Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Wool: It's What's For Winter

It was 25 degrees here in the Fahrenheit-loving town of Issaquah yesterday morning (that's -4 for you Celsius people) and while that isn't cold by Minnesota standards, it's cold enough to make a cyclist appreciate things like tires with good traction, hot coffee and warm clothes. Especially warm clothes.

Despite all the developments in clever technical fabrics, wool is still a key material in my wardrobe. Even in warm weather, my favorite jerseys are short-sleeve merino wool but in the winter time I'm usually wearing a long sleeve merino wool base layer with a heavier wool jersey or a thrift-store wool sweater on top of that. The wool isn't really windproof but a thin nylon wind or rain jacket layered over the wool keeps me cozy in a wide range of conditions.

Wool layers are also key to comfortable feet and hands. When I buy shoes I always get a size that can handle a double layer of socks. I've found that two thin wool socks or a thin sock and a thicker one are more comfortable than a single sock. I don't get blisters with the double sock system and on long rides I can swap the inner and the outer socks on the long stretches between laundry stops.

My long-fingered gloves are always wool, either Swiss military surplus wool glove liners or an old pair of Swobo gloves. Depending on conditions I may layer these with conventional padded cycling gloves, nylon over-mitts or GloGlov reflective gloves. Wool is warm even when wet and if my gloves do get soaked, I can quickly wring them out and continue on. Every heavier, integrated glove I've tried eventually soaks with water, becomes cold and then takes forever to dry.

Some wool proponents will tell you that it doesn't stink. In my experience, this isn't quite true. Some synthetic fabrics seem to harbor bacteria and develop an over-powering toxic stench and while it's true that wool doesn't exhibit this noxious property, it's not 100% odor free. The scent of damp wool is distinctive and earthy, what my wife calls the "wet sheep smell." It's not a bad smell and Christine hasn't kicked me out of the house yet. In fact, when I return from my long rides I'll often find that she's taken one of my wool jerseys out of the laundry and settled it next to her on my side of the bed. "I sleep better that way," she explains, "It's cozy."

Wool is cozy. Like hot coffee or a warm bowl of soup, wool is comfort against the cold.
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