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Tested: Winter Wear, Part 1

  • By Zach White
  • Published Feb. 7, 2011
  • Updated Dec. 7, 2012 at 3:24 PM EDT

CHECK OUT THE FULL PHOTO GALLERY
READ: WINTER GEAR, PT. 2

Not all of us can (or want to) live in sunny Southern California. Nor can we all deal with riding on rollers in a musty basement, hammering out intervals during the commercials interrupting South Park reruns.

And while most of us living in regions prone to sub-freezing temperatures can justify sitting on the couch eating bon-bons as “recovery time” when the mercury drops into the teens, we actually do have another option.

Technology in cycling clothing has come a long way in the last few years, allowing for warm, fuzzy comfort to be found in even the most frigid of conditions. Some of it, like Pearl Izumi’s Cocona softshell fabric with laser cut ventilation holes, is the stuff George Jetson would be impressed with. While other pieces, like Smartwool’s 100 percent merino wool baselayer or the leather in Shimano’s SH-MW80 winter shoes, have simply refined centuries-old materials into modern marvels.

But regardless of what it’s made out of, today’s winter cycling clothing all but ends the usual winter whining.

Shimano's SH-MW80 is perfectly comfortable in the snow. Photo by Zach White

Shimano SH-MW80
MSRP:  $230
Sizes:  40-48, whole sizes only

Shimano throws an impressive mix of tried-and-true materials into their winter-specific MW80, ultimately resulting in a piece of winter wear that should be mandatory in the closet of any cyclist who rides in inclement weather with any regularity.

The biggest benefit over a typical booty/shoe combo is an insulated Gore Tex layer that fully encapsulates each foot. This layer stops water and cold temps from creeping up through the cleat plates, and is essentially impervious to water saturating through the uppers as well. At the same time there is enough wicking and breathability in the Gore Tex Duratherm layer to keep feet from getting clammy and cold, especially with a temperature-appropriate wool sock.

Speaking of, Shimano designed the toe box to include a little extra room for thicker winter socks, which was greatly appreciated on several truly frigid days that warranted breaking out the ski socks. Conversely, while riding in sweat-producing temperatures with a thin acrylic/nylon sock, my feet stayed comfortable and relatively dry.

Other advantages over booties include the ability to adjust fit at any time, a noticeable reduction in pedaling restriction, and removing two more steps in the process of stepping out the door. The full-grain leather uppers with rhyno-liner-like material reinforcing the usual wear spots are also incomparable to a booty in regards to durability. And it should go without saying that the rubberized lugs attached to an EVS/nylon midsole offer much better traction than a booty-enveloped shoe, without the worry of booty damage. The midsole itself isn’t the stiffest on the market when compared to carbon soles, but does transfer power to the pedals quite efficiently while still allowing the ability to hike comfortably and confidently when needed.

For those weight weenies, the size 45 test shoes weighed in at 1,148-grams with SPD cleats. By comparison, the same sized Octane SL II’s and a pair of Barrier MTB shoe covers weighed in at 1090, SPD cleats included as well. Considering the Octanes are some of the lightest mountain bike shoes available, 58-grams seems like a small price to pay for such a superior winter shoe.

Pearl Izumi's Barrier MTB Shoe Cover is one of the best options available for a mountain bike specific booty. Photo by Brad Kaminski

Pearl Izumi Barrier MTB Shoe Cover
MSRP:  $60
Sizes:  Medium, Large, X-Large

For many, riders purchasing a winter shoe simply isn’t in the budget. So a great alternative is a winter shoe cover. The trick for mountain bikers is to find one that is designed to take the added abuse of trail life. Pearl Izumi makes a great option to fit that bill.

The fleece-lined Barrier MTB Shoe Cover offers excellent insulation underneath a neoprene body with an added water/wind resistant layer in the critical uppers to keep feet that much more comfortable when wet conditions arise.

Where this shoe cover stands out as mountain-bike specific is in its interface with the lugged sole of a mountain bike shoe. Leaving the vast majority of the bottom open to allow lugs to protrude, this booty relies on a single “power band” that fits between said lugs as its anchor. However, a snug, form-fit up top and around the sides also plays a factor in keeping them in place. In addition, Pearl Izumi skips the use of trail unfriendly zippers and sticks to a velcro closure to seal things up.

With more than a handful of rides in the Barrier MTB shoe covers, the bottoms look good as new, even with a fair share of walking through rocky, snowy trail sections.  Water beads right off the Barrier layer on the uppers, and while the neoprene ankle cuffs may allow eventual saturation in extremely wet conditions, they have been pleasantly cozy in the local Colorado winter elements.

