What to Wear

Its been said that clothing doesn’t make the man, which may be true, but clothing certainly makes the man comfortable. One often overlooked mechanics tool is clothing. I’ve found that the difference between misery and happiness can be what you’re wearing. Because mechanics have to work outside in all conditions, the key to being able to do the job effectively lies in the basics: not getting sick, and being able to deal with whatever nature throws at you–which can be quite a lot–as anyone who remembers the West Virginia Stage Race or Tour du Pont can attest to.

Someone asked me this year exactly what the requirements were for a UCI stage race and I answered “rain and cold” or something to that effect. Dealing with sunshine is no problem, but the rain and cold (especially when combined) can make work miserable for the unprepared, which is what I’ll deal with here.

The basics of a good all weather kit are fairly simple: waterproof shoes, jacket, and pants. Water resistant doesn’t cut it when you have to be out in the stuff for hours on end. The shoes are important in any conditions, since they keep your feet dry while washing bikes. Most guys (myself included) wear knee high rubber boots for this but its also good to have something that’s comfortable enough to wear in the pit at a rainy crit. For those with ample cash a set of Gore-Tex lined hiking boots or sneakers work well. Etonic, Nike, and others make Gore-Tex lined running shoes that are really comfortable and take up much less space than hiking boots. Expect to pay around $100 for these. I’ve found an inexpensive pair of shoes that are quite satisfactory, however. Bata makes them: plain black polyurethane with rubber soles, steel toe, and sell for about $20. They are supportive enough to walk around in all day and are completely waterproof. The downside is that they don’t let any sweat escape but most of the time it’s cold enough that this isn’t a problem. I tested them at Killington last year and found they worked well, especially when the price is factored in to the equation. Grainger Industrial Supply (locations nationwide, Internet at “grainger.com”) sells them if you’re interested.

Jacket and pants offer similar choices. Columbia and others make inexpensive rainsuits that are rubber-coated nylon and work well at a reasonable price. More money gets you Gore-Tex, Ultrex, or similar breathable, waterproof membranes. I ended up with both and really like the Ultrex pants, but the rubber raincoat works well and packs up very small, which is an important consideration. Of course, you’ll pay a lot more for the fancy fabrics but the investment is worth it if you can afford it. Gore or similar materials will keep you warmer as a bonus.

I almost forgot a small but important part of the kit–gloves! A basic pair of rubber gloves are a must in the cold (they’ll be the only things keeping your hands from freezing) but can be helpful in any conditions. I started having problems with my hands two years ago or so from the soap and degreaser while bike washing and have used gloves ever since. They take a little getting used to but are worth the trouble.

Don’t forget to pack some clothing to keep yourself warm also. Sometimes teams will supply you with clothing, which is ideal but isn’t always appropriate to work in. Warm-up jackets are best saved for team functions, going out to dinner, or race day, and will get trashed in normal work. If its dry, fleece vests and pullovers or sweatshirts are better choices to wear while working, as are jeans, work pants, or jumpsuits. In cold rain you can wear these under your raingear for complete protection.

I like to pack a wool ski hat at races where it might get cold (that¹s nearly anything in Europe and most late or early season US races). A baseball cap works fine for rain and various manufacturers make Gore-Tex rain hats.

The key to all this is, of course, to be comfortable no matter what the conditions. Don’t forget that weather can change suddenly, especially at high elevations and in Europe. I always keep a backpack with me in the support car or at the race with my raingear. If it looks like rain I’ll wear the shoes; if not I may not bother, but at least I have what I need to keep my body dry even if my feet are not. That’s crucial because once you get wet you get cold, which makes work impossible and you run the risk of getting sick, which will really make you miserable.

This stuff does work: last year at the Giro delle Regione and Settimana Bergamasca it rained virtually every day and, being northern Italy, it got pretty cold, but by layering and staying dry I was able to get the job done no matter what the conditions. I also managed to stay healthy, which is not easy when you’re stressing the body by working long hours in cold rain. While I can’t go so far as to say that working in the rain or cold is fun, it is part of the job–like it or not–and you can handle it if you’re prepared with the right tools to do battle.

by Hank Williams, 1999


Owner of Promechanics.com and long time professional race mechanic.