If my riding buddies’ jeans and flannel are any indication, dedicated winter riding clothing is not required to have a good time on a bike in the winter. But like most things in life, the right equipment can make for a much better experience. Especially when you’re talking about brutally cold and wet conditions.
As fat bikes have been getting more popular, more attention has been given to winter clothing. I hesitate to refer to this as fat bike specific clothing since you can just as easily use the gear for mountain biking with skinnier tires in the winter. Though realistically, if you’re looking for clothing for negative temperatures, you’ll probably be riding fat.
Over the years my quiver of winter clothing has been sharpened to the point that I was relatively comfortable in most conditions. The trick though is knowing what crazy combination of pieces will be the right choice for the day. The Specialized x 686 kit seemed promising since it is a modular system designed to adapt to any conditions. Seems too good to be true, right? As it turns out, this may some of the best purpose built cycling kit I’ve used – if you can stomach the price…
More than any other type of cycling, fat biking (or winter mountain biking) has a lot of obstacles when it comes to dressing yourself. With temperatures dipping well below 0ºf, you need clothing that will keep you from freezing as you settle into the ride or have to stop for a mechanical in the middle of nowhere. Once you get moving and you start to sweat, that same clothing has to dump heat and moisture fast enough that it won’t freeze inside the outer layer of your clothes. It also has to be able to shed freezing rain, heavy snow, protect you from splashes from stream crossings or salt spray from your front tire, all while staying comfortable for pedaling.
It’s sort of like a survival suit, which is the best way I can describe the 686 built kit. I couldn’t shake the image of rescue divers donning survival suits as I fought 50mph wind gusts and freezing rain while Winter Storm Goliath battered the shores of Lake Erie. I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to ride in such stupid conditions, but I had brought my fat bike all the way to Michigan to ride after family Christmas, and I wasn’t going to let a little storm stop me, damn it.
In case you’re wondering, even though the temperature was about 35 degrees, due to the wind chill and freezing rain I needed more layers than I thought underneath the outer shell. The wind was so strong and biting that any exposed skin was numb in a few minutes so I had dressed like the temperature was 30º colder. Also good to know – in driving/freezing rain where you’re the only person
dumb brave enough to get out of your car, let alone ride a bike, the 20,000mm water proofing on the 3 layer InfiDry fabric for the 3L Tech Jacket (and bibs) is good for about an hour before it started to seep through the sleeves. The chest of the jacket and pants stayed completely dry. It’s not often that you’ll find yourself riding in constant freezing rain and 30-50mph winds, so this seems pretty reasonable. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted one of my other jackets. Update: apparently I didn’t make it clear – these were absolutely not normal riding conditions. There were so many warnings out that someone called the Border Patrol on me because they couldn’t believe I was just out riding. I also should have said that my arm started to get wet, but I’m not sure where the moisture was coming from. It was windy enough that it could have been coming through the end of the sleeve – I got my bike out of the car and the wind blew my front wheel 40 feet down the parking lot. I’ve asked Specialized for comment, but I wouldn’t expect to stay completely dry with any jacket in these conditions. Under normal rain/riding conditions the jacket and bibs have been completely dry.
In the process of trying to stay dry and warm, I learned a few things about the jacket that made me happy. One of those is how well the hood fits without a helmet on. Many jackets that have hoods that fit over helmets tend to not fit so well without, and the 3L Tech Jacket hood cinches down quite nicely with a rear and two internal draw strings. However, it doesn’t play so well with the Lazer winter helmet I’m testing which is higher volume than my standard helmets. The (small) jacket hood does work with my (medium) standard helmets but it is tight. After the jacket was completely zipped up, I noticed another great little feature – the jacket has vent holes built in (and soft fleece backing) so that when it’s completely zipped, you can breathe through the jacket and it won’t fog up your goggles or glasses.
While we’re on the subject of clever little features, all of the other openings (arm, leg, and waist) have built in powder guards. At the arms, the guards have thumb holes so you can keep your hands warm while you’re getting your bike ready or to add extra warmth under your gloves. At the waist, the guard has two different positions based on how tight you want it to be. And at the legs, the pant opening is zippered and underneath is an elastic cuff with an adjustable snap closure to stay tight on your boots (as well as well placed scuff guards for each pant leg). There is also a stowable tail gaurd to keep the spray off your rear. All of this will certainly prevent powder from entering your clothes, but it also serve to create a bit of a micro climate inside, trapping the heated air and keeping your warm.
