SOME OF THE BEST SUMMER CYCLING KIT
It’s pretty easy to tell when you are wearing a lousy kit. Your shorts will make your rear end sore, bunch up or get tight in the wrong places, and slide up and down your legs or seize hold of them as you are cycling hard down the road. Your jersey will flop in the wind, won’t breathe in the sun, and get stretched out or fray after a few washes.
You know when you have a lousy kit, but do you know when you are wearing a good one? And do you know how good it can get and how much difference it can make, especially on those hot days when we spend so much of our time riding?
In search of some of the best kit, I spent the past summer wearing, in steady rotation, what a handful of clothing brands say are their top performing shorts and jerseys. Shutting out the impressive sounding descriptions, list of features and tech talk, I’ve tried to try figure out from a fellow enthusiasts point of view, which are best and why for the kind of riding we do. Here’s my report.
WHY TRUST THIS SITE AND MY RECOMMENDATIONS
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HOW I SELECTED AND TESTED KIT
Cycling clothing, like a lot of other cycling gear, can be highly technical, style focused and overhyped. My approach for this review was to find and order the top of their line bib shorts and jerseys from a cross section of companies that had good reputations for high quality kit.
Once the bibs and jerseys arrived, I tried to forget about the rep and hype of each kit and just went out and wore one after another about once every week or so for about 3 months to reach my own conclusions. For comparison I also mixed in a couple of pieces from companies who specialize in supplying kit for clubs and high end cycling events and a new pair of a model of non-bib shorts I’ve worn for years.
Because I wanted to get a good deal of experience wearing and comparing each kit, I limited the number to about a half dozen. I ended up with complete kits from Castelli, Santini, dhb and Hincapie, bibs from Craft and Funkier, shorts from Pearl Izumi and jerseys from Pactimo.
I plan to update this review each summer after wearing another half dozen performance kits from other top brands until I’ve tested most of the major ones. That’s why I call this post “Some of the best…” rather than “The Best”. Your suggestions on what I test out next summer are welcome in the comment section below.
My prior experience with summer cycling kit was limited to several pair of inexpensive Pearl Izumi shorts that had worked for me over the years, a few jerseys I had bought at my local bike shop because I liked the look of them, others that I had gotten as part of organized rides, and my club’s kit which I wear on Saturday group rides.
Rather than start with a checklist of what clothing makers and reviewers say is important in evaluating and choosing a kit, I started with a clean sheet of paper. The first few times I rode each of the bibs and jerseys, I noted down only one or two things that jumped out at me about them. For example, a pair of bibs were loose around the inside of my thighs, a jersey flopped around my back when I got into an aero position, an integrated jersey-bib kit made me feel like I was Superman, etc.
Over time, I started to notice a lot more things and how the kits differed. A couple seemed to keep me far drier than others on hot days or the leg bands around some moved with me while another was too tight and a bit uncomfortable. Some just fit me much better while others seemed as though they would fit a heavier version of me. I got favorable comments about the style of one particular kit from several people and found myself looking for a couple others to come through the wash so I could wear it next.
By the last month or so of the summer, I had put together a categorized list of what mattered to me about these kits and started to note down how each performed against those characteristics. Front panel bib height, for example, was pretty darn important in getting quick access to take a pee. Kits whose material compressed and supported my quad muscles a bit made a difference in keeping me going on the long rides far better than ones that didn’t. The neck height and fit of jerseys differed and mattered in how comfortable I felt trucking down the road for mile after mile on those hot days.
In the end, I organized my notes and wrote up reviews in this post. I had started this process without a pre-conceived view or industry view about what was important. I ended up with my own view about what mattered in judging summer cycling kit and how each one differed.
WHAT MATTERS BETWEEN DIFFERENT KIT
Looks – No doubt, most of us will initially be attracted or turned off by a kit based on how we (or others) think it will look on us. This is the first way a lot of us filter clothing in or out. Fortunately, there were plenty of performance kits from the brands I wanted to try that I thought would work fine for me.
