Upgrading the rider, rather than the bike, has been my main rule of thumb for a few decades now. While “upgrading the rider” generally means spending some time lifting weights, doing yoga, or cross training, it also means keeping the rider well protected (but not overly protected) from the elements. An hour long ride on a rainy 40° day is short enough to be tolerable with sub-par apparel, but that is no longer the case once ride time surpasses the 3 hour mark. For many of us, mountain biking means an adventure of at least a few hours in the mountains, and with that in mind, we have the necessity for good winter apparel.
I live in the top left corner of the United States- heck, I can literally see Canada from my doorstep. This means we have somewhat “real” winters.
While we have “mild” winters here in the Pacific Northwest, the term “mild” is slightly misleading. In a “real” winter, stranded by endless snow and ice, mountain biking becomes simply a memory accompanied by a collection of scarred shins and collar bones; or perhaps the sport is simply some penciled dates on the calendar for a quick trip to Moab- a trip that will likely be cancelled and replaced by a few more days on the ski hill. You see, our “mild” winters give us the illusion that we can continue to enjoy the trails, which in turn means we often venture out in 37° rain, determined to enjoy our sport in the belly of the winter. After all, it’s a “mild” climate, so it shouldn’t be a problem right? Well I’ll admit that, in 37° rain, along with the PNW humidity, it can indeed end up being a challenge to enjoy riding, “mild” or not.
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After 5 winters up here, I’ve learned that good winter clothing is an absolute necessity, perhaps more so than soft, sticky tires or decent fenders. But fenders and tires are also a really, really good idea. Anyhow, I’ll organize this in order of most important items to more luxury.
I work a lot with Jenson USA, and as I no longer have a formal apparel sponsor (I was supported by Kitsbow for over 6 years, but they changed their marketing strategy) and Jenson requested that I try some of the clothing lines they stock. While there are still a ton of brands I haven’t experienced yet, it’s been an honor trying the below items. Considering that my most recent apparel for comparison (Kitsbow) is VERY high end and set some pretty high expectations. Luckily, a lot of this stuff has gone way beyond what I expected.
For fit reference, I’m 5’8″ (174cm) and weigh 170lbs (77kg). This is almost always size medium (M).
I had always found myself using my typical, regular mountain biking gloves on winter rides. And as many of you know, wearing your summer gloves in the winter is a futile effort. They get water logged quickly- even if it’s not raining, they’ll still absorb a ton of water from trail side bushes and branches. And wet or not, regular gloves end up being insufficient to keep my fingers warm. And finally, many winter gloves are too thick for me to really feel my controls. However, these Giro gloves did everything I was looking for: hands stayed plenty warm while still having good bar feel. To me, these feel just as good as a lot of summer gloves. Another testament to how warm these gloves are is I have used them while riding my motorcycle! I bought a pair, loved them, then when I connected to Giro I asked if they could kick down a second set. They obliged, and I’ve had great experiences with both pairs. HIGHLY recommended!
Waterproof socks have been a GAME CHANGER! I bought a different brand online years ago, and haven’t tried these that I’m linking to, but they appear to be very similar to these at Jenson. I purchased the SealSkinz socks, in a thicker model, and they keep the water out while also keeping the heat in. I have been throughly impressed by these and absolutely improved my quality of life on winter rides. I DO NOT use a winter specific shoe. Those are often too bulky for our climate here, and the waterproofing can be suspect after a year or two of abuse. After 5 winters with my first pair of SealSkinz, I finally bought a second pair to use when the originals are still wet. No durability complaints, as the original pair are still going strong.
My LAST pants (that I’ll ever need for winter riding)
Waterproof pants? Yep, they are a thing. And I’d highly recommend them! The goal of waterproof pants is to keep your bum dry. Furthermore, they keep muck (and some water) from dripping into your shoes and socks. The end-of-ride cleanup routine is far improved with good pants.
