Note: This is the seventh installment in a series of articles on winter cycling. I hope to have the entire series finished by late November and then publish it as a free PDF book that you can download from this website (the working title is, “A Guide To Winter Cycling”).
I always ride with some sort of cycling cap under my helmet—in the summer I use the Headsweats Shorty Cycling Skull Cap to keep the sweat out of my eyes, and in late fall and early winter I wear the Pearl Izumi Barrier Skull Cap to keep my head warm and my ears from freezing. This is a soft, windproof and water-resistant insulated cap that provides excellent moisture transfer (i.e., it doesn’t trap water). It is also thin enough to fit comfortably under your helmet.
This cap is constructed of two polyester panels. The panel that covers your forehead and ears is made from a windproof Barrier fabric—it is meant to be snug against your head to keep you warm and protect you from the wind. The back of this cap is made from Pearl Izumi’s P.R.O. Thermal fabric—it will keep you warm without causing moisture buildup under the cap. This cap is only sold in one size and should be suitable for most people. However, if you are petite it is going to be too big and if you have a large head it is going to be too tight. The Pearl Izumi Barrier Skull Cap is only available black and retails for $30 and if your local bike shop does not have it in stock you can get order one from Performance Bicycle, Bike Nashbar or Amazon.com.
Another item I often use in cool weather is a helmet cover. Helmet covers close up the vents in your cycling helmet and shield your head from rain—my favorite one is the Louis Garneau Bicycle Helmet Cover. This cover is made of a very breathable Stopzone fabric and does a fantastic job of blocking both wind and rain.
The Louis Garneau Bicycle Helmet Cover is available in two colors: Black or Bright Yellow. Both colors of this helmet cover have reflective piping to help motorists see you in low-light situations. I wear the bright yellow cover when I am riding on the road because it is hard for drivers to miss. When I am riding on muddy off-road trails I wear the black helmet cover because it will still look good after I wipe the mud off. The Louis Garneau Bicycle Helmet Cover is available in two sizes: Small/Medium and Medium/Large. This helmet cover retails for around $20 and I have yet to find a better helmet cover on the market.
With a good balaclava and a helmet cover I have no trouble keeping my head warm in temperatures down to around 20 degrees. If you look in any cycling catalog you will quickly see that there is no shortage of balaclavas available—I own at least six balaclavas and not all of them are cycling specific.
For early winter one of the least expensive balaclavas you’ll find is the Bontrager Balaclava. The feature that appeals to me most about the Bontrager Balaclava is the way the front folds down so you can get a drink or eat a carb gel. The balaclava fits well and offers full head, face and neck protection. It is thin enough to easily fit under your helmet, but thick enough to provide real warmth. The flatlock seams on this headpiece means that you won’t have the imprint of a seam on your forehead for several hours after your ride is finished. Some balaclavas are so thick that they restrict your ability to breathe. I had absolutely no problem breathing while riding with this balaclava. However, the fabric around the mouth held moisture like you wouldn’t believe! All of the balaclavas I own hold moisture to some degree, but this one held a lot more than most. Another negative with this item is that because it holds moisture it will also fog up your glasses every time you stop. On the other hand, the way this balaclava folds down in front makes me love it anyway.
While Bontrager does not usually have “top of the line” clothing, I think their products are reasonably priced and offer a decent value for the price. In addition, Bontrager offers one of the best guarantees you will find anywhere for cycling product: “If for any reason you’re not satisfied with the comfort of your Bontrager saddle, shoes, or technical apparel, return the item(s)—along with the original sales receipt—to the place of purchase within 30 days of purchase date for exchange or store credit.” The Bontrager Balaclava retails for $25 and should be available at any bike shop that sells Trek bikes. If there is not a Trek dealer in your area you can order it online from hundreds of different Trek bike shops.
The Seirus Combo Clava is usually sold as a balaclava for alpine skiing, snowboarding and hiking, and is also a good choice for winter cycling—it is lightweight, extremely warm, quick drying and highly breathable. The main body of this clava is made of Polartec fleece and the smaller face mask part is made of contoured Neofleece. Neofleece is really five layers rolled into one. The first layer is the outer shell, the second is a waterproof liner, and under that is fleece lined Neoprene, followed by Thermolite insulation and finally a wicking Microfleece lining next to your skin.
The Seirus Combo Clava fits great under most bike helmets. Out of all the balaclavas I own this one produces the least amount of fogging on my glasses. In fact, the only time it ever produces any fog is when I have to stop. The easiest way to deal with this is to pull the face mask down under your nose when you stop. While your mouth will be covered with the face mask part, I have found it to be easy to breathe through due to the holes in the mask. This balaclava is available in three sizes (ES, SM/MD and LG/XL). To determine the size you need just measure the circumference of your head just below your nose. The SM/MD size fits 20–24 inches and LG/XL size fits 22–26 inches. The Seirus Combo Clava retails for around $30. I purchased mine from Dick’s Sporting Goods, but they are also available at many online stores, such as REI.com and Amazon.com.
Another great balaclava is the Chaos Thermal Regulation CTR Howler Multi Tasker Pro Balaclava. This balaclava offers incredible face and neck protection, in part due to the hinged design that prevents gaps in the fabric, and it easily drops down off the face when you need to get a drink. This product also has a soft fleece interior to help wick moisture away from the skin. For a winter athlete the most important feature of this balaclava is the mesh breathing panel that covers the mouth area. One of the biggest complaints most cyclists and runners have against balaclavas is that they restrict air flow. I am happy to report that this balaclava did not impede my breathing in the slightest!
