Saturday, November 22, 2008

Southeast Alaska armor

Date: Nov. 22
Mileage: 30.1
November mileage: 636.7

My friend Brian took this photo today during a random drive-by on the North Douglas Highway (hope it's OK that I posted it on my blog, Brian.) I think it shows me in my element - draped in a baggy, dripping coat and riding through grimy slop in the rain. It also shows the clothing system I've settled on and am actually pretty happy with when it comes to dealing with common coastal Alaska riding conditions.

During the winter in Juneau, it's common for the city to receive a few inches of snow overnight before rain takes over during the day. The snow turns to slop and slush, and rain continues to fall from the sky, resulting in conditions that can only be described as "cold and wet." Underline the wet. I've done a lot of trial and error runs, and finally arrived on a clothing set-up that can keep me warm for at least five hours. I haven't yet had the mental stamina to test it any longer in what is admittedly not my most favorite weather to ride in, but my theory is I could go most the day and stay relatively warm (excepting the occasional frigid downhill runs):

1. Gortex shell: Gortex actually does a pretty good job of keeping rain out, although my coat is large enough that slush does find its way in from the bottom.
2. Fleece pullover and polypro long-sleeve shirt: It seems polar fleece and polypro retain about the same insulation value regardless of whether they're wet or dry.
3. Mittens: Ski mittens and gloves are almost never actually waterproof, so if I'm going out longer than three hours, I usually take my handlebar mitts (pogies).
4. Rain pants: I don't own a pair of waterproof rain pants either, but spinning pedals keeps my legs warm enough that I don't worry too much about the wet factor on my legs. Keeping the wind away from wet mid and base layers is important; that's the main reason for the rain pants and the Gortex coat.
5. Polypro tights: Good insulator, and they don't soak up too much water.
6. NEOS overboots: After a couple years of chain rub and duct tape patches, my pair are admittedly no longer waterproof, although the used to be. Keeping the feets dry is key.
7. 50-below Arctic wool socks: Crucial once the feets do get wet.
8. Random shoes: Usually a pair of running shoes.
9. Ear warmer: I find it's easiest to regulate heat through my hands and head. Keeping a light layer on my head prevents me from overheating and sweating too much. Alternately, I carry a heavy hat to put on when I get cold.

So that's my wet snain/sleet/snow armor. I used to think it was impossible to stay out longer than three hours when the weather was in the 30s and wet. I no longer believe this, although I still like to avoid it when I can. (Too bad my gym membership expired.)


Late Edit: I wanted to thank Dave C. for an insightful and illuminating review of my book. He took time out of his busy grad school schedule to write what could be a paper in and of itself (believe me, I wrote a lot of lit papers as an English major), and it's given me a few new angles to reflect on in this whole experience. Thanks. :-)


  1. Thanks for the description, Jill. This is quite amazing for someone who thinks 40 (5C) is freezing (I'm such a wuzz when it comes to cold). Our winter in Brisbane resembles more your summer in Alaska I believe. Love the photo. You look like the weather doesn't bother you the least. :-)

  2. I love this photo! I'll take snow over rain any day...

  3. I rode my motorcycle one time when it was 7 degerees below zero. With a 55mph windchill factor, and not getting any exercise to stay warmed up, made it worse than any winter bicycle ride I've ever done.

  4. What a great photo! And riding in that kind of weather makes me want to poke my eyes out.

  5. You couldn't PAY me to bike in the rain, let alone when it is that cold! At least you love it. Hope all your layers keep you warm and dry!

  6. This information is much more useful to others than you may think. The weather you describe is very much like that of Lower Michigan in the winter. Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where I live, turns to nothing but lots of snow over the winter. We do have our wet, snowy tweener seasons, though. Thanks! This is VERY helpful to me. :-)

  7. hey i use sealskins waterproof breathable socks with a stormsock as a liner and me likey for wet.

  8. I am your humble servant.

    The layering rundown is very helpful. I'm still curing myself of the Arizona mindset of rain=stay home. Slowly.

  9. i sat around the house all day today...and i had made up my mind to stay on the couch and not go to the gym this evening.

    BUT... i read your blog and thought about you getting outside for a several hour ride in crappy conditions...and i thought if she can ride in that weather, i certainly can handle an hour on the stairmaster.

    so, thanks for getting me off my lazy ass and into the gym!

  10. So great to see you *on* your bike Jill! Great photo!

  11. Great pic, even better post.

    I'm all in agreement about the gortex shell, have just started experimenting with polar fleece, much appreciate the tip on polypro, am reading up on it.

    Have you tried the new wools? Merino wool blends are not scratchy, VERY soft, and they're using it to make superb base and mid layers.

    Other then being addicted to Smart Wool socks, I have not personally experimented with it so much, probably because it is expensive.

    Polar fleece may not be quite as nice, but it's still very comfortable, pretty cheap and fairly commonplace in the market since it's been on the market so long.

    Merino wool blends are still the new kid on the block. Polar fleece is a well established market. Merino wool blends are the future though.

