Sunday, December 16, 2007

Comfortable Cycling Clothes For Damp Days

I'd always assumed that the number of people in the world who look to me for fashion advice was basically zero, but my friend Michael made me revise that estimate slightly upward when he suggested "you should write about what you wear." And if Doug in Duluth can write his "What I Wore Today" series in two part harmony ( part 1 and part 2 ) well then by golly I can ramble on about my clothes and if you find this boring you can just surf away to any of the eight-hundred and eleventy billion other pages out there on the internet and I won't be even a little bit offended.

But before I dive into talking about my clothes, I'm going to talk about one of my buddies from my younger days, my pal Ed. Ed was an empiricist, always experimenting with one thing or another. He was also the kind of twelve-year-old kid who would use words like "empiricist" in daily conversation and recreationally read the encyclopedia. While there are bookworms who never take their learning out of the library or out of doors, Ed was never that way. Every bit of book-learning would be double-checked against the real world and Ed's parents where the sort of folks who were smart enough to let Ed and his brother Dave set up a laboratory in the basement and not get too upset when things would sometimes explode or some reptile would get loose. Empiricism may be a sure path to knowledge, but that path is seldom smooth.

We all grew up in northern Minnesota, in a little town about twenty miles outside Duluth. This is a region not known for its moderate climate. In the warmer months we would ride our bikes most of the way to school, stash them at our buddy Todd's house and walk the rest of the way, but in the cold months we would take the bus. The bus stop was at the edge of Epherd's Woods, a block from Ed and Dave's place and Pete, Tom, Dave, Ed and I would gather there each morning and wait for the bus.

As it got later in the year, we all began showing up to the bus stop in warmer, heavier clothes. All of us, that is, except Ed. Ed had this blue nylon windbreaker jacket that he wore through the fall and into the winter.

"What's with the jacket, Ed?" I asked him.

"Humans are extremely adaptable beings," Ed explained, "Natives of Lapland can sleep on the ice without blankets, while denizens of the tropics can work for hours in the sun without breaking a sweat. As the weather gets gradually colder, I am gradually adapting to the cold. You bundle, I evolve."

While we all admired Ed's continuing attempts to better himself, we also could not help but notice that part of his "evolution" involved arriving at the bus stop later and later as the weather got cooler. His brother Dave, the control portion of the experiment, dressed like the rest of us with big boots, a heavy jacket, scarves, a cap, mittens, etc. Dave would trundle from their home to the bus stop, moving slowly, like an old-time diver in a pressure suit, while Ed, would wait until the last possible moment and then quickly dash the block from his home to the bus stop. We figured that one day Ed would cut things too fine and miss the bus, but Ed's mom was stern about shooing him out the door.

The experiment ended the day the bus broke down. In Minnesota in those days they pretty much never canceled school because of cold, saving our "snow" days for the days when a foot or two of snow would make travel truly impossible, Cold, even 30 degrees below zero, was just something you would deal with. And on this day, we waited at the stop for a bus that did not come in a timely fashion. Ed dashed out at his customary time, his eyes looking down the street for the bus that should be coming, his teeth clenched to keep them from chattering. The bus wasn't there.

At the stop we speculated as to where the bus might be and twenty minutes later when it did show up, the driver explained that our regular bus had stalled at the base of the hill and a replacement had to be dispatched. Ed by this time was as blue as his windbreaker and spent the duration of the bus ride curled into a fetal ball on the bus seat closest to the heater.

The next day Ed showed up at the bus stop wearing the biggest, warmest snorkel parka I have ever seen. Years later I would see the character Kenny on South Park and be reminded of Ed. Somewhere from deep within the cozy confines of the parka Ed explained, "Humans also evolve via artifacts."

And now, thirty-six years later, I'm thinking of my own artifacts of comfort, the clothes I wear each day. Like my friend Ed, I am an empiricist. What I wear is what has survived the tests of time and climate. These items may or may not be right for someone else, somewhere else but for this forty-nine year old fellow living and cycling in the Puget Sound and Cascade Mountain regions of the Pacific Northwest, these are the clothes that get the job done.

In contemplating my wardrobe I notice that mostly I don't have "bike clothes" and "normal clothes." I haven't had a car or a driver's license in years, so biking everywhere is "normal" for me and it would be "abnormal" for me to have clothes that don't work for cycling. Just as most drivers don't have special clothes for driving, I don't really have many special clothes for cycling. I do have a few bits of safety gear and a rain jacket that is cut to work well on the bike but most of my clothes came from places other than the bike shop.

I'm sure people in sunnier climes have more intelligent things to say about dressing for warm weather than I do and I'd be hard pressed to come up with something better than what Grant Petersen wrote here. Like Grant, I favor loose, button down shirts for summer riding. On very hot days if I know I'm going to work up a sweat coming into work, I'll cool down for five minutes or so (I'm usually the first one at the office), do a quick sink-shower in the bathroom and switch into a different shirt for the work day. But for many times with a cool, loose shirt, I don't work up an unacceptable level of sweat. Part of this is a function of living in the relatively cool Pacific Northwest and part of it is logging lots of miles. One of the convenient truths of bicycle commuting is that the more you do it, the easier it gets. As my friend Ed would say, you evolve. So a younger, out of shape me might have gotten to work a soaked, stinky mess, the older, maybe a little mellower me often finds the trip is "no sweat."

