Long Distance Winter Cycling Equipment
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Cycling Head Unit
Long distance winter cycling is my least favorite part of cycling. I do it as a necessity but I’m always cold and generally migrate indoors in the winter. I enjoy the challenge of the Rapha Festive 500 but riding in the Pacific Northwest, near the beginning of the year, is not my idea of a good time. Last year I finished the 500 kilometers on Zwift and would have done the same this year. Until I got an invitation.
One of the most influential people in my cycling life is my wife’s uncle. He has been a steady influence on the cycling my wife and I have done since we’ve been a couple. It’s no surprise that his son is an avid cyclist as well.
I hate winter cycling but I don’t believe fear is a reason to turn down an experience.
Sometime in the fall my cousin asked me if I had interest in completing the Rapha Festive 500 ride that the Seattle Rapha clubhouse was hosting. I said I was nervous, long distance winter cycling is what I’m worst at, but I didn’t believe fear was a reason to say no. The ride was around the Olympic Peninsula and actually covered more than 500km of mixed surface. We began planning right away.
Now that the event has come and gone I’d like to talk about the gear I spent the winter testing then used in the event. Because of the sections of gravel I opted for my 2016 Cannondale Slate gravel bike. Lots of people did complete it on road bikes of all types but I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. There were sections I would not have wanted to be on a road bike and the Slate was a welcome partner.
The first thing I opted to tackle was lighting. Long distance winter cycling in this part of the world means dealing with limited light. In the summer there can be as much as 16 hours of light. In December it was more like 8 hours. My favorite light is the Giant Recon HL1600 and I did opt to bring that unit with me. At its middle power setting of 800 lumens it provides 4.5 hours of runtime. That is pretty good but 200 miles takes me about 12 hours of ride time on road bike and a fast route. If you do the math that would leave me with a very narrow margin of error. The one big problem with the Recon is that it won’t charge while in use. I solved both of these issues by also bringing the Bontrager Ion Pro RT.
The Ion Pro RT from Bontrager can’t claim the longest runtime or the brightest light but it will charge while running.
The Bontrager Ion Pro RT doesn’t quite match the Giant light for runtime at 800 lumens. It’s only good for 3 hours at 800 lumens but it has another trick. The Bontrager Ion Pro RT will continue to work while charging. There are a couple of caveats to this. Using it while connected to a charger will mean it’s no longer waterproof. I was also told that charging will not keep up with battery drain but I’m guessing that is only true at full power.
I tested at half power, connected to a charger, and after 8 hours it was still going strong. There aren’t many lights on the market that can shine while charging. The Bontrager Ion Pro RT makes for a light that can go whatever distance you need it to. For a dry ride the only thing you’d need is the Ion Pro RT and a sufficient battery pack.
On medium power the Bontrager Ion Pro RT will last as long as a connected battery pack has charge.
Given that there would be heavy rain I did not expect to be able to charge the Bontrager light while it was in use. I opted to mount the Giant light on a GoPro mount under my bike computer and use the included mount for the Ion Pro RT above the bars. Because of the cable routing on my Slate I actually needed to mount the Bontrager light over the inside edge of the bar tape. The excellent mount Bontrager includes made mounting secure, even when riding over heavy gravel, and easy.
The Bontrager Ion Pro RT ran for 7 hours before before I turned it off.
I paired the two front lights with a Bontrager Flare RT rear light. I got the Flare RT for use as a daytime running light on my summer ride last year and since then I’ve stopped riding without it. As I said in that review my wife reported she was able to notice the light long before she was close enough to make out that it was me with the flashing light. I’ve also never had a complaint about it in a paceline and it’s battery is good for 150 miles of riding. Because it’s such a good battery I did not bring multiples with me.
Cycling Head Unit
Next up I had to make a decision about which bike computer to run. For me this meant a choice between the Wahoo Elemnt Roam or the Stages Dash L50. The Wahoo Roam can handle 17 hours of usage on a single charge. That would have been plenty of time for our planned riding but I opted for the 23 hours of battery life that Stages offered. Cycling lost distance in the winter time can bring unexpected challenges.
The Stages L50 offered such a long run time that I could potentially skip charging it overnight. In the end I did charge it but I was happy with the choice anyway. Being in a remote part of the world without reliable cell service it’s nice to have a functional map on the head unit. Stages offers that. Wahoo requires use of the companion app and only offers unmaked lines without phone service.
