Condensed answer: Cyclists put a newspaper in their shirts to reduce the windchill effect during prolonged descents.
The newspaper insulates the front of the torso from the wind and keeps the body temperature higher.
A newspaper is used because it’s fairly thick, light, and disposable.
Descents Are Cold
Descents may be fun and loaded with speed-induced adrenaline, but they could also be a source of unbearable cold.
If the descent is long, and there’s no sun, you may end up freezing even during the spring or summer.
There are three main factors contributing to this effect:
1. Low Physical Activity
Descents are challenging and demand serious technical skills, but at the same time, they don’t require tons of physical output because you’re either not pedaling at all or doing so at fairly low intensity in comparison to a climb.
2. Lack of Insulation
During a descent, you’re cutting through the atmosphere at high speed. This results in the movement of air around you a.k.a. wind even when the day isn’t windy. In consequence, you start feeling as if you are at the receiving end of a large fan.
This phenomenon is known as the wind-chill factor – a drop in body temperature caused by the flow of cold air.
When you’re climbing and exerting more effort, the organism heats up and so does the air around it. The warm air forms an insulating layer resting against the body.
During a descent, however, cold air replaces the hot air around you. The body tries to raise its temperature to more comfortable levels but fails because the process is reoccurring (the air around you is constantly being replaced).
The faster you go, the easier it becomes for air to penetrate your clothing. The only way to protect yourself is to prevent the cool air from replacing the warm air around you in the first place.
In short, you need insulation to stop the wind and trap your body heat.
An ordinary, non-windproof jersey can’t handle the “attack”.
To insulate themselves, modern cyclists rely on windbreakers and windproof jackets blocking the wind.
In the past, however, many cyclists were simply putting a newspaper in their jerseys, often taken from a spectator or a family member, before a long descent.
The newspaper is thick enough to block the wind, but at the same time, it doesn’t suffocate the body like an impenetrable windbreaker.
3. Moisture + Rain
The freezing effect is stronger when the descent is preceded by a long climb because the cyclists are heavily sweating at the top. When the wind comes, their bodies instantaneously receive a cold, ice hug. The situation is even worse if it rains.
The Importance of Keeping Your Temperature High
If the body temp of a rider drops too low after a descent, their performance during the next stage of the race would suffer too.
The body spends a decent amount of energy/calories to heat itself upon getting cold.
Back in the day, a nutritionist told me that some professional bodybuilders and physique competitors force themselves to drink cold water in order to increase their energy expenditure during the body fat cutting stage.
If the ride is long, the extra calories needed to get warm may add up to an appreciable number. For example, if you lose 10kcal extra on each descent and there are 20 of them, you would lose approximately 200kcal that could be used as fuel.
Note: Those numbers are just an example. It’s difficult to know how many calories someone would need to get warm because there are lots of factors involved (e.g., weight, body fat, speed, clothing, duration of the ride…etc.)
What Would Happen If You Don’t Protect Yourself?
Getting a bit cold isn’t the end of the world if the descent is short (1-2 minutes). However, if you’re riding out of town, a descent may continue over 20 minutes.
If you ride/train/compete frequently and get many of those, you may get sick and develop a chest infection seriously threatening your performance and before all health.
On rare occasions, cyclists use the newspaper to deploy soft intimidation tactics.
Some competitors pretend to be reading during easier sections to mess with the heads of those around them. The move is meant to express confidence and arrogance dressed in humor.
1. Tucking an entire newspaper in your jersey can be uncomfortable. You can use half the pages to get the job done.
2. Before putting the newspaper in the jersey, fold it into a ball, and then unfold it. The curves will allow the newspaper to quickly mold to your body.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I put a newspaper around my arms and legs too?
Such action would result in a very noticeable movement restriction and distraction hurting your performance. An accident is also possible due to the loss of maneuverability.
If your arms and legs are getting cold on a descent, it’s better to use dedicated arm and leg warmers. They will keep you warm without having a negative effect on your movement patterns.
Will the newspaper ruin my jersey?
Some newspaper ink may get onto the jersey. It may be difficult to remove the “contamination” even through washing.
The good news is that the mark will be left on the inside of the cloth and this won’t impact your external aesthetics.
The newspaper technique is silly. Is there are a more stylish way to protect yourself from the cold?
The modern protocol for cold protection during descents is as follows:
1. Carry a windbreaker in one of your jersey pockets.
2. Grab it before a descent and put it on.
Dedicated windbreakers have serious advantages over newspapers, namely:
1. Water protection
2. Full-upper body cover
3. More stylish
4. Higher visibility
The main downside of a windbreaker is that it’s not breathable and can therefore make you feel uncomfortably hot on a long climb or during sprints.
Other very popular solutions are wind-resistant cycling gilets and windstopper shirts.
Can you describe a situation when the newspaper trick is more convenient than dedicated gear?
The main benefit of newspapers, in this case, is that they’re cheap and disposable.
If you know that you will need your windbreaker only for a short descent, you can use a newspaper and then get rid of it. The upside? Your jersey pocket won’t be full, and you won’t have to deal with extra clothes.
Another situation when a newspaper could be seen as convenient would be a ride that starts early on an otherwise hot day. You can use a newspaper to protect yourself from the morning cold and then dispose of it.
Can I use something else instead of a newspaper?
Some cyclists use plastic bags and bubble wraps as “last-minute insulation”. The obvious downside is that nylon materials move around too much.