I had the opportunity to ride this morning in a new pair of lobster claw mitts I recently purchased sight unseen on the Internet. They’re Giro’s 100-Proof winter cycling gloves. I’m not sure I understand the name, but whatever. The more important question is would they perform in Iowa’s rugged winter weather. The answer is a resounding yes.
For what it’s worth, these are a replacement for a similar pair of Craft lobster claw mitts that lasted three solid seasons. Last Saturday, I rode about 23 miles in a 33° downpour, though, and that was pretty much the end of the Crafts. I literally had to stop and wring them out three times along the way. That was fun. I washed and tumble dried them when I got home, but the insulating layer is just never going to be the same. I’ll get some use out of them on more mild days but that’s about it.
Giro rates their gloves as good to +15° F and wouldn’t you know it but that was the temperature when I took off in the pre-dawn darkness this morning for my first ride in these babies. The wind chill was six above, but we don’t spend too much time thinking about wind chills in Iowa. If we did, we’d probably stay in bed.
Speaking of wind, it was a relatively light 6 mph out of the southeast, and so I decided to roll the dice and take the Fargo out on gravel. I’d done a little gravel earlier in the week and so I knew it was going to be icy, but the fatbike is equipped with Bar Mitts and they’re so good that I can literally go gloveless on all but the coldest days. It wouldn’t be a fair test of the Giros. It wouldn’t be a test at all.
So off I went on the Fargo for a quick 20 miles. I say quick because after five straight 20 milers on the fatbike, this was a little like taking the Porsche out of the barn. The verdict on the gloves? They’re good. I was out for 90 minutes, more or less, and my fingers weren’t at all cold until the last five minutes. I remember feeling them and looking at the time on my Garmin.
Eighty five out of ninety minutes on a 15° F morning is about as good as it gets in my little world. Operationally, I had no problem with the shifters or brakes. There’s even a little pocket in the mitts for those handwarmer thingees if you’re into that. I’ve never tried them. Bottom line, there’s no downside to this product that I can see except possibly wear. I don’t have any concerns here, but you never know. We’ll see how they hold up over time.
If you want a pair, size up at least one full size. I normally wear larges and I followed the advice of previous purchasers and went with the XLs. They fit, but they’re not at all big. Large’s would not have worked. Expect to pay somewhere around $50 which, truth be told, is why I went with these. The similar Crafts were in the $70-$80 range.
The season’s first wave of seriously cold weather is upon us. Highs will struggle to break freezing by the weekend. There will be wind, of course, down from Alberta and Saskatchewan. There is always wind in this part of Iowa. Yesterday morning it was blowing steadily at 20 mph with gusts to 30. The wind chill was in the teens. Sounds bad, I know, but it really wasn’t. Honest.
This will be my fifth winter on the bike. The first year, I’d just venture out when the weather was somewhat tolerable. I didn’t do snow at first. I also didn’t realize what I was getting into or just how addictive it was.
The second winter is really when everything changed. We were still in Indiana and I distinctly remember riding down a lighted side path in a howling blizzard. A minivan passed on the adjacent street. In the back were two young boys with their faces glued to the window. They were looking at me with jaws agape and there was no doubt what they were thinking. It wasn’t the same thing their mother up front was thinking, that’s for sure.
As I rode on, it occurred to me that, yes, this really was as cool as those boys thought it was and so I found myself cycling more and more, no matter the weather. People ski, I rationalized. This wasn’t much different than that. I rode eight miles on the coldest day of the year, a day when the ambient temperature was -15° F. It didn’t kill me. Instead, it offered me a glimpse of what I was capable of. I liked the way it made me feel.
There are two primary challenges to winter cycling in these parts. One is staying warm. The other is staying upright. Staying warm has gotten a lot easier. Modern synthetics, from Gore to Polarfleece, are pretty amazing. There aren’t too many days when I’m uncomfortable for more than a few minutes.
Head, fingers and toes are the only real challenges. I use bar mitts on my fat bike and Craft lobster claw gloves from Sweden on everything else. I change over to platform pedals which accommodate a pair of Solomon boots on my feet. Those boots are good to minus thirty, and so ever since I made that change my feet are never cold. As far as my head goes, I wear beanies under my helmet. I have one from Outdoor Research with a Goretex band around the ears that’s really nice and I recently picked up a Polarfleece beanie from Duluth Trading that has become my new favorite. It’s part of their Alaskan Hardgear line. On really dangerous days, I slip a Goretex balaclava under the beanie.
It took me a while to get the apparel part of the equation right. Layers are important and finding the right mix requires experimentation. What works for me might not work for you. One thing to be aware of though is that cotton is the enemy in the winter. You don’t want to wear cotton. It will absorb moisture and make you very uncomfortable. In the perfect storm, it could cause serious hardship.
Staying upright is always a concern whenever the temperature dips below freezing, but if you haven’t tried it you might be surprised to discover that it’s not as big of a deal as it seems going in. Like anything else, the more you ride on snow and ice the easier it gets. You’ll learn to recognize different types of conditions and adjust for them. I still fall from time to time, but not often and mostly when I get a little sloppy and lazy. I’ve never hurt myself and so it’s not something that I worry too much about.
I have several winter bikes that I alternate between depending on conditions. My go to bike is my Salsa Fargo with 29″x 2.25″ knobby mountain bike tires. When the snow’s a little deeper, I ride my Surly Wednesday fat bike.
I’ve cycled in the winter in states as different and unique as Utah and Indiana. These days, most of my riding is done near our Iowa home in rural areas where there’s little or no salt. If I was to ride in the city, I’d get an old 26″ hardtail mountain bike and make it my winter runner. If it was flat where I lived, I’d seriously consider something I could convert to single speed. Road salt and other chemicals are a toxic brew that will eat derailleurs and other add ons pretty quickly if you don’t rinse your bike off after every grimy ride. Simpler is generally better.
On the dangerously cold days (which I define as days where the temp is below zero and the wind chill is -30° or lower), I tend to ride closer to home. Instead of an out and back course, I might do a loop where I’m never further than a few miles from my front door. If I need or want more miles, I might ride the loop twice. I also pay attention to the wind and try to ride out into it so that I have it at my back on the way home. Nothing is worse than working up a sweat only to turn around and have the wind hitting you in the face for ten or fifteen miles.
Speaking of miles, I cycle fewer in the winter…on average about half what I do the rest of the year. That said, I’ve gone as long as 40 miles on days where the temperature never got out of the twenties.
It’s not some macho thing with me to ride in cold weather. I do it because I genuinely like the way it makes me feel. Riding a bicycle is important to me, regardless of the weather. That said, there is a certain sense of accomplishment that comes with heading out into inhospitable conditions and making it back home. It’s more about knowing that I can adapt and survive than it is one of “conquering” nature or anything else.
So if you’ve thought about doing this, I hope that this is the year you will give it a try. Cycling in cold weather can be magical. It’s really a shame that more people don’t do it.