Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Frozen Finger Shootout

February and the coldest temps of the year come calling once again, and your extremities are always the first to notice. On a long winter's ride it can be hard to find gloves warm enough to keep you happy but dexterous enough to keep shifting and braking from becoming a nightmare.

In the distant past we gave up and found other things to do instead: we skied, we snowshoed, we sat on the couch eating potato chips. Mountain bikes with 26 x 2.1" studded tires or 29" tires just didn't cut it anyway once more than a few inches of snow ended up sticking to the ground.

But with the advent of fatbikes and the amazing awesomeness that they create on your local trails it seems sad to just bike-hybernate until the lovely days of spring.

45North Cobrafist Pogies v. Bar Mitts
So, whaddaya do? For years I used Bar Mitts for winter riding. The concept was simple: attach a neoprene overmitt of sorts to each side of your handlebar encompassing your shifter, brake lever and grip, and slip your hand into the open end wearing a minimal glove; then ride like you normally would.

The downside is that in order to attach the Bar Mitts to the outside end of your grips you need to strap a 1/2" wide integrated piece of velcro around the grip, narrowing the real estate for your hands to grip the bar. And things can get sweaty in there. Neoprene is great at stopping wind penetration, but it is essentially a humid wetsuit for your hands.

Enter 45North, the brand dedicated to winter and riding through it, no matter how harsh the conditions. Last winter they released the Cobrafist Pogies, essentially a pair of little condominiums for your hands, replete with climate control, waterproofness, and adjustable drawstring wrist cuffs. These things are structural! A bar-end plug anchors the outside to your handlebar, allowing you to utilize every millimeter of existing grip. On the inboard end, foam pieces seal the opening wrapped in a neoprene zippered sleeve. An elastic drawcord at the cuff can be left open to leave a wizard's sleeve effect, can shrink the wrist opening to a tight seal, or can be set anywhere in between! On top of your hands there is a diagonal zipper that functions as a vent. Leave it closed when you start and everything is cold; open it up when your hands start to heat up to cool things off like AC.

On a winter wonderland ride in Fort Rock, Exeter, New Hampshire last Thursday, I rode with the Cobrafists. I wore a thin pair of Specialized Deflector gloves that I normally wear on some of those first crisp Autumn mornings, but usually abandon by Thanksgiving or so for something more like a ski glove. For the first hour everything worked like a charm: thin gloves made it feel like a summer day in terms of shifting and breaking, after my hands heated up a bit I opened the vent somewhat and quickly regulated the environment back to perfect.

Then the left bar plug popped out! Full disclosure: I did punch a stout tree rather hard with my left fist when I deviated from the packed path and took a squirrelly run off the trail stage-left. Stopping to fix my mechanical(?), I thought I had gotten everything straightened out, but ended up with the plug popping out, followed by me punching it back in again and again. Eventually I pulled the whole thing off and zipped it up in the front of my jacket, which worked for about 20 minutes of riding until my left hand started to freeze, at which point I just loosely positioned the Cobrafist back over the grip and cinched the drawcord tight around my wrist to turn it into a glorified mitten, which worked enough to get me back to the parking lot with all 5 of those digits still intact!

And the Winner Is:

One with Bar Mitts, One with just Gloves!
Cobrafist Pogies: I think once I dial in the connection of the Cobrafist that it will be a fantastic system. In its defense, my hands came out fine on two occasions when I misjudged the width of a bridge underneath the snow and did a quick flying dismount/endo/landing-on-my-back-in-a-semi-frozen-stream! My only other beef with them is there is a little mesh pocket inside that my finger invariably worked around the wrong side of when entering them quickly.

Bar Mitts: Still work very well, and at about half the price these are definitely a viable option. Last winter I cut off the cumbersome velcro straps, poked tiny holes in each end, and squeezed expanding road bike bar end plugs through the holes, anchoring the ends into the handlebar just like the Cobrafists do. With that modification, and the ability to open the zippers that attach the Bar Mitts to the inboard side a little bit, I get plenty of ventilation and the ability to use the entire width of the grip.

Just Gloves: Gloves have worked well in the winter for forever. Most fatbikes these days are pretty simplified. More and more are 1x11 or 1x10 speed drivetrains, so you only need enough dexterity to use a single shifter and a pair of brake levers. When it gets really cold, however, your hands are the first thing to feel the effects, even with big, heavily insulated mitts. And now that I'm used to having a structure attached to my handlebars and have become used to being able to easily maneuver to my brake levers and shifter, I feel pretty clumsy in big, fat gloves.