Holy cow, these things are awesome. With waterproofing nearly at a similar level as classic hard shell pants, these have MUCH better breathability. I use the thigh vents all the time, and I do use an additional belt through the belt loops. The additional belt helps when the pants are coated in mud, and soaked in water, as they will take on substantial weight in that case. After years of not-as-waterproof pants, I’ve become a believer in these. DO NOTE THAT THESE ARE DWR COATED- DO NOT MACHINE WASH! Laundry soap will wash out the DWR coating and compromise the waterpoof coating. I just brush my pants off with a soft bristled brush once they get kinda dry. And you will want to re-coat any water proof garment annually for best performance.
A really warm shirt (that still breathes)
The green fleece I love: https://bit.ly/EnduraFleeceJKW
I find myself often climbing in the Spray Trouser and this fleece, at least, as long as it’s not too rainy. The Fleece breathes a lot better than an actual jacket, and still works when wet. This fleece does a great job of retaining body heat, which means that to keep you warm, you will need to be exerting, but it’ll do the trick. Note that just about any jacket will be too warm when it’s not actually snowing. A fleece like this is the solution. On cold or even cool days this has been one of my go to options. A jacket makes more sense when you don’t have tree cover, when it’s super windy, or if you’ll be descending for considerable time.
The green jacket I bring on a lot of rides is the Endura Humvee Lite. I throw this on for descents or flatter sections, espcially if there is minimal tree canopy.
This little guy is great, the fit is much more suited for riding than the SingleTrackII. I can easily pack this Humvee jacket in a hip or back pack, and while the cut is nicely fitting, it’s still big enough to allow for plenty of mobility. The overall weight of the Humvee is refreshingly light, and the lack of the hood means you don’t have a big, soggy water balloon getting caught on the back of your helmet. No, I do not like hoods on my riding jackets!
My “pelvis protector” is an older set of Troy Lee speed shorts- the newer version looks solid as well, and I’m always a TLD medium: https://bit.ly/TroyLeePelvisProtectorJKW. I have been riding these for years, and honestly I wouldn’t ride in the PNW without them. They have saved me so many times from simple washouts to gnarly OTBs. It isn’t a piece of protective gear I used when I started riding but I am very sold by this point. Good for avoiding bumps and bruises from dumb stuff.
I was a sponsored Kali rider, and even though I don’t have a relationship with Kali any longer, I still enjoy using their Strike knee pad in medium.. These kneepads are the perfect combination protection and low profile. They are slim enough to fit under any riding pants, and I am sure you could wiggle these under some jeans if you really wanted. But the hard plastic protection still is enough to save me on big impacts.
Not quite frigid or sloppy, but still not ideal, riding condition pants:
While these are more of a shoulder season item than a true winter item, they are MUCH better in colder temps than shorts, and will not be too warm for most summer riding. My first impression of the Burner pant was “wow so racey!” Then I tried riding in them, and wow, I was pleasantly surprised! Without a doubt, these are the most comfortable pants I’d ridden in to date- very stretchy, very soft feeling, and the fit works very well for me with my pelvis protector. These pants are indeed water resistant, though it’s a DWR coating that shouldn’t be machine washed. The look of these in the bright blue color is pretty loud, but the performance really surprised me. Extra bonus, these pants are very light weight.
A jersey that has a performance benefit
These styled jerseys dry quickly, but also have some silicon grippers on the shoulders to grab a hydration pack. These become handy at about halfway through the ride, when your hydration pack is about half empty (or no longer half full, if you’re an optimist) and beginning to bounce around. These jerseys do have a small zippered pocket, but I do not trust the pocket for anything of value. Don’t put your car keys in there, but do put some skittles to save for later.
And those are my favorite items- the very few that I’d call “essential”. Below are some quick reviews of other apparel that I’ve been testing- hopefully you find this helpful.
The SingleTrack II jacket is very much waterproof, and the hood is cut big enough to fit over a helmet, though I personally don’t believe in that practice. This jacket has pit-zips. However, the jacket’s overall heft is a bit much for our long, steep, and sweaty climbs, so I don’t ride with this much. It would be a great jacket for somewhere with a lot of wind and exposure, as well as rain. Very loose fit in a medium. I tend to use this more for hiking and trail work than for actual riding. For riding, the size medium ends up billowing around quite a bit on my frame.
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