    Mittens? I haven't taken that leap to no fingers... perhaps it's because I'm a two finger shifter kind of guy... perhaps it's because it doesn't get nearly so cold here in Michigan. I've been thinking about trying lobster style though. Am looking to replace my old snowboard gloves... I love them, love that they have removeable liners allowing me to ride without the outer shell, or use any liner I want (including multiple liners) but you're right; they're not completely waterproof. Am trying to find a gortex shell. Oregon Research looks very promising as does Gore... my problem, my hands are to big. :( Gore has XXXL gloves though... ust discovered them, very excited as I've been looking for weeks.

    Rain pants... My legs are mostly impervious to cold, but I do mix it up. I wear as many different types of riding pants as I have shirts.

    Tights + waterproof non-breathable rain pants.

    Tights + tough as nails, but not completely waterproof snowboard pants (a favorite because they're tough, light, and have easily zip side vents that regulate temp and airflow extremely well.

    Fleece + snowboarding pants (for extreme cold).

    Even common sweats plus khakis for non-rain casual tooling around town.

    Boots? Nothing can beat the waterproof and temp qualities of boots, but they're heavy and don't spin well in the pedals. Have you tried clip shoes + waterproof shoe covers. These have excelent breathing, waterproofing and even warmth qualities and are very versatile. It doesn't get as cold here, but even at -5 with -20 wind chill I've never had need for more.

    *On a related note I love my Crank Bros Mallet pedals... they're bear traps with clips. They're bomb proof and grip boots and even sandals well. No slips, no shin bruises or gashes.

    50-below arctic wool socks? I'd love to know what these are. Can you post a pic or url? I've never had need of anything more then my Smart Wool / merino wool blend socks with at most gortex boots.

    Shoes?? For commuting I love it that I can just ride any shoe I like, but I do love riding my fixie cliped in. Spinergy = love.

    On a side note, I just had the most brilliant recommendation and had to run out and pick up some new sandals... CROCS! LOL. I just picked up closed toed crocs... (technically crocs knock-offs).

    Why crocs!? because they're the perfect off the bike touring sandal... VERY light, simple, cheap enough to be disposable, keep the toes dry when things are damp (middle of the night nature runs, morning dewy grass, even a hare bit or rain or snow). If you do get them wet they can not be soaked through since they're waterproof plastic / viynl / watever... this means they're perfect for stream crossings or other submersions. Did I mention comfortable. :)

    Admitedly crocs are not fall or winter wear. Unless.. you're talking about around the office wear... but I find birenstocks are far more stylish for that.

    Hats and ear stuff?? Completely agree on regulating temp with hands and head. I do like versatile pants and jackets with side vents, but most of the time I prefer to take off a glove layer... or move my hat up on my forehead or open my collar.

    I find these far more subtle actions have a tremendous impact body temp, and keeping the sweat from building up. Oh, and of course the obvious... regulating your temp through ride intensity... but then I don't have to climb and decend mountains around here.. which probably blows regulating temp with ride intensity out the window.

    I also completely agree about a light hat. Love the lightweight balaclava for it's flexibility. (Roll it up and it's a hat)

    Add in a cold weather ski / snow headband with the balaclava just to keep the ears warm when it gets colder (while allowing the top of the head to breath), and you've got the perfect solution for everything from 45 to about 0 degrees. Beyond that it's full hat + balaclava.

    So! What do you do about wind burn??

    Chapstick is a must (works well down below zero for preventing black lips), glasses or googles (for extreme cold) + anti-fog wipes (a snowboarding thing) are all a must, but I've just ignored wind burn wear the balaclava doesn't cover. Am planning on experimenting with vasaline (has been highly recommend) and someone suggested Bag Balm... which is already a must for the bike shorts. BTW, Bag Balm btw doesn't work very well as chap stick even in an emergency (perhaps it's not waterproof), but it does seem like it might be smart on the skin.

    == Overall ==
    I think you've had warmer weather lately then us here in lower michigan. (irony) In fact the creek here is actually frozen over. It was a warm day here with a high of 32, sunny and little to no wind. In short, great riding weather. Best in weeks.

    However I long for the 35 degree rainy weather last week, I'm sure we'll get some again. I'm sick and twisted and love foul weather. For me it's like a security blanket. (Is that so screwed up?)

    To think, not two weeks ago I was touring down on the Ohio river and it was actually 80.

    Oh, how I love the randomness that fall. It's 80, then suddenly the christmas decorations are up and the music (and commercials) are everywhere.

    So... commenter Di is right... michigan gets some brutal conditions because of the lakes and their lake effect snow... and all the rain they bring. On top of that the SE corner where I live is open flat farm country and this time of year the wind whips through it at a consistent 15-25 mph daily.

    The wind is the most brutal part. I think that's part of the reason why I love riding in rain and snow so much... it often stills the wind a little... sometimes.

    Finally, I'm compiling some reasons why some crazies love foul weather riding.

    1) gym membership expired

    2) drivers licensce expired / revoked

    3) masochist

    4) born and raised in the Arctic Circle (by wolves)

    5) solitude: there's nobody around to ask stupid questions

    Peace! And thanks again for the excellent post. I can't wait to read your book.

