The current Bay Area counties shelter in place orders require in some situations that face coverings/masks be worn and in others it just recommends that they be worn. [Note: But LA County now requires everyone to wear a mask whenever outdoors.] For example masks are required when entering enclosed places of business and government offices. Face masks are not meant to replace social distancing but to complement it. Are you required to wear a face covering or mask when you’re cycling? No, county health officers just recommend that you do. However you are asked to carry a face mask with you in case you need to enter a business or office or when you simply cannot maintain social distancing.
When you’re cycling on streets social distancing from other road users is usually no problem except when you’re passing or being passed by other cyclists or at stop lights/signs where you encounter other stopped cyclists. You may also cross paths with dog walkers, joggers, skateboarders, and walkers using the street. Conversely there may be times when you need to use the sidewalk. If you ride on multi-use paths (MUPs) they may be so crowded with other users and/or not wide enough for you to be six feet away from others. Depending on where you ride and the time at which you ride, you may want to wear a mask in order to prevent transmission.
Regardless of the shelter in place order you’re probably not crazy about the idea of cycling with some kind of face mask. Roger and I have been riding with face masks for weeks now and we have some real world advice if you decide to try it.
First, masks of any sort will unavoidably be less comfortable than riding without one. If you’re looking for a face covering that has no downsides, you aren’t going to find that unicorn. If you can’t deal with an increased level of discomfort—and fogging if you wear eyeglasses—then don’t wear one or at least don’t wear one in certain cycling situations. After all you’re not required to wear one while cycling. Second, there will probably be an adjustment period—there was for us—and you may find that if you keep wearing a mask, that your perceived discomfort will diminish or disappear. Third, be clear about why you’re wearing a mask. If you feel that wearing a mask outside is overkill, you’ll probably dump the mask in short order because your commitment to it was shaky to begin with. But if you think that wearing a mask is going to provide you and others with protection or because its symbolism is important, then you may find yourself wearing it more often or tolerating it longer.
I’ve tried four of the six following face coverings: (1) handkerchief, (2) thin neck gaiter/buff, (3) surgical mask, (4) N95 mask, (5) Respro sports mask, and (6) ad hoc face masks. I haven’t tried a handkerchief (or t-shirt, cotton shirt, etc.) simply because I don’t need to use something improvised. But my strong suspicion is that a handkerchief would feel very similar to the neck gaiter I’ve been using. We also have no real world experience to share about ad hoc face coverings since we’re using one of the others. Just keep in mind that the homemade fabric face masks you see these days are going to vary in design, fabric, shape, and durability—they aren’t standardized. Of the four others the most comfortable I’ve found is the thin neck gaiter (also called a buff). Mine is a thin elastic cloth tube you pull over your head. Its intended use is for cold weather as a neck warmer cum balaclava cum head scarf. It’s easy to pull up or down depending on conditions and I can double the fabric for “extra protection”. It’s surprisingly easy to breathe through and my glasses fog up less than with the surgical mask. I can wear this while riding even when climbing up Pinehurst (ie. when gasping and dying). The main problem right now is that the weather here in Contra Costa is getting to be too warm for a neck gaiter. If you live in SF or coastside, maybe it would be tolerable for this summer. But for now I can’t wear it now that daytime temperatures are warming up significantly. One minor complaint is that it tends to slip down. But I can hike it up and it’ll stay in position for a fair amount of time even when swiveling my head to look around.
I’ve been wearing a surgical mask most recently as the weather has warmed up. The biggest issue is being able to get surgical masks since they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. Surgical masks work better for warm weather because they’re still thin and don’t cover as much area so you can stay cool. They’re also easy to put on and take off, and if you need to temporarily remove it you can just slip it down your face and easily pull it back up since it’s retained by handy ear loops. But the material around your nose and mouth is thicker than a buff so making it harder to breathe. Instead of your exhalation going through the fabric, you’ll find it’s mostly contained and so you’re rebreathing more of your exhaled air. Oh, and if your breath is foul, you’ll be the first to know. If you wear glasses, you’ll likely find that fogging is an ongoing issue. That warm, humid exhaled air tends to be moved to the perimeter of the mask since there is less resistance than going through the fabric. And a lot of that goes up into your glasses. Be prepared for fogging especially when you stop—you’ll probably want to pull the mask down for a sec to let the exhaled air clear. Its symbolic function aside it’s not clear to me that when you’re breathing hard a typical surgical mask is providing much protection to other people because a lot of your exhalation is being forced out the perimeter of the mask. If you attempt to make the mask for comfortable by, say, creating a channels to the side, then you’re venting a lot of your breath completely unfiltered into, say, that 7-11 you just entered for a snack.
