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.
Socks are the candy bars of the cycling world. They are sugary, diverse and offer an ever-changing array of flavors. Each year someone at Interbike shows a pair of socks that captures some essential zeitgeist. This year, as it is most years, Sock Guy gets my nod for the best socks I have seen at the show. You can consider these an open letter to Valdimir Putin for his stance on gay athletes. They ought to sell by the million. I need to mention that while I’ve always liked Sock Guy socks, I mostly wore them with sneakers because they were so thick. These, however, are thin enough to fit along with your foot inside a tight pair of cycling shoes.
Xpedo has been doing great work in the pedal market and yesterday they were quietly showing a functional prototype of a wattage pedal. While they were willing to talk target pricing for it (which didn’t make me gasp), they aren’t ready to allow that to be published just yet. The system is promising if only for the fact that once you install or remove the pedal, no additional work is required; there are no additional parts to worry about.
BMC showed off a new edition of the Team Machine that I’m told has been lightened significantly without sacrificing comfort or stiffness. Road feel is said to be improved, which fits with my general experience with what happens when you remove material from a frame.
BMC also had disc-brake editions of the Gran Fondo. This is the GF02—the aluminum bike, which I’m told is every bit as compliant as the carbon version.
I’d call B.S. were it not for the fact that these seatstays are just as tiny as the carbon ones.
This is the new EC90 carbon wheel from Easton. This wheel is the first to put together aerodynamics, a wide rim profile, carbon clincher and tubeless. It’s a total no-brainer at least as far as appeal. The last time I was this excited to ride a wheel was following the introduction of the Zipp Firecrest line.
The carbon layup work on this wheel was remarkable. This is definitely the first carbon fiber rim bead that seemed capable of holding on to a road tubeless tire. And as I mentioned on Monday, the new hubs seem to have a design that will put previous bearing issues to rest. More than any other product I saw, these left me with the desire to commit a felony.
Pearl Izumi showed off lots of new apparel as you’d expect, but this new chamois caught my eye. The surface of the chamois itself was remarkably smooth, rather than, well, bumpy from lots of different foam profiles. The idea was to create something that would contact your skin more naturally and lay flat against your skin more easily, rather than just relying on the compression of the bibs.
These are the new P.R.O. In-R-Cool bibs in which the new pad will be used.
Among a great many other items I saw that I liked, this mountain bike kit was pretty interesting. I’m not huge on baggy shorts; it just doesn’t make much sense to me, but if you can have shorts that conceal the Lycra and still offer a fairly tailored fit, I can see the point. The zippers for ventilation at the front of the legs made immediate sense. The jacket was really well-cut and looked to be breathable enough so the inside didn’t turn into a hothouse.
Cervelo has revamped both the R3 and the S3.
Previously, when Cervelo has offered a revision of a lower model following big gains in a flagship model, the result has been a lighter, livelier ride. I should be able to get on both these bikes this winter. I’ve liked the R3 and thought it did a better job of replicating the ride of the top bike than most companies manage. The question now is just how much the ride of the S3 has been improved.
Primal Wear does a lot, nay, a metric ton of charity ride jerseys. I figured they just gave good pricing to the folks running these events. I was wrong about that. It turns out they donate a stunning amount of money to charity events each year, paying the charities a small royalty each time a jersey is sold. Based on what I was told, I estimate it’s somewhere in the mid-six-figure range.
They were showing two new base layers that will combine Primal’s penchant for affordability with their ability to source soft, breathable fabrics.
One of the things I most love about Primal Wear’s apparel is their ability to produce simple pieces that are both comfortable and affordable. So often, when I see stuff that seems a bargain, like this $60 jersey, they will be hamstrung by stiff threads or material that doesn’t breath well. This was a refreshing display of careful design and sourcing.
While brevity isn’t what most folks come to RKP for, these posts are necessarily brief and incomplete for two reasons: 1) the limited amount of time I have between walking out of the show and walking back in. There will be plenty more posts to come.
I spent my formative years struggling between wearing clothes that were unfashionable but fit me and those that were fashionable, but didn’t remotely fit me. Not only did I not understand it, my mother didn’t either. Most of the pants I wore in grade school were loose at the small of my back; to keep them at my waist I had to pull my belt pretty snug. Most of my shirts fit okay at the shoulders and then billowed out as they went down, like I was wearing a tailored tent.
