I learned about Pearl Izumi in 1990 from a sales rep who walked into the bike shop I worked at to give us a technical presentation on their cycling apparel. To this day I don’t recall enough about what he said to be able to decide if the features were really that great or if he was just that good at tech presentations. Either way, he succeeded. I was sold. My grad-school-student bank account was thinner than the leg of a ballet dancer, but somehow I found the scratch necessary to order a long sleeve jersey.
I’ve still got that jersey in a container in my garage. It has held up remarkably well, which is as much a testament to my careful washing and inability to discard anything still functional as it is a verification of the durability of the clothing itself. The jersey had no rear pockets, so if you were going out for more than an hour or so, you needed to wear a jacket or vest with pockets. In the event that it wasn’t cold enough for both that jersey and a vest, you had a dilemma. How to solve that dilemma isn’t something I recall. But I do remember how I was convinced that no garment ever in the history of man-made fibers could wick moisture off my body as effectively. I stayed convinced, too, for the simple reason that it really did. Compared to the long-sleeve jerseys I owned from Avenir and Giordana, the Pearl Izumi jersey was better in every manner, save pocket inclusion. It pulled moisture off me like a cotton towel. It fit like a tailored dress shirt. The zipper was just long enough to conduct actual ventilation. It looked as stylish as a ’71 Mustang. The material was as comfortable as flannel sheets. And it had brand zing the way Clint Eastwood has irascible.
In 1990, Boulder, Colorado, was the epicenter of cool in cycling. All the best pros—international and domestic—were based there, along with a growing number of bike companies. The fact that Pearl Izumi was based there was simply confirmation that they had it going on. From that moment until sometime in the late 1990s, Pearl was the creme de la creme of cycling kit to me. I can recall season upon season where my friends and I would buy our team’s Voler jerseys but pass on the bibs and instead go with the Pearl Field/Micro/Ultrasensor bibs.
It’s hard for me to pin down why or how I lost interest in Pearl; it may be that I just reached a point where I was ready for a new top brand and I transferred my affection to Assos around 1998. Then, due to changes in management and shop distribution they all but disappeared from my radar for a good 10 years.
Last fall I got reintroduced to some of the line. They—Pearl Izumi—were something of a curiosity to me—the question being, had they progressed much? Sure, there were new materials, but I wondered about whether the cut of the jerseys and bibs had evolved in a significant way.
In the last six months I have ridden a lot of new kits. Some I have liked and will be reviewing. Some of the stuff I didn’t find remarkable enough to be worth the time required to write the review. My experience with all this new cycling clothing has taught me two interesting lessons, interesting because the lessons are divergent. The first lesson is that while cycling jerseys have come in two different cuts, generally referred to as “race” and “club,” those two cuts have evolved over the last five years. Race cuts are snugger, more form-following, and tend to use more Lycra or at least Lycra-adjacent materials to give them skinsuit-like cling. And while I don’t (won’t) wear club-cut jerseys, I’m noticing that many of the ones out there aren’t the spinnakers of yore. I’ve caught a few exceptions, such as some of Rapha’s pieces, but as the cliché goes, things are trending toward more form-following cuts, even if your personal dimensions are more Jon Voight than Jens Voigt.
Bibs, on the other hand, are cut in more lengths than ever before. This is mostly due to the incredible variety of gripper bands forming the bottom of the bibs. Capo is pushing the long bands that feature double-layer material simply folded over with no actual grippers. Assos is staying the traditional course with a narrow band backed with silicone gripper dots. The space in between is rich enough in options that you needn’t develop a hard-edged tan line on your thigh.
I’ve been wearing two different kits from Pearl’s line since this spring. One of the kits is the P.R.O. LTD Speed Jersey and In-R-Cool Bibs. The other is the P.R.O. Leader Jersey and Bibs.
I’m going to begin with the P.R.O. Leader Jersey and Bibs. This is Pearl’s super-call stuff. The moment I pulled on the bibs I could tell that this was a cut above. I’ve tried on so much stuff that seems amazing but I wonder how long it will last. Well these bibs are cut from 244g/m² (roughly 8.6 oz.) fabric, meaning it has some real heft to it. The sublimated side panels are, naturally, lighter—more like 6 oz. I’ve worn this kit mountain biking on several occasions because I figure if I go down it’s not going to vaporize the moment it comes into contact with the ground. These bibs, like the In-R-Cool bibs, receive a Coldblack treatment to reflect UV rays to keep you cooler.
Some manufacturers have gone crazy with multiple panels in their quest to create a better-fitting pair of bibs. But some, including Pearl Izumi and Assos, have gone the other direction on some of their bibs. Inventive patterning has allowed manufacturers to use material that stretches more in one direction than another, which has enabled them to reduce the number of necessary panels to make bibs fit properly. With the P.R.O. Leader Bibs, excluding the band for the gripper, each leg is made up of just two panels. That’s a six-panel short minus the bibs. That eliminated a few serge-seams on the inside of the short, making them more comfortable on your skin when you’re out for rides upwards of three hours.
