Why your cycling gloves fail you.

The weather last weekend for the first reliability ride of this year was truly awful. Heavy rain from the start and the type of rain that is thick and penetrates even the best waterproofs. Afterwards there was a heated discussion on facebook about why riders winter gloves had let them down. I was going to write this as a response but figured that it was far too long and maybe deserved a wider audience.

Warm and waterproof gloves are a holy grail for cyclists, cold and wet hands are horrible and often make it difficult to shift and brake if it gets really bad. People can be evangelical about a particular glove whilst others will slate it as terrible, can the same product be both good and bad? The simple answer is yes because there are inherent flaws and limitations with how a winter glove is designed and constructed which can lead to it’s ‘failure’.

Most winter gloves can be divided into two types, those with a single layer of material and those with multiple layers. In theory single layer gloves work in essentially the same way as the outer layer of multi-layer gloves but usually with a thicker material that provide more insulation.

Multiple layer gloves are generally constructed as follows:

– An inner layer next to the skin which is designed to be comfortable and usually wicks sweat/moisture away from the skin.
– A layer of insulating material for warmth.
– A waterproof barrier layer.
– An outer layer usually with some form of water repellent coating.

Water is supposed to bead up on the outer layer and any that does get through hits the waterproof barrier instead of soaking the insulation and then your hands. This system will at some point fail though and won’t keep your hands dry though for the following reasons:

1. All gloves have a hole in them. I don’t mean a tiny pinprick somewhere or an errant gap in a seam I’m talking about the one you put your hand in. This can be mitigated with a good jacket but when your jacket fails too it’s very apparent. I spent many months last year riding in an old jacket that let water in the seams around the elbow and I could feel it running down my forearms and into my gloves.

2. The gloves ‘wet out’ or get dirty. Essentially the water repellent coating is designed to stop water clogging the pores of the layers in the glove especially the waterproof barrier. When the pores of this material are clogged (be that with water or dirt) then the glove stops being as breathable and any sweat and moisture inside is retained within the glove leaving you with wet hands from within. Essentially no glove if subjected to constant exposure to rain is going to keep your hand dry.

3. You use your hands when you are cycling. Unlike a jacket which covers a relatively static part of your body your gloves are constantly being bent and subjected to movement. This means that in the first place the barrier fabric needs to be more waterproof as stretching the fabric adds external pressure which forces water through the barrier (it increases the hydrostatic head which you may see used as a measurement of how waterproof an item is). Your hands are also on your handlebars so a good glove in theory would have a better waterproof barrier on the palm where there is increased pressure mile after mile. I’ve noticed that now I have a better jacket my current gloves let water in on the palm.

4. Your gloves are old. In my experience the performance of a set of gloves deteriorates at around a year and a half to two years with everyday use. The constant bending and pressure on gloves can break the waterproof barrier, also the external water repellent coating will wear off. I have to admit that I hadn’t thought about this until recently and so I used to just throw my gloves in the washing machine in a normal wash, the next pair I’ll be treating like a good jacket and using a ‘technical’ wash to see if that increases their lifespan.

Essentially all items that are sold as waterproof will fail if you’re out in the rain long enough and so people argue that as your skin is waterproof then why bother trying to keep the elements out. With a multiple layer glove keeping out the water is probably more to do with providing warmth than keeping your hands dry. Insulation materials work less well when they are wet so if water gets through to that part of the glove your hands are going to get cold as well as wet.

On the reliability ride I had to stop and have a pee which required removing my outer gloves, my merino liner gloves got wet and so water was introduced into my glove ‘system’. Within minutes of setting back off again my hands were much colder and my gloves weren’t retaining the warmth they had been previously.

So what is the solution? I’ve seen people suggest wearing marigolds and to be honest I might try it, however you would have to wear them over the top of your insulating layer to keep hands warm and    I’m pretty sure as they aren’t very breathable you would just end up with the insulation getting wet from the inside as you sweat. Whether though this would extend the amount of time before getting cold hands though I am not sure. On a long ride/trip when you know you have to spend a long time riding in wet conditions the only real answer is probably spare gloves. Once one set get too wet, remove them warm the hands next to the skin and put on fresh dry gloves.

This post is based on my experience and knowledge from conversations with people I come into contact with at work, mainly the Sealskinz rep who gave me a very good insight/explanation of how waterproof fabrics work. It’s not necessarily completely factually correct as I don’t have a perfect memory. So if you think I’ve got something wrong then feel free to let me know.
Also if you are interested in keeping warm and dry then it’s well worth reading this short piece on waterproof fabrics. Also this blog  by Andy Kirkpatrick looking at the glove issue from a climbing perspective shows that it’s not only cyclists who are still struggling to solve the problem of cold hands.

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