I’m a tech guy. I like shiny things. I like electronics. I like new ideas.
When it comes to clothing for riding in winter, I get all keyed up about permeable membranes that assist in moisture transfer. The benefits of a fabric that stops wind and rain, but lets moisture out are self-evident. Indeed, for the first several years of my riding, my wardrobe focused largely on layers and layers of tech fabrics. You need the windstopper base layer to keep you warm and wick moisture away, and then maybe a poly-whatever base layer over that for insulation, and then a poly-whatever jersey (or not), and a goretex or windstopper shell on the outside. These are things that I believed were absolutely necessary for winter riding. On a night when it was 20 degrees out, I’d be wearing at least 4 layers on my upper torso.
I’m several years into my winter riding experience these days, and the benefit of that experience is that my riding garb has become simplified. I still believe, very strongly, in the benefits of a really great tech shell. I wear my Gore jackets when fat biking or mountain biking, and wear my Rapha jacket when riding gravel or road. A shell is critical to keeping you dry (keep outside rain/snow out), and keeping the wind off of you. What has changed, however, is my approach to base layers.
These days, I wear wool.
Wool keeps me warm whether it’s wet or dry. It dries quickly. It is durable. When washed regularly, it doesn’t hold stink. If you buy nice stuff, it holds up really well. It’s versatile.
If the temps are going to be upper 20s or warmer, I’m wearing a thinner wool base layer, such as the Rapha winter base layer. If it gets colder than that, I’m wearing the Rapha deep winter base layer with integrated hood. And as far as base layers go, that’s it.
I’ve ridden on the road, in wind, in 5 degree temps wearing just a wool base layer and a shell–and been totally warm. Zip up the zipper and you stay toasty. Moreover, wool dries faster–if you start getting warm or sweaty, unzip a bit and let some air flow through your shell. The wool keeps you warm, and dries out quickly.
Tech fabrics, as great as they are, simply do not wick as quickly as wool…and they don’t do as good of a job keeping you warm when they get wet (if they get wet). The other issue with layering tech fabrics is that you end up creating microclimates between layers. Tech fabrics are great at transferring water vapor from one side to the other. However, if you wear a layer of tech fabric under a layer of tech fabric, the vapor transfer doesn’t work so well.
For example, if I wear a windstopper singlet under a tech shell, the water vapor from my body passes through the singlet’s membrane, and turns into water (not vapor) on the far side of that membrane. That water gets trapped under the outer shell, and can’t get out. The water vapor doesn’t remain vapor long enough to go through both layers of membrane…so you end up trapping and retaining sweat–making you wetter. Adding a layer of fabric between the two just exacerbates the situation, as it creates a sponge to hold all of that water in place.
On the other hand, if you wear wool under a tech shell, the wool transfers the water vapor directly to the shell, the shell passes the vapor, and you remain dry. No trapped moisture. If you do become wet, the wool keeps you warm nonetheless.
I’ve been wearing Rapha wool because that’s what I have. I’ve started to look at some of the Icebreaker products more and more because, frankly, it looks like the highest quality
wool merino on the market. Picking a quality product is critical to ensuring that it will last and be useful for you after repeated use and washing.
A quick note on washing: I wash my wool base layers after every ride. I turn them inside out, and wash with cool water in a machine–and then air dry. No ill effects, even after a couple of years of use.
So today’s “lesson I’ve learned” is simple: Wear Wool. Give it a shot, and don’t feel that you have to use a ton of tech fabrics to stay warm and dry this winter. Anything to get you outside, regardless of the weather.