How to steal rides from winter part 1: hands

I like to keep riding outside as long as I can. Road salt, snow and ice-covered roads are hard limits for me. But temperature is a moveable one. It's quite easy to keep your core warm. And whoever heard of cold thighs. So shorts under tights and enough base layers to make you feel like a merino onion. But what to do about hands and feet?

I like to keep riding outside as long as I can. Road salt, snow and ice-covered roads are hard limits for me. But temperature is a moveable one. It’s quite easy to keep your core warm. And whoever heard of cold thighs. So shorts under tights and enough base layers under your jacket to make you feel like a merino onion. But what to do about hands and feet?

The extent to which I can figure that out is the extent to which I can cheat winter. This post is about what to wear to keep cold hands from driving you indoors before it’s truly time.

Hands

Hands need to be nimble enough to operate shifters and brakes. Which, if you’re using the single lever setup offered by all the groupset makers on pretty much all their product offerings, requires the kind of dexterity that seems incompatible with ‘warmth’.

When I commuted year-round, a time of year arrived when I hauled out the snowmobile gauntlets, these massive mitts that had enough insulation to keep you warm in space and a cuff that reached up to your elbow. More or less. I could ride down to -20C without significant discomfort. In my hands, anyway. But my winter commuter bike had flat bars with grip shifters and brake levers that stretched out just enough for me to wrap my massive paw around and slip my hand under to grip the shifter.

It was as if the groupset was designed for circus bears.

Your average road bike groupset, by contrast, is designed for raccoons. Two cute little buttons on the side of the brake lever, flush with the lever itself. Maybe with a bit of ribbing or hatching to distinguish it to naked fingers. And clearance between shifters and the drops? Not much to speak of. Better for pianists than, say, lumberjacks. So try that in your snowmobile mitts.

Which means your hand coverings need to be supple, low-profile and thin. The kind of thing that drives you indoors at +5C.

I’ve tried three things: lobster gloves, pogies and heated gloves.

Lobster gloves

Gloves and mitts work because they keep heat in. Mitts work better at this than gloves because they let your naked fingers share their heat. Gloves isolate each finger so you lose that heating efficiency for the sake of dexterity. Lobster gloves, where two fingers share a common ‘home’ seem a good compromise.

And I’ve got a couple of pairs. They’re pretty rare birds in the cycling universe, so you can’t be too picky. Most cycling gear makers are inspired by — if not headquartered in — places where ‘winter’ translates loosely as ‘late September’ to Canadians. And their gloves are designed accordingly.

If we want actual winter kit we usually have to look to Canadian-influenced or originated kit — Sugoi, Garneau, Pearl Izumi, 45Nrth. I wish 7Mesh made gloves. So that’s what I have. Two pairs. One by Craft (Germany) and one by Pearl Izumi. And they’re good down to about zero. They don’t insulate a lot when they’re wet. The Pearl Izumi ones offer slightly less insulation but are lower-profile. You can pull your jersey cuff over them and they’re less likely to provoke a mis-tap on the shifters. The Craft ones are warmer but you really do look like you’re wearing some bizarre form of prosthetic.

I also have a pair of Rapha lobster overmitts, which seem to be some sort of vinylized or rubberized nylon, but they’re so stiff they make shifting and braking a bit of an adventure. No wonder they don’t make them anymore.

Going below zero

In a recent Strava ride description I groused about how hard it is to keep your hands warm below zero. I don’t need toasty warm. I just need to have enough sensation to be able to feel the shifters and pull the brake levers. Although avoiding screaming agony back home as fingers thaw would be good.

A couple of Strava friends who ride year round suggested pogies. It sounds like some sort of Eastern European dumpling or some kind of meat sandwich. But they’re kangaroo pouches for your hands.

So I took the plunge and ordered 45North Draugenclaws from Primeau Vélo. And they arrived in time to test them in exactly the sort of weather they’re meant for. Dry, -5C with wind. I’ve ridden them a couple of times and… well, I’m still looking for my sub-zero solution.

You pull them on over your handlebars and they leave enough room for a thinly-gloved hand to reach in and grab the shifter hoods. And that’s where your hands stay, if you know what’s good for you.

