Monday, December 29, 2014

Caps NOT Hats: Winter Edition

It has been unseasonably warm all of the sudden here in Indiana. So much so, that I managed to sneak in a couple of 40 mile rides in my short sleeved kit. You already know that I do not prefer riding in doors, but if I have to, at least I have my Sportcrafters rollers. With the exception of riding to work and such, I try to get my work outs done in doors this time of year. But hell, where I live, if the thermometer reads more than 40 degrees, you get your ass outside.
The mild temps were partly to blame for the delay in posting this but being the peak season for winter caps, it is high time that I fulfill my "Gentleman's Agreement" with the folks at Walz Caps. In the interest of full disclosure, Walz Caps does not monetarily contribute to this blog in any way. In fact, no one does. (Yes, I do this for FREE.) My obligation to them is simple: They provide me with caps and I provide an honest review for my readers' consideration and occasionally send some photos their way. I am grateful for the opportunity and hope to continue working with such cool people.

With all that out of the way, consider the following; When temps get below 30 degrees, riding outside can prove too daunting a task for most fair-weather cyclists. Some of us are more dedicated (or more insane depending on who you ask) to staying in the saddle as much as possible. Some choose the bike simply to ease the cost of transportation. If you are like me, you choose it because you love craft beer and need to work of the calories so you don't start the next season with a beer belly. Not matter why you do it you need to be prepared to do it. This means keeping warm.

Keeping "warm" is a relative term. Depending on where you live, the temps might not get too low this time of year which certainly allows for less layers when one heads out. In colder climates, layers are key to staying warm. Too many layers however, can lead to sweat which can cool and leave you miserable and cold. So warm may mean different things to different folks.

It is important to have all the right gear to take on the cold. I like Swiftwick wool compression socks and Smartwool base layers. Choosing the right cap, well, that's what I am here to discuss...

About 2 years ago a customer gave me my first winter cap. It was a wool ear flap cap made by Wildhagen Wear of Canada.

The Skipper 

With the ear flaps folded inside the cap, it looks just like an ordinary wool cap. Classy enough to wear out on the town and woolen enough to keep your melon warm. On some occasions, maybe even too warm. Hand made in Toronto, this cap will set you back $135.

It wasn't until this year that I had ever tried anything different. Upon my request, Walz was gracious enough to send me their own winter offering. 

A lighter, more breathable layer that fits seamlessly inside a helmet, this cap features a traditional bill which makes it feel more like the caps you are used to. All Walz caps are made in the United States and are much more affordable at  mere $33.

Because I am a shameless self-promoter, you have seen me wear both of these caps before.

Wild Hagen                          Walz

Here is where it gets interesting though as, in each of these moments, I would have preferred that the caps be switched. Meaning, I remember taking both of these photos. The snowy one was the result of one of the most beautiful rides to work I had ever been on. I mean, the snow was just everywhere! A hard snow like that however, means that there is cloud cover which keeps the temps up. 
So as much as I enjoyed the ride, I was sweating my ass off. Almost literally on the other side of the coin, the other picture was from later the same day while going out for lunch. At this point in the day, the clouds rolled back and the snow stopped. This actually made the temps drop and become, what I like to call "bitterly cold." As the wind permeated the thin layer of wool it occurred to me, had the caps been reversed, 
I may have found myself more comfortable in both instances. 

I have had about a solid month of cold weather riding in which to "demo" the Walz cap and after looking at the "data" (pictures from my iPhone), I can confidently say that while I love both caps, they could not be more different from one another. Do they share some of the same attributes? Sure.

Are they both wool? Check.
Do they both have ear flaps? Check.
I assure you, this is where the similarities end.

Truth be told, my experience with wool is rather limited as it was only two years ago when I began using wool to keep warm, as my winter commuting routine grew. The addition of wool was a welcome one. As long as I was warm, I never really thought much more about how warm. As the old saying goes, "you don't know what you don't know," I never realized the difference in temps from day to day and how my Wildhagen cap reacted to them. Meaning, I was always warm but there were days when I was actually sweaty when I would get to where I was going. Hard to believe when the Winter temps here are often 20 degrees or below, but Wildhagen caps are much thicker than Walz.

So thicker is better, right?
A) That's what she said, and
B) Not necessarily

I don't much care for being a sweaty, smelly mess when I get where I am going which is partially why I use lighter layers on my torso. Meaning, I would rather be slightly cold when I begin my ride than covered in perspiration when I arrive at my destination. This is where the wool offering from Walz begins to flex its muscles. Much thinner, the Walz cap fits beautifully under a helmet. This is not something I can say for my thicker Wildhagen caps. It also breathes better. Coming from a thicker cap, this was immediately noticeable as it started off a bit cooler until I warmed up but I expect that if I had never a cap to compare it to, I would not have noticed that. Regardless, knowing full well what my Wildhagen could handle due to past experiences, it was with my new Walz cap in hand, that I set out to see what it was really made of...    