  12. Jill I have only made through half of your book right now and all I can say is DAMN...What an amazing woman you are. I like how you skip from then to now, very riveting, I have to break from reading every once in awhile to get my heart rate back down. You definetly keep a suspensful life. I urge you to become a writer. I know cars are not your thing but if you get a chance to check out Peter Egans books called "Side Glances" I think you will find that your writing style is similar to his.

    OH PLEASE put out another book, as I will buy....

  13. Not to rain on the parade, but I'm concerned about the headphones. I admit that I'm a big bicycle-safety freak; hence, I usually have issues with people listening to music while riding on traveled roads. I admire you like crazy--just a bit miffed by the music.

  14. Anonymous--The coldest I've ever been is on a motorcycle. In fact, of the top 10 times I've been the most cold, I'll bet 6 of them were on motorcycles. Brutal.


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  16. I just finished your book. My only question is.....when's your next book coming out?

    Very good read, I enjoyed every page:-)

  17. I'm not sure I could have lived in Juneau... never had a problem in cold temps, nor in summer rains, but I really disliked riding in +25 to +40 in the rain and sleet.

    When I was riding and bike commuting in Squarebanks, I always prefered to ride at -35 in the clear cold than at +35 in the rain. I disliked late august and september for riding into work. As far as I was concerned, winter couldn't arrive soon enough once fall put in an appearance. Had better rides at -50 than I ever had at +30 in the snain.

    Great book, BTW! When's the next one?

  18. Taiga Works in Vancouver BC makes some really nice Gore Tex cycling clothing. I have their jacket, pants, and booties. The jacket is loaded with ventilation - pit zips, and a large flap on the back which can be retracted. The pants are full waterproof zippered. Both are fully seam-sealed. Their prices are very reasonable, but they only have one store, that being at the factory.

  19. I LOVE this picture of you! Who took it? I'm sad I don't get to see you for Thanksgiving on Thursday, but I am glad some of your friends will be around you. Holidays always make me miss you. Happy Turkey day on Thursday. I love you sister
    xoxo Sara

  20. Howdy again,

    Just a follow up.

    We've been continuing to have very wet weather hear in Michigan so I've been continuing to obsess over cold and rainy weather gear. (And obsess is the proper term. :)

    I went out for an overnighter in the pouring rain / sleet / snow this week. When I started it was pouring, by time I headed back the next day there was 6+ inches of snow. Nearly constant precip. Good times. Good times. :)

    It's something only a few demented folks can understand.

    Normally this would be heavy gortex outer shell weather, but I just got these things called Frog Togg Dri Ducks.

    They're ultra-lighweight, ultra-cheap, breathable rain gear. They were recommended to my by some hunting friends, and seem to be popular with ultra light weight backpackers.

    Bottom line... road for HOURS and hours... maybe five straight hours at 34 down to 30 degrees in the rain, sleet and eventually snow without it ever saturating the liner. Under it I had a long sleeve poly-pro base layer, a standard short sleeve bike shirt and a medium weight zip front polar fleece jacket.

    The material breathes, but I'm not yet sure if the material is more or less breathable then gortex.

    Personally I'm VERY happy with jacket as it's small enough to throw in the bottom of the bag for emergencies... yet so useful I have a feeling I'll be using it A LOT.

    More importantly because it's extremely light and breathable... lighter then anything gortex or even pvc... it has much more subtle thermo regulation properties then ANY other material so I don't end up cooking and sweating like crazy in it. This I think is it's ultimate triumph.

    I also suspect it means I can use it in much warmer temperatures then I'd use any other rain gear so it's going to be awesome come spring and summer.

    I think it'll be great probably down to 10-20 degrees with proper base layers and even up to perhaps the low to mid 60's. That's quite a hugely versatile piece of rainwear.

    The only complaint I'm reading is that it is easier then other fabrics to tear, but this is certainly not an issue unless your fond of riding through the underbrush.

    What's more if it does tear since it's oversized it's easily fixed with duct tape or a little needle and thread.

    Oh... one thing... the pants... just throw them out or use them for some off the bike purpose. They're certainly not durable enough in the crotch for riding. Though if they could come up with a reinforced crotch the material itself is certainly perfect for the leggings where you need maximum breathing.

    Did I mention it is $20 ?

    p.s. I've also been hearing the same great things about Showers Pass gear that people keep mentioning in the comments here... and another recomendation, Gore Bike Wear's "Cross" jacket. In fact I'm just about to order a pair of Gore Cross gloves. I prefer "shell only" liners but gore is the only one who sells stuff bigger then XL, XXL in fact. We'll see how those do.

  21. btw... gore's gloves are available up to XXXL not just XXL. Mistype.

  22. The weather is the weather is the weather.I don't care about the conditions,just the ride. My meager 5.6 miles is nothing compared to yours,but I love to have control and to not be beholdin' to buses or street cars. I admire your gumtion and determination. Also, I am glad you made the cut at your paying job. Don't carry survivors guilt. It serves no good. Good luck and keep hope alive.


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