Barrier to Entry, Part I

Barrier to Entry, Part I

Back in the 1980s when I went looking for clothing that would keep me warm as I tried to ride during my first New England winter, I simply put on four layers—two long-sleeve base layers, a long-sleeve jersey and then my stupid anorak of a wind breaker. Why that thing wasn’t full-zip I’ll never know. I who I tortured with that gift I’ve forgotten; I owe someone an apology.

You know what? I still froze all four of my cheeks.

Dramatic circumstance demands that I now announce something that changed or we’re not going to get very far in this piece.

The thing that changed was my introduction to Pearl Izumi. They were new to us at the shop where I wrenched, but a demonstration of their clothing’s ability to wick moisture as demonstrated by our sales rep was enough to get all of us to ask for the employee purchase form.

Pearl has continued to be a terrific value in high-performance gear for cold conditions. This fall I’ve been wearing a collection of pieces dedicated to the kind of day I’ll be heading into shortly: temps in the 40s, a bit of a breeze, high humidity and a lingering dampness on the roads from three days of rain and enough cloud cover that the sun isn’t even threatening to emerge.

We’ve got five pieces on deck, with three in this post: a base layer, a long sleeve jersey and a windbreaker.

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Men’s Elite Thermal Jersey
The Men’s Elite Thermal Jersey is exactly what I look for in a long sleeve jersey. I want it to be stout; that is, I want enough material that it offers substantial insulation. I also want long sleeves, a long tail and a high collar. And while it may seem like a small ask, I wish every long-sleeve jersey on the planet had a full-length zipper. The full zip is absolutely critical to getting the sleeves oriented correctly. Increasingly, cuffs are being cut on an angle to make sure you have coverage on top without any additional bulk at the underside of your wrist. This is also important with jerseys that feature a design with windproof and breathable panels. Pull that jersey on over your head and it’s easy to wind up with the windproof panel running into your armpit.

The Elite Thermal Jersey uses a welted zipper to prevent it from becoming a vent. Gripper elastic along the rear hem keeps the tail low, where it should be. The material is a fairly straightforward thermal poly with a brushed finish inside the jersey. At 260 grams/m² it’s reasonably heavy, just the sort of piece that gets most of us through rides in cold, but not freezing conditions. The Elite Thermal doesn’t include any sort of wind stopping material in the torso or sleeves. On the plus side that makes it more breathable and a dry body is a happy body. The minus to this is that on any reasonably quick road ride the wind will go right through you so you’ll need at least a vest, but perhaps a windbreaker to keep the wind going through you. There’s no point to all that loft if cold air pushes all the warm air out.

One of the more unusual features to the jersey are the pockets in back. At first glance it seems to have a traditional three-pocket design, but on closer inspection you find that there are two thin, and slightly shorter, pockets on the left and right. They are perfect for some gels or other small food items. That leaves the big pockets for cargo like your phone, and if the day warms, knee warmers or a windbreaker. The middle pocket has one added surprise: it features a water-resistant panel to prevent spray from soaking your backside. The rear hem shows off the Pearl Izumi name and has a silicone gripper to keep the jersey in place.

The Elite Thermal Jersey is only $125, which is a good deal more affordable than some jerseys of similar quality. It comes in five sizes (S-XXL) and four colors. Pearl refers to this as a “form fit,” which means it’s cut to the contours of a cyclist’s physique but allows enough room for some layering beneath, but it’s not loose and floppy, which would render its thermal qualities useless. One of the best features of this jersey is the quality of its fit. The capital sin that most fall/winter pieces suffer is an overabundance of material in the chest that bunches up the moment you put your hands in the drops. 

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P.R.O. Barrier Lite Jacket
The windbreaker has to be the most problematic piece of cycling gear there is. Seriously. The combination of featherweight material, lack of stretch and the need to fit over other garments means that they are never as form-fitting as I’d prefer. The trick is to strike a balance between the fact that it doesn’t stretch and how much room needs to be left for the torso and arms. The upshot here is that windbreakers are the most individualistic of all fits. In that regard, they are much like saddles. It’s virtually impossible to say that one jacket is better than another because success is directly proportional to how similar you are to the fit model that was used.