Surgical masks have very little structure and are flimsy. My neck gaiter has enough elastic that it’s pulled against my face and doesn’t move around. But surgical masks, which are not intended for exercise, just can’t handle the volume of air I’m moving when cycling anything above an easy pace. When I’m breathing harder the material is sucked tightly into my nostrils or my mouth making it very difficuilt to inhale. If you’re in a headwind the fabric is pushed even more closely against your orifices. There are workarounds to make a surgical mask less impeding. You can wear it more loosely (for example, by hoisting the lower edge up so that it doesn’t cover your chin and forms a tent over your face). It may take some experimentation to find the best way to shape the mask so that it doesn’t block your breathing. Since it has little inherent structure whatever shaping you’ve done will be (disappointly) temporary. In order to give it more structure I’ve played around with taping and stapling a bag tie on the inside of the mask in order to create a shaped ‘tent’ similar to that of a N95 mask. This doesn’t compromise the filtering function (much) since the perimeter of the mask is still against your face. A surgical mask, if you can get one, is so small that it’s easy to carry with you on a ride.
An N95 mask theoretically provides more protection but that protection comes from forming a tighter seal around your face. I found that the N95’s structure and shape were better than a surgical mask but breathing was much harder at effort and the overall experience was much less comfortable. At least the material isn’t sucked into your nostrils or mouth, so you’re drawing new air from the entire surface area of the mask and not just the tiny area covering your nostrils. It’s also a lot warmer. Anything above an easy pace was progressively less comfortable. Some N95 masks have exhalation check valves (which is same as Respro masks). They are more comfortable because your exhaled breath can more easily be vented rather than being held tightly in the mask. Technically exhalation valves defeat the purpose of containing your respiratory droplets from possiblly infecting others. On the other hand, ad hoc face coverings and surgical masks are also inherently leaky. So it’s all rather academic. (In this case I mean literally academic since little research has been done on the comparative efficacy of ad hoc face coverings—I’m only aware of one study.) In my experience I have less fogging than with a surgical mask but it’s not completely gone. It probably has to do with the seal around the edge of the mask. We’ve seen almost no N95 masks being used by other cyclists and the ones we’ve seen have all had exhalation valves.
Respro is a British cycling face mask company. Their products are aimed at cyclists who want to avoid inhaling air pollution but they make a range of masks now including the Bandit, which is essentially a sophisticated handkerchief! Unfortunately Respro has been hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK and can no longer manufacture enough for domestic sale let alone internationally. I happen to have one that I picked up in the UK years ago. You can read about my use of it during the 2018 Camp Fire here. This fits even more tightly around your mouth and nose than an N95 mask—it forms a great seal. It’s also surprisingly easy to breathe through. Why? I’m not sure but the large surface area of the filter probably helps. It has exhalation check valves like some N95 masks—the valve ports open when you exhale and close when you inhale, so it’s easy to exhale and your mask doesn’t fill up as uncomfortably with warm, humid air. The filters are replaceable too. But as I mentioned previously it’s warm (being made of neoprene rubber doesn’t help) and although easier to breathe through it’s less comfortable than a (structured) surgical mask. You won’t want to do any prolonged, hard efforts while wearing a Respro. They’re also pricey—about $40-plus. And like N95s you can’t find any for sale right now.
Bottom line: If you’re going to wear a face covering, it’s probably going to be ad hoc since N95 and surgical masks are hard to find. You’ll do better with a thin fabric that is elastic so that it fits somewhat tightly over your mouth and nose and doesn’t get sucked in when you inhale. That’s why a buff/neck gaiter works so well. So either a thin buff or ad hoc face covering. If you can get surgical masks, that would be my second choice especially if you play around and add some structure to it so that it forms around your orifices more like an N95 mask does. An N95 mask is, in my opinion, not only overkill but much less functional for recreational cycling above a casual pace. The Respro—did I mention you can’t get one?—is similar to the N95 despite its many positive attributes. For easy cycling any of them will do. But if you’re going to go harder (and I mean just a bit harder, like anything above zone 2 training), you will likely have to go through an adjustment period.
Bottom-bottom line: now, why are you wearing a face mask when you’re riding?? Oh right, because sometimes you CAN’T avoid getting close to others such as on shared use paths, trails, and crowded streets. Just pull that baby up over your face and your spew won’t go all over them (and hopefully, vice versa).
If you can’t get an N95, surgical mask, or Respro, what do you do? For neck gaiters check these out at REI.
For ad hoc face coverings, here are some manufactured examples.