Let’s do that movie thing where I do the ‘right now’ crescendo up to a climactic plot bit first to grab you then jump to the backstory to see how we got here. So I was out last night in a £160 ($180) jacket in a fast-dropping temperature and potential shower conditions. Exactly when the best mountain bike jackets lightweight, insulated front windproof shell should be perfect, especially as it was very dry in terms of airborne moisture. So there was exactly the sort of big ‘temperature differential’ contrast between internal heat and outside coolness that boosts ‘breathability’.
It was a classic UK short hard climb and techy descent woods ride so there were no long pitches of prolonged high heat output, and no long freezing descents either. But the jacket in question, just couldn’t seem to find that performance a sweet spot, even with the front zip and side vents open the fleece sections were wet. In particular, the sleeves were heavy enough with sweat to be noticeable when I moved my arms on the bike. By the end of a two-hour ride that only got down to about seven degrees at the coldest point, I’d gotten properly chilly from the accelerated heat loss of the soggy sections.
And while that meant I was glad of the wind-stopper effect of the shell fabric even on climbs, that wasn’t the way I wanted the jacket to justify itself. This isn’t the first time in the testing process and it follows on the heels of another similarly underwhelming thermal/shell combo garments from the same new bike range of one of the most renowned mountaineering brands around.
This isn’t the only coat that’s getting my goat at the moment. The second one is over double the price of what I was wearing last night. It’s got the kind of epic origin story that a blockbuster franchise would be proud of, including the concept of a revolutionary ‘personal climate regulating approach’ or something like that. To be fair, the whole idea of air circulating to dry you out faster than capillary wicking alone seems to be working. It’ll also shrug off a shower ok and it kept me comfortable with minimal zip tweaking for a particularly damp, dank but warm seven-hour ride a few weekends ago.
It's a super quiet and natural feeling for dog walking and my wife loves it for e-bike commuting too. The last time I wore it ‘in anger’ though I got proper wet and cold, but then it’s not designed to be a proper waterproof hardshell. But it is £330 ($350) and I’ve currently spent several weeks trying to find conditions that justify that vast price tag with a ‘eureka’ ride that it works perfectly for. Surely that’s the wrong way around for such an aspirational anorak though? I'm looking for a sweet spot for the jacket, not it just working so well I’m grabbing it every time for preference, not pulling it on just to test it.
Before you think I’m just not ‘getting’ the whole idea of a jacket that controls your internal climate rather than just trying to crudely shutter it out with a hardshell, I’m all over the concept. I’ve been a Gore Windstopper evangelist for decades – the Gore Phantom is still the most versatile bike jacket ever made – and I’m generally a fan of Polartec Neoshell in the right garment. The 7Mesh Chico WTV fleece has become such a go-to garment for mixed conditions, potentially chilly, maybe wet but who cares walk/ride situation it’s permanently filthy.
There’s some other new kit that has gone straight into the firm favorite category too. The Rab Cinder Kinetic waterproof jacket and pants have almost made me reconsider my position as a hardcore hardshell hater for mountain biking. The 3D knitted base layers and other gear from Spatzwear are insanely effective at generating and then regulating heat in a minimal weight and bulk format. Unfortunately, it’s so tight and weirdly ribbed most mountain bikers think you’ve come straight to the trailhead from a Berlin S&M club.
Currently, though the new coat doesn’t feel like it’s giving me much more in the way of protection than Pertex jackets I had back in the '80s, early Gore Activent in the '90s and apart from being lighter it seems very similar to Ventile woven cotton. The same stuff that bagged most of the major mountain summits and polar flag placements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Unlike most technologies, fabric performance is going backwards rather than forwards at the moment. On the plus side, that’s because the carbon-based technologies that are being rapidly phased out by most responsible companies mean new waterproofs are hopefully a lot less damaging to the environment. A lot of eco DWR coatings are washed off so fast they’re in the same category of ‘If I have to use this much for the same result is it sustainable/eco?’ like vegan washing-up liquid and laundry powder.
I’ve not even started getting irate about fit yet. Partly because I’ve had to concede that outside of performance road riding gear, my lean and long body type seems to have been abandoned as an MTB kit template in favor of shapes much closer to maternity wear. I’ve chatted to designers about this too and generally just been put firmly in my emaciated place by hard sales figures that show soft bodies account for a rapidly increasing (in both senses) proportion of turnover.
Regardless of the amount of rind on your rasher, I’m not going to give up getting angry about things like chest pocket placement that leaves your phone banging on your knee like a nan’s knockers. Or unstructured, unsupported rear pockets in overlong tails that droop way below butts ready to catch saddles or even get chewed up by tires if you slam your seat.
And what is it with sleeve length? Keeping wrists warm is crucial to both hand and overall core temperature as there’s a ton of uninsulated blood flow going through them. Yet I repeatedly shake my head in frustration as a top that fits OK when I stand about, hikes its cuffs right up my arms as soon as I reach for the bars. Exposing my bony wrists to wind and weather while simultaneously choking blood flow and rapidly accelerating arm pump on rough descents, so you’ve not just wasted money on your new coat, you’ve also erased most of the benefit of having a fancy suspension fork.
So what’s the plot climax here? Well, I’m going to continue testing the two jackets until I’m sure I haven’t missed a riding environment or weather conditions that suddenly make them a favorite. However, I’m also going to start digging into how they compare to really basic or even historically proven stuff. For example, I’ve had a lambswool jumper on the go for most of the year now as the ultimate mid-layer that’s super comfy even over bare skin and manages to be both insanely warm for its weight and yet surprisingly cool when it needs to be. Despite months of wear on and off the bike with only wash to shrink it back to shape it still doesn’t smell either.
Whereas that hybrid teddy bear jacket I talked about first managed to ming badly enough it was a biological weapon within one short ride. To be fair on the latest gear I’ll also be going back through my favorite benchmark gear to see how it performs or I’ve been sucked in by the ‘The Emperor's New Clothes’ hype at some points without realizing. For example, I’ve got a nagging doubt that as much as I love my 7Mesh Chilco, I haven’t checked if you get a massively different performance on the bike with a basic fleece that you could pick up from a charity shop for a fiver.
In other words, watch this space for a proper deep dive into the realities of ‘performance’ clothing and if you see me charging around the trails in a wolf fleece and a grandad’s thermal long johns, know that it’s in the name of science. Well mostly science, but I reckon that’s a pretty strong look TBH!