The pad employed is Pearl’s P.R.O. Seamless 4D Chamois. I’ve had 4D stretch explained to me a few times (several companies are using pads or materials that they claim stretch in 4D), but I need to be honest and say that I’d like everyone just to cut this shit out. We live in a 3D world, and 4D isn’t really clever unless you’re a quantum physicist. For those working in textiles, just tell me the chamois has a lot of stretch and once I ride it, if you’re right, I’ll agree with you. Claiming a pad stretches in 4D is something I’m never really going to believe, either intellectually or viscerally. It’s a marketing fail.
But as failures go, this is a pretty terrific pad. At it’s thickest it’s supposed to be 13mm. I couldn’t measure it, but that sounds about right. There’s a central channel to relieve pressure on soft tissue and while I know that pressure relief is its primary mission, in many of these pads the thinner areas are really helpful in allowing the chamois to move with you without bunching up.
For me, the real test of a chamois comes when I have to make several out-of-the-saddle efforts in rapid succession. That repeated movement of standing up, accelerating, sitting back down and then standing up again won’t go well if the chamois doesn’t really move with me. At some point a lesser chamois will bunch up or catch on the saddle. The P.R.O. Seamless yadda yadda chamois kept my undercarriage happy as a kid on Coca-Cola.
The shorts feature a 10-inch inseam, largely due to the double-layer cuff that finishes the short. What’s surprising, though, is that the inside of the cuff is doted with silicone grippers; there are a dozen small diamond-shaped grippers on each cuff. I’m not really convinced they are necessary, though I can’t say they are a real disservice either. The bib straps are cut from Minerale polyester, a very lightweight and breathable poly that does a fine job of wicking moisture off my body.
The bibs are all black except for the sublimated side panels and the highlight trim on the bib straps. Visually, it’s a pretty traditional look, and in this case I consider that a selling point.
The P.R.O. Leader jersey is cut largely from nylon (91 percent) and elastane (9 percent), which makes it nearly stretchy as a skinsuit. The sleeves are stretchier still, for obvious reasons and are cut from polyester (80 percent) and elastane (20 percent). I’ve encountered a few jerseys of this variety that were so stretchy that once you loaded up the pockets you risked catching the hem of the jersey on your saddle. Some companies have used materials that stretch horizontally but not vertically, or lengthwise panels that simply didn’t stretch much. Pearl went a different direction. A big, stylized ‘X’ is laminated to the back panel of the jersey, allowing it to stretch some horizontally and just a touch vertically so that it will follow your contours without sagging. It’s a novel and effective approach and adds another visual element to the jersey. There are three small, highly breathable mesh panels employed to aid moisture transfer in critical areas, at the nape of the neck and the underarms.
All the In-R-Cool jerseys receive a Coldblack treatment to keep you cooler on hot days. Pearl claims the body of the jersey has an SPF of 50 while the sleeves are 40.
Of all the various pro-fit jerseys I’ve tried, the P.R.O. Leader has one of the very best fits I’ve encountered. It’s hard to explain the difference in feel between form-following and clingy. One feels natural, and makes me look presentable (MAMIL presentable, anyway) in the mirror, while the other causes claustrophobia while simultaneously eliciting a spider-web creepy factor. Honestly, I’m not sure which of these two effects is more surprising, but I’m clear that one won’t sell in bike shops.
The pockets on the P.R.O. Leader are a bit unconventional. It seems everyone is experimenting with unusual pocket configurations. For this jersey, the two side pockets are cut narrow. You can fit gels and packages of Clif Shot Bloks or tubes of Skratch or Osmo drink mix. You won’t be stuffing a Clif Bar in there; at least, not unless you like the idea of wrestling it out. What that does, though, is make the middle pocket big enough for a farmer’s fist. Inside that pocket is a second, slightly water resistant, radio pocket. There’s a buttonhole to run the earpiece cable inside the jersey, but because it’s not the sort of thing you can reach very easily, if you listen to music while riding, plan to leave your iPod on shuffle.
Part of Pear Izumi’s brand identity in the ’90s was the black/electric blue/screaming yellow color combination. My first Pearl jersey had it and I never tired of the look. I’m pleased to note they finally brought it back and this kit played those colors with style. I get concerned about any kit with too much black for reasons of visibility, but for reasons I can’t explain, this kit doesn’t appear as black as it actually is. In wearing it, I’ve had several people tell me it pops well due to where the yellow and blue designs are placed.
So what’s the damage? The bibs go for $200 and the jersey is $200. Some of you will squawk about how much money that is. And it is a fair amount of money for cycling kit, but when I consider this against Assos, Giordana and Rapha, this kit is a terrific value. It doesn’t stack up against Assos’ best work, but it’s competitive with their Uno line and costs less.
The jersey is available in a whopping seven sizes: Small, S/M, Medium, M/L, L, XL and XXL and the bibs are available in five sizes: Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large and XXL. I wore the S/M jersey and the Medium bibs. I’d compare the sizing favorably to most American brands. The S/M jersey is slightly larger than a Small in most brands (except for Euro lines like Castelli and Assos) and the Medium bibs line up nicely with most other American brands. Those tweener sizes of S/M and M/L are meant to give as dialed a fit as possible for an off-the-rack jersey.
Even though the fit is new, the materials are new and the look has been updated, this feels like a return to Pearl Izumi’s roots—great quality without going bankrupt.