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Technical FAQ: Staying warm on long alpine descents

When a reader cannot stay warm on those long descents in the Alps, Lennard chimes in with some sage advice. Staying warm on descents, even on summer days, requires a riding and apparel strategy.

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Dear Lennard,
I enjoyed your post about cold weather footwear. Can you give any insights on how you or others stay warm coming down alpine descents? The last few years I have traveled to Europe to ride in the Alps and have really suffered on some descents despite fairly mild ambient temperatures. I ride all winter here in the United States, weather permitting (roadie, not in the snow) and generally am not one to suffer in the cold, but coming down extended descents like the Galibier or off the Stelvio during Gran Fondos, I have been a shivering, teeth-chattering, numb-handed mess, and I’m worried about losing control of the bike. I am a solid, aggressive descender, so on top of the misery and the worry, I just don’t get to enjoy the excitement of the downhill, nor the benefit of my skills if it is a timed section of a Fondo.

I expect to ride in the Alps every annual vacation for the foreseeable future, so I’d like to overcome this! Do you have any suggestions for clothing tactics or tech based on your experiences or those of the pros?
— Theo

Dear Theo,
I share your love of riding in the high mountains of Europe; riding doesn’t get much better than that. I lived at the base of the Dolomites in northeastern Italy for a year and spent many years riding alpine Gran Fondos and leading bike groups in the Alps and Dolomites with Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney (Carpenter/Phinney Bike Camps). When I wasn’t over there, I was living in Boulder, Colorado, where we have plenty of mountain rides. I have made plenty of mistakes resulting in getting very cold on descents over the decades and have learned a bit.

My tall, thin body (high surface area to volume ratio) is much more similar to a giraffe than to a snowshoe rabbit and better suited to a hot climate than a cold one and is naturally more prone to cooling down on the descents than the bodies of my more compact riding buddies. Nevertheless, my preference of activities is always in the mountains, if not bike riding then skiing or kayaking, so I have developed lots of strategies for all of those sports to ensure that I enjoy the downhills.

I would say that there are two things to keep in mind for staying warm on descents. One has to do with timing (and time spent at the top), and the other has to do with clothing. Preparing to stay cold when gaining and losing many thousands of feet of elevation is very different than heading out for a winter ride on a cold day.

When it comes to timing, you will stay warmer on the descent if you start the descent warm. This means getting off the top of the climb as soon as possible, while your body is still hot from the climb.

I realize that the feed zones in mountainous Gran Fondos tend to be at the top of the climbs, so there is a tendency to get off your bike and dally there, and refueling after the climb is beneficial. On friendly rides, it’s nice, as well as de rigueur, to regroup with friends at the top, and, even on solo rides, it’s normal to relish the accomplishment at the top of the climb. The view is generally worth stopping to appreciate, and, in Europe, there is also often a café at the top to enjoy a snack, a meal, or a coffee. Problem is, your body cools down up there.

You will gain an average 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet of elevation you descend, so if your surface body temperature is high at the top and you can get low quickly, the air will be considerably warmer before your body has had a chance to get very cold. This has a lot to do with why, on sunny days anyway, you see riders in the Tour, Giro and Vuelta putting on nothing or at most a thin jacket before descending, even on Europe’s highest passes. They get down to warmer temperatures quickly, while their body is still warm, so they don’t tend to shiver until their bars shake nor show the effects the next day of getting cold on the multiple descents during a major mountain stage.

If you are going to stop at the top, you need to bring a lot more clothing than if you can get off of the top immediately. Stopping at the top results in profuse sweating, soaking the clothing and rapidly bringing down body temperature. Starting the descent once cooled down as well as wet from sweat makes it much harder to stay warm.