Leaving the bottom open to accommodate lugs obviously also passes the buck to the sole of whatever shoe is used to protect against the elements. I used the Pearl Izumi Octane MTB SL II, and found it necessary to put a little duct tape between the footbed and midsole to keep water from creeping in through the cleat slots on wetter rides. The Octane shoe also isn’t designed for winter riding, so on really chilly rides, temperature variation was noticeable between the bottom of my feet and the tops, which is definitely the ultimate compromise to offering a booty compatible with mountain bike shoes.

All said, when it comes to mountain bike booties, the Barrier MTB Shoe Covers are the way to go. Just remember to seal up those cleat slots and wear the warmest socks you can get away with.

The Storm Rider's palm features modest ulnar padding that doesn't add unwanted bulk, as well as silicone grips on the index and middle finger tips to aid in braking. Photo by Brad Kaminski

Dakine Storm Rider gloves
MSRP:  $45
Sizes:  XS-XL

Dakine has been making snowboard gloves since 1993, so it wasn’t surprising that their subtle, reasonably priced Storm Rider cycling glove trumped some of expected favorites in the office.

Using a combination of 100-gram Thinsulate insulation and a Gore Tex liner, the Storm Riders are both waterproof and quite warm even down to temperatures in the low teens.  The coldest test ride in these started on a snowy 12-degree day, and ended 3-hours later with the thermometer reading 8 degrees. Granted, my fingers went from okay to numb in the last half hour, but 2-plus hours of comfort in said conditions is quite impressive from a glove of this weight.

Design is simple and utilitarian. Lycra gauntlets keep wrists completely covered in case jersey or jacket sleeves come up short, yet are streamlined enough to easily fit underneath sleeves if they don’t. The palms consist of a 60/40 polyamide/polyurethane blend that offers great grip traction and is thin enough to provide excellent handlebar control, especially for a winter glove with a Gore Tex liner sandwiched inside.

There is also a modest pad sewn into the palm to provide ulnar nerve relief, and it is low-profile enough to not interfere with bar grip. And both the index and middle finger tips have silicon grips to help with positive braking in suspect weather.

The inner liner wicks sweat away quite well when temperatures rise, and last but definitely not least, the micro fleece wiping surface on the thumb is comfortable enough to warrant replacing the tissue box with a pair of Storm Riders next time I catch a cold.

Pearl Izumi's AmFIB bib tights do just about everything a rider could ask of them, except hide Zach's "winter weight." Photo by Brad Kaminski

Pearl Izumi AmFIB Bib Tights
MSRP:  $130, $150 with chamois
Sizes:  S-XXL

Pearl Izumi has updated their well-known AmFIB bib tights, providing a more anatomical cut out of their laminated, single layer AmFIB material. They’re designed to provide wind and water protection while still allowing plenty of breathability, and do so quite well. In fact, an older version of the AmFibs have been my go-to tights for years for inclement conditions, and the latest version has proven to offer the same element protection in a slightly more comfortable package.

The inside layer consists of Thermal Fleece, which provides plenty of warmth, is as soft up against the skin as you’d imagine a fleece to be, and wicks away sweat quite well to boot. The bib part of the tight is a breathable mesh with flat seams, and apparently the guys at Pearl Izumi actually ride as there’s also a stealthy pee portal up front for those times when Mother Nature calls.

Rounding out the features are 8-inch zippers on the lower legs with internal draft flaps and zipper garages, silicone gripper at the ankles, and asymmetrically cut ankle cuffs to provide better coverage up front without losing mobility everywhere else. There’s also more than enough reflective material to keep you safe riding to and from the trailhead at night.

We were able to ride these tights both with and without Pearl Izumi’s 3D Elite chamois, and my favorite was definitely the all-inclusive package. The convenience of one less piece to put on before riding was nice, but The Princess and The Pea sensitivity in me also liked not having to adjust saddle height to compensate for what essentially equates to two chamois thickness as the AmFIB tights are definitely not the thinnest material out there.

For my chamois-free AmFIB days, the liners o baggies worked very well as they didn’t add too much bulk and didn’t have their own bibs to interfere with the bibs on the tights.

That said, for riders who prefer a clean chamois for each ride (and I really hope that’s all of us), but don’t necessarily feel the need to wash a pair of winter tights after each ride, having one built in to the tights negates the ability to ride again without waiting for a laundry cycle. So, it’s really a personal preference with benefits and ball-ups to each.

The AmFIB tights do have a bit of a neoprene feel to them, and are sometimes a little awkward to get into place in that wetsuit kind of way. But after a little squirming and tugging, they settle in quite nicely for the duration of the ride.

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