Of course you still have to bring your hands out occasionally to grab a drink (if your water is still liquid), do a snot rocket (if local public heath guidelines permit) or fiddle with your head unit (maybe to see what temperature it is). But if you like to switch between drops, tops and hoods, you have to wait til spring.

They do work. The first ride I did was a kind of freestyle hard effort: 2.5 hours at a kind of aggressive pace, just below the point where you really start to flame out. And at some point, I realized my hands — clad only in lightly-insulated gloves (aka ‘Deep Winter’) were actually sweating.

I expect most of this was down to the pogies. The gloves on their own are great down to about zero, but below that you can expect to lose contact with your fingers after about 40 minutes. Faster if there’s wind. And the wind that day was quite strong — in the 25-30km/h range.

However once I eased off, (I’d reached my training stress target) I started to feel the chill creep back in. Probably in part because my gloves were damp with sweat, but also because the pogies are open to the air at the back. They’re insulated, but they mostly function as a wind block. Which was great that day because there was quite a bit of wind that needed blocking.

I’ve seen pogies with something like a sheepskin-like cuff that would hold a lot more heat in. Something like that — that would still allow you to reinsert your hands in a hurry — would make these pogies awesome.

I say this because the second ride I did was a bit longer and at a lower intensity (although I do tend to ride hard when it’s cold. It’s bred into you where I live) and the pogies left me feeling underwhelmed.

Two minor points:

  • While they provide plenty of space inside for gloved hands to manipulate the gears and the brakes, their bulk will change your arm position a little bit. As road cycling is a universe of tiny things writ large, this may cause some discomfort or awkwardness, especially if you’re old and creaky like me and you’re used to your body position being ‘just so’.
  • The bike I used them on has Di2 shifters on the brake levers. Changing gears involves next to no movement. I have to wonder how much resistance the fabric would offer against mechanical shifting and if that would be weird. Also these pogies would be much less useful to riders whose shifters were somewhere else — bar ends, tops or downtube.

I reckon they deliver more insulation than my warmest lobster gloves, but not so much as to keep my fingers warm past two hours of riding. However my fingers never got so cold that I couldn’t feel them after three and a quarter hours, when I got off the bike. As that’s the standard we’re seeking here, mission accomplished.

But they’re not a miracle cure for cold.

Sealskinz Waterproof Heated Cycling Gloves
Sealskinz Waterproof Heated Cycling Gloves

Going electric

Which is kind of what I expected. So I took the nuclear (or, at least lithium-polymer) option. Heated gloves aren’t exactly new. But they aren’t popular. I’m not sure why but I suspect it’s because they’ve hitherto been built as casual, stand-around-in-the-cold gloves and most people have little reason to buy them. After all, if it’s so cold you need heated gloves to stand around, whydontcha just go the fuck inside?

And sporty types who want to exercise outdoors want something that doesn’t make them feel like they’re wearing beer coolers at the end of their arms.

Of late, sporty heated gloves have started showing up on various gear maker websites. Batteries are lighter yet more powerful (I’m old enough to remember 6V lantern batteries, note) and have longer life. Heating elements are almost as small and light as the threads that stitch the clothing together.

So I took the plunge. I found these Sealskinz gloves. Sealskinz has a good rep for its other cold and foul weather products. I figured that — pricey though they are — they might be worth it. Why?

They’re biking specific so will work well on those shoulder season rides where it’s too cold for my other gloves. But they’re not so bike-specific that I can’t ski with them. Or stand around in the cold with them, for that matter, say volunteering at an outdoor event. I reckoned I would get value out of them, more so than the pogies which only work on my road bike.

I don’t recall at what point I realized that Sealskinz is British. As in England, where ‘winter’ means ‘turn up your collar and throw on a light scarf’. After the order had shipped certainly. But they arrived. Which is more than I can say for half the stuff I ordered for kiddo this Christmas.

So I charged them up and prepared to ride. Some pre-ride observations:

  • The batteries are compact but you do notice the weight. I suspect runners would find them annoyingly heavy. Or just some extra resistance training. You pick. I wonder how they’ll be for skiing.
  • The battery connectors come with these little plastic caps that I thought were to protect the circuitry when laundering the gloves. But in fact the company says that the gloves are not to be washed. You can wipe them with a mild soap, but don’t put them in the washer, the dryer or dry clean them.
  • Sealskinz claims they are waterproof. Which is funny because being English you think they’d know a thing or two about rain. Maybe it’s just that ‘waterproof’ means something different over there like ‘pants’ or ‘fanny’. The gloves did arrive rather smelling of some sort of silicon-based water-repelling liquid. So they did try. More on this below.

