'Matter'

The Art of the Possible: Castelli’s Winter Cycling Re:Evolution

It’s human to imagine the future hopefully. One might say this is fundamental to the human condition, and a key element of our success to date as a species. Life is hard for just about everyone, but we tend to be really good at hoping things will work out; tomorrow will be good, better, or at least ok. Sometimes this hope is justified, other times. . . less so.

This cognitive disposition cuts across everything we do, and is bound up with our ‘I can,‘ which is constituted by the scale and scope of our personal capacity and capabilities, and defined in relation to our environment and tools at our disposal (for interesting reading in this vein, see The Spell of the Sensuous).

In the context of cycling outdoors (formerly known as ‘cycling’), those of us in regions that see a broad range of weather study the local forecast as we deliberate what to wear.

40% chance of rain: “Cool, probably not gonna, so I’ll leave the vest at home.”

This is an example of a hopeful, wishful decision. If heading into the mountains with a 40% chance of rain, unless the temperature will likely stay above 20C, not taking a vest is kinda risky, kinda dumb. 

It’s also kinda human.

We tend to expect reality to conform to how we want it to be. And our expectations of how reality will manifest determines our ‘I can;’ these two components are interwoven in a continuous process of co-creation.

Winter cycling pushes this cognitive bias into dangerous territory, but most riders probably don’t really apprehend how or why. Sure, the obvious stuff is well acknowledged: frostbite is dangerous, you can lose fingers, toes, and pieces of your ears! Damn!

But.

Yes, frostbite can occur ‘simply from riding’ in the cold with inadequate skin coverage and insulation. It’s generally not hard to avoid while riding, but frostbite actually becomes more common with outdoor sportspeople as they get older (which I speculate has to do with nerve damage sustained over years, increased tolerance for pain and discomfort, and increasingly long exposure to cold conditions). In other words, we often push the limits more as we get older, because we are experienced and think we can pull off whatever we want. I’ve learned this winter that I can actually get frost bite on my toes without having a clue it’s happening. I can only attribute this to a reduced ability to feel what’s going on in my feet as the result of hundreds of damaging experiences in the cold over my 40 years. Thus, I need to adapt my approach in order to ensure I don’t make frostbite a regular occurrence.

But I’m not interested in discussing a do-or-die scenario in the case of frostbite. Instead, I want to draw your attention to dampness in the core of the body, which most of us are so accustomed to, we associate it with winter riding. I.e., it’s normal. As such, it is incorporated into our ‘I can.’ In other words, it’s a limiter, and unfortunately, it’s broadly accepted as fact, immutable, how it is.

When we juxtapose the norm of dampness while riding in cold conditions with the very human tendency to project our wish for rides and conditions to ‘go as planned,’ we find a situation that is actually pretty risky. When riders adapt to ‘reality’ by keeping intensity levels high enough in the cold to generate enough body heat to keep the core and extremities warm, they also tend to pump out a lot of perspiration, which is difficult for clothing to handle while also being asked to block wind. And, in groups riding as a unit, the weakest riders will work harder than the strongest, making it hardest for the strongest riders to ride intensely enough to stay warm.

While I’d left membrane jackets behind years ago for winter riding, taking cues from my experience with cross-country skiing, my normal wasn’t great. I’d typically wear 2-3 base layers under my thermal full-sleeve jersey, and cap that with my wind-blocking vest. My arms would stay dry for the whole ride, but they’d typically be quite cold through the first hour of riding. Wouldn’t you know, cold arms means your blood cools as it pumps down to your hands, which translates into a greater challenge around keeping them warm. Hands are pretty important. . . .

My torso would tend to be warm, but rarely, if ever, dry at the end of winter rides. When working hard the setup was pretty good, but far from perfect, and getting the layering wrong – which could come down to clouds rolling in – would have a cascading effect. If rain was a distinct possibility this setup would be off the table, kicking me over to my Biemme Jampa jacket, a membrane that is near impossible to stay dry within while working hard.

I was intrigued by Castelli’s new Elemento jacket as I studied their line, trying to determine which pieces might be interesting to test for cyclocross, for which training tends to involve a broad range of intensity and a lot of standing around. The Elemento’s polypropylene down fill caught my attention, as it suggested the jacket was going for more of a ‘warm-while-wet’ approach than a ‘waterproof-breathable membrane’ one. Castelli’s groundbreaking Gabba jersey brought the ‘warm-when-wet’ approach to the pro peloton, but on the jacket front, the norm has remained for brands to produce membrane jackets that promise to keep the rider dry and warm by blocking wind and rain, while at the same time allowing body vapour to escape. Most will agree this promise is rarely delivered upon.

