Adverse Conditions Training, Gear/Kit Shake Down, Product Testing, whatever you call it the first cold rides of the year always catch me by surprise. I am not totally off guard, like running out into a snow storm in shorts, t-shirt, and flip flops, but there is a definite shift in my preparing for a day’s ride in what I will call Nevada Cold. I realize everyone has their own version of cold somewhere between 40o and -40o F. My cold riding temps range from 0o to 30o F, often with sustained winds, and occasional light to medium precipitation.
I notice the cold in my extremities first. Fingers, toes, and ears. I have tried a variety of glove purchasing strategies; cheap close-out ski gloves from any outlet source work well for daily commuting. Repurposed mountaineering Gortex shell mittens over thick wool mittens are the warmest but have the least dexterity. How do you land between? Lobster claw mittens can give back dexterity while retaining warmth. Pogies allow minimal glove use while protecting your hands from the elements. I have two pairs of light weight gloves. One (Hybrid Glove, Craft) has a mitten cover for the fingers like a toe cover for your shoes. For comfortable hands there are two things I live by; first, I always have a second pair of dry gloves. If my current pair wet-out from perspiration and loose their insulating ability, I switch gloves, especially before a long descent. Second, if my hands are uncomfortably cold I stop, take off my gloves, put them inside my jacket (do leave them out to cool in the elements), and bury my fingers in my arm pits for a good 5-10 minutes. Once my hands warm up they tend to stay warm. I have to remind myself not to rush the process.
My summer riding shoe is the 5.10 Freerider (Adidas), great traction on and off the bike, well vented, casual and comfortable. As the temperatures start to drop I switch from thin cool-max socks to a wool blend (DeFeet Wooleator) and eventually I use a heavy wool sock (DeFeet Woolie Boolie). But the shoes are noticeably too vented to keep the cold air out, absolutely not water resistant, and the soles are too thin to keep the cold coming from the ground up. If I know I am going to be on snow all day and temperatures will remain below freezing I will wear a pair of pack boots. In between these levels of cold I have found a light pair of hikers with a Gore -Tex liner and a heavy wool sock is perfect!
To keep my ears warm I mostly use a variety of buffs. I have used wind stopper ear bands and fleece ear bands with great success but I prefer the 4 season versatility of the neck-gator. For the coldest temperatures I have a balaclava, but I find I rarely need that much coverage. I have plenty of hair and tend to sweat too much to use a hat. Most upper body layers I buy with a hood which gives me options under or over my helmet.
For my lower body I have two pairs of pants from Kuhl; lighter more breathable Konfidant Air and stretch and water resistant tech Travrse pants for colder weather. A hold over from my bike racing/training days are a pair of Bellweather Windfront Tights. Sadly these are no longer in their lineup. I may have to look to Craft for my next pair. For camp/sleep comfort I have a pair of long johns, and will choose from light or heavy weight. I now ride in long pants year round to protect from sun and scrub brush as well as the cold.
My early cycling mentor, Dan Brown, talked about how cycling is the hardest sport to dress for. I’m sure a variety of athletes could make a strong argument for the challenges they face thermoregulating over a wide range of atmospheric conditions and aerobic outputs. Layers and zippers sum up his advice. My favorite layers for the coldest temperatures are windstopper baselayers by Craft and Smartwool. I wear the Kuhl Airspeed LS shirt year round. I have found an insulating layer while active is only necessary below 20o . I have a lot of choices for this layer, Kuhl’s The One Hoody just replaced my Mountain Hardwear Sherpa Shirt as my everyday warm piece. I was imagining a hoody/down vest combo as a good cold weather piece, and found the answer in Kuhl’s Provocateur Hybrid. I have two standbys from Patagonia, the Nano Puff 3/4 zip, and Nano-Air Hoody, of the two the Air Hoody is the most versatile with the right combination of breathability, stretch and insulation. My final layer on top is either my Houdini Jacket (another everyday item) or Triolet Jacket (only for the most sever conditions), both from Patagonia.