But it's the winter weather that people seem the most curious about and again I'll defer to people in more extreme places for serious advice about bike riding in the sub-freezing zone. Jill in Alaska, Doug in Duluth, or Scott in Minneapolis all have more intelligent and timely things to say about cold weather riding than I do. Even though I grew up in Minnesota and still think of it as a swell place, one of my adaptations took the form of migration. For the past 14 years, I've made my home in Issaquah, Washington. Not long after Christine and the boys and I moved here, I was on the phone talking with my father, who still lives in Northern Minnesota.

"How do you stand the rain, son?" It was February and it had probably been raining almost every day for the past few months in Issaquah.

"Dad," I replied, "what's the current temperature back there right now?"

"About four."

"And how many feet of snow are on the ground right now?" I further pressed.

"About four," he admitted.

"You don't have to shovel rain, Dad."

And that is one of the reasons I've chosen to live in the Pacific Northwest. Because of this choice, my wardrobe is optimized to deal with conditions that are often damp but rarely icy or bitter cold.

Starting at the top of my head, I have a helmet. I won't go into the big helmet debate right here other than to say it's the law in King County (where I happen to reside) that cyclists wear helmets when riding. And over the years I've found it to be a handy bit of gear. My helmet is sized to fit snugly over my cap and since I ride a lot at night, I've added a couple of lights and some reflective stickers to the helmet.

Under my helmet I always wear a cap. In rainy weather the brim keeps the rain off my glasses. On sunny days it keeps the glare out of my eyes. The brim also shields my eyes from headlight glare when I'm riding at night. For years I used cotton or wool cycling caps but my favorite cap now is a nylon runner's cap I bought at REI. In colder weather, I use a Buff as an earband. The Buff is a very light tube of Coolmax fabric that I can fold into various layers and configurations depending on the temperature. I thought it was kind of expensive when I first bought it but I've used the Buff for years now and if I ever loose this one, I'll go right out and buy a replacement.

My main torso layer is almost always wool. Depending on how cool the day is it may be a thin layer or a thick layer, anything from a Smartwool long sleeve zip t-shirt, a wool club jersey or a sweater from a thrift store. If the day is dry or the more common light Pacific Northwest drizzle, my over layer will be my Marmot DriClime Windshirt. The DriClime sheds light rain quite nicely and of course it's great as a wind-blocking layer. And if it does get wet it dries out quickly. TheDriClime is designed to wick moisture from the inner layer and I've found that many times I stay drier wearing the DriClime than I ever did with a true rain jacket. If there is heavy rain and I feel I need something more waterproof, I'll wear my Rainshield O2 rain jacket. The DriClime and the O2 combined weigh less, take up less space and work better than any single jacket I've ever owned. For conspicuity, I wear very light weight bright yellow Bicycle Alliance nylon vest over whatever jacket or jersey I choose to wear.

My hands are another place where I have a wool base layer combined with a more visible synthetic top layer. Military surplus rag wool gloves stay warm even when wet and can be easily wrung out if they get soaked. Every pair of "waterproof " glove I've ever tried has been problematic. Either the gloves would leak or they would be so waterproof that my hands would sweat. Once wet, the gloves would loose their ability to insulate, making things miserable, and the damp gloves would take way too long to dry. Wool gloves don't keep my hands perfectly dry, but they keep me very comfortable. Wool insulates even when wet (I wrote about this a few years ago) and that's why it forms the basis of my "comfortably damp" wardrobe. For a while I carried water-proof nylon shells to use with the wool gloves in heavy rain but I eventually figured out that the wool gloves alone were sufficient. I do wear Glo Glovs over the wool gloves most of the time. Day and night, the Glo Glovs help me when I've communicating with other road users via hand signals. And, in the interest of civility, I tend to use all my fingers when I signal.

From the waist down my base layer is a pair of lycra cycling shorts, what Scott Adams identifies as "dorky pants." Despite the fact that pretty much everybody knows that I am a dork, I do have a fondness for pockets and I got tired of all the chicks checking out my finely sculpted buns, so I over the dorky pants I wear a pair of REI Sahara Convertible Pants. The Sahara pants are made of lightweight Suplex nylon and feature plenty of pockets and zip-off legs. I have several pairs of these pants and wear them year round. The nylon dries really quickly but in heavy rain, or extreme cold I add a pair of Rainlegs as a top layer. As I noted in my 2006 review of Rainlegs, these things work well but they do kick the dork factor back into high gear. I guess I can't deny my true dorky nature. And if I'm going to be a dork, I might as well be a safety dork, so I wear yellow reflective ankle bands to keep the cuffs of my Sahara pants out of my bike chain and to further increase my conspicuity. By the way, if you find yourself slipping the word "conspicuity" into conversation, you too may be a safety dork.

My big breakthrough in foot comfort was when I finally decided that for the riding I do, cycling shoes are not the solution. For the past year I've been riding with plain platform pedals. My shoes are Keen Targhees that I wear over either a pair of thick wool socks or a couple of pairs of thinner wool socks. The Keens are pretty weatherproof, but if things are really nasty, I layer a plastic bag (bread bags work great) between the inner and outer sock. This system works better than any fancy membrane sock/shoe cover/cycling shoe combo I've tried.

Well, that's it. That's pretty much what I wear. But that certainly doesn't mean this is what you should wear. People live in different places, have different metabolisms, and have different tolerances for temperatures. We're all experiments of one, empiricists clothed in artifacts.
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