To power all the electronics I wanted to have a mobile solution. I have found a few solutions over the years but again the weather introduced a new challenge. I needed to be able to charge two front lights, a rear light, the Stages L50, and a phone with a USB-C charging port. Weather resistance and enough durability to survive a drop were also important features. The Innens Qi Wireless Charger Power Bank I had used during the summer had been an excellent solution for a phone, rear light, and bike computer but wouldn’t do for this ride.
Stop collecting low quality USB battery packs. The ToughTested Bigfoot is better quality and can handle everything.
This time around I chose the ToughTested Bigfoot Power Bank. The Bigfoot is 24,000mah and has two USB ports along with a single USB-C port. The USB-C port can work for both charging the pack as well as charging a device. Like many devices in this general category it also features solar charging and a flashlight. I struggle to see the use of the solar panel given how long it would likely take to charge the battery via solar power. The flashlight is also something I’d likely leave off given the choice but I can see plenty of reasons why it might be useful. After collecting a drawer full of low quality competitors to this device I finally have a product that should hold up over time. The Toughtested Bigfoot will take a hit, survive the elements, and is big enough to charge everything I carried at least once.
After getting my equipment squared away I needed to look at my clothing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m always cold on the bike. I knew that a long distance winter cycling event was going to test my ability to stay warm on the bike. I took the warmest gear I had and introduced one or two new pieces.
Starting at the top I used an inexpensive cap from Tough Outfitters. It runs $10 on Amazon, fits well under a helmet, and feels warm enough no matter what weather I’m riding in. Around my neck I had a Castelli Head Thingy that I’ve used for years. I have written about it many times and it continues to be one the best things I have in my cycling closet. The head thingy shared space around my neck with the Assos Mille GT Ultraz Winter Jacket and it’s integrated neck warmer. Under the Assos jacket I had an Assos Skinfoil Long Sleeve base layer. As I continue to move down I opted for the Castelli Polare 2 Bibtight.
Winter cycling boots are a chore to get on and off. The lifetime guarantee and ease of use offered by the BOA closure system is a must have.
Shoes and gloves were both new pieces that I haven’t yet reviewed. The shoes I chose were the 45 North Ragnarok Cycling Boots. The main reason I chose them had to do with their closure system as well as the 45 North reputation for excellent cold weather performance. The combination of hook and loop at the ankle and a BOA Fit System over the foot was a winner. Winter cycling boots are never super easy to get on and off but the BOA Fit System helps a lot.
This was one of the areas that I did misjudge things a bit though. The Ragnarok cycling boots seem to be exactly true to size and they don’t come in half sizes. I chose them in the correct size and that was a mistake. Go up a size for more space if you plan to use them for long distance winter cycling. The design of the Ragnarok, with it’s majority reflective covering, would make for an excellent winter commute solution. If that’s your expected use then choosing them true to size would be perfect.
The 45 North Ragnarok is a perfect boot for being seen while riding in the winter.
For gloves I chose the Garneau Shield+. The Shield+ are a hybrid lobster design that puts the pinky and ring finger of both hands together while leaving the first two fingers separate. This was the first time I’ve ever really had warm hands on a ride. It’s also one of the few gloves on the market that works with smartphone screens. Most of my glove reviews include a discussion of how there should be smartphone usability built into the design but it’s missing. Finally a company got the memo! For me the Shield+ is the absolute best winter glove on the market and it’s a relative bargain.
The Garneau Shield+ gloves are the best deep winter gloves on the market.
No matter how good gloves are though it’s important when engaging in this kind of long distance winter cycling to bring more than one pair. As night closed in and the rain hit hard the people I was riding with added a whole second layer of clothes that I didn’t have. I had no complaints about the Shield+ but I would have done better with a second pair.
The Oros Explorer 1/4 zip is one of the most versatile pieces of clothing I own. I should have brought it on this ride.
That leads nicely into a piece that I didn’t actually bring on this trip but should have. The Oros Explorer 1/4 zip is not a cycling specific piece of gear. It also happens to be the piece of gear I have worn more than anything else this winter. When I rode in below freezing weather and snow it performed perfectly. It’s a piece that should serve well for long distance winter cycling.
The innovative technology that Oros uses means that it’s as useful in sunny 50 to 60 degree weather as it is in below freezing temperatures. Oros uses a material called Solarcore. Solarcore is thin and dense and does an excellent job of regulating temperature. The Explorer 1/4 zip is versatile and while not a cycling specific cut it’s fitted enough that I can use it as a midlayer both on the bike and off. For this particular ride I misjudged my needs and did not bring it but I would have been more comfortable if I had.
