Content and images by David Wilson
Back in the 70’s there was only one choice available for bicycle clothing in the United States….wool. It wasn’t fancy wool. It was wool that tended to sag and be kind of itchy. The shorts used a real chamois….from a lamb….and it had to be treated with an oily salve to make it comfortable. Caring for this clothing was tedious, but the good thing was that you really didn’t have to wash it much. Jerseys could be worn for days and days and they would never smell. Shorts were a bit more problematic as the chamois tended to get stained and the occasional cleaning was necessary to prevent some sort of infection.
Back in those days, there also seemed to be one choice for saddles….the Brooks leather saddle. I also only remember two brands of bikes dominating the scene, Raleigh and Schwinn. My dad rode both. I was lucky enough to have a French-made Gitane with smaller wheels that allowed me to race in the USCF midget category. Yeah. Who’s reading this that remembers those days? In the late 70’s French and Italian frames started infiltrating the ranks. There were also a few custom frames starting to appear as well. But I digress.
In the 80’s lycra jumped on the scene and dominated. Lycra is great stuff, but not everyone is a fan….especially for base layers that cover the upper part of your body. Today, wool is making a return with brands like Ibex, Smartwool, Ice Breaker, and many smaller companies and I know very few bikepackers that don’t carry a wool base layer of some sort for sleeping, using as an under shirt, or wearing all the time.
The leather saddle never really went away and custom frames are still the go-to choice for those with connections and money. With my preparation for my first Tour Divide I’ve acquired my custom frame and I’ve broken in my leather saddle, but I have fretted over my choice of clothing more than any other part of gear. It’s what separates you from the two things that can affect you the most….weather and your bike seat.
In my 32 years of mountain biking (that doesn’t include those years on the Gitane and a couple years on a Hutch Pro L), I’ve gone through a bit of cycling clothing. Team kits given and purchased, enough clothing given to me as prizes to fill a decent chest of drawers, and clothing I just couldn’t resist buying. I have gone through bibs, shorts, knickers, full length tights with a chamois, full zip, ¾ zip, and ¼ zip, long sleeve, short sleeve, baggie, club cut, race cut, and Euro cut.
For my Tour Divide attempt, I’m still up in the air. I’m 100% positive that I’ll take two pair of shorts, at least one jersey, my Minus 45 branded wool undershirt, Pearl Izumi arm coolers, as well as knee warmers, rain gear, and a down puff sweater. One pair of shorts will be my Canari lycra shorts, the other is a pair will be my Ibex wool shorts. As for jersey, I’ve recently acquired a Cedar Cycling wool blend jersey at a discounted “sponsorship” price. This jersey is the most comfortable and best fitting jersey I’ve ever owned, but it has some downsides. As a big guy, it would be nice to pare my kit down to a minimal weight and size. Wool clothing is not the way to do this. I’m also not a big fan of shorts with foam in between the chamois and the lycra. Foam holds moisture and eventually breaks down anyway.
Since shorts can make or break a ride, let me start there. I recently paid full price for a pair of Ibex wool shorts. I wore these for two and a half days straight on this year’s failed AZT attempt. I’ve also worn them for countless other rides multiple days in a row without washing them. They are extremely comfortable on my contact points with the saddle. They are a bit itchy, but using a lanolin based cream like Okole Stuff or Bag Balm will soften up whatever areas might be causing problems. These shorts only felt hot at the back where Ibex uses a lycra panel for durability. The chamois is wool which does a fantastic job of wicking moisture keeping your crotch dry. There is a pad inside the chamois, but it is not too thick at all and being surrounded by wool keeps it from staying saturated for too long. After only a few weeks of use, they are starting to pill. If this continues, they may get sent back.
My favorite pair of shorts are the Canari shorts. I purchased these through Bike Nashbar for $20 a pair. I’ve tried to find these same shorts, but have not had any success. These have a thin fleece chamois that stays dry and doesn’t chafe. The lycra is light weight, but they are around five years old now and I’ve had to stitch the chamois back into the short. I’ve used these on hundreds of rides including my Colorado Trail ride in 2011.
The last pair of shorts I’m mentioning in this review is considered to be an excellent short by many riders….Descente’s top end model. My pair is several years old and I’ve had issues with allergic reactions to the chamois. The foam also holds a ton of moisture. Beware of shorts like these. I’ve heard from more than a few riders about allergic reactions to various types of rubber used in the gripper elastic and from the chamois. Shorts like these should be avoided at all costs, but you won’t know they cause problems for you until you’ve dropped a C note on them and given them a whirl. I’ve included them in my table because this lycra weight and chamois type are common in different brands of shorts.
||Wool/lycra back panel
||Wool with foam
||Hi-Tech synthetic with foam
Upon examination of the table, you will notice that I have included a couple variables that bikepackers fret over quite a bit – weight and bulkiness. The wet weight (weighed after washing and running through the spin cycle) is something many may not consider. If you are looking at having a speedy ride, you want to be able to hand rinse your shorts in a sink and have them dry within a few hours before hitting the trail again. I think the wet weight is something to consider and the info can be viewed a variety of ways. As it’s looking now, I’m 75% sure I’ll be taking two pair of the Canari shorts. I love the wool Ibex shorts, but they are extremely bulky, heavy, and hold quite a bit of water. My anecdotal data shows that expensive shorts may not always be a good investment.
Now let’s talk jerseys. At 6’5”, fit is an issue for me. Most jerseys are a bit short in the back for me and I end up having to apply sunscreen above my butt to prevent getting some sort of smile tan tramp stamp. The recent addition of Cedar Cycling’s jersey to my collection puts me a bit closer to Rapha status on my rides. The fit on this jersey is by far the best fit of any jersey I own. The pockets are super sweet with zipper pockets on the inside of the main pockets. A full zip with a little flap at the collar to prevent chafing allows easy off and on as well as a wide range of ventilation. I love this jersey, but I think it’s too heavy and it gets pretty hot until you start sweating. Once you are sweating, it regulates body temperature very well. It also does a great job of protecting you from the sun.
The other selection is an “old school” Woolistic jersey. This jersey is itchy and carrying things in the pockets is almost pointless as the material sags quite a bit. Mine is quite old and I’ve had to darn up many holes from either moths or places that got caught on vegetation. This jersey regulates temperature incredibly well, but the dark color makes it feel hotter than I am willing to tolerate. I’m also not a fan of the half zip. The material is not very dense and does a poor job of providing sun protection. Woolistic has some new products that I’d love to try, but their website has no linking info.
The last choice is a standard “racing” jersey given to me by my wife for supporting her at the Breck Epic. The material is light and airy and you can see a huge weight difference on the chart. The downside to regular synthetic jerseys is that they stink after a day of riding. Make it 3 or 4 days and you may be banned from entering an eating establishment on your route. This is a tough call to make. At less than half the weight, it’s a no-brainer.
||100% Merino wool