Waterproofing | Breathability | Visibility | Sustainability - The Quest for the Perfect Cycling Jacket
Anyone who has ever bought a jacket for strenuous outdoor exercise knows that it has a tough job to do. It needs to be waterproof to keep the rain off, but it also needs to be breathable, so that you aren’t drenched from within by your own trapped sweat. It needs to keep you warm when you are in warm up or recovery mode, but also to be comfortable when you are putting in maximum effort. It needs to fit well, so that you don’t feel like you are restricted by it or drowning in it whilst you workout.
On top of all that it needs to help you stay visible to others, both by day and at night, so will probably require some high vis and reflective elements. In addition, as climate change is of growing concern on a global level, the clothing industry is under increased scrutiny and sportswear manufactures particularly so, thanks to the synthetic fibres many of their garments require. These break down in the washing process and become micro plastics, which pollute waterways and cause damage to wildlife. Sportswear companies are under pressure to ‘green’ their production processes and to take responsibility for the life cycle of their products.
This is quite a checklist and got us thinking that, if it’s complex for us, it is probably also pretty difficult for consumers to navigate the sea of products available and purchase one that is not only technically fit for purpose but also sustainably produced. With this in mind we have produced the following crib sheet for anyone struggling to do their homework before purchasing their next cycling jacket.
A decent waterproof cycling jacket keeps the rain out but has tiny pores in the fabric that allow water vapour to get out. Read the manufacturer’s description of the jacket very carefully and be aware of phrases such as ‘water-resistant’ and ‘water-repellent’ if you want a jacket that will keep your upper body dry in a downpour. The fabric used for water-resistant or water-repellent garments has usually been treated with a water resistant coating, but this will only keep you dry in drizzle or light showers and the fabric may need to be re-treated regularly to maintain the garment’s water resistance.
Fortunately, there is a waterproof rating that you can look out for in your quest for the perfect cycling jacket. This rating is achieved by the manufacturer with the following test: Place a 1in x 1in square tube over the fabric and see how high could you can fill the tube with water before it begins to leak through. If you want a jacket that will keep you dry in serious rain, look for a waterproof rating of 10,000mm or higher.
However, the waterproofing of the fabric itself is not the only consideration when you are researching your next waterproof jacket for outdoor exercise. The seams and the zip are key areas where water can penetrate the jacket and leave the wearer soggy and uncomfortable. Really well made ones will have taped seams at key areas, such as the back and shoulders, and a zip that is taped either externally or internally.
Another key feature to look for is a ‘long tail’ (where the back of the jacket is longer than the front), which will keep wheel spray from getting your bum wet while you cycle. Go for ones with silicone grips so that they don’t ride up and, if you think the longer length will impede your comfort or performance when conditions are dry, look for one that can be folded up and stowed when conditions improve. Check the sleeves as well; a good cycling jacket has slightly longer sleeves than a regular jacket, so that the rider’s arms are not exposed to the elements when they are stretched out to the handlebars. The cuffs will be adjustable, so that the fit can be customised to create a close fit that does not allow water to penetrate. Finally, remember to check the collar, as this is another area where rainwater can get in. Look for a well-fitting collar, preferably one that is adjustable with Velcro or a drawstring.
Breathability is also key to a comfortable workout. Jackets that are not breathable trap moisture inside, meaning you are sweaty and over-heated during effort sessions and then shivering in cold wet kit soon after you ease up.
Fortunately, there is a breathability rating that will help you to gauge the performance of the jacket you are considering. The breathability rating refers to the number of grams of water vapour that can evaporate through a 1m x 1m area of fabric in 24 hours. Look for a breathability rating in excess of 10,000 (which means that 10,000g or water can pass through the fabric in a day). Do remember that even the most breathable fabric will be unable to transpire all the sweat of a tough workout, so look for underarm vents and zips that can help out where necessary.
If you are often out doing effort sessions on the bike and breathability is important to you, look for a jacket that has a mesh lining as this increases the rate at which moisture is removed and makes it less clingy on bare arms and therefore a lot more comfortable. Bear in mind, however, that this extra layer adds bulk and weight to the jacket.
It is also worth noting here that there is no independent authority conducting breathability and waterproofing ratings, so you are relying on manufacturers to tell you the truth. A good retailer will have a returns policy that will give you the opportunity to test the claims that are made and to return goods that do not live up to the promises.
So many popular cycling jackets look like they were made for ninjas! This probably appeals to image conscious cyclists but is a total nightmare for drivers, even at midday on a quiet road. Whether we like it or not, there are so many distractions to a driver’s attention on the road – from sat navs, mobile screens and passengers inside the car to other road users, poor weather conditions and confusing signage outside the car. No cyclist wants to blend into the background so much that a distracted driver does not notice them until it is too late.
It may not be the most flattering look for the majority of cyclists, but choosing an outfit that makes you stand out will help to keep you safely visible to other road users. If you want a jacket that will transition well from day to night in terms of visibility, look for one that has substantial reflective elements (a tiny reflective logo on the chest is not really going to cut it) and some brightly coloured high vis panels.
Unfortunately, based on current industry know-how, a good cycling jacket needs to be made with synthetic fibres for it to perform at its best. Whilst we wait for scientists to come up with a more sustainable alternative to plastic based fibres, there are things you can do now in order to make your cycling kit choices more sustainable.
Look out for brands that use recycled material to make the polyester for their clothing. Polyester made from recycled plastic uses fewer precious resources to manufacture than virgin plastic and helps to keep some post-consumer plastic out of landfill. Even better news is that there is no difference in performance between the two – they have equal wicking and quick-drying capabilities – so it really is win-win.
Another thing to look out for is a brand that takes responsibility for the lifecycle of its product with a recycling policy that allows you to return worn out garments. The brand will then arrange for these to be recycled into something new and they should offer you a good incentive to start the process again with a new jacket from their range. Many companies also have charity partners that are doing something positive for the planet. Reading the corporate social responsibility policies on a brand’s website should help you to find out where their donations go. If you are looking to make your kit choices more sustainable look for brands that support causes with environmental issues at their heart.
There are so many considerations when it comes to investing in a new cycling jacket and this exhaustive list of things you may want to think about may put you off from buying a new jacket entirely! There is no one-size-fits-all answer, as so much is dependent on what kind of cycling you do (performance/leisure/commuting etc), as this will determine which features are most important to you.
In addition, the correct choice a few years ago will probably not be the correct choice now, as the best sportswear manufacturers are constantly working to improve not only their finished products but also the processes that they use to create them. One thing you can be sure of is that doing a bit of homework before you buy will pay dividends on all your subsequent cycle rides. A good cycling jacket will make you more comfortable, keep you safer and be that little bit better for the environment too.