5 winter cycling commuting essentials – product reviews

It may not seem the right time for this – winter seems like it is almost over, and spring is just around the corner. Yet now is a great time to pick up some cycling essentials for winter 2015/16, with cold weather clothing in the sales in most cycling stores. Here are five of the key items I bought and used commuting since the start of the year (15 miles each day each way), and how they fared.

1. Topeak Race Rocket HPX Master Blaster Road Pump
£29.69 on Wiggle

Cycling through the winter means one thing – rain. Lots and lots of rain. And rain means punctures, taking your wheels off with cold fingers, peeling off the tyres, replacing the tube, and then trying to reinflate the whole thing before you can get going again.

I suffered a fairly terminal pump catastrophe, and replaced my old one with the Topeak Race Rocket.

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The Topeak Race Rocket was one of my best purchases. Although it may seem on the pricey side for a pump, it’s well worth it. The design is very stylish, coming in gold, silver and black models, but most importantly, it works.

The Race Rocket feels very solid and looks like a quality product. It works with a flip off cap which reveals a tube. At the end of the tube is a small screw cap which switches the pump between Presta and Schrader valves, making this great value if you also like to a bit of mountain biking. I’ve only used the Presta option, so I can’t comment on how well that works. The advantage of the tube means that you can put a lot more force into putting pressure into the tyres as the pump is not directly connected to the valve, and reduces the risk of damaging the valve.

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When extended the Race Rocket is pretty long – this means that you can get pressure into the tyre very quickly. The first time I used it I was able to get the pressure in my tyre back up to the normal winter pressure fairly easily.

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Although it might seem as though a longer pump like this is sure to fall out of your pockets (if you don’t have it in a commuting backpack), when bundled up with a lightweight rain cape or gilet it fits fairly snugly. The pump does also come with a frame mount which fits onto the bottle cage mounts.

2. Bontrager RXL 180 Softshell Convertible Jacket
£59.99 on Evans Cycles, limited colours and sizes 

One of the first things that you think of when shopping for winter cycling is a good waterproof, warm jacket. This Bontrager convertible softshell didn’t dissapoint.

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On my first ride in the jacket, it started raining close to the end. I was impressed immediately that the material made the water form into droplets and then run off – this property seems to have faded with time, but the jacket has always kept me bone dry (apart from sweat when working hard) underneath. It has also kept me warm almost all of the time – the rides when I have been very cold I am happy to blame mostly on not having warmer jerseys on underneath.The back of the jacket has an elasticated hem so that it fits snuggly over your lower back to keep you warm and stop the wind, and stop you getting cold.

The softshell comes in three colours, red, black, and a fluro yellow. I’m not one to shout about the benefits of ‘hi-vis’ clothing (I feel a good set of lights should be sufficient for drivers to notice you if they are competent), and I’m sure this jacket will soon look garish on cold but light rides. However for the peace of mind of friends and family I don’t mind too much, and more importantly the jacket does the job it’s supposed to do in the first place.

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The softshell has a front left breast pocket, which can be used for popping in your keys or cards, or for putting your phone in if you want to do some Instagramming on your ride so that you have some cool shots on your ride for Strava. I ride with a backpack when commuting, but the Bontrager jacket has the standard three pockets on the back for your other ride essentials.

The real party piece of the jacket is that it can change from a softshell jacket to a softshell gilet in a matter of seconds with a few zips on the shoulders. When you are shelling out £60-120 depending on where and which jacket you buy, this is a real advantage. Also, with the current weather, if it is cold on your ride in to work but warmer on the way home this is a great feature (not that I have felt the need to take the sleeves off yet!).

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3. Knog Blinder Front LED Light and 4V LED Rear Light
Front – £27.99 on Evans Cycles
Rear – £27.99 on Evans Cycles

A good set of front lights are essential (legally and practically!), but a good set can make a world of difference. My commute is mainly on main well lit roads, so I only needed a set of ‘be seen’ lights rather than anything that was going to illuminate dark country lanes.

The Knog Blinder are a great set for exactly this. They have five different modes that are fairly standard, although I only every use the constantly on (when riding in a group and I don’t want to blind people behind) and the flashing version.

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The lights clip onto the handlebars or seat post very easily with a metal clip on a rubber fastening. I’ve heard people complaining that this snaps easily and then is difficult to replace (which would be annoying with a reasonably priced product) but I haven’t had any issues. Getting the front light to fit on to the bars can be annoying if you have brake cables in the way. These clips are great though if you need to leave your bike outside as you can take them off quickly, and also mean your bars aren’t cluttered with mounts when you no longer need them.

I found that the front light, although being a mainly ‘be seen’ light does give off a decent amount of light, and on the bits of my commute that are less well lit you could easily see the road and signs being lit by the flashing light.

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The lights are switched on and off with a simple button on the top of each light, and the buttons are easy to access on front and back even when riding. Holding down the button turns it on and off, and one touch cycles through the flash settings. The lights remember which setting you were on when they were switched off which is handy, but revert to fully on after charging.

