COVID19 and cycling: Which face mask?

Regular readers know that I’ve spent the past eleven months turning my pedals and going exactly nowhere. Indoor training and RGT Cycling have been great for helping my fitness and attaining incrementally higher power outputs. That said, I really missed riding outdoors. Seeing how the world at large has had to play the long game and learned how to live with COVID19, it might as well be the same for me.

Here in my neck of the woods, the Philippines, government does not allow people outdoors unless they wear a face mask and an acrylic face shield. (While well-intentioned, the less said about the requirement of face shields, the better, in my opinion.) When you’re on your bike, however, the face shield can be done away with. This means that any plans of getting back on the saddle in the great outdoors requires wearing a suitable mask…and this became something of a sticking point.

Would using just about any face mask work for cycling? I had to find out, one way or another, before heading outdoors. I decided a few candidates to the test on my indoor cycling setup: Hyro on the Wahoo KICKR SNAP, driven by RGT Cycling rendering the Cap Formentor hill climb course. All that is currently set inside a small spare room with two fans trying to cool me off. My main concern was riding comfort. I’m going into this assuming the filtration of any tested mask is sufficient, and that the kind of road cycling I do is pretty socially distanced as it is, anyway. If a mask survives this test, I reckon it will hold up anywhere I ride outdoors.

I mainly tested two masks.

First was Japanese fast fashion brand Uniqlo’s AIRism mask, sold in three-packs for PhP590. This is a three-layer item with soft cloth sandwiching a polypropylene center filtering layer, and the whole caboodle is suspended from the wearer’s ears with soft loops. Uniqlo says these masks are washable and can be reused up to twenty times, at which point they have to be disposed of.

The side with the “AIRism” text is supposed to go on the inside, next to your face.
Note that it also indicates the size of the mask; this is a size M.

Wearing these was a welcome relief from the scratchy disposable surgical masks that we’d gotten used to wearing. These feel positively plush by comparison. Indeed, if you’re out and about running errands, the AIRism masks are pretty good (assuming, of course, that you aren’t being an idiot and keep your distance). They even look good in their minimalist form factor.

The AIRism mask is soft and plush, but isn’t rigid enough to resist collapse under hard breathing. Notice how the forward ridge is shrinking and wrinkling.

What they’re not made for is any strenuous physical activity. Like cycling. To be fair, Uniqlo mentions this on the packaging, but if you really are stubborn want to find out how they stand up, the soft cloth material that makes them stand out is also their downfall. Start up any serious effort on the saddle, and the AIRism mask feels like breathing through a sock. The material gets sucked into your nose and mouth on deeper inhalation, which sets off a downward spiral of breathability. Riding Cap Formentor indoors, I had to toss this off my face after twenty minutes – that’s barely halfway through the longest first hill climb.

I’ve read that Uniqlo made a running update to these masks after complaints of poor breathability in the initial versions released in June. The improved versions, released in August, supposedly address this. And no, they still aren’t recommended for strenuous physical activity.

The other mask I tried was a recommendation from Patrick Olympia of the Manila Coffee Cycling Club. This young man has been clocking some serious mileage on his bike through the pandemic, so I figured he would know best. He had just finished a 56-kilometer Sierra Madre jaunt with the GreenBox Nano Fiber mask, made by a company with offices in Milpitas, California. A local distributor sells it in boxes of six for PhP777.

The GreenBox Tech mask is a flattened hexagon which goes across your face. Coverage for the nose and chin hides as fold-out flaps.
The GreenBox mask looks slightly strange with its flaps and ridges, but it resists collapsing under heavy breaths very well.

Like the AIRism mask, this is reusable up to twenty times. Instead of washing, it has to be sprayed with alcohol and left to dry for 24 hours between wearings. It’s made with some sort of hypoallergenic nano-woven material, containing nanofilters good for up to 0.007 microns of filtration. The design of the mask intrigued me: it’s a folded, flattened hexagon, with ear loops at each end like a surgical mask’s, but much softer. The top and bottom areas unfold to become the wired nose piece and the chin cover. What used to be the sides of the flattened hexagon are now stiff ridges that give the mask a box-like shape, keeping its material from sticking to your nose and mouth. Genius!

Better yet, all this clever origami does what I wanted it to do. It’s just as secure as a surgical mask, but allows for much easier respiration. Remember how I peeled off the AIRism mask after twenty minutes? On the GreenBox mask, I rode the entire distance of the Cap Formentor course.

Approaching the end of the Cap Formentor road climb on RGT Cycling.
Pedaling 467 W. With a mask!

After 90 minutes of climbing, I could feel the sweat starting to soak into the mask’s perimeter. Removing it to take a sip of water or a bite of energy bar resulted in a miniature shower of built-up sweat from around my mouth. While it’s still a mask, and therefore still has a bit of resistance, I’d say this gets about 90% of the way towards breathing as if you didn’t have a mask at all.

Ultimately, both masks have their place. The AIRism mask is great for general activity that isn’t too physically demanding. However, if I expect to see any saddle time at all, the GreenBox mask is what I’d go with.

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