Monday, January 15, 2018

Wild Hair: Gaylord again, and gear.


Our plan to ride the Groen Preserve fell flat when we arrived to find a locked gate and a sign announcing that indeed the park was closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Looking closer through the gate, none of the fresh snow had yet been packed or used in any way, thus we turned and headed back to the barn and rode right down the driveway once more.


Mama Bear and Mollywollywigglepants escorted us to the gasline, but with 8 stops in 1/2 mile to retrieve her booties or dig snow out of her pads, Mama turned around early and took knucklehead with her.





Jeny and I continued around the lake, not speaking much as we rode, all attention turned outward.  Just noticing, basically: Cyan skies whipped with scud, an occasional squall of flurries then a moment of sun, a full-on whiteout complete with up-snow, and then moments later back to blue.  Dynamic.


6" of fluff deposited overnight, when it's below zero, means very dry snow.  Had that one kid not been amped to try out his new-for-christmas sled, we probably wouldn't have been riding much, or far.





Very early in the ride we found ourselves near base pressures: It was a 4-wrinkle kinda ride.  You could occasionally feel a base underneath it all but the lack of moisture to the snow meant that it just wouldn't stick together.  Like trying to make a snowball from goose feathers.  As such the low pressures gave us not just float but grip, and again we were happy to have big blocky treads.




I don't have a thermometer on my bike but there were subtle clues -- eyes watering non-stop, inability to enunciate "whitetail" or "chickadee" due to frozen face syndrome -- that today was our coldest day yet.  Probably not lower than -10 or so, but coming from daytime 50's at home this still felt foreign.


If the animals were bothered by the temps they didn't show it.  They ate casually, seemingly undisturbed by our passing.  




Come to think of it, maybe that casualness was evidence that they were cold stressed: Had it been warmer they might have spooked more easily at our passing.


  Riding in these temps can be suffered through or it can be savored.  The difference comes mainly down to the gear you use.  Volumes could be written on what works and what doesn't, and why, and for every one of those volumes there will be a handful of dissenting opinions.  Bottom line: Experiment to learn what works *for you*, where you live and ride.




It isn't my intent to write a volume here, because what works for me where I live and ride could be largely irrelevant for you in your environs.  I'll give you a head start on finding what works by saying that often you don't need much insulation because you're working hard moving those low pressure tires across the snow.  What is needed more than anything is a way to block the wind that you create, and that would otherwise be conducting heat away from your body faster than you can produce it.


To the end of blocking said wind, Jeny and I do two things consistently all winter long.  First, we use pogies whenever it's below about 15*.  I helped to design and refine this set, and Jeny likes hers so much she starts asking if she can put them on in October.  If you have chronically cold hands you need to do more than just buy those pogies -- you need to think critically about grip material (rubber is bad, cork is good, neoprene is best), brake lever material (carbon is better than metal), and gloves, all from the perspective of heat conduction.  But the pogies are the cornerstone, and will keep you warm enough that you can enjoy riding, and if you enjoy riding then you'll be motivated to fiddle with the rest to find your happy place.  




The second thing we do consistently is to wear windproof outer shells.  Some swear by their summer rain gear, others swear at it.  Some love softshell fabric, some can't fathom using it.  Again, you have to experiment.  Chances are good that you've got something around already that will work just fine.  The ability to dump heat -- via chest vents or pit zips -- is mandatory, otherwise you end up taking it off and putting it back on repeatedly depending on temps, wind, and speeds.


But that's for the top layer, because we've all got jackets.  But what about the bottoms?  


When I first started winter riding and racing ~25 years ago I couldn't find anything that worked.  Nordic ski stuff was OK if temps were fair and and wind came only from the front, but not otherwise.  Downhill ski and snowboard gear was great at blocking wind but too heavy and not well ventilated.  Various experiments with hiking pants always disappointed, as they just lack a certain substance when it's cold, snowy, and windy.




My solution was to design and (for the next 15 years) continually refine a pair of winter riding pants, based loosely around the cut of a pair of baggy snowboard pants.  Mark at FBF in CB somehow didn't throw me out on my ear for asking him to make these, and somehow he humored me when I repeatedly asked him to tweak them: Extra thickness in the knees so that I wouldn't feel the cold when kneeling while melting snow for water, integrated gaiters and fitted cuffs to keep overflow from getting into my boots, a wide-enough-to-be-comfy-for-days elasticized waist band so that I wouldn't have to fumble with zippers or buttons when it came time for a nature break.  Zippered vents in the thighs.  Integrated padding to augment my chamois.  An under-boot strap to keep them from riding up while pedaling or postholing.  Reinforced fabric in the ankle/chainring area.  And lots of pockets for the essentials.


I still have that same pair of pants and I still use them when I go to Alaska or other very cold places.  But they're heavy and bulky for the relatively warm temps of the lower 48, so I almost never use them down here.  I've often wished I had a lighter weight set of them, but it's just never seemed that important to go to the trouble to have them made.  Plus Mark would likely tell me to take a hike.




Jeny and I happened to stop into a bike shop on the first day of this trip.  I wandered around while she bought various 'ride food' snacks.  I happened onto these.  I did a doubletake, then plucked them from the rack and inspected them.  Most of the design minutiae that it took me a decade plus to figure out were incorporated in this set: Pockets, venting, cuffs, gaiters, anti-ride-up strap.  Windproof.


Long story short, I went and tried them on, then insisted that Jeny do the same.


Crazy.  Moments later we were motoring down the road with a new pair of pants each.  Considering that I probably spent an aggregate $1000 in time and labor to arrive at the set I've worn in Alaska since forever, the $175 we paid for these sets seemed a pittance.  Pocket change.  We wore them every day on this trip.  We *loved* having them, every day on this trip.  And every day I was yet more astonished that they existed at all.  Maybe they've existed for years, and I just don't go into bike shops enough?


Dunno.  I felt like I'd won the lottery when I found them.  If you ride outside in the northern hemisphere in winter, I encourage you to go find a pair.




Phew.  Lotsa gear nerding.


Jeny and I closed this loop at what felt like sunset, but was really just another squall blocking out the late afternoon sun.  Hours around the fire and in the company of family seemed especially luxuriant after having been out in the cold all day.


Thanks for checkin' in.



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