Price – Another filter many of us will use before buying new cycling bibs and jerseys, especially good ones, is price. After spending about $60 each year for a new pair of bike shorts to add to or replace what was in my drawer, mostly because I didn’t know the benefit of paying more, it was a little difficult putting out 2x or 3x that for a pair of good bib shorts, let alone all the ones I bought for this review. In retrospect, I’m so glad I did. While you can quantify the reduction in watts from wearing a great kit (see here), once you’ve worn one, the superior experience and performance is obvious and well worth it especially compared to all the other things you can your cycling budget on.
So, once you find something you like the looks of and get over the price, I found there are three things that matter in choosing between performance kit.
Cut – I mention cut first because, if the kit isn’t cut for your body, it’s not going to fit or be as comfortable as it might if it is. At the most basic level, kit will run either standard or narrow.
When I say narrow I’m talking about the width at your hips and shoulders. It’s much the same as when you talk about having narrow feet. I don’t mean “small” which would be both your width and length. Some of the best cyclists have a narrow frame or narrow feet but are tall or have the same length as other riders who have a standard or wider body.
A lot of cyclists have narrower frames. Not all of us of course and probably not even half of us. But, there are probably a higher percentage of riders built with that kind of frame on bikes than playing golf or softball or soccer or rugby on a given day.
So if you put on a medium, the size I wear, in bibs that are cut for narrower frames like mine, it will fit fine. If you were put on a medium bib with a standard cut, you’re going to have some room in your chamois or around the inside of your legs, something you aren’t going to find fully comfortable out on the road. I found this was the case with a couple of bibs I wore.
Clothing makers usually have charts to help you find the size that fits your dimensions best and whether a kit’s cut is suited to your body width. It usually doesn’t work to just drop down a size or half size on the kit you like if it is a standard cut and you are narrow or vice versa. It’s kind of like buying shoes. If you have narrow feet and the shoes you like are only sold in a standard width, if you try on a smaller size to compensate for your width, you may find that the shoes are too short and your toes touch the front of the shoe.
Fortunately, there’s an ample amount of good performance kit cut both narrow and standard. I’ve noted what I found among the brands I wore. For those looking at brands beyond these, Patrick Brady over at Red Kite Prayer wrote a piece a few years back which gave you his take on how a dozen or so other brands are cut (here).
The length of bib legs and jersey sleeves also varies by brand as does the height of front and side panels on the bibs and the neck on some jerseys. These are differences in design rather than cut. While I’ve also noted these differences, for the most part, I found they didn’t really matter to the performance of the kit. If you are carrying more weight than you prefer to around your mid-section, you might benefit from higher bib panels for added support. Lower ones might dig into your gut or love handles.
While not affecting performance on the bike, your ability to execute a quick road side natural break can definitely be stymied by bibs whose front panel is too high or whose straps don’t stretch enough to allow you easy access. While close to but not quite a deal killer for me, I’ve noted those bibs which offer easy access or force you take down your straps to get the most basic form of relief.
Fit – Once you’ve picked a kit with the right cut for you and in the right size, fit comes into play. On the whole, most performance kit with the right cut and in your size will “fit” you in the traditional sense – it’s going to wrap your body without being too tight or loose.
Instead, the difference between how well different cycling kit fits comes down to how well it moves with you (stretch), how well it supports your leg muscles as they do the work (compression), how unaware your skin is of the kit’s seams as you rub against them, how well your legs are gripped but not strangled by your bibs and your arms are held by your jersey sleeves where they transition from the edges of your kit to your skin, and how flat your jersey stays against your body and your bib straps rest along your shoulders as you move in and out of aero positions.
Comfort – With the right cut kit that moves and supports you well, comfort is the final consideration. While each season’s kit has different comfort requirements, summer comfort is pretty demanding.
A good kit should be darn near as comfortable after several hours in the hot sun as it was when you put it on. Sure it (and you) might stink, but the good ones will breathe enough to keep your body cool and remove the sweat you generate while still feeling dry. You’ll run into a load of claims and high tech names and cool graphics about how different kits do this. I try to ignore all of this marketing. It either breathes and keeps you dry or it doesn’t.
Materials, the mix of materials and where those materials are used in the kit differ and might feel more or less soft, stretchy, or “quality” to those of you who know good fabrics and garments. All of this probably plays into the kind of comfort the kits deliver but I’ve focused on the results, keeping you cool and dry, rather than the details of the materials that produced those results.
