The first time I saw dedicated mountain bike clothing, it looked like the bastard child of motocross gear and a ren faire costume. The cargo shorts lacked a pad, and the pockets, when loaded, swung around like fabric nun chucks. The “jerseys” looked like they were missing a set of shoulder pads. I thought they were a fail in both form and function.
On the flip side, when Giro announced their New Road line of clothing, I knew they were taking us in an interesting new direction. They were riffing on a trend that had already begun to improve mountain bike clothing—the move toward more technical fabrics, and fits that split the difference between typical roadie kit and catch-your-saddle baggy. Some great companies were already working in this space; Club Ride and Zoic have been doing a great job in popularizing this category of clothing. The fact that Shimano followed Pearl Izumi into this category suggests just how much potential one of the biggest players thinks there is.
There are a few things I want in this style of clothing. First, I want the stuff to look good. I frequently wear this when I’m going for a shorter mountain bike ride and will need to pick up a kid from school or stop at the store on the way home. On those occasions, I love telegraphing that I’m an active person, but I don’t need to go Captain Codpiece in front of a bunch of mothers of young kids. Ohmigod can they do the scandalized face.
Allow me a confession. I don’t really know what you’re supposed to wear to the gym. I could go buy a bunch of stuff from Lululemon—I know they do stuff for men—or I could dress up like a power lifter or basketball player, but I’d just look like a dweeb, I think. I honestly prefer the idea of wearing stuff out of my cycling wardrobe, though there’s a chance this doesn’t save me from looking like a dweeb; at least, this way I don’t mind. We could go into the sociology of why I’d want not to look like every guy at the gym, but the people really qualified to do that only work by appointment. So let’s talk about Kitsbow instead.
We should get one thing out of the way first. Kitsbow does premium. They don’t do cheap. We’ve gotten some pushback here to the pricey clothing offerings we’ve reviewed, but after a recent sojourn on a $110 pair of bibs on a three-hour ride, I’d rather figure out a way to do more laundry than submit my flesh toys to that kind of abuse again. I felt like I’d ridden roof shingles over washboard.
I rode Kitsbow’s Knicker Base Short, the Soft Shell A/M Short and the Ride Tee. The workmanship throughout bordered what I’d expect from a tailor. I tend to be deliberately rough on stuff in the first few outings because I want to find out of there are any weak seams, any substandard fabrics or threads. On occasion, I’ll hear a pop (or two) and on two occasions I had a seam unravel, even without provocation.
I’ve gone down on the Kitsbow stuff (on the dirt, not the road) and can’t find any record of the falls, even abrasions to the fabric, though I can assure you the skin in my shoulder and hip sure were.
The Ride Tee ($120) is cut from a lightweight Merino wool that is a good deal less itchy than rolling in the grass, or some of the other Merinos I’ve tried. It features a two-button placket (making it more of a Henley than a crew-neck) and features polyester panels in the shoulders which sit in spots that a hydration pack might wear away. The Tee includes two pockets, one in the front on the breast that men only use if they’re smokers and one in the rear at the right. This pocket is a bit more usable, thanks in part to the button closure; it’s just big enough for a credit card, a key, a gel or maybe a media player. Probably not all four, though. Embroidered details give the shirt a degree of class that I don’t see everywhere.
I’m wearing, as I do in most items, the small Tee and found it to be form-following enough that it didn’t flutter behind me like a cape, but wasn’t so snug as to cause the neighborhood moms to give me that look. A nice balance, in other words. I’m not sure it needs to be as long as it is; I was always concerned I’d catch it on the nose of the saddle. I’m wearing the gray, but they also offer blue, red and black. Of significant mention is how the Tee is available in six sizes (rather than four): XS through XXL.
The Soft Shell A/M Short ($269) runs longish for shorts; they are almost knickers. They featured an unusual sideways snap closure that is as durable as Adam Sandler’s career (though far more enjoyable). And while I appreciated that detail, much more significant to me was how the seat and thighs were cut with a bit of room so that they shorts could be snug at the waist without pulling tight through the butt and crotch.
The waistband on the Soft Shell A/M Short is cut high in back and low in front, improving comfort when reaching to the bar from the saddle; I’m surprised that more over-shorts haven’t developed this feature. The waist band is also quilted, which increased the shorts’ overall comfort. The patterning on these shorts is unusual in other regards, as well. There’s a gusset panel to increase freedom of movement and to improve comfort in the saddle.
The shorts are cut from Schoeller Dryskin, a Swiss-made material that is 94-percent polyester but wicks better and lacks the sheen that makes most polyester fabrics nerdily out of place in the grocery store. Two zippered side pockets are big enough for a smart phone or other necessities that can sit flat. Not the sort of spot for your set of keys. I’ve got the dry grey on here, but they also offer black.
Kitsbow’s product copy likes to tout the tailored nature of their clothing. I was impressed to find out that these shorts are offered in single-inch increments (waist size), from 28 to 36, plus a 38. That’s 10 sizes, and a big commitment to proper fit. I’m wearing the 33 waist.
The Knicker Base Short ($265) was a concern when I first pulled them from the package. I have a preference for bibs that is purely functional. I gave up on waist bands with cycling shorts years ago because I never tried any that stayed up. As that waistband slipped down, the pad would migrate toward my knees and minor irritation would become major discomfort.
It’s hard to say what’s different about the waistband on these knickers, but they stayed up. On every ride. I still prefer bibs because they restrict breathing less and feel more comfortable overall, but I can’t complain that these slid down. Color me amazed, especially considering how much more difficult a fit knickers present. It’s not uncommon for knickers to be cut too short so that the gripper at the bottom of the leg ends up serving as an anchor to pull the chamois down—despite the assistance of bibs. That these knickers stayed in place was the biggest apparel surprise I’ve encountered since I started RKP.
The fabric used in the knickers is a nylon/Merino/spandex blend. I’d call it a low-key Roubaix; that is, it’s heavier in weight than a standard poly/lycra blend, but doesn’t feature as much pile as typical arm or knee warmers. It is warm enough that the combination of the knickers and shorts are best suited to cooler temperatures. For me, that’s from the lower 50s to the mid-60s, but I expect folks living in colder climates would probably wear this combo into the 40s. For the crotch gusset, the Merino is eliminated and replaced nylon/polyester/elastic blend for quicker wicking and better long-term durability.
Kitsbow included a high-quality Cytech pad that made rides of three and four hours not just possible, but comfortable. The knickers are available in a single color, black, but like the Tee are available in six sizes, from XS to XXL. I wear the medium.
The only feature lacking in these knickers is bibs, and even with that one missed detail, they are the best knickers I’ve worn in years.
For those looking for U.S.-made clothing, this won’t quite scratch that itch, but it’s close, closer than most. Kitsbow is based in Petaluma, California, and the clothing I reviewed was produced in the Great White North—Vancouver, B.C. Buy this stuff and your dollars won’t be headed to China.
I don’t buy a lot of clothing and I hate buying something that ends up not panning out. I’ll beat myself up over it for as long as I can see the item. As a result, I vastly prefer going for quality and having fewer items in my wardrobe. Kitsbow isn’t for people who want low prices, but if having something that will be durable and fits well is your goal, this stuff is truly impressive.