The P.R.O. Barrier Lite Jacket does a better at striking that balance than most. If my arms were still as big as they were when I was a drummer (and looked like a real boy), then this jacket would have been more to my liking. It’s in my top three fits for lightweight jackets (this excludes rain and thermal jackets).

I should probably back up and clarify my big objection in windbreakers. When a jacket is cut too generously, the material on the arms and torso will flap like a flag on a blustery day. Ugh. I hate that sound when I’m riding in a group, and it’s worst when you encounter riders who wear jerseys and jackets that are a size (or two) too big for them. But that’s not the apparel maker’s fault. The side panels feature a bit of stretch so that if you are fueling up for a big day it won’t constrict you.

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The P.R.O. Barrier Lite Jacket features a DWR coating that gives it a fair amount of rain protection. I don’t wear this thing in place of a standard rain jacket, but for rides on days with changeable conditions, like when there’s a chance of some rain mid-way through a ride, or I fear I might get caught in a shower before I can make it home, it’s perfect. It’s also ideal for mountain bike rides on cool days when I know there could be some splashing and I want to wear something that’s easy to clean. It features a rear pocket into which the jacket can be reversed and stuffed. It’ll take up less than the whole of a pocket. And Pearl deserves praise for including a second zipper so that you can zip up from the bottom, either for ventilation or to be able to access pockets. Too few jackets have that second zipper today and it’s a feature for which I never tired.

By Pearl’s own standards, this is considered a form fit. It comes in five sizes (S-XXL) and two colors. While the black shares in common with this Screaming Yellow version all the same reflectivity pops, I think the yellow will do substantially more to keep you alive. It carries a suggested retail of $110.

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Transfer Long Sleeve Base Layer
This is one of my favorite long-sleeve base layers of all time. Years of riding in New England taught me a great many lessons. One is that it’s better to have a lightweight base layer under a heavier jersey than to have two moderate-weight pieces together. You want that light base layer to wick the moisture away; the heavier the base layer, the longer it will take.

Flat stitching makes the piece comfortable as tailored shirt. It doesn’t have much stretch, so the fit (and its success) depends on patterning that shows great insight into how riders actually sit on a bike. Like the best pieces I wear from companies like Assos and Castelli, this base layer fits best when you’re bent at the waist, with your arms and shoulders forward.

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Another little touch that causes me to crush on this piece are the thumb stirrups sewn into the sleeves. They are just lightweight strips of webbing, but they keep the sleeves in perfect position as you pull on your next layer. I hate having a sleeve get twisted as I pull on another piece, and most cycling gear is too form-fitting for you to hold the sleeve in position as you pull on that jersey or jacket.

I’m wearing the medium. It also comes in small, large and XL. It only comes in basic black, which should upset no one. And at $65, it’s one of the best values in base layers I’ve run across this year.

Final thought: Some investments are comfortable.


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3 comments

  1. Dave King

    PI was the shit when I started riding in the late 80’s. I wasn’t aware of their winter gear until the early 90’s and it blew my mind. They were the first to make a windbreaker vest with a mesh rear that I can remember. Like you, I rode in some ridiculously ineffective winter gear – although, growing up and living in NorCal, you would probably snicker at my definition of winter.

    Windbreaker jackets are difficult. Even one that is justly slightly too big will really flop around. And most are not very breathable unless you unzip them completely.

    Base layers: can’t believe mine were cotton for so many years until I got a PI one in the early 90’s. I still have it and use it.

  2. backofthepack

    Temps in the 40s? Call me when winter arrives. I did a metric while in the teens this weekend. Riding in the 40’s requires nothing more than a base layer under a short sleeve jersey and leg warmers

  3. Alan M

    Love PI. Its expensive but well worth it and this from a guy who’s never paid more than $1200 for a bike. PI lasts for years in top condition; zippers dont break, cloth doesn’t stretch out, stitching doesnt pop, colors dont fade, velcro doesnt lose its grip. It may not be the best; I dont know because I stick with what works. Tomorrow I’ll roll to work in 15F temp with the PI stuff I’ve had for over 5 years.

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