by Marcus Leach
For many people the ideal winter break would be somewhere warm, bathed in sunshine and with the minimal of activity. But here at The Essential Cyclist we prefer our winter breaks filled with adventure, which is why over the festive season I packed my bags, loaded the my bike, and set off on a road trip to the French Alps.
Two days after leaving London I arrived in the valley at the foot of one of the most famous, at least in cycling circles, mountains in the Alps; Alpe d'Huez. I had come to the Alps for two reasons; to get out into the mountains on foot, and to attempt to cycle up Alpe d'Huez. The former of these objectives would prove to be a damn sight easier than the latter.
Given the freezing temperatures it didn't surprise me not to see any other cyclists on, or in the vicinity of, the infamous Alpe d'Huez. But that wasn't going to stop me setting out to achieve my goal, and so as the snow began to fall I cut a long figure on the mountain, one-by-one ticking off the twenty-one switch backs until, with numb hands and feet I crossed the finish line with one solitary spectator (my wife) watching and cheering me on.
With the cycling ticked off the rest of the week was dedicated to adventures on foot, and with snowfall not too heavy there were still plenty of paths open to us higher up the mountain. Our walks were a mix of damp, cold grey skies below the cloud and brilliant clear blue skies, albeit with freezing temperatures, above the clouds. Thankfully we were well equipped for all eventualities and stayed dry and warm throughout our various Alpine walks.
So, what equipment did we use, and more importantly what did we think of it?
Having used Tenn's Blaze Waterproof Leggings and Whisper Jacket on some pretty bleak early morning rides back in London there was never any doubt that they would be coming to the Alps with me. But given that the road to the top of Alpe d'Huez would top out at almost 2,000 meters above sea level I considered it wise to take some extra base layers to combat the freezing cold.
As the saying goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it, and with that in mind I stuck with Tenn and used their long sleeve Compression Fit Base Layer for added warmth. With the temperature just above freezing and snow falling by the time I reached the summit my biggest concern was catching a cold, yet the high wicking fabric kept my body dry and thus negated any windchill factor a cold, sweaty top would have incurred. The compression fit meant that I was warm without feeling like I would be too hot, as odd as that sounds cycling up a mountain in the middle of winter.
As any cyclist will know when you're heading away on a trip with your bike there always ends up being more stuff to take than you first imagined; spare inner tubes, tools, extra clothing, recovery drinks and energy gels to name just a few. Keeping everything organised and in one place makes for a far less stressful time when you need to lay your hands on something, which is where KitBrix comes into play.
In a nutshell KitBrix is a unique modular sports bag solution feature easily identifiable icons, which means you can have multiple bags that all connect, so you can have a cycling one, a first aid one and a general one, ensuring everything is sectioned off and easy to access. Now I know some of you will be saying why not just have an ordinary bag, but having used one on the road trip I can safely say it made life so much easier having all of my cycling equipment in one neat, sturdy little bag.
Of course it would have been impossible to get my bike out to France in the first place without a bike rack for the car. Our rack of choice was a Thule RaceWay 991, which simply put was brilliant. In the past my two big concerns for bike racks have been stability and security. However, with Thule's state-of-the-art carrier there were no worries at all.
Whilst rather heavy in comparison to previous bike racks I have used the extra weight was justified once on the car and secure, and by secure I mean unless you had some form of bolt cutters there was no way of taking the bike or the rack once everything was locked into place. Upon opening the box I was expecting it to be rather complicated to use, but in fact once set up for your car it was straightforward to fit and take off thanks to the ratcheting cables.
Once fitted all cables could be locked into position with a key, as well as the bike locked onto the rack itself, meaning that I was able to leave the car almost anywhere without having to worry about the bike being stolen.
Walking in the Alps in the winter means you need to be warm, but not too warm, and prepared for the worst weather at any moment. Rab have long been considered one of the leading outdoor brands, and having used their Neo Guide jacket I can now see why. Made from Polartec's spectacular NeoShell fabric the jacket is fully waterproof, that much I can vouch for, with the added bonus of being breathable too.
It being winter and with a few heavy downpours of rain I got to see just how waterproof the jacket really was, with the areas around zips usually being the downfall of jackets. However, thanks to zips coated with a polyurethane layer there was no such issue and I stayed perfectly dry under the jacket.
Now, back to the issue of breathability. In the past walking in non-breathable waterproofs I have found myself dripping with sweat and feeling like I was in a sauna, not so with this jacket. The NeoShell is air-permeable which means whilst it kept me dry from the rain it stopped me over-heating underneath.
You could argue that it is an expensive purchase, but then as with most things in life, you get what you pay for. I for one would rather spend the extra money and have complete peace of mind that, come rain or shine, I will be prepared for all eventualities whilst out walking.
When you're out on a full day's hiking you need to take supplies and provisions with you, and for that you need a decent rucksack. In our case it was an Osprey Stratos 36, which proved to be the perfect sized bag for day hikes and, depending how light you pack, could easily be used for short expeditions. One of the features I was most impressed with was the AirSpeed back panel, which meant the pack sat slightly away from my back for ventilation and ease of movement.
Even packed with food, drink and spare clothing for two people there was plenty of room in the bag, not to mention some great little pockets on the hip belt for stashing your camera or some snacks. I was also impressed by the fact the zips had large loops on, making opening the pack whilst wqearing gloves as easy as without. This is a backpack that has been intelligently designed, taking into account every last requirement for those off hiking, and is a pleasure to use.
The final piece to the walking kit jig-saw came in the form of Maui Jim Stone Crusher sunglasses, which for winter walking might have seemed unnecessary. However, once we were above the clouds and exposed to the glaring sun they proved to be invaluable. The polarised lenses really came to the fore meaning there was no issue with glare, and thankfully they were pretty rugged and robust. Clearly designed to be fashionable they also have the more active user in mind.
Thule RaceWay 991: Indespension Trailers
Neo Guide Jacket: Rab
Stratos 36 Back Pack: Osprey
Stone Crusher Sunglasses: Maui Jim
KitBrix Bag: KitBrix
Compression Fit Base Layer: Tenn Outdoors