Castelli’s Elemento jacket establishes a new reality/normal/standard most riders probably didn’t even realize could be a thing: 

We can be warm AND dry while riding in the cold, across a broad range of intensity.

So what? Why does this matter?

The new-normal the Elemento establishes is important because it reframes our ‘I can’ when it comes to cold riding.

The Elemento opens the opportunity to explore and expand the art of the possible.

What I’m talking about is revising the norms we’ve maintained, which are tied to the limitations of traditional layering strategies:

  • Avoid particularly hilly routes, so we don’t generate too much heat on climbs, then freeze on descents.
  • Don’t stop for longer than a minute or two, for fear of beginning to chill. Coffee stop? Not likely.
  • Bring clothes to change into after rides that start remotely, so we don’t chill, even when sheltered indoors.
  • Don’t wrap errands into the end of rides; are you crazy?
  • Always get into a hot shower immediately when finishing rides at home, as core temp has been dropping with lowered intensity riding through the city.

All of this was so normal, I took it for ‘reality,’ ‘how it is.’ It wasn’t until my first ride in the Elemento that I realized I’d accepted a ‘reality’ that was actually a construct.

I was dry.

The whole time.

Completely.

Exploding Head on Emojipedia 11.1

It was as simple as that. I wore a couple layers under the jacket, rode three hours well below freezing, easily maintained dryness by opening the zipper a couple times as effort went up on climbs, and ended completely dry. Not ‘dry,’ as in, ‘not-soaked.’ Literally dry. I was able to skip changing and just kept my kit on until was back home (from 45 minute drive) and got around to taking it off (wearing Mad Alchemy Pure chamois cream, for anti-bad-things).

There was no panic. There was no need to get into the shower immediately. I soon realized there’s an aspect to the old normal that most people weren’t thinking about because the matter/tools that would support the manifestation of an alternative reality were not on offer.

The Elemento Lite uses a Japanese woven fabric exterior that was painstakingly chosen, after many hours of cold-weather testing in Italy, for its unique porosity/permeability. This means the jacket is explicitly NOT trying to be ‘wind-proof;’ it is trying to be WARM.

In order to achieve this outcome, Castelli undertook a painstaking process of on-the-bike testing to determine which fabric weave would strike the ideal balance of body vapour evacuation and wind protection when utilizing polypropylene down – which doesn’t absorb moisture – to form a ‘mix zone’ of sorts, where penetrating cold air meets warm body vapour, ideally yielding a neutral internal atmosphere.

The jacket’s wind skirt, apparently a first in the cycling domain, helps retain body heat without resorting to sewing elastic into the jacket’s hem, which tends to a marshmallow-man effect, especially when the zipper is down for venting. The result is an aesthetically pleasing cut and the ability to open and close the skirt as desired while riding, not to mention stashing food close to the body to keep if from freezing!

The wind skirt can be opened and closed to modulate air flow, and also serves as a place to store bars against your body to keep them from freezing; bonus! This was my setup for a 7 hour ride below freezing. Ignore the vest overtop, this was just a test to see how they coordinated.

More than ‘nice to have’

My first ride in the Elemento brought the cognitive disposition I discuss above into focus, and with it, the appropriate way to acknowledge and respect the ‘sideways factor’: plan for the worst, hope for the best. As in, mechanical failure, crashes and injuries, biologicals and crazy changes of weather and getting lost are MUCH more dangerous when riders are damp/wet. Let’s be real: winter kills. Shy of that, being cold sucks.

If a rider in a group of three crashes, for example, and breaks a hip 40km from town, with limited cellular coverage, we’re talking about a scenario where they might be lying on the frozen ground for 10, 20, 60+ minutes until rescue. If that rider is damp upon crashing, their rate of cooling and reaching hypothermia will be drastically accelerated. This is not a far-fetched scenario.

Thus, one’s best defence against becoming severely endangered in the case of being immobilized or drastically dropping intensity is a strong offence. In the Pre-Elemento Era, that was a very breathable setup of layers and windblocking pieces that would balance wind protection and body heat evacuation during the phase of the activity that was seeing a significant production of heat. The idea was you’d keep your effort consistent, try to let moisture escape as well as possible, and hope not to have to stop for any length of time. If a stop was forced, a shell might be packed to put on over more breathable layers to retain heat. BUT, unless the core was dry, moisture would also be retained. Thus, the name of the game was to keep damp clothing warm, and this is why merino wool layers are so popular; merino is good at insulating while wet.