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A small light on the power button turns red when low on charge. Charging is relatively simple and easy via flip out USB connectors, meaning no fiddling around with screwdrivers, finding the right batteries or remembering to take any with you, or leaving them at work. They are however in odd places meaning that they won’t sit flush in most USB port, meaning that extender cables will be required most of the time – which aren’t supplied.

Knog claim that they can manage 3o hours on the flashing mode, and that they need around 6 hours for a full charge. To me 3o hours seems optimistic, but they definitely continue to work for well over an hour on flashing after the light turns red, which is comfortably enough to get you home.

I chose the understated black versions, but the come in a much wider range of funky colours and different designs if you want something to match your bike’s colour scheme.

4. pOcpac Stealth iPac 3 and Tool Pac
£17.00 on Pocpac

Keeping the essentials you need secure and dry is a must in the winter. As mentioned you’ll puncture more frequently and will need your inner tubes, tyre levers and tools, and you might even need your phone on hand to get you out of tight spots.

pOcpac offer a great range of products to help. I bought for the winter a small bundle with a phone case and a tool case.

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As mentioned I commute with a backpack, but nevertheless the pOcpac tool case is a great way to remember that you have all of the main things you need. It fits snugly into the side pocket of my backpack just as well as it does into the rear of a jersey, and now that the raincover is coming off the bag more frequently, I can be sure the contents are nice and dry. pOcpac advertise it as fitting a tube, a Co2 canister and tyre levers. I don’t use Co2 canisters, so put in a small mini-tool.

To be honest it is a bit of a tight squeeze to get all of those in and you have to be a bit creative, as there isn’t much sideways give in the pouch, which makes it harder to fit everything in and close the pouch – I can imagine when you’ve finished a puncture repair this could be frustrating if you wanted to get packed and moving again quickly. Also I would love to be able to get two tubes in. A good item, but could be a bit more flexible.

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Although the tool pac has a few minor flaws, the iPac 3 is a near perfect product. This version fits iPhones (and other similarly sized phones) in perfectly, and there is a 3X version for larger phones. I have to take my phone out of it’s normal large-ish protective case to fit it in, but once in it fits snugly, keeping the phone in place. There is a small cut out for the camera to ensure you can take photos when on the ride.

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There is also a small pouch behind the phone (demonstrated here with some allen keys) to keep some notes or your card in for an emergency taxi or the cash for a cafe stop on a weekend ride. You can use the phone touch screen through the plastic on the front, although reaching buttons on the top and side is a bit fiddly. You also need ‘bare’ fingers, as the combination of plastic screens and gloves (even if they have special touch screen pads) doesn’t work.

5. Planet X ‘Autumn Bundle 1’:
baselayer, arm warmers, gloves, skull cap, overshoes

Bundles vary online at Planet X

Although I can’t recall how much this bundle was, I felt that it was good value at the time of purchase at around £30. For that much you got a On-One Merino Perform short sleeve baselayer and arm warmer, Planet X ‘Hybrid Weather’ gloves, a Planet X under helmet cap and Planet X zip overshoes.

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The baselayers were great items. For merino garments they were very well priced, and kept me warm all through the winter – on the odd ride at the start of commuting when I didn’t wear the baselayer I could immediately feel the cold coming through me. Until recently I have never felt as though I have overheated or that they have absorbed too much sweat.

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Similarly the skull cap in this bundle was a great piece of kit, fitting snugly with no issues and keeping my head and ears perfectly warm even on the coldest days.

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The winter overshoes were very warm, but on rainy days I could feel my feet getting a bit wet in persistent rain – admittedly as these are the autumn bundle ones they aren’t really designed for heavy rain. My feet are around size 10/11 so I got the large overshoes. They were very snug fitting, and this has meant that they started to fray around the cleats. I can’t really complain with the price, but I don’t think that they will last until next winter, so if you want to buy something as a long term investment you’ll probably want to go a bit more upmarket.

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It’s a fairly similar story with the gloves. This being the autumn bundle, the hybrid weather gloves aren’t full on winter gloves and at times I could have done with something warmer. However with the mitt on over the fingers they were relatively toasty when it was cold but dry.

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Another neat touch are the pads on the thumb and forefinger which allow you to operate a touch screen with the gloves on, useful for looking at data on your Garmin or using your phone. As you can see these to tend to suffer a bit of wear through the odd scrape when repairing or adjusting your drivetrain.

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The rest of the quality of the gloves weren’t great, and I’m not sure these will survive in the long term – the stitching on the side of one of the gloves is starting to come apart, as you can see above. Overall, some of the Planet X items in the bundle aren’t that high quality, but for the price they are good starter items. The On One base layers are great, and at the price you can get them I don’t know why you would go for a higher spec item.

One bonus item – where you really can’t go wrong with Planet X winter clothing is with some of their merino socks. A pack of three will set you back £9.99 on their website. These are comfy and super warm, I got these back in autumn after one cold morning ride and they immediately made a world of difference. You can get them in a range of designs, including these great Lion of Flanders ones – that are just coming back into fashion in time for the Spring Classics.

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I hope you enjoyed this first product review article – I am going to try and do more articles like this, first of all on my ‘back catalogue’ of running and cycling clothing, accessories and gadgets, and then reviewing any new stuff which I get my hands on.

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