With clothing covered the last thing I needed to solve was carrying capacity. I generally carry only what fits in my jersey pockets. This works great for summer riding when alone but long distance winter cycling is an entirely different animal. It was going to be very cold and the route is through a literal rain forest. Expecting a dry ride would have been a mistake. I was also riding this with a partner and we decided to stop and sleep part way through. That meant I needed something to wear for the stop. I landed on two pieces to solve my carrying needs.
The need for modesty when travelling with a partner was enough to require extra on-bike storage.
First up, from Topeak I chose the Midloader in a size small. I ride a medium Cannondale Slate but it’s a small frame triangle. The Topeak Midloader fit perfectly but still meant no room for water bottles. Even sideloading bottle cages were too tight. None of that is an issue with the product that Topeak makes though. The Midloader is simple in the best way. There’s no extra fluff, it just works. It’s completely secure on the bike. The zippers are strong enough to handle zipping around an overstuffed bag. The piece is as waterproof as I would ever need it to be.
The Topeak Midloader kept cotton pajama pants perfectly dry after hours in a serious rain storm.
Do a bit of searching and you’ll find some reviews raging about how the Topeak Midloader isn’t waterproof. What I can say is that even when stuffed full I spent hours riding through some of the worst rain I’ve ever ridden in. When I arrived at my room for the night I unpacked my cotton pajama pants and they were completely dry. I’m not sure how I could do a more thorough test of water ingress.
There are a couple of other small details that elevate the design of the Topeak Midloader. These aren’t what you might think to look for but they make for a better experience. Because the frame of the Slate is so small I ended up using the Platypus Hoser 1L water bladder instead of bottles. The Midloader includes a small cutout on the end of each zipper that allows for a hose to exit the bag easily.
Topeak Midloader in size small was enough to fit water, night time clothes, the ToughTested Bigfoot, and some extra USB cables.
The other unexpected, but important, detail is a non-continuous connection along the top tube. Some frame bags cover the entire top tube for a more secure mount. While this might make for a marginally more secure mount it also means there’s no way to grab your bikes top tube for lifting it. When carrying bikes over a downed tree I was able to carry my bike as normal while someone with a different frame bag had a lot of trouble. Again, simple in the best way.
The design of the Topeak bag means it’s still easy to carry your bike using the top tube. It’s an important detail.
During early stages of planning the Topeak bag was the only piece I was going to use. Once it became clear that I’d need it to carry my water also I added a second piece. The Rapha Waterproof top tube bag. As with most Rapha products it’s both stylish and well designed. The pink interior makes finding things easy. The straps were secure and, just as importantly, did not scratch my bike. I carried USB power cables, a last minute extra wall charger, and food in the Rapha bag. Just like the Topeak it kept everything dry and even with heavy gloves I was able to get food out, and wrappers in, while riding. There’s not much else needed in a top tube bag.
There were a couple of other small accessories that I used. These pieces aren’t specific to long distance winter cycling but they did help me on this ride. The biggest change for me was another piece from Topeak. For years I’ve ridden with the Silca Pocket Impero. It’s a definite status symbol to be using anything from Silca and it’s done well when I have needed it over the years. One thing I’m bad at though is judging how inflated a tire is. I decided there had to be a better solution. Something that was as small as the Silca but also offered a gauge. The Topeak Roadie DA G is exactly what I was looking for.
The Topeak Roadie DA G is my favorite pump currently on the market.
The letters tacked on the end of the name stand for dual action and gauge. The gauge designation is pretty obvious. The reason I started using this pump was because I needed feedback on how inflated my tire was. The gauge on the Topeak Roadie DA G is easy to read and as accurate as any other gauge I have. I did have concern that the gauge would make for a bulky pump and in this regard I was wrong. The Roadie is almost exactly the same size as the Silca even with the added gauge.
Even with an easy to read gauge the Roadie DA G from Topeak is compact enough to easily fit in a jersey pocket.
The DA designation stands for dual action. This pump pushes air into the tire on both the push and the pull stroke. I’m not going to get too into this too much. The reality is that it’s still no fun to pump up a tire with a mini pump. Silca talks a lot about heat generation and the number of strokes required for their $120 option. Meanwhile the Topeak takes more or less the same amount of time to fill a tire, does not generate excessive heat, and can purchased for about $35. Silca offers a lot of status but if you want the best tool for the job the Topeak Roadie DA G is the tool I’d recommend.
The other accessories I used for this ride were from Muc-Off. Before the ride began I opted to swap out my Stans sealant for the new Muc-Off sealant and the valve stems at the same time. Stans has worked well for me in the past but I opted for a change so I could report about it here. The claim is that Muc-Off No Puncture Hassle Sealant was developed to coat and cling to the inside of the tire and give immediate sealing properties. It doesn’t rely on the excess floating around inside the tire and is designed to seal more quickly.