I’d started taking an emergency blanket with me on winter rides, in case we had a problem and had to help someone survive until we could get a pick-up. The Elemento, however, showed me that while this might be a good practice no matter what, there is a better way: breathable, insulated jackets. Castelli is leading the way with the Elemento, establishing a new standard for functional winter cycling kit.

The Post-Elemento Era Begins

Six 3-hour-plus rides on, I continue to be awed and appreciative of the Elemento’s performance. It has proven itself a game-changer, and I can’t help but evangelize about it. This isn’t because it’s merely more comfortable being dry. It’s because its safer. And beyond that, it also opens opportunities for winter riding that were previously outside the realm of the possible.

Like what? What does the Post-Elemento Era look like?

How about the option of riding to a remote location, having hot drinks and food over a wood stove or fire, not worrying about drying out your clothing, then riding back home?

That’s what I did. On a Saturday, starting out at -8C, I rode north to Wakefield, QC, rather than driving up to meet the guys for our weekend snirt loop. My plan was novel for a time of year that always involves lots of wind and highly varied road conditions, especially on snirt, where you can start off on frozen ice and snow, which later melts and becomes….wet.

Seven hours, 140km, dry. I stopped in Wakefield for a coffee and snack at 40k, rode with the guys over melting snirt roads for a hilly 60k, sat down with them for chili and treats back in Wakefield, then got back on the bike to ride the remaining 40k home. Transitioning on and off the bike posed zero issues in terms of my comfort level, as I was dry the whole time, at least where it really mattered. The exception was my feet, which filled up with water after about an hour on the snirt; the spray ran down my tights into my Lake MX145 boots. I’d underestimated the rate of melting we’d encounter on those roads…. If I’d gone with my waterproof set up (Sealskinz waterproof socks with cuffs duct taped to my skin) I’d have been warmer while marinating in the water within my boots.

Jacket is opened up so I could access my phone in my jersey pocket, not because I was hot.

How about going fat bikepacking overnight and not worrying about being able to dry out your jacket and layers?

What about planning and executing a coffee ride at -10C, spending a wonderful 1.5 hours chatting with friends over hot drinks and treats? I did that too. Another weekend ride involved two stops for coffee; easy.

Each of these ride concepts were previously minimally anxiety-inducing, if not seemingly impossible to execute. You know what? That sucks. As we move forward in life, we want to say “I can” more and “I can’t” less.

This is the essence of the aptly-named Elemento: I can. The jacket is a tool, an enabler, a means of doing what we want outside in the winter in a way that is superior from a risk-management perspective. It not only makes the experience of adventuring outside in the cold more pleasant, but also more FUN, safer, and more open to possibility. When we bring creativity into the mix, we tap into the art of the possible.

I can’t think of a piece of equipment that would matter more profoundly.

Notes

I’m 6’1″ / 185cm, and weighed between 170lbs and 163lbs while testing the Medium Elemento. Even at 163lbs, I’m slightly too big for the Medium; its forearms are more snug than optimal, compressing the polypro insulation, and its pockets sit a bit high, making it a bit of a contortion to reach into them. At the time of this writing I’ve also spent one 3hr ride in the Large Elemento, in a rather attractive shade of green. This size fits better in the forearms, and the pockets are placed just right. The jacket’s tail is noticeably longer, there is more room in the chest, and the wind skirt fits essentially the same as the Medium’s.

The Elemento is Castelli’s warmest jacket, optimized for cold, dry weather. Yes, it sheds water, but it isn’t meant to be waterproof. It is best suited to rides around and below 5C, and I am honestly not sure there is a real-world minimal temperature it would perform well at, assuming adequate volume afforded for layering. For example, I’m confident I could use the Elemento at -40C in Large comfortably. My feet would most likely be the limiting factor in such conditions.

The Elemento is ideal for steady effort, rather than a broad range of output, from low to high intensity. This is fine, as it isn’t meant to me a race piece. The most challenging terrain to dress for, in my experience, is rolling terrain with climbs around 3-5 minutes long, and fast descents (like in Vermont!). This sort of terrain can see riders heating up a lot on the climbs, then chilling on the descents, repeatedly. I feel confident the Elemento is well positioned to meet this challenge, as its wind skirt can be run open or closed to help regulate airflow, and zipping up and down with one hand is both easy and effective when it comes to allowing excess heat to escape while climbing, and quickly evaporating excess moisture.