The day I got my cap was both the perfect and the worst day to try it. I rode to work in my Wildhagen cap with temperatures in the low 20's and near white-out conditions. That afternoon at work, a care package from Walz containing a woll cap and, yet another BikeSnobNYC cap (in the new blue color).

So it was a perfect day in the fact that I had just used my normal cap so I had a chance to make an immediate comparison, and it was the worst day in the fact that, before the ride home, the temperature dropped pretty radically. As it would only be natural to reach for the familiar cap that had gotten me through temps like this before, I instead donned my new Walz cap and set off into the dark on the ride home.

That's right, my first time taking a gamble with an unfamiliar garment it felt like it was three degrees below zero. To be frank, temperature combined with the wind chill proved to be too low for my level of comfort in this cap. I had my other cap in my pannier and could have easily swapped them, but my ride home is only about 20 minutes. So in the interest of an in-depth review, I "took one for the team" as they say, and rode on. It wasn't so much a problem with my whole head being warm as it was my ears being cold. A big (and at first, hard to get used to) difference between the two caps is how it covers the ears. As I stated before, Wildhagen caps incorporate ear flaps that fold in to the inside of the cap when you are not using them. They are broad and flat and cover a large area around the ear. When using a helmet (which it was never designed for), the straps hold down the flaps nicely. The Walz cap however, uses an elastic band inside the flap portion that naturally draws them up under the ears forming a sort of an "ear sack" if you will. It is a nice feature which, coming from another cap, took me a few rides to get used to but is no longer a second thought for me.

So naturally, I had to find a temperature that was befitting the use of this particular cap. So for the next two rides (for review, not in a row), I documented the rides home as, minus the heat of the sun, they were colder than the morning rides.

The next ride showed only a three degree change in actual temps, but with a lower wind chill, it felt like a difference of nine degrees! Hell, round these parts, that's a fricken heat wave! This ride yielded much better results. It was still a bit out of the comfort zone I was accustomed to, but was a much better experience than the ride before. The experiences only got better from there...

It was at this point (25 degrees that felt like 13), that I found a comfortable threshold upon which I could confidently "hang my cap." An additional seven degrees was all it took to find the perfect balance of warmth and wicking. Meaning, I was all the warmer I needed to be, and not at all sweaty.
I continued to ride with only my Walz cap for more than a month (about 35 days of continuous riding) to accomplish a couple of things; get used to the elastic band, and to be sure I could duplicate these results. So with that my research complete, I have some final thoughts:

For the price, you cannot beat a Walz Winter Ear Flap Cap. They retail for a staggering 1/4 the price of Wildhagen Wear and can often be more competitively priced than their Pace, Surly, and 45NRTH counterparts.  

As for style, Walz winter caps come in 6 colors/styles and can be personalized for an additional $5.

Wildhagen caps are also available in a myriad of colors and are fully custom...

...Only trouble with that, is that they want you to go visit them in Toronto to get one made to order. While it is possible to get them at an occasional trade show, I would say that part of the appeal is their exclusivity. Almost to a fault, it seems as though it is a lot of fuss to pay that much for a cap.

On the Walz: I cannot find fault with the cap as it covers the head itself. It is the perfect thickness to remain effective yet light and airy. Plus (and this cannot be stated enough) it fits seamlessly under a helmet. As it covers the ear, I believe it would be more effective if the ear sack were thicker, lined with flannel or a wind front. Just a slight tweak in that direction might be enough to make it a more versatile cap and make up for that 10 degree swing I experienced while testing it. (Hint, hint...)

On the Wildhagen: A much thicker cap that incorporates form in to its function. Meaning, it is as nice to look at as it is useful. As designed, it is a really warm cap, but in many cases, I find it too warm. These caps are certainly not in everyone's budget, and truth be told, had I not gotten both of mine as gifts from a customer, the price alone might have been enough to scare me away from them all together.    

Before Walz came along I was rocking a cotton cycling cap with an Pearl Izumi ear band. Now having both winter specific caps in my winter wear arsenal, I find myself using the Walz more for cycling and Wildhagen for everyday wear. When the temps are 20 degrees or above, the Walz cap is really all you need. While my other caps stand at the ready for use in temps below 20, I am no longer in a hurry to reach for them. Sitting ready on my bike, in my helmet this time of year is a Walz cap. I cannot foresee that changing anytime soon. So thanks again to the folks at Walz and as always, 
keep warm and keep the rubber side down.