A couple of our classic rides here are to the 14,115-foot (4,300-meter) and 14,265-foot (4,350-meter) summits of Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans (the latter being the highest paved road in North America). It tends to be cold up there (on average, 25 degrees F colder than 7,000 feet below), even on a hot day. Riding groups tend to get spread out over a half hour or so by the summit, and the views are spectacular up there, so hanging out on the top for considerable time is normal. Unless riding alone or being turned back by a storm, it is not realistic to get off of the top quickly. Carrying a lot of clothing up such a long climb is not something anybody likes doing, but you had better do so or you will suffer mightily going down. There have been many times when I have come down Mt. Evans shaking like a leaf, sometimes in snow, hail or rain, and have had difficulty controlling the bike for at least the first few thousand feet of descending. Even with a quick turnaround, you still get cold on the descent, but it’s a lot worse after cooling off completely.

The other part of timing has to do with planning for optimal warm temperatures. Going up in the morning is better, as temperatures tend to be rising over the day. Of the many times I have ridden the Passo Stelvio, one particularly stands out, where I had driven straight up to Bormio after landing in Milan and collecting my bike and rental car around midday, hopped on my bike mid afternoon on a fine October day, and rode up it. I got to the top too late for such short days (the Stelvio is 47 degrees north latitude, same as Lake Superior!), and the temperature was rapidly dropping. It was almost dark by the time I returned, and I ended up in an hours-long hot bath in my hotel trying to warm back up.

As for clothing, layering is of course key. A short-sleeved, sweat-wicking base layer is a must on any but hot days (you can carry it in your pocket for the climb if it’s thin and light and you don’t want to wear it going up). Minimize sweating by fully unzipping your jersey on the climb and not wearing gloves.

Also key are small pieces for your extremities; these don’t take much room or add much weight and can make a huge difference going down. When going to the high mountains, I bring two Buffs. For the descent, I quickly don one as a hood, hood/face mask or balaclava under the other one, which I wear as a do-rag folded over on the bottom edge for more ear warmth. Keeping your head warm makes a massive warmth difference when descending, and two Buffs takes very little pocket space.

I also bring lightweight (and quick to put on) Lycra shoe covers and full-finger gloves. I base the glove weight on anticipated temperatures at the top. Having warm hands and feet is key to comfort and bike control on an alpine descent.

It goes without saying to bring a jacket, arm warmers and either knee warmers or leg warmers for the descent. A super-light jacket is worth its weight in gold for protection from the wind on the descent; if you have to choose between the arm warmers and the jacket for space reasons, bring the jacket. If precipitation is a possibility, make sure it’s a waterproof one. Back in the day, bringing newspaper to spread under the front of the jersey for the downhill was standard. It’s not standard to bring it now, but if there is a newspaper at the summit, grab it and use it.

You should be able to get all of this stuff in your pockets. With energy bars and a cell phone also taking up pocket space, getting more than this into them is not easy. However, an insulated long-sleeved jersey or technical layer tied around the waist or under the saddle (or even in a small backpack) could well be worth it.

Bringing all of this stuff is one thing, and choosing when to don it is another. I often go straight over the top, only zipping my jersey up, and go down a few switchbacks before putting any of it on. I don’t go down far enough to get cold—just enough to cool down so I won’t start sweating when I stop to put the layers on; if I haven’t cooled off much, I keep going until I have. It tends to be more protected from the wind lower down than at the top, and I find a widened section of road to stop and put more on. I often throw my jacket on quickly and continue, making the call further down yet whether to stop and put on all of the other stuff. If it’s in a Gran Fondo with a summit feed zone, I grab some food as quickly as I can, zip up, stuff the food under the bottom front edge of my jersey, throw my jacket on and getting rolling again, eating when the road mellows out.

Again, if you can get low fast before your surface body temperature comes down, most of the battle has been won, and you won’t need as much additional clothing.
― Lennard


Lennard Zinn, our longtime technical writer, joined VeloNews in 1987. He is also a custom frame builder (www.zinncycles.com) and purveyor of non-custom huge bikes (bikeclydesdale.com), a former U.S. national team rider, co-author of “The Haywire Heart,” and author of many bicycle books including “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance,” “DVD, as well as “Zinn and the Art of Triathlon Bikes” and “Zinn’s Cycling Primer: Maintenance Tips and Skill Building for Cyclists.”
He holds a bachelor’s in physics from Colorado College.

Follow @lennardzinn