The chamois comfort is given a lot of attention by both riders and bib providers. Fortunately, I found the chamois of most performance bibs to be very comfortable. This is another place where clothing makers seem to go wild trying to outdo each other, but I found that when you get into the performance priced bibs, most are pretty darn good. The difference I noticed was less between brands but more between the higher priced, performance bibs and the more moderately priced, value bibs. The value bibs either don’t keep you as comfortable over longer rides as the performance ones, or their design is such that I never could get comfortable in them in the first place.
I say this knowing that I don’t have much fat mixed in and around my glutes and ride a relatively hard saddle. So, I’m going to notice if the chamois isn’t comfortable and I did notice a couple that didn’t have performance level comfort even though they were the top of the line bibs for a specific brand. But, on the whole, the marketing around chamois pads is way out of proportion to the performance differences.
CASTELLI- GREAT FIT AND COMFORT IN A KIT THAT MAKES YOU FEEL SUPER
If there were ever a kit that made me feel like I’d stepped into a phone booth (ask your parents) and jumped out feeling like Superman, the Castelli Free Aero Race bib shorts and Aero Race jersey would be it. They wrap you in stretchy, comfortable surroundings and support and show off your cyclist body contours.
Along with this energizing fit and feel, to my eyes the Castelli kit looks very vibrant and stylish without being loud, mixing different shades of red or grey in the jerseys and adding white, grey, red or green accents in its bib stitching, grippers or leg panels. Of course, there’s also ample use of the Castelli scorpion logo throughout, perhaps their equivalent of the iconic Superman shield with the big red S on the yellow and red diamond-shaped field that adorned the Man of Steel’s huge chest. Ah, but I digress…
The cut is decidedly narrow with the bibs reaching just above the waist in the front and well below the ribs to the outsides of the straps. This provides men easy access when you need a pee break without the need to remove your jersey and take down your straps. The straps themselves are made of a soft and breathable fine mesh yet with the kind of control of the bottoms that keeps the chamois well in place as you move around on your bike. They do bunch a bit across the shoulders but it’s something I noticed when I took my jersey off rather than during the ride.
The bibs fit extremely well and are very comfortable. These bibs seem to have the right combination of panels with ample compression running up your inner thighs, close-fitting yet stretch ones that run across your midsection and integrate the ample and comfortable chamois, with separate panels made of even more breathable materials that run from your hips down along the outsides of your legs.
The very comfortable yet stay-in-place grippers are about 70mm or 2½ inches long, taking your bibs down to about a similar length above your knee. This makes the Castelli bibs longer than most, a length I prefer as it covers and supports nearly the full length of your lower hamstrings, IT bands and quad muscles.
In both the bibs and jersey, I always felt cool while underway on a hot summer day and the kit kept me dry even when I smelled pretty bad.
The jersey itself stretches flat across my upper body with few gaps. I do get a little flapping off my right shoulder only when I’m riding aero in the drops. Not sure why it’s just the right; perhaps more a function of my own anatomy (and 2x broken right collar bone) than the kit.
The grippers on the jersey, like those on the bibs, are longer, comfortable and a real positive difference maker for this kit. As with the bibs, the combination of panels used in the jersey seem to provide the right feel, a combination of stretch and breathability that is quite comfortable despite the way it hugs you.
Back pockets are regular sized, but the jersey collar is quite low in the front similar to what you would see in a one-piece time trial suit. This took me a little bit to get used to as all the other jerseys I’ve ever worn have higher collars. The collar height and jersey fit (and whole kit for that matter) says you’re not just out for a spin but rather you are a serious enthusiast. If you feel the part, wearing this kit will also make you look it.
All in all, this kit is hard to beat. Maybe I’ll find another one that makes me feel like Batman leaping away from his pole but for now, I’m good riding around my cycling Metropolis wearing the Aero Race kit. It’s a higher priced kit but you’ll find that Castelli runs 25% off sales several times during the year. I’ve found the best selection of sizes and colors and prices currently at Competitive Cyclist, Wiggle, ProBikeKit code ITK10, Tweeks and Pushys for the Free Aero Race Bib Shorts and at Competitive Cyclist and Westbrook Cycles for the Aero Race Jersey, stores that also get very high customer service ratings from independent evaluation services. Clicking on any of those links will take you right to the product pages at those stores and buying from them will help support the creation of reviews we do here at In The Know Cycling.