Of course, trapping air inside won’t do much for keeping you dry and from overheating so the kit has built in vents. A lot of them. If you count all of the zippered openings that will help you regulate your core temperature, there are 8 – 4 dedicated vents, and 4 pocket openings that double as vents. Basically, any red zipper can be used as a vent. More important than just having a lot of vents, they seem to be well located. The dedicated vents on the upper arm just below the shoulder, and the front of the thigh vents are more like ram air ducts. Built with large, easy to pull zippers for one handed use, the flow of air is pretty easy to control. When you add in the huge rear zippers which double as the access points to the SWAT bib pockets and the hand warmer pockets, it is extremely easy to regulate your temperature.
One of my biggest challenges to winter riding has always been that I sweat a lot, even in the cold. I sweat enough to overwhelm most winter clothing I’ve used so I end up soaked and then I start to freeze (literally) as the moisture inside can’t escape. It hasn’t been that cold this winter so about -2ºf is as cold as I’ve tested the kit, but I have never been drier at the end of a ride in the winter.
Doing a little “durability testing.”
Thanks to the burly shell provided by the Tech Jacket and Tech Bibs, getting dressed for rides is reduced to just deciding what base and insulating layers to use. In my experience, the outer layer is worth about one layer less than you would usually wear. That means for my coldest rides so far I’ve worn a pair of thermal bibs (Bontrager or Pactimo), a Pearl Izumi knicker base layer, and then usually a Bontrager B3 thermal base layer up top with either a standard or thermal long sleeve jersey. As a bonus, the ease of layering makes it so you can even pull the outer shell on over street clothes if need me. I did this more than once while traveling, and is a nice touch for short rides.
With protection from the elements covered, inside you’ll find plenty of protection for your gear. Specialized has taken to removing the need for a hydration pack on your summer rides, so winter should be no different, right? Building on their SWAT theory, the 3L Tech Bibs feature three rear pockets which are accessible through both the Tech Insulator and the Tech Jacket. This review doesn’t include the Tech Insulator so I can’t comment on that, but the access through the jacket is easy to use. The large zipper pulls make it easy to get into the back even with your gloves on, and the three pockets offer a good amount of storage. Like other SWAT bibs, the advantage is that the contents are held close to your body so they won’t bounce around. They’re also under the waterproof jacket and outside of the waterproof layer of the bibs so it keeps the contents dry. If that isn’t enough storage, you also have the two hand warmer pockets on the outside of the jacket, and three internal jacket pockets, one zippered with a media port.
The bibs are held up with broad, easy to adjust suspender straps, and include large loops for a belt which will help pull the contents of the bib pockets tight if you’re using a lot of layers. The front of the bib uses a large zipper with two snap closure which provides plenty of leeway for nature breaks. Finally, there are plenty of reflective hits like the massive industrial strength velcro pull tabs for the wrist. The cuffs are big enough to swallow big gloves, or they can be cinched down tight if need be.
Did I mention this thing even has a RECCO avalanche location reflector?
Yeah, when Specialized set out to build the ultimate fat bike kit, they didn’t mess around.
While best used as a set, the bibs knock it out of the park for their ease of layering, comfort, protection, and ability to carry your goods. There are a number of great jackets out there, but very few options for loose but pedal friendly winter bibs. Not surprisingly, if you ask me what my favorite fat biking outer wear would be, you’re looking at it.
So who is this for? With a retail price of $500 for the jacket and $450 for the bibs, this certainly won’t be an impulse buy for your average fat biker. But while the price is definitely painful, if you wanted to go buy top of the line ski or snowboard gear you’d be looking at similar prices. Mostly, I envision the Specialized x 686 gear will find a home with riders who are venturing out farther and longer into the frozen back country and want the most versatile, protective clothing they can find. It will also be a hit with well heeled riders who struggle with the cold or moisture control on their rides no matter the length. Or simply put, any rider who wants the absolute best for their next fat bike mission.