Friday, January 20, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Happy hands.

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” 

-Aldo Leopold

I'm quite certain that Mr. Leopold wasn't thinking of Alaska winter racing when he wrote A Sand County Almanac way back when, but for the purpose of illustrating my point I think it apropos to co-opt that quote.

We've already discussed core temps and feets.  Hands are the last, most critical, and potentially most difficult.  The foot system previously described does well because it's set and forget, and because you don't have prehensile toes: You aren't taking your shoes off to do fine tasks with your feet.

Not so with hands -- you're using them constantly, and it's not possible to do every fine task (brushing teeth, changing a flat, replacing headlamp batteries, cinching straps -- to name but a few) with gloves or mittens on.  Sometimes you have to go barehanded, and if the wind is up or it's just plain cold, that means your hands are numb before the task is complete.

Often way before the task is complete: Pat Irwin and I learned this lesson repeatedly at -55* to -65* on the Yukon River, when our tubes kept cracking (not being cut, punctured, or pinched -- definitely cracking) from the cold and failing, and we kept having to stop to change them out.

Our solution was to take turns: One person would stop and drop, pulling the wheel out of the bike, then starting to work the bead loose from the rim.  By that time, because we were handling bare metal, our hands were already numb.  So you'd hand the wheel to the other guy, then *run* 100 yards up the trail, and back, to generate some heat.  By the time you'd returned *his* hands were numb.  Then we'd switch, over and over, until the deed was done and we could start to move forward and generate some lasting heat.

The problem was that even once moving again, we'd not really anticipated this problem, thus we had pogies on our bars but our grips were cold sinks: Pat had cheap kraton rubber grips.  I'd taken the time to wrap my rubber grips in cork tape, but out of fear that the cork would come undone in the cold had wrapped that in hockey tape.

Note to self: There is nothing warm, or insulative, or isolative, about kraton rubber *or* hockey tape. The hockey tape even developed a sheen of ice over the course of the trip, from when my infrequently warm hands perspired onto it.  Awesome.

After each extended break to fix a flat, our grip temps measured the same as the outside temp, and *nobody* has circulation good enough to push back -55* with just the blood that's making it to their hands.

When that trip ended I knew I had other, bigger fish to fry riding in cold places, and I knew I had to develop a better system to keep hands on-line in the worst an Alaskan winter could offer.  If I could keep my hands warm there, then I knew they'd be warm anywhere.

After too many complicated and prone to failure (battery powered heated grips, anyone?) fits and starts I realized that the solution had to be simple.  And what I came up with was, and is, simple:  Neoprene.

I've tried neoprene gloves and socks in both my riding and paddling career, and when used against my skin learned that they do two things simultaneously:

-they make my extremities sweat profusely, and
--they make my extremities colder than with almost any other material.

Learning that was liberating, as it removed one potential option from the pile.

But neoprene is such a good insulator, and when configured right (i.e the right kind of foam and backing) it doesn't absorb or transmit moisture.  So instead of using neoprene gloves that I'd have to take off to do fine work anyway, I sewed a few crude grip covers out of neoprene foam I found in the scrap bin at a fabric store:

Note that I even have a sleeve over the (cold!) rubber cover on my shifter.  Also note that my brake levers are carbon.  You don't use your brakes that often in the ITI, but when you *do* need them, if they're made out of metal, you'll emphatically notice how cold that metal is as your braking fingers go numb.

Carbon doesn't transmit the cold -- but carbon levers aren't always possible.  If you can't get carbon levers, then at least find a way to insulate them with neoprene.

To this day, that's what I use.  I used them on my self-supported trips in 2008 and 2010, and again on the South Route to Nome in 2013.  Those are my grips pictured above, but Jeny has sewn herself a similar set and I think I saw her installing them yesterday.

So that's what's *inside* my pogies.

On my hands I wear basic summer riding gloves down to about -10*f.  Below that I have a cheap ~$9 pair of gas station fleece gloves that keep my hands happy down to any temperature I've yet encountered in the Alaskan Interior in February.  So to say, -60*f or so.  Nothing else needed, as long as you have good pogies...

And the pogies themselves?  I was fortunate when I started down this rabbit hole that Eric @ Revelate was still a one-man show, interested in pushing the limits of human-powered travel, and not yet encumbered with explosive growth and a growing family too.  He was willing to indulge my fastidious, even pernickety suggestions in creating what came to be known as his Expedition Pogies.  Jeny has these on her bike.  Jeny wishes it was colder, longer, every winter, so that she could ride with these more.  I think she dreams about them on the first cold days of fall...

In truth the production pogies that Eric sells now are nicer, lighter, and more polished than my prototypes -- but they still retain the most important characteristics of being windproof, waterproof, closable (so that spindrift doesn't fill them while you sleep), and with pockets to keep emergency gear (warmer gloves, warmer hats, glasses and goggles) all at your fingertips for constantly variable conditions.

Last detail when it comes to insulation?  That frozen block of leather, plastic, pleather, and metal that you're sitting on.  If temps are forecast to be below zero I slip on a neoprene saddle insulator.

These are made for tri-geeks but they function at least as well to insulate us from that cold block of discomfort.  And while our nether regions are truly the last to get cold, if it's way below zero and you're fighting to keep warm blood moving to your extremities, it's nice to be able to sit on something that's not sucking yet more heat away.  These are most often found in the bargain bin at your LBS -- if you can't source one there go digging at a tri-geek website.

Don't hesitate with questions.

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