Friday, January 20, 2012

Winter biking gear review: the Buff (R)

Biking in the Buff (R)

Note: I only do reviews of items I find to be magnificent or horrible, just as a way to help folks buy useful, quality gear or stay away from stuff you'll regret buying. Reviews are entirely my own opinion. While I'd love to think some company would attempt to woo me with promises of gorgeous needful things or payoffs for a favorable write-up, I'm just not a player. My obscurity is your gain.

If there's one thing we've got in Big Sky Country, it's cold. Even my early morning rides in the summer require thin gloves to prevent numb fingers, so you bet I'm covered when it comes to winter gear.

It's pretty easy to keep legs and torso toasty, especially when you get moving, but the face is another matter entirely.

The traditional answer to face protection has been the balaclava, usually made of black fleece. While I'm all for summoning my inner ninja, I really don't need to look like one. I've pretty much given up on fleece entirely due to its tendency to hold onto odors like a terrier. Call me a pansy, but I really don't think that the price for a warm face has to be rebreathing and smelling what I've just exhaled.

ThanksCranks 2010 with a fleece Balaclava

Check out the short balaclava! Brrr!
I'm also not a fan of the short neck length that tends to leave a coverage gap near my collarbone or the nape of my neck. Even if I have carefully tucked in everything before I hit the road, it always seems that one turn of my head or click of the helmet strap leaves bare skin exposed. I hate cold drafts and I hate having to make adjustments on the fly.

The chic solution is a wool scarf. Nice and toasty, no odor issues, and good looking. It's probably perfect for some bike commuters, but I find most scarves too bulky and too difficult to keep in place. Scarves don't really help with cold ears, either. Even though I wear a ski helmet with ear flaps for winter cycling, I still need some extra coverage.

What's a biker chick to do? Ask for a merino wool Buff (R) for Christmas!

A Buff (R) is a seamless tube of fabric that's designed to be a bandana substitute. Depending on the length of the tube, you can use it as a headband, a scarf, a hat or a balaclava, without having to tie a lot of fancy, lumpy knots. I'd been eyeing these on Sahalie's website for years because of the versatility and their fun prints, but I'd passed because I refuse to buy synthetic sportswear anymore. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

Then they came out with a wool version. Some pretty heavy hint-dropping worked in my favor, and I found one under the tree a few weeks back. I'm very, very pleased with the product test results thus far.

The wool is a fine, lightweight knit that fits easily under a helmet and the generous length tucks neatly into a tight collar without bulk. Thanks to the great videos on Sahalie's site, I was able to turn my Buff (R) into a balaclava in just a few seconds without checking my work in the mirror. The fabric was doubled over across my face, which was perfect on the 25-degree F day. Just enough fresh air cut through to be refreshing, and I was able to adjust it without messing up the arrangement.

At the coffee shop, I was able to take off the balaclava and turn it into a hat with a quick adjustment. No mirror, no pins, no fancy tricks.

At this point, the Buff (R) gets an A+ from me. I'm interested to see how it wears, how it washes up, and how it performs for cross-country and downhill skiing, but I'm one warm and happy girl thus far.


  1. Did you get a lot of condensation? I have a synthetic buff and it's soaking wet within minutes if I'm breathing through it.

  2. Based on my use so far, nope on the condensation. The fabric is a super lightweight merino knit, so some of the moisture seems to dry on the fly. It's slightly damp when I take it off, but not like fleece. I haven't done a massive workout in it yet, however. Last weekend's ride was about 30 minutes each way through town.

  3. This looks really useful. I might try one. We've had a pretty mild winter so far here in the East, so my cold-weather stuff hasn't gotten as much use as I expected. But you never know when things will change!

  4. Justine--You might be able to wait and catch one on sale! :) Looks like the mild winter has given you plenty of chances to ride -- woo-hoo!