Travel writers usually begin their careers with a zany appetite for the unknown and laugh off discomforts as the basis for their next funny line, and early on in their careers both the great Redmond O’Hanlon and Tim Cahill had few tools in their writers’ toolboxes other than humor. Laughter is, of course, disarming, a way to mitigate horror and repulsion, two reactions that tend to get served up with regularity the further afield you travel. Sure, the budding travel writer gets to try the planet’s many wonders: French beaches, German castles, Italian duomos, Swedish ice hotels. But pretty soon they run out of A-list destinations. There comes a point when a writer has done all the islands of Hawaii and skied from France to Italy that he is faced with Brazilian slums, Bulgarian hotels and Parisian cab drivers. Or, in Cahill’s case, the burning oil fields of Kuwait.
The upshot is the epiphany that maybe the world isn’t one ginormous oyster. Plenty of travel writers moved on to other subject matter rather than brave lodgings inoculated to both the mop and 600-thread-count sheets. There are, of course, exceptions. Here, I’m thinking of Rob Schultheis and Sebastian Junger, who decided to go all-in on adventure by becoming war correspondents and, again, of O’Hanlon, for whom the adventure didn’t really start until all of his companions were pissed off enough to return home and leave him to the cannibals.
The challenge is that the discomforts begin to outweigh the revelations. Leaving home begins to seem like not such a great idea.
Writing about cycling clothing is not entirely unlike travel writing.
I’ve been writing about cycling clothing with some regularity for nearly 20 years. In that time I’ve gone from welcoming each new kit with belief that here was yet another fine outfit to make riding enjoyable to the grudging acknowledgement that even some storied companies make pieces that are damned uncomfortable. Those discomforts begin to add up. It would be easy just to wear the Panache-made RKP kit and review the odd piece from Assos. Anthony Bourdain’s show would be a lot less interesting if all he did was tour the best restaurants of Las Vegas.
This year I tried a number of different pieces that were completely new to me. Some were amazing; readers would submit that they were as amazing for their prices as they were for my appraisal. Fair enough. There were far more pieces that weren’t terrible, but reviewing them carried the challenge of trying to figure out just what to say about a Holiday Inn in Memphis. It’s clothing. The shorts had a pad. The jersey had a zipper in front and pockets in the back. And?
But even the veteran travel writer encounters those unexpected treasures, the evidentiary miracle of poulet avec Rosé on a searing July day in Provence.
I live for those experiences and easily the biggest surprise I got this year came when I tried the Primal Wear Helix kit. Primal’s reputation has largely been built on its jersey designs, which mostly either delight or repulse, given your taste. For many years, the cuts were pretty traditional and the large jersey was a common choice for the 150-lb. century rider. That people couldn’t figure out how to select the proper size wasn’t exactly the company’s fault, but they gained a reputation for being a go-to for less than fashionable riders.
The company has evolved since those early days, though. They built their own factory to produce the clothing to their specs, rather than outsource it to a subcontractor; granted, that meant moving production from the U.S. to China, but the change gave them more control over the final product.
The Helix kit is a reflection of those and other changes. The jersey takes an aggressive step into a pro fit. The body of the jersey is noticeably shorter than the products they are best-known for, and it’s cut on a marked taper. Club cut this is not. To make sure this jersey isn’t meant exclusively for those who maintain great year-round fitness (a group I lost membership rights to), Primal uses SLR Ion fabric which features a lightweight and breathable weave, perfect for days where both the temperature and humidity soars. It’s got enough stretch to accommodate riders who aren’t so pro-shaped as well as those of us whose shape may, uh, fluctuate over the course of the season. The sleeves are cut from Z92, a dimpled material that has been shown to cut drag and has become all the rage among clothing makers for their upper-end kit. To make sure the jersey is as breathable as possible, a lightweight mesh—AE Elite Mesh—is used in the side panels and just behind the sleeves.
The design work is understated and classic. It touts the company’s heritage (founded in Denver in 1992) and avoids anything anyone might call garish. Primal’s design team deserves credit for creating a look many other brands struggle to achieve.
Making a short-cut, stretchy jersey really isn’t that hard. There are, however, a couple of ways to really screw it up. The first, most obvious way to do it is by placing the pockets in the same spot as you would for a traditional jersey. Do that and riders will bonk because they can’t get that last gel out. The pockets have to be positioned no more than a millimeter—okay, maybe two—above the hem so that you can get your hand into the jersey and back out. And you thought gripper elastic was just meant to keep from exposing your bibs. Primal also cut the two side pockets on a slight slant to increase access without really cutting carrying capacity.
The other important detail I’ve seen screwed up happens when a manufacturer uses a zipper that’s too stiff. An overly stiff zipper has resulted in an unsightly chest bulge some refer to (forgive the relative political incorrectness of the term) as monotit. A supple zipper can allow the jersey to move across your chest in a more natural manner. Here, Primal uses a high-quality YKK full-zip with a metal pull that is easy to find on the roll.
The surprise of this jersey was compounded by the fact that the sleeves are set-in. Were I to create a category for the worst-fitting jerseys I’ve ever tried on, they would all have in common a cut that included set-in sleeves. That this jersey fits me, despite its sleeves, makes it a serious outlier. Not that I object.
In my mind, it’s not that hard to make a good jersey. It’s kinda like making a burger. If you can’t manage that we are going to need you to step away from the kitchen. Bibs, however, are as ripe with opportunities for disaster as a slow-moving freighter in Somali waters. Are the bibs too long? Too short? Is the pad too far forward? Too far back? Is the pad too thin? Too thick? Are the shorts cut too tight in back? Too roomy? Do they cost more than a small TV? Or too little to convince you they won’t kill your undercarriage?
See what I mean? That’s why there are times when I open a package and think to myself, “Do I really need to visit Borneo?”
The answer, of course, is that I’m not much of a reviewer if I don’t review. So I pack for Borneo.
What I’ve run into on multiple occasions is a pad that only works so long as I’m in the drops. The moment I sit up my sit bones roll off the back of the pad and I might as well be wearing a pair of boxers for all the benefit I realize. The pad is not only well-positioned but it is made from dense enough foam that I’ve been comfortable on rides as long as five hours.What I like even better is that while the pad uses multiple thicknesses of foam, the transitions are gentle enough that you don’t end up with cavernous valleys between the various sections which causes some shorts to move rather unnaturally.
The dimpled Z92 material found in the jersey sleeves makes a reappearance, here in the butt panel and the gipper bands. The majority of the shorts are cut from Vero, a four-way stretch fabric touted for compression. I like it because it’s a fairly stout material, not like the paper-thin stuff I find in so many shorts that struggle to last the whole of a season. The bibs are cut from a mesh that breathes well enough not to be a liability.
The Axios Helix bibs go for $200 and the jersey another $100. Buy them together on the Primal Wear website and you’ll get a discount. I take a fair amount of heat for reviewing stuff that people think is inordinately expensive. As I type this, I can hear the shuffle of feet as people queue up to chastise me for encouraging readers to rob their children of a college education because even this will be judged by some to be too expensive. Whatever. This kit is the best value in cycling clothing I’ve worn this year. I looked at some budget shorts at Interbike this year and the thought that stuck with me was that life is too short to put on shorts that won’t last a year and will make me regret each ride I do in them. This kit achieved something very few kits do: It made it into my ongoing rotation of clothing, alongside my Panache and Assos stuff.