I took them out on a two hour workout kind of ride, with 32 minutes or so of hard effort. My head unit was telling me -4C, Strava says -2. The promised high was +1 but, as always, I was crushed when it failed to deliver. Light wind with no impact on temperature.

The gloves have three heat settings. Sealskinz claims two hours of heating time on ‘High’ so I tried that.

Almost immediately I felt the heat. Spreading across the back of my hands. I kept expecting to feel the heat creep down towards my fingertips. After all, that’s where it’s really needed. The gloves were emphatically warm. But who ever heard of cold backs-of-hands? I felt dismay. Maybe the tech just hasn’t come far enough to allow a heating filament to snake down a glove finger? Maybe in the UK people’s fingers stay warm because they’re always holding a pint glass?

I awaited the arrival of the first signs of numbness as I rode toward my workout track. But here’s the thing: it never happened. Enough heat found its way down from the heating element in the glove’s main body to the fingers and thumb.

When I started riding hard, I could no longer feel the gloves’ heat I expect because I was giving off enough of my own — even in my hands. But I never got that ‘bad sauna’ feeling (ever used an electric blanket on your bed?). The gloves just worked.

After the workout I rode for about 50 minutes more, with the gloves still on ‘high’. And where normally I would really start to feel cold, my fingers stayed comfortable.

If I was on a longer ride, or wanted to conserve power, I could have dialled down the heat for the workout and dialled it back up for the victory lap.

Each glove has an unobtrusive yet easily manipulated settings button (with a cute little red diode) on the back of the glove body.

Sealskinz promises between two and five hours of heat, depending on which setting you use.

The gloves have a fluffy patch on the back of the thumb for nose-wiping. They have a heavy go-outside-the-jacket cuff with velcro to cinch it. They’re low profile — about as big as gloves you might see in October in Canada — and were it not for the tiny red indicator lights, no one would think they were anything special.

I don’t know how low the temperature can go before these stop being comfortable. I hope the weather co-operates and I have a chance to find out.

I wore them again today on a two hour Zone 2 ride. Because the forecast promised rain and one or two degrees about zero. Perfect weather for ‘waterproof’ heated gloves, right? Let it not be said I have not suffered for my art.

As with my previous ride my hands stayed warm on high. After a bit I switched to medium. Still warm. It was raining lightly (less than 1mm) when I set out and for the first little bit I marvelled at how the water beaded off the gloves’ nylon outer. After 45 minutes the beads turned to a wet sheen that still said ‘repelling water’ to me. My fingers still felt dry. That lasted for another 15 minutes. Then I started to feel the wet. With the heat going I didn’t mind so much, though.

So… waterproof? Not maybe ‘bathysphere’ waterproof, but they do shed water for a while. The thing is everything eventually succumbs to water. This I know from camping. It’s hard for me to be outraged by this. I had a comfortable ride in miserable conditions because of these gloves. Full stop.

I feel like ‘heated clothing’ in general is a bit cutting edge. It is expensive and experimental. Users don’t know what to expect and manufacturers don’t know what really matters. These gloves are an example of that. They’re closing in on the goal, but they’re not there. But I am keeping them. And I am wearing them. Every. Chance. I. Get.

Pogies vs heated gloves, the value proposition

The pogies cost less ($104 vs $215). The heated gloves are more versatile. Are either of them ‘worth it’? It depends how high you set your bar. If you expect warm hands in all conditions for rides of any duration, then no. Neither will deliver that. If you’re looking to extend your outdoor riding season by a week or two at each end and you don’t have a lot of other items competing for your cash (rent, kids, food… that sort of thing) they might be worth it. I have other, non-cycling winter plans for the gloves, so I expect the gloves are a better play.

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  1. Great post! I strongly encourage cycling all year long. Finding a solution to keep my hands warm was always a problem so I found that in the winter, I just shifted less and that was that. I actually love road salt; it keeps the road dry and super-grippy. Ice sucks because if there is any kind of incline in the pavement, it’s impossible to balance the bike.