The Anti-Kit

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My first New England winter was an ordeal of such profound and biting discomfort that it served as not just an education, but an expansion of the possible, both in terms of conditions man could live in, and a larger indication of just how inhospitable the universe can be. I nailed a blanket over my drafty bedroom window, dressed in four layers and gave up all cold foods for the season, thus depriving myself of peanut butter and jelly, a staple of such reliable presence in my life I never once considered giving it up for Lent, good Catholic that I was.

In February, when I got my courage up enough to attempt road rides that passed the wind-scarred potato fields of the Hadley farmers, I struggled to find the exact mix of wardrobe necessary to prevent the wind’s blade from penetrating straight to my marrow. I had neither the knowledge nor the patience to understand how riding easy would allow me to generate enough heat to keep me warm. Instead, I would charge out my door and sprint past sensibility and straight to ill-advised, drippy perspiration. I’d return home sooner than anticipated, but long after I’d started to go hypothermic, too destroyed to reflect on my mistakes, thus doomed to repeat them a day or two later.

I took note of what the local Cat. Is and IIs were wearing. We had a half dozen of them and I did my best to do whatever they were willing to suggest. I pestered them with questions, and while I use the plural, “questions,” the fact is, I kept asking a single question over and over: “What’s that?” Coming from well below the Mason-Dixon Line, I was familiar with shorts, jerseys, thin Lycra tights and windbreakers, but nothing more sophisticated or specialized than that. I’d yet to even learn what bib shorts were.

I couldn’t help but notice that all the cool team kits that I had eyed with envy the previous fall had been interrupted by garments awash in sponsor names new to me. Guys were pulling out their very heaviest pieces, thermal jerseys, Roubaix tights and bibs, insulated and windproof arm warmers and booties, lobster gloves not to mention secret-weapon base layers we never saw.

The combined effect was a garish mish-mash of earth tones and neons, pastels offset by saturated vibrant hues. In short, it was a kaleidoscope disaster as offensive to the eye as static is to the ear. Of course, at a certain point, wearing the most retinal-scorching combination became a kind of competition, evolving beyond one’s need for insulation on those coldest rides to the worst possible combination on merely cold days. These were the occasions to pull out those Roubaix bibs, no matter what they said on the side. Extra points went to those who could make  a pair of team tights or leg warmers peak from beneath a pair of another team’s bibs. Ditto for combining a thermal vest with mismatched jersey and arm warmers. Double points if that short-sleeve jersey was thermal. The nod always seemed to go to the riders with the greatest history, the Cat Is and IIs who through dint of their experience could turn a pile of Lycra into an abstract expressionist’s canvas, slashing the air with more light than the optic nerve was designed to carry.

At its heart, the anti-kit is about comfort rather than looks, even if the look cultivated is deliberately contrary. It’s an acknowledgement that mother nature trumps all other loyalties, and beating the elements is survival itself. It embodies the message that form doesn’t always follow function, that suffering isn’t in the gear but in the effort, that a body wrapped to face the elements is the body that meets the winter willingly, able to find a reason—after all these years—to stay out, rather than turn home.

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26 comments

  1. Scott G.

    The reliable Sunday winter ride used to be a 60 miler, with a stop at an ice cream shop in the middle. Why you would want ice cream during a ride
    where you would be pounding your water bottle on the handle bars to break up the ice was never explained.

  2. Wisco

    Winter riding is a different season for sure. Even though I’m too fat and slow to ever be a Cat II, I also have a mis-matched set of cold weather riding gear. Swap meet acquisitions, clearance sale Roubaix thermals and items that were advertised to be “windproof” dot the small closet where I keep my kit.

    The worst is shoe covers… I must have 10 pairs, all of which are useless. I recently bought a pair of Specialized winter shoes (Defrosters) and have finally found the answer to cold feet. Kind of an indulgence to have a set of “winter shoes”, but perhaps no worse than my collection of wind vests, another obsession that has gotten out of control.

  3. LD

    I have to admit…….. I really dig the all black / no name brand look that becomes ever more prevalent in the winter months.

