It’s December, so in the spirit of good, old-fashion, American style consumerism, I bring you the Holiday Utilitarian Cyclist Cold Weather Gift List. If you have a cyclist or an emerging cyclist on your holiday shopping list, and you don’t want to spend a mint setting them up, then you are in luck. If the cyclist on your list only rides for fitness, then go to the traditional bike magazines for the latest bike gadget list. But if your cyclist has somewhere to go, here is a list of mostly-cheap, cold-weather gear that they will love.
The best value riding pant is hanging at your favorite thrift shop right at this moment. If the pants are more than $10 you’re spending too much. I’m talking about wool slacks. The dress-up kind. They are light, they stay warm even when wet, and they look reasonably normal off the bike. If you really want to show your cyclist you love them, then taper the leg and put a zip along the ankle. Or go knicker-style if your cyclist can pull off the look.
You must do something with the pant legs, as they tend to be wide and like to get hung up and greasy in the chain. If you don’t sew, then go to your LBS and ask for some pant clips. The metal ones. I just bought some made by “Pyramid.” It’s the best $7 I spent this year. A buddy introduced me to these a couple months ago and I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without them. They are way more effective than any Velcro strap. And they’re a great stocking stuffer.
The Top Layer
But before you leave the thrift shop, see if you get lucky finding some thin merino or cashmere shirts. You need to find some thin wool layers for your cyclist. In my experience, wool is the only material that meets my list of demands for riding in the cold: it keeps you warm; it keeps you warm when wet; it keeps the funky odor at bay; and it’s comfy. Don’t believe the “wicking” story the technical plastic fabric folks try to sell you. It’s simply marketing fluff. Plus, the plastics stink to high heaven.
The hard part about finding good wool at thrift shops is that you end up finding stuff that has too loose of a weave, which deforms and sags when it gets wet. If your cyclist is not a big sweater (that is, sweat: as in perspiration), then you can probably get by with a thrift store wool top. Otherwise, you may have to bite the bullet and spend a pretty penny on one nice SmartWool base layer here. At $50 it’s a commitment, but your cyclist will sing your praises every time they ride, especially if they’ve previously been riding in plastic undergarments. One SmartWool base layer is really the gift that keeps on giving.
Your cyclist will need a shell. A good shell should block the wind and water and still breathe. With these requirements we’re getting into some fuzzy physics. Again, Madison Avenue would like us to believe in the fantasy of waterproof and breathable. Maybe I sweat more than most folks, or maybe my interpretation of “breathable” is too literal, but when I am riding hard in the rain in a waterproof jacket, I always get wetter from my sweat than I do from the rain. I have tried the fanciest of the fancy technical jackets to work around this issue and I’ve given up. If you ride hard in the rain, you will be wet, so the goal is to stay warm. Really, I use my shell more as a wind blocker when it’s below freezing, than I do as a rain jacket.
That said, the hands-down best value in a rain jacket/shell is called the O2. It’s made by a company called Rainshield, and considering it’s a bike-specific garment it’s an astonishingly low $35. To the extent that it breathes at all, it beats the pants off both of my $100+ technical bike-specific rain jackets. Plus the O2 stuffs down to nothing. One word of caution: it’s a tad fragile. Tell your cyclist to be nice to it.
Hands are easy to keep warm on the cheap. For the majority of tooling around town, rag wool gloves are ideal. I’ve seen these for sale at gas stations, hardware stores, sports stores, and a bunch of other places; I’ve never seen them sold for more than $10. If you’re doing longer rides or the weather is colder, than you may be better off with the mitten version. (All bikes, regardless the type of shifter are a cinch to ride with mittens.)
Again, (surprise) go with wool. Make sure your cyclist has shoes that allow the glorious puffiness of wool to do its thing. If your cyclist crams their wool-clad feet into tiny shoes that compress the wool, then there is no benefit to the wool. It’s like insulation. Loft is a requirement to keep those toes warm. So, normal shoes or even sandals are a must, as cycling-specific shoes are notoriously narrow.
That’s it for clothes. If you have money left over and you really want to show your love, get as much lightening and reflective stuff for your cyclist as you can afford. If your beloved cyclist isn’t flashing like a bad nativity scene, then don’t let him or her out the door.
John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.