Like most of us at one point or another, you would have stopped to consider why one pair of bib shorts costs $49.95 (if you’re super lucky) and another $595. The same goes for jerseys, and in fact every other conceivable piece of cycling kit known to man. But does paying for ‘technical’ really warrant the money, or is it quite simply marketing hype of the highest order?
Well…let’s start from the beginning. Have you ever actually paused to analyse a jersey or pair of bib shorts and wondered why they cost the money they do? Surely, two different chamois can’t equate to a $550 difference between pairs, or could it? Most of us, at least in the early stages of cycling, consider the majority of cycling gear to be ‘much of a muchness’. But, as we venture further down the road (no pun intended) we soon realise that one piece of Lycra apparel certainly does not equal another. There is indeed far more to the story.
After years of testing just about every
brand and variation there is, I have come to a few hard-earned conclusions.
In my opinion, the biggest changes to cycling apparel over recent years is happening in four distinct categories:
- Added extras
Firstly, fabric is not simply fabric.
By virtue of that fact therefore, Lycra is not simply Lycra. Lycra, Elastane or Spandex, whatever you choose call it, love it or loathe it, varies dramatically. It differs not only in quality, but also feel (or, ‘hand’ as they say in the world of textiles), weight (the heavier is not always better) and style. And, if we’re to be completely honest, style is always a major consideration, especially when it comes to cycling. After all, if we don’t like the look of it, it’s very likely to lay creased and dormant in the depths of our cycling closet until some unfortunate charity finds it deposited in one of their bins in the not too distant future.
Lycra has been the fabric of choice for cyclists since it was first introduced by the venerable Castelli in 1977. It remains there today primarily because of its durability, stretch and comfort, breathability and excellent printing properties. It has also become affordable even for smaller producers because of its ubiquity. But, it does vary considerably. If you’ve ever put on an old worn out pair of cycling strides, or bought a poor quality pair, you’ll recognise the difference straight away. They feel loose, and what’s more, they leave very little to the imagination. Many of the best producers are now combining their Lycra fabric weights for a more considered design approach, or Biometric positioning. The heavier fabric goes to the areas that require more support and lighter weight cloth in the regions needing ventilation. The added benefit of doing it this way is the subtle variegation in fabric texture and finish adds interest to two otherwise indistinguishable fabrics.
In fact, one of the biggest developments in
cycling apparel in recent years is the vast array of new fabric technology
available to the market. Take nylon (which is by no means, new) for instance,
which is rapidly replacing Elastane (Lycra) in some bib shorts completely
because of the trend towards a tighter, more compressive fit, sometimes at the
cost of breathability. Who would have
thought that just a few years ago?
But, with the rise and rise of companies such as Skins and 2XU, compression wear has now grown to staggering proportions, influencing large sections of the cycling ‘opinionatti’ i.e. those influencers in the bunch that seem to set the trends. To be honest, I like the feel of them and I haven’t noticed a huge difference in breathability. However, one thing you will notice immediately, is the tendency to ‘slip and slide’ all over the seat when you start. Nylon has a shinier and thus more slippery finish, while Lycra tends to give a little more grip generally with a matt finish.
Also, when talking about the quality of
fabric, I inevitably include chamois in this discussion. Because, you can rest assured
that pretty much every discomfort when it comes to cycling, begins and ends
with, well...your ‘end’. There is a world of difference between cheap, wafer
thin chamois like substrate and the real deal. Pretty much all the bigger manufacturers
are currently talking about 3D ergonomic chamois with gel inserts. Yet again,
the main difference in all this comes from the fit. You can indeed have the very
finest chamois in the world, but if it’s too big and bunches or is poorly
positioned, it’s likely to cause irritation in an area where irritation is
never a good thing.
My advice would be to choose your bib shorts based on the quality and density of the foam. But, also take special care to make sure they fit snugly without gathering or rubbing. In addition, ensure the stitching is not immediately noticeable when you put them on. If you can feel it straight away, then they will rub. And, it goes without saying that if you’re a woman, choose a women’s specific fit short to take advantage of the truly catered chamois design.
Fit is the second variable that has changed in recent years.
Pros have always worn their gear a little tighter than the rest of us - that’s a given. They are after all, supremely fit and can afford to have it cling like a second skin. But, if you’re not spending 30 hours on the bike a week, you’ve probably opted for something a little looser until recently. However, these days cyclists of all categories are tending to opt for pro-style fit - some with more veritable style success than others. Let’s be honest, it’s really not a great look when the spare tire you’re carrying is not just the one in your saddlebag.
Anatomic fit, as the name suggests, is made specifically for the crouched stance of a body riding down on the bars. Not only is it tighter, it’s shorter at the waist to reduce bunching and overall garment weight. It’s also tighter around the sleeves, once again to minimise drag and eliminate excess fabric. So do bare this in mind when choosing your next piece of cycle wear. Look for ‘relaxed’ or ‘comfort’ fit if you want something a little more generous.
The third variable that alters with time is styling.
Like any fashion, technical or not, cycle wear is well and truly affected by style. Previously, the Saturday café bunch would be awash with replica Pro-Team gear and resemble something akin to a pack of liquorice all-sorts tootling down the highway. In fact, it’s almost a faux-pas to wear a pro replica outfit in the bunch these days. My how things do change!
Today, you’ll see a far more esoteric selection of brands and styles. Rapha and Castelli tend to lead the way in this respect with special emphasis on classic styling and fabric detailing. While new marques such as Attaquer and Fiasco Ciclismo, are targeting the flamboyant amongst these groups with their over-the-top smorgasbord of sublimation.
Added extras can certainly be a divisive topic.