Because of the way this balaclava is designed you can cover nearly your entire face, leaving only your eyes exposed, or you can open it up a bit if you start to overheat. If the weather warms up you can pull the face mask down and use it as a neck gaiter. Like every other balaclava I’ve ever owned this one can cause your glasses to fog up. Since this balaclava is extremely warm you might save it for days when it is so cold you need to wear ski goggles instead of regular cycling glasses—in which case you won’t have to worry about anything fogging up since the goggles will seal the balaclava against your face.
This balaclava is considerably warmer than the two balaclavas mentioned above. In addition, the Howler Multi Tasker Pro Balaclava is 100% windproof and has a water-repellent surface that sheds rain and snow. We all have different tolerances for cold weather, but let me tell you how well this balaclava works for me: I’ve used it several times when the temperature was below 20 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind blowing at over 20 mph. Even when riding my bike at 20 mph into a strong headwind my face was perfectly warm.
The Chaos Thermal Regulation CTR Howler Multi Tasker Pro Balaclava is available in three sizes (Junior, Small/Medium, and Large/X-Large). This product retails for around $35, but you probably will not find it at your local bike shop. However, it is available at many ski shops and online retailers like Amazon.com.
One of the most effective pieces of cold-weather gear I own is the Talus Outdoor Technologies ColdAvenger Expedition Balaclava. This balaclava has a medical-grade polyurethane ventilator that covers your mouth and nose and it mixes the warm air your expel from your lungs with fresh air from the outside—the result is that you breathe in warm, moist air. This ventilator will raise the temperature of the air your breathe in from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (for example, if the air temperature is zero Fahrenheit, you should be breathing in air that is somewhere between 40 and 60 degrees). This polyurethane ventilator is both non-toxic and anti-microbial. If you head out for a bike ride in the morning in the cold and it warms up in the afternoon you can easily remove this face mask and just use the head covering.
This product is not sold as a medical device for asthma patients. However, I do have asthma and I can tell you that if it were not for this product I wouldn’t even dream about participating in winter sports. I’ve gone on long winter bike rides while wearing the ColdAvenger Expedition Balaclava when the temperature was well below zero and have not had any lung problems as a result.
The material that covers your face, neck and head is made of “soft-shell” Polartec Wind Pro fleece and without question this is the warmest balaclava I own. The manufacturer claims that this product will block 95% of the wind, and in my experience they are absolutely correct. This balaclava is also longer than any other balaclava I own—it completely covers your neck and throat area. I’ve not had any problems with my glasses fogging up while wearing this balaclava. However, by the time it is cold enough to use this balaclava I wear ski goggles instead of cycling glasses (and the ski goggles I use are pretty much fog proof anyway). I’ve worn this balaclava under both cycling helmets and ski helmets without any trouble.
My only criticism of this balaclava is that the fit is a bit sloppy, i.e., it is not as form-fitting as I would like. I am of average size and this product is a bit loose on me. However, since the face mask attaches to the hood with a wide Velcro patch I can usually adjust it so that no cold air gets through to your skin. The Talus Outdoor Technologies ColdAvenger Expedition Balaclava is made in the U.S.A and retails for $80. This product comes with a one year warranty against manufacturer defects.
When the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit I wear a helmet that is normally intended for snow skiing—at the moment I prefer the Giro Encore 2 Multi-Sport Helmet. This helmet is certified as a multi-sport helmet, which means it is suitable for use by skaters, bicyclists, and snow skiers (certification: ASTM 2040 / CE EN1077 / CPSC). If you experience an unplanned dismount (crash is such an ugly word) while riding in deep snow you probably aren’t going to get hurt. However, snow can also hide some nasty rocks, broken fence posts and sharp objects—not to mentioned a layer of slippery ice.
Unlike regular bicycle helmets, snow helmets usually allow for a bit of customization. The Giro Encore 2 has removable ear flaps that will definitely help keep your ears warm, but they also inhibit your ability to hear ambient noises. If you are riding off-road where you are not worried about getting hit by a car, you can install a set of Skullcandy headphones into these ear flaps (like the Skullcandy Home Brew Kit). All of my winter cycling jackets have headphone ports—a small opening inside a vest pocket so you can run a headphone jack into your iPhone or MP3 player. And let’s face it, riding in a blinding snowstorm is a lot easier when you are listening to Air Supply (does that officially make me old?)
This helmet has thirteen small cooling vents with mesh covers (the mesh helps keep the snow out). The Giro Encore 2 Multi-Sport Helmet retails for $60. This helmet is available in three sizes: Small (52–55.5cm), Medium (55.5–59cm), and Large (59–62.5cm). This helmet comes in several colors, but since the names they use won’t mean much to you, I’ll say the color selection is red, black, white, hi-viz yellow, and ivory (not all colors are available in all sizes).
When the temperature drops to below -5F I wear a Smith Optics Variant Brim Snow Helmet. This helmet has a dual regulator climate control which means you can close the vents when you get cold (I kept mine closed when the temperature is below -5 Fahrenheit). The removable ear flaps allow you to hear traffic, but still keep your ears warm at the same time. Also, because this is a snow helmet, you can wear snow goggles and when you don’t need them they will rest comfortably on the top of the helmet without falling off (there is even a small clip at the back to keep the goggles from moving around).
The curvature of the helmet is designed to match the curvature of most snow goggles and it also provides flow-through ventilation which means no fogging even on the worst days. This helmet is very lightweight and has a very comfortable fit. This snow helmet has the same safety certifications as the Giro Encore above. This helmet retails for $160.