Muc-Off No Puncture Hassle Sealant is designed to coat the inside of the tire instead of pool.
For better, or worse, I did not have an opportunity to test the sealing power of the sealant but the install was a joy. Even though a single pouch was slightly more than the recommended amount for my 650bx42mm tires but I opted to use it all. The nozzle fit the valve and it was easy to dump the bag into the tire without any extra tools.
The smart design of the Muc-Off sealant packaging makes install easy.
I also had the unexpected opportunity to sample the Muc-Off 5x Premium Brush Kit. I had a kit that needed testing but for the ease of packing I left it at home. At the end of the ride my cousin had his own that he offered for use. It was a good sign and I wasn’t disappointed after using the brushes. For years I’ve used a collection of cheap brushes collected from a variety of places. They were never quite right but I had them. After using the Muc-Off brushes I’ll never go back.
Muc-Off brushes are such good value, and quality, that it makes no sense to use anything else.
One of the biggest advantages of the Muc-Off brushes are the soft touch coating on all the hard parts. If you end up making contact with your bike through the bristles there’s no worry of accidental scratches. About $35 gets you a collection of three brushes. It makes no sense to try and put together something cheaper.
Let me say upfront, I did not end up completing the ride. The morning of the ride my partner backed out. I don’t begrudge the decision but with no time to think it through, and a pile of gear to write about, I opted to go ahead anyway. I arrived at the Rapha Seattle clubhouse and no one much minded that I was solo. There were other riders who arrived alone also and I joined them before heading off.
I alluded to small mistakes I made a few times during this article. Those mistakes weren’t the only ones I made. The biggest mistake I made was likely fueling. I spent 80 – 100 miles riding in power zone 3 and I barely ate or drank. When met with a downed tree I took time helping a few people and ended up riding alone after that. For the next hour or so my mind raced as the rain rolled in. Late in the day I found myself caught by a group I’d been ahead of and I stuck with them.
Bad fueling was the biggest mistake I made on the ride.
When the light started to drop, and the rain started to come even harder, I came face to face with my second big mistake. I had all the best gear available but I didn’t have enough gear. As my riding group donned an extra layer of clothing I stood shivering and watching. The next 20 miles or so was some of the hardest riding I’ve ever done. It was pouring rain, dark, and I was riding along a highway with a narrow shoulder. I followed the intensely bright tail light in front of me and prayed for it to be over soon.
My clothing mistake was actually relatively minor because after the miserable cold wet hour I arrived to a warm room with a dryer. It was at this point that my fueling errors came back to haunt me. I was completely spent and faced the prospect of waking up at 4:30am and riding alone in the dark and rain for 12-14 hours. I had no energy for the mental strength that would have required. Instead I drank a beer more than I needed to and slept in until 9am. In the morning I turned around and rode 60 miles back to grab a city bus to the start of the ride.
A second set of gloves and socks would have helped.
Despite not finishing I loved the opportunity to test myself. When next winter rolls around I’ll do it again… maybe. The ride was well organized and I couldn’t have asked for more from the Rapha crew. They checked in by phone when I started heading backwards in the morning and they were often visible during the first days rides. Before the ride they were easy to communicate with for payment, and questions. After the ride when I had a route question I received the same attention and fast response.
Rapha organized the ride better than any other event I’ve been a part of.
Everything I chose for this ride is something I’d recommend for other long distance winter cycling events. There was no single piece that I would have swapped for another. I didn’t manage 500k in 48 hours but I would say 150 miles of hard riding in bad weather is more than enough test.
I did not finish but it wasn’t because any of the gear I brought failed.
Everything I used for the Rapha Festive 500 long distance winter cycling event:
Giant Recon HL1600
Bontrager Ion Pro RT front light
Bontrager Flare RT rear light
Stages Dash L50
ToughTested Bigfoot Power Bank
Tough Outfitters under helmet cap
Castelli Head Thingy
Assos Mille GT Ultraz Winter Jacket
Assos Skinfoil Winter Long Sleeve Base Layer
Castelli Polare 2 Winter Bib Tight
Oros Explorer 1/4 zip
Garneau Shield+ Winter Cycling Gloves
45 North Ragnarok Winter Cycling Boots
Topeak Midloader Frame Bag
Platypus Hoser 1L water bladder
Rapha Waterproof top tube bag
Topeak Roadie DA G
Muc-Off tubeless valve stem
Muc-Off 5x Premium Brush Kit