Eventually I began to notice from time to time that some clothes simply fit better than others. As much as I loved Patagonia casual wear, their polo shirts were flappy on me, even in small. Their pants and shorts either fit in the seat and loose in the waist or fit at the waist and tight across my crotch. Levi’s 501s stopped fitting me after I took up cycling. I had to switch to the 569s—sit at the waist and roomy through the seat and thighs. Those skinny hipster jeans? I’d never get ‘em past my knees, unless I went for the 40-inch waist.
It wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend taught me about fit models and how all clothing begins with pieces of fabric cut to fit some individual that I began to appreciate why some things fit and others didn’t. Understanding that actually made shopping easier; it eliminated whole product lines because I knew they weren’t cut for me.
When I first got into cycling I was pretty unaware of just how cycling clothing needed to fit. I got it more or less right, but I occasionally bought shorts that were too big and all my jerseys were a size larger than necessary. Even through the turn of the century, most cycling clothing had enough stretch to accommodate differences in physique within a given size.
More recently, with the advent of Power Lycra, compression panels and skinsuit-tight jerseys, I’ve begun to notice some stuff doesn’t fit as well as it used to, or as well as some of the competition. In my reviews of clothing I’ve begun to talk about the nature of the fit. The point isn’t to say this fit is good or that fit is bad, but to note how it fits. We can talk about features like materials, reflective piping, dual-density foam in pads and Power Lycra panels until our faces are cyan, but if you—like me—have a bounteous and spherical caboose, some bibs aren’t going to fit you all that well. It won’t make them bad, but it’s worth knowing that there are others that might fit you better.
The importance of this was driven home for me this past winter when I had an experience I really didn’t want to have. I’ve long been an admirer of Vermarc clothing, but I’d never had the opportunity to wear any of their stuff. It’s a big world and I just didn’t get around to it until this winter. I tried one of their top pairs of bibs. On my first ride, I cut a three-hour ride short because my ass hurt. How could that be? I was wearing the pride of Belgium. What gives?
In objective terms, I’ve been riding 143mm-wide Specialized saddles, though it was recently suggested to me that I might do well to try the 155mm-wide version of the Romin. Not the Incredible Hulk, but not bantam, either.
Well, as it turned, out my sit bones are wider than the widest portion of the densest foam in the pad. I was writing out of the margins, so-to-speak. It doesn’t mean they are bad bibs at all. It just suggests I’m seven feet tall and the owner of a new Mini Cooper.
While this won’t be complete by any means, I wanted to note my experience with some of the different lines out there to help give you a better basis for comparison. For the record, I’m 5′ 11″ and currently weigh 163 lbs., which I hate to admit, is heavy for me.
- Assos—the Uno and Mille bibs are fairly consistent in their style of fit, though the Unos are a bit more snug on me. Like I said, I’ve got enough of a butt that I can’t do straight-leg jeans. The Mille in particular is a fantastic fit for me. And with both pads, my sit bones come down squarely in the middle of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Castelli—these are cut for riders with a slighter frame. For me, by the time I’ve crowded my ass into them they are a bit tight across the front. I’ve experienced this more with some of their bibs than others, but I do get it to some degree with all of them, save the Claudio (thermal) bibs. In my mind, most are climbers’ bibs. I wear a large.
- Capo—This line is pretty remarkable for its middle-of-the-road fit. I’ve had no issues with their bibs, nor have any friends reported issues with their stuff. I wear a medium.
- Voler—I’ve had issues with being sort of between sizes. I was too big for the smalls but the mediums weren’t as snug in fit as it seemed they ought. I can’t recall ever being between sizes with another line. The quality has come a long way from what it once was, but the pad will only stay put if the bibs are tight enough that you don’t catch the bibs on the nose of the saddle. I wear a medium.
- Panache—this is another line that offers ample room for my bumper. In addition to being roomy enough to accommodate both of my glutes, the pad is one of a handful that can rival Assos’ for comfort in terms of width and placement of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Rapha—I’ve just begun wearing the new Pro Team bibs and have been impressed with the fit. They are cut with plenty of room for my glutes without being loose up front, which is what happens if the butt is too roomy (which I did experience once). I wear a medium.
- Hincapie—like Castelli, these tend to lack a bit of room in need in back. I wear a medium.