In my humble opinion, these are bits that look good at a glance on a bulleted list of advertising features, but when you get down to brass tacks, don’t do a hell of a lot besides rack up the price point. For instance, the zippered rear phone pocket. I’ve had several jerseys over the years with them, and I’ve never actually used one. Not once. In fact, I most often completely forget they’re even there. They are after all, behind me
A pro radio pocket at the back of bib-shorts, is another nick knack that you can almost certainly do without. Sorry, if you need a pro-wireless you’re generally on a pro team, or a pro-conti team at the very least and don’t they supply the kit? Unnecessary.
I guess the lesson here, is to take any claims with a huge grain of salt and don’t just swallow what they’re offering. If you really think the ‘feature’ is worth paying 50% more for your garment, then go for it. Otherwise, think twice and spend your money on the option that has the best fabric and fit and bypass some of the other guff.
And, by the way, good chamois is not an added extra. It's vital for comfort.
Here is just a small sample of some of the current trends. Make up your own mind.
Like any type of fashion i.e. stuff that you wear, cycling is heavily and readily influenced by trends from both within the pro peloton and the hugely influential café rider scene. Some of the most recent trends include:
- Elasticised, branded gripper strips are on their way out and being replaced by PGE, or Printed Gripper Elastic. Some consider this a difference of purely semantics, but there is a difference. PGEs tend to be wider strips of fabric with elastomeric treatment which enhances grip. They tend to have a raw edge i.e. they are not doubled over or ‘biased’ and are sewn directly to another panel of the body fabric, which means they tend to be lighter. These are also cut for a tighter fit and are more often than not, sublimated and branded. You’ll see them most commonly at the leg openings of bib-shorts, sleeve armbands – the areas that are most susceptible to heavy articulation.
- Longer aero-cut sleeves. Following on from the PGE sleeves are extending further down the bicep for an aero fit. Not great if you have large guns, unless you really want to show them off.
- Anatomic cut – Aero-cut, pro or performance fit, whatever you’d prefer to call it - it’s tight. Bare in mind, these are tested by the pros that generally weigh next to nothing and spend their entire life on a bike. A rule of thumb, if that’s not you, go up a size or two.
- Nylon compressive bib-shorts: Scientific reasoning or Compress to impress? The whole compression phenomenon is on the way out a little. But, it’s still filtering through the cycling apparel industry. More and more of the major marques are offering proprietary nylon fabrics for their claimed circulatory benefits. Once again, they are tighter than regular and you may want to adjust for the difference. They take a little to get used to, but they actually feel pretty comfortable despite being a little hotter. Nylon wicks less effectively than most polyester/elastane blends. It is more durable though.
- Super thin, ventilated shell fabrics – these are all the rage for their wicking and evaporative cooling properties – this is a trend that I would venture to guess, is here to stay. Particularly, in our quasi-tropical heat. The only down side to these fabrics, is the ‘nipple factor’. Because they tend to be very light, many are see through. Textile manufacturers call this ‘grin through’, which means even those lightweight fabrics between 120-165gsm (grams per square metre), which are sublimated or dyed, tend to show some shadowing of what lurks beneath.
- Cold-Black proprietary fabrics which claim to help reduce the reflective heat by up to 7 degrees Celsius compared to other similar black fabrics
- Nano-technology such as ‘Celliant,’ make claims to reduce muscle fatigue and aid in recovery. Like any new technology, I treat these with a healthy dose of scepticism. It’s way too early to swallow one sided claims made by those who have a vested interest.
- Full zip – this now seems like a ‘no-brainer’, to have a full frontal zip, which allows you to open or close to regulate body temperature as you change your exertion levels. But, its only two seasons ago when the bulk of jerseys still featured the 7inch collar zip which was the norm for nigh on forty years. In fact, some companies are still pushing the ‘full zip’ as the crux of their innovation. They do cost more to produce, so they are getting bang for their buck.
- Flat lock stitching – this still remains the stitching style of preference for most companies because of its effective durability and added comfort, especially on internal seams. However, loud contrasting thread colours are on the way out, replaced by subtle variations blending with the garments shell colours.
- UPF Treated fabrics – claiming to reduce the sun’s harmful UV rays
- Antibacterial treatments – claims to reduce the musty smells that come through repeated use. You may have heard of Bamboo White Ash fibre and the like.
- Why YKK? – YKK has become somewhat of an industry standard for zips. They are great. However, there are some good alternatives. However, generally the cheaper the jersey, the more you're likely to regret it. We've all be stuck with a jersey that is virtually mint, but the zip has failed and we're left with a useless item.
So, what's the moral to this story?
The moral would be to research, try and buy what you can afford. Do resist the temptation to be one of those ‘weight-weenies’ who measures things down to the very last gram – especially if you’re carrying extra weight on your person to begin with. It’s really not going to make a difference. Marginal gains are crucial to pro teams like Sky, but matter very little to the rest of us.
It is far more important to be especially careful with your sizing. If a jersey, bib shorts or even a pair of socks don’t fit properly, any scientific reasoning for your choice of garment will be automatically negated. Chances are you will have spent a small fortune on something that won’t and can’t do its job, no matter how hard it tries. In other words, the garment could be the ultimate in ‘technical’ but if it doesn’t sit correctly on your person it will be ‘technically deficient.’
Enjoy the ride!
Pete’s Top 5 Pieces of Cycling apparel:
2. Morvelo Flandrien Bib Shorts
3. Rapha Pro Team Bib Shorts & Jersey
4. Oneten Intimo Seamless Base Layer
5. Campagnolo Race Bib Shorts (discontinued)
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