  4. Patrick O'Brien

    I have lived in SE Arizona for over 30 years. Coming from North of Chicago, I have no intention to ever return to that kind of winter. My blood is thin; I’m a winter wimp that won’t ride unless it is above 45 degrees.

  5. Michael

    I am colorblind. The idea of colors that clash, or that go together, is entirely foreign. I simply cannot figure how colors can have any relationship to each other. Brightness, being seen by cars, is my only goal. Fear me!

  6. Dan

    Rolled through Hadley yesterday with my trusty 20 year old Nashbar winter jacket. Man this thing is fugly but it does keep the breeze at bay.

  7. Mike

    As an official, I have had more than my fair share of “forgotten” jackets, vests, arm and leg warmers, gloves, and hats to make any assortment of anti-kits. My biggest problem is that they are all mediums, while I’m an XL!
    MY current anti-kit is anything from the Gore line. I think it’s the best stuff for the money.

  8. Mikey

    In Ireland where rain is served with everything, neoprene socks (1 or 2mm from watersports outlets) combined with a windproof overshoe have been a Godsend!!
    Same goes for neoprene gloves, not even the same sports but great, how anti kit is that?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for your comments.

      Scott G: Either Ben or Jerry of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream fame had this crazy theory about why eating ice cream in the winter worked. He’d worked out some postulate about how ice cream lowered your core temperature so that the outside didn’t feel so cold. Or something.

      Wisco: That search is half the fun.

      LD: Yeah, when it’s really cold, I’m completely black from the waist down.

      Beaker: Nice work. I’ve had that thermal jacket for something like 17 years now. Would love to know more about that program.

      Tashkent Error: Well, when the intention isn’t irony that’s just bad taste. This is my handlebar mustache.

      Michael: Being colorblind must both be a relief and an unexperienced tragedy.

      Dan: Please give Rt. 47 my best. I miss chasing the potato trucks.

      Mike: Maybe we can come up with an exchange program for you.

      Mikey: Neoprene is just artificial wool that smells different, not better.

      SnakeHawk: I like that! I may have to use it.

  9. scaredskinnydog

    The uglier the mixed kit the higher the likelihood of you getting your picture taken while wearing it. Its a scientific fact.

  10. jorgensen

    I guess my age is showing as I am from the time when one did not wear a team jersey unless you were on the actual team. Even then, never on a training ride. Nor wear world champion stripes of any type, socks, collar or arm band trim unless your were.
    It is getting harder to be simple in hue. Other than Black, which works but not always.

  11. Andrew

    Jorgensen I’m with you. There are two reasons to wear a team jersey. If you are on the team or sleeping with someone who is.

  12. Carl N.

    Where we live I can roll out in the morning with temps in the low 30′s and two hours later it’s in the mid 40′s and heading towards 50. The main reason I have two WB cages is to have someplace to stuff all my extra clothing. Roll your stuff up with a couple of rubber bands, stick it in a cage, and you’re jammin’!

  13. Lewis Moon

    When you’re poor (or just frugal) the “anti kit” is a year ’round mainstay. While I’d love to own a pair of $200 bibs and a $150 jersey, I can’t sell it to myself; there are just too many other important things competing for my paycheck. So, it’s cast off jersies and last season’s bibs for me.
    Really, it’s about the experience, not the kit.

  14. gmknobl

    Your article begs the question – what did you wear that worked? I would love to know. Weather is extreme these days and I need something to ride in the cold days that won’t make me sweat like crazy unless I choose but still keep me warm.

  15. Steeb'n O'

    Coolest thing I ever saw on a winter ride: a woman who had scissored big cutouts in two 1-gallon milk jugs and taped them to her handlebars as windshields for her hands.

    (Of course, if you’re a tri-geek, you’d probably go with 1-litre bubbly water bottles. :^) )

  16. Alan Cote

    So it’s the cold that you remember most Patrick, eh? Not the road salt filth? Or the ice — which on a curve gave a route its name?

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