The fantastic thing about the jacket is that when excess moisture does accumulate, then the power output comes down, the fabric and insulation has an opportunity to release it as a result of the piece’s permeability, versus trapping it. The key here is that the moisture evaporates FAST, which means it doesn’t have much opportunity to chill the rider.

This is particularly effective when wearing a fishnet base layer against the skin, which I’ve relied on for years for cold riding. Brynje’s Thermo Mesh is polypro, and I always use it with at least one other layer over it for insulation, either a light or medium-weight base layer. For example, as you can see in my notes, at 5C, I felt perfectly comfortable with this fishnet and an Ibex 260g merino base layer under the Elemento on a mellow 3hr ride. Castelli also makes a fishnet/mesh baselayer in short sleeve and sleeveless, which I’ve not tried, but should be easier to find and work similar to the Brynje.

I strongly recommend against using a base layer that has a cooling sensation to it, as you will much more readily chill at high wind speeds. You want to move moisture right away from your skin, and have the evaporation occur out of the next layer.

Because the Elemento uses a non-stretching woven fabric both for its lining and exterior, you’ll want to take care when sizing to factor the total volume of base layers you might want to pile on inside. I’ve been comfortable with three layers under the Medium, but the Large would work better for that amount of layering, as the polypro insulation would maintain its loft better. If you can also fit two sizes, think carefully about your priorities: aerodynamics versus heat regulation. I would personally lean toward the larger size, as aerodynamics are not particularly important for the riding I use an Elemento for. When aerodynamics are prioritized, Castelli’s Alpha ROS jacket is the piece to focus on.

I’m wearing Castelli’s warmest tights (chamois built-in), the Polare 2 (Large) in the photos, which deserve a post dedicated to them alone; they are phenomenal; I’ve never been cold or too warm in them, from -15C to +6C. Their fit is spot-on, too. If you need a pair of tights for spring that can handle everything, you can’t go wrong with these. I’m also wearing their Spettacolo RoS gloves, the second warmest in the line, Pioggia 3 shoe-covers, and Pro Mesh short-sleeve base layer (in warmer climes, for now). These pieces are all terrific, and I’ll cover them together in a future post as well. Taken together, these are ‘main pieces’ that ought to serve year after year while other kit elements associated with clubs, teams, or fashion trends shift.

If you’d like to dig into the details I’ve recorded on Strava while testing the Castelli kit, you can find an evergreen link list here. Keep an eye on my Instagram feed for more Castelli kit testing coming up through spring, including a training camp in North Carolina coming up!

SPRING UPDATE (May 9, 2019)

I’ve continued testing the Elemento well above freezing to determine just how well it handles heat. I’ve learned that it is very useful and comfortable up to around 15 Celsius, at low to moderate intensity. Starting out rides around 15C in the evening, with sun fading and temperature dropping steadily is the sweet-spot for the Elemento, with as little as one thin short-sleeved base layer underneath. I’ve worn Castelli’s Pro Mesh, for example, and it felt great; none of the clamminess against the arms you’d expect with a shell jacket.

To be completely honest, I had a recent ride where it was cold and windy enough after work that I didn’t really want to head outside; I was tempted to just ride the trainer. The Elemento and Omloop Thermal bib shorts I had sitting at home ready to go gave me the confidence that I’d be comfy – not just surviving – regardless of how I took on the ride. I.e., if I felt good and rode hard, I’d be fine, maybe just open up the jacket here and there. If I was tired and rode easy, I’d be totally comfy too. AND, when I stopped for coffee, I wouldn’t be damp, so I could just enjoy myself regardless of how things went down.

As it turned out, I was tired, and backed off my original plan to at least ride the 80k out to Wakefield and back, stopping in Old Chelsea at 25k instead for coffee and a bit of Netflix. I sat in the sun outside, completely comfortable, thoroughly enjoyed the down-time, then proceeded to loop through Lac Leamy’s flooded sectors that were as deep as my knees. Absent of dampness against my core, only my feet were cold (very), so I was completely fine, really.

My point here is that the insulated, breathable jacket format is simply better than the multi-base-layer + shell approach for so much riding, and having a core piece like the Elemento really does redefine the art of the possible. I’ve been astonished by the range of temperatures I can use the jacket for, and I’ve grown to love the simplicity of throwing on as little as one super-light base layer underneath and heading out the door.

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