Field Tested: Tough Winter Cycling Gear
In our March 2011 issue, writer Tom Vanderbilt analyzes the hostile relationship between cyclists and drivers. If you're a year-round city rider, you know it's hard enough to navigate erratic cars, deceiving potholes, and zoned-out pedestrians without worrying about what you're wearing. Urban riding demands apparel that functions beautifully in the saddle and wherever it is you're headed: the office, a restaurant, your girlfriend's apartment -- anywhere you wouldn't show up in DayGlo spandex. Wintertime is especially challenging, what with dirty slush and icy headwinds. The gear below marries life both on and off the bike, giving you fewer excuses not to ride though the winter—especially a winter as brutal as this one.
-- Jennifer L. Schwartz
Outlier Winterweight OG Pants
I could wear these pants every day. And last winter, while splitting time between Boston and New York, I often did. The Winterweight OG's stretchy, weather-wicking material works flawlessly but doesn't scream "performance fabric," and the flattering style even elicited compliments from non-cycling friends. Though these thinly fleece-lined trousers kept me warm, dry and clean while riding though nasty New England weather, they also proved their worth off the bike while snowshoeing in Tahoe and barhopping in Cambridge. They cost as much as premium denim, but if you get half as much use out of these pants as I have, they'll be worth the investment. Major bummer: Outlier doesn't currently make a women's version of the Winterweight OG. For the ladies, the Daily Riding Pant offers similar performance, sans fleece. $188; $180 for Women's Daily Riding Pant; Outlier.cc.
Merino Wool Buff
Forget the traditional balaclava. To skip the ninja look, try the Wool Buff -- a long, merino wool tube that can be worn in a number of ways. They come in 24 colors and patterns. I chose the neutral "stone," which I wore scrunched around my neck in lieu of a scarf. But when the temps plunged, I tucked it over my earlobes and nose. Breathing heavily though the merino didn't make it damp and chilly. After removing your helmet, gather and push the material over your head to convert the Buff into a chic headband/ear warmer. From $27; buffwear.com.
Descente Wombat Gloves
Sure, you could look like a lobster. Or you could wear the Descente Wombat gloves. While my fingers did numb up once the mercury dropped below zero, these gloves served their purpose without bulk or prohibiting movement. The secret? A stretchy, stash-away cover that converts the five-finger gloves into weather-busting mittens. The black gloves are easy to throw on and remove, and extra-long, snug cuffs prevent wrist exposure. Silicone nubs provide slip-free control of steering and breaking. And, blessedly, swaths of soft fabric at the fingertips don't irritate your cold, runny nose after wiping it. $50; backcountry.com.
OverLand Equipment Cambridge Bag
If you're swerving through traffic on a road bike during downpours, nothing beats the quintessential Chrome messenger bag for its ability to stay put, keep you balanced and seriously block weather from ruining the cargo within. But once you're off the bike, the Chrome messenger doesn't distribute its weight well. And they aren't exactly discreet, especially for women. My ultimate everyday riding bag? OverLand Equipment's Cambridge. It's a durable backpack when you're in the saddle and a stylish tote with adjustable straps once you switch to pedestrian mode. This tough nylon bag has just the right amount of pockets and a zip closure, making it both my work briefcase and airplane carry-on. Recently, it even survived sandstorms in Sudan -- and looks no worse for the wear. The bag is nearly perfect: I only wish it had an external waterbottle pocket. $90; overlandequipment.com
Fabric Horse Winter Cycling Cap
Besides protecting your scull from run-ins with pavement, helmets serve the dual purpose of keeping your noggin warm. Some urban riding helmets even come with removable insulation. But if you choose not to wear headgear (or if you can adjust your helmet to accommodate a hat), the Winter Cycling Cap from Philadelphia-based Fabric Horse puts four-way stretch fleece to excellent use. Elastic bands keep the hat from sliding off your ears. But since each one is made upon ordering, mine was a bit too snug. Given the right fit, this handmade hat would make a great gift for a winter rider and comes in four color combinations. $45; fabrichorse.com.
Swrve Milwaukee ES _blk Label Heavyweight Jacket
Warmer isn't always better. Like any active winter sport, you should be a tad chilly when you first start because you're bound to work up a sweat. Urban cycling jackets must be supremely wind- and water-resistant without sacrificing breathability. They must scoop low in the back, flex generously and still stay put, all without looking too technical. And while I find it offensive that Swrve doesn't make a women's version of the Milwaukee ES _blk Label Heavyweight Jacket but does offer a thong for their female customers, the jacket -- a softshell made with impressive Sofileta material -- fulfills all above requirements fairly well. The men's extra small fit me decently, except for in the hips. The bold "pumpkin" color makes you visible to drivers without blinding them. Cons: The cuffs are made of flimsy cotton, and while the hood is indeed oversized to accommodate a helmet, I could have done without it. Swrve products are made in the USA, but for the price, it's missing some critical details, such as seam-sealed zippers. $175; swrvecycling.com.