- Giordana—Giordana has so many different product lines, there’s no one essential truth to their fit. Most of their stuff fits me pretty well, though the FormaRed Carbon bibs use the same narrow pad in the Vermarc bibs I tried. I wear a medium.
- Vermarc—overall the fit was good; I just need a wider pad. I wear a medium.
- Etxe Ondo—these could use a bit more room in the butt, but overall the fit was pretty good given the Power Lycra panels. I wear a medium.
- Specialized—these had a very traditional fit. It may be that the Lycra they used was just particularly forgiving (I believe it was 6-oz. throughout) and that what made the fit. I wear a medium.
- Primal Wear—not quite enough room in back, so it ended up being a bit snug in front. I wear a medium.
- Nalini—another pair of bibs that needed more room in back to keep the front from being too tight. I wear a medium.
- Assos—all the Assos jerseys I’ve worn have been cut on a pretty noticeable taper. However, there are always materials with such great stretch utilized that the fit ends up being remarkably forgiving. distinctly short, lengthwise. I wear a medium.
- Castelli—the jerseys I’ve tried are cut a bit more straight than Assos jerseys, though it appears their top-shelf stuff is cut on more of a taper. Mid-line stuff is somewhat long, but the pro stuff appears to be shorter. It’s really easy to buy a size too big with Castelli. I wear a medium.
- Capo—cut on a slight taper and cut on the short side, though not as short as Assos. I wear a small.
- Voler—cut remarkably straight and nearly as short as Assos; it’s a unique fit, but one I like when I’m not in perfect shape. I wear a small.
- Panache—these jerseys feature a significant taper and run short. Out of season I need to wear a medium; when I’m fit and want a pro-style fit, I’m a small.
- Hincapie—these are cut straight and long. They’ve got to fit the man himself. I wear a small.
- Giordana—again, Giordana offers so much stuff their fit is all over the place. Inexpensive stuff is generous in fit, while primo stuff like the FormaRed Carbon is short, snug and tapered. I wear a small.
- Vermarc—they feature a tapered cut and run slightly short. I wear a small.
- Etxe Ondo—yet another tapered cut, but these run on the long side, though not so long as Hincapie. I wear a small.
- Specialized—this is a remarkably straight cut with a little more length than some stuff. A conservative, fit-almost-anyone cut. I wear a small.
- Primal Wear—cut pretty straight and with a fair amount of length. I wear a small.
- Nalini—tapered cut, almost as short as Assos. I wear a small.
Bottom line: I’m not trying to steer you into or out of any one clothing line. I have my personal likes, but the value in this is to give you a greater frame of reference for choosing clothing next time you go to buy something. Fit is at the root of comfort. Go be comfortable and ride well.
Je’ ne regrette rien. I regret nothing. A pretty idea, that we might go through all our days without ever committing a faux pas. And yes, we do get to a point in our lives when we see that even our mistakes have served us well. But then, there WAS that one neon yellow jersey I rocked in the early ’90s that still gives me pangs of shame when I think on it.
And how sad it is to be rolling along in your group ride and hear someone say something like, “Yeah, I really wanted this bike. I had to have it, but it was the wrong thing to buy. Ah well, it’s what I’ve got now, so it’s what I ride.”
I can tell you honestly that I regret most of the way I road in my early 20s. What an ass I was, putting myself and others in danger. Disregarding rules. Barking at innocent drivers-by. Self-righteous. Inconsiderate. And proud of it.
Here is a partial list of things you may or may not have had second thoughts about: cycling sandals, Primal Wear jerseys, running red lights, half-wheeling your best friend, cheaping out on your everyday bike, not ever having raced, not racing cross, racing cross, drinking beer as a recovery beverage, eating every calorie you just got done burning and then having seconds, not riding enough, riding too much when your family was at home waiting for you, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad absurdem.
I once drank a tall, cold pint of unpasteurized apple cider after four hours on the mountain bike. I regretted that. And my buddy regretted handing it to me. It’s hard to clean some things off a couch.
This week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: What are your cycling regrets? What do you wish you had done differently? What did you buy that you ought to have left in the shop window? What fad did you follow too eagerly? What mistakes have you made? Share them with us that we may avoid having to make them for ourselves.
Though we probably still will.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.