against them. We’ve had a bit of snow and ice, the combination of which has kept me off the roads and on the indoor trainer instead. Today, though, the roads are moderately clear, there’s nary a breath of wind, and I’m taking advantage of this confluence to get in a few miles.

I’m bundled up in layers as I head out to check my tire pressure. Occasionally on these cold days I’ll see a couple of other diehard riders. At such times, I find it curious to sometimes see my fellow cyclists wearing shorts and other garb that seems to me to be entirely inappropriate for the weather. I know it’s uncharitable of me to think that they are more concerned about looking the part of a serious cyclist, rather than actually acting like one, but I’ll be darned if I can think of a good reason to freeze.

So it’s layering for me.

Even though I may be snug and warm as I head out, I know that fifteen minutes down the road I’ll be warmed up enough that it will become necessary to begin to peel out of each layer. Think: onion. On really brisk days, I’ll begin with a cold weather base of under armour. I like covering that with a long sleeve merino wool top, and an outside layer of a lightweight cold weather cycling jersey. Each layer has different characteristics; any one of these can be removed, leaving me with several different combinations to meet my comfort needs throughout a ride.

For my legs, I prefer two layers. Even though it feels cold the first few minutes, I’ve found that a third layer tends to be overkill as soon as I’ve warmed up. My venerable insulated tights have seen about two decades of use, but last winter I began using a much lighter weight base for my legs. The material seems to not only keep me warmer, the garment is also looser than the skin-clinging tights. Over these I am currently wearing loose fitting knickers that seem to have an incredibly wind-killing effect.

Over the years I have struggled with what to wear over my hands. Today I tried wearing light glove liners under my Thinsulate winter gloves. My hands are particularly sensitive to cold and I find my fingers get uncomfortable pretty easily. Today’s solution was imperfect, and I keep thinking I may eventually have to invest in specialty gloves or hoods.

A couple years ago I bought a pair of Keene cycling shoes that look a bit like light hikers. I thought they’d be great for commuting and touring, and I was half right: they’re excellent commuters but are too damn hot for summer touring. They feel great in the winter though! A pair of insulated ski socks, covered by an outer layer of thin Smartwool works well with the Keene’s. These shoes are lace up and easily adjusted to work with the thickness of multiple layers of socks. Years ago, some of us used to put plastic bags over our socks as an insulating outer layer – ugly and inelegant as hell, but pretty efficient all the same. I haven’t done that in years though.

I found a great adjustable, thin headband with ear flaps that does the job for me in weather down to the 20’s, and which manages to keep me incredibly comfortable. It’s thin enough to fit under a helmet or a cycling cap, very warm, and very effective at blocking the cold wind that can be brutal on the ear lobes. I always wear glasses when I ride – I’ve a pair of wraparounds to keep that same brutal chill off my eyes.

Which leaves my lower face.

A heavy beard has always kept my lower face warm, even when winter precipitation resulted in long, dangling icicles swinging from my mustache. With my (relatively) clean shaven face I may have to try a balaclava this winter.

This garb may look nothing like what gets depicted in the glossy full page photographic ads featured in the mainstream cycling magazines, but my threads are technical, they are loose and allow me to move and breathe with ease, and they are warm and comfortable. Pretty tough to beat that if you want to ride in cold weather.


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