I don’t intend this to be how to-gear list to ensure one’s comfort and safety when touring in adverse conditions. But I would rather you treat every ride as an experiment. Through my own experimentation I have come up with this list that works for me. I seek out the advice of experts, other riders, and occasionally go for it and try something new. Clearly, Kuhl and Patagonia are favorite brands that I trust for quality, fit, innovation, and style.
There was a recent Patagonia catalog that had an article on how product testing happens. There are testers who will intentionally seek out or create the conditions to push the boundaries of the product. Sometimes the pieces they are testing are chimera to test two products at once. This inspires me to test the my gear in the worst possible scenario; being caught out in the cold, not able to move. This could happen with a mechanical or a medical, or your nightly stop on a multiday trip. If you are in really cold conditions don’t wait for a chill to set in, get into warmer dry layers immediately. Get out of the wind. There was one instance where I found myself tucked under a sagebrush wrapped in my space blanket to comfortably wait out a storm. There is always that point where you go from comfortable to chilled but with the right preparedness and action there is always that point of coming back from chilled to comfortable.
November 7, Tule Ridge, Virginia Mountains As with so many of our storms in north-western Nevada the weather that was moving through our area was quick moving and left most of its punch in the Sierra Nevada. But on my drive out to the start of this ride off Winnemucca Ranch Rd the first snow flakes were blowing around. The clouds were broken, the sun peeked through at times, I wasn’t worried. This was my third or forth “cold” ride of the season so I felt prepared. Thick wool socks, 2 pairs of warm gloves, insulating layer, wind layer, hood, hat, space blanket, SPOT GPS locator, food and water. I had a route in my GPS but early on I saw the road was gated, so I fell back on a route I had ridden in years past. All the boxes checked for a solo trip into the mountains in adverse conditions.
The blowing snow increased as I climbed. One consideration is if the snow turns the double track into sticky mud then then I would be forced to turn around. So far, not the case. As I climbed I got closer to the cloud ceiling until I was riding in the clouds. Combined with the blowing snow visibility was limited and I was getting no warmth from the sun. I recognized the terrain but my goal for this ride was go further than the end of the road.
The ridge line had burned in years past. The dense mountain mahogany and juniper had either totally burned or left the bone-white skeletons of trees. If the ridge hadn’t burned I probably wouldn’t have been able to explore further as easily. It was mostly hike-a-bike at this point with very inefficient route selection in the snow and clouds.
As I navigated back to the road I realized just how disoriented I had become trying to pick routes around rock outcroppings in a total white-out. Without landmarks on the horizon I was relying on the minimal map on my Garmin bike computer and cross referencing with Google maps on my phone. Without cell service, it too was a minimal map. The smart move is to download Google maps of your area, I could have downloaded my Ride with GPS route, and I could have had photos/screen shots of maps in my phone. From my orienteering days keeping track of where you are on a paper maps is the name of the game. Managing paper maps on a bicycle in these conditions could be tricky. A little bit of extra planning could come in handy. By no means was this a desperate situation but it was a good reminder. If I had pushed on for hours, into the dark, then had to retreat… preparation and experience would be all I had.
The descent is another opportunity to test your kit. Coasting downhill you exertion drops, windchill climbs, and you need all your dexterity to control your bike bouncing down a rocky, rutted, wet road. I switched to dry gloves and pulled my hood over my helmet. There were a couple of punchy climbs that I embraced as an opportunity to warm up. Another cycling mentor of mine, Dave Eastwood, would say, “The heat is in the pedals.” This becomes a mantra of sorts on cold rides.
There have been a handful of very cold starts this season. In the months ahead I will watch the weather forecasts and try to imagine how the days will progress. What are the fewest most versatile layers I can wear? What can I do to maximize my comfort on the trail? I know I will be able to learn from everyone I ride with. Hope to see you out there this winter.