SANTINI – THE FEEL OF A WELL SUPPORTED AND BREATHABLE BIRTHDAY SUIT
Every time I put the Santini Interactive 3.0 Bib Shorts and Short Sleeve Jersey on I feel great. It’s hard to describe the feeling in a few words (though the headline above attempts to do so). If you allow me a few paragraphs, I’ll tell you why this is one of the summer kits that I favor, allowing it to jump to the head of the line once it comes through the wash each week.
The cut is decidedly narrow with short panels above the bib short waist. Both the shorts and jerseys are mid length with wide, flat compression and stretch grippers, not the silicone ones that press in and grab your skin, at their leg and arm ends. The jersey also has a 1½ inch/4 cm wide compression gripper around the waist where most use silicone ones.
I don’t know what Santini uses to pull it off but the material in both the bibs and jersey wraps you up and supports you like thin shrink-wrap but breathes like there’s nothing there. It’s a little cool on an early morning ride, but totally dry in the hot sun.
I was going to open this review saying that the kit makes you feel like you’ve got nothing on at all, but thought that might turn you off so I held it until now. But that’s the feeling you get, only with the added/needed support of a chamois pad that’s comfortable across your bottom and that keeps your junk in place.
Santini also uses high visibility colors around its wide leg, sleeve and waist grippers, something I haven’t seen as boldly and usually not at all from other manufactures. This is both welcome and integrates nicely with the graphics and colors used throughout the rest of the kit.
Another welcome design touch is a zipper hidden on the inside of the jersey just below the storage pockets. It zips to the bib shorts in the rear just above the waist and keeps the jersey taught across the shoulders and back when you are in an aero position.
CRAFT – A LOT TO LIKE BUT THE CUT IS NOT QUITE RIGHT
The Tech Bib Shorts are Craft’s top of the line summer bibs and are a standard sized cut. These bibs are great performers in many regards. They breathe well, stay dry on the really hot sweaty days and the materials they use feel very comfortable against the skin. While I chose the all black bibs so they would work with any jersey, I like the white reflective pin stripe running down the outside of the legs. Nice, safety conscious styling touch.
The large, open mesh straps, back and side panels add to the light comfortable feel. The straps breathe well, stay in place, and provide a good measure of support both in holding up and moving in sync with the shorts.
The side panels are mid-rib high and the front panel comes up high enough that, in combination with a non-stretch piece of fabric at the top, make access difficult for a pit stop without taking down your straps. I guess if you are carrying a few extra pounds around your midsection you would appreciate the support of these panels. But if you are in summer shape, they don’t really add anything to the performance and prevent you from quick relief.
The chamois is comfortable but a bit narrow across the bottom, somewhat surprising for a standard cut bib. I’d also prefer it come up a little further to provide padding in the front as well. There’s also a lot of room across the front of the bibs likely because the panel is much wider than others I’ve worn and lacks enough two-way stretch to make it feel like you are tucked in. The fit and stretch around the backside and legs is quite good and comfortable.
I was a bit surprised that the seams that attached to the leg grippers were too tight especially with the extra room provided in the front panel and side mesh. It seemed the way this bib’s middle and upper panels are cut would be right for a slightly heavier version of me, but the narrower chamois and the tight gripper seams make it feel like I spend too much time working on my glutes and quads in the gym (which clearly I don’t).
So while there’s a lot to like about these bibs, the way it is cut seems inconsistent with cyclist proportions and access preferences. The Craft Tech Bib Shorts are available online at Competitive Cyclist and Amazon.
dhb – GOOD LOOKING AT A GREAT PRICE THOUGH NOT A PERFORMANCE KIT
As the in-house clothing brand at the large online retailer Wiggle, dhb sells kit that’s a good deal less expensive than the well-known cycling clothing brands. The question for me was would dhb’s best summer kit offered similar performance as those from the more expensive brands.
In short, the answer is no but, beyond the price advantage, there might be other reasons to have the dhb Aeron Speed Bib Shorts and Aeron Speed Short Sleeve Jersey in your summer kit drawer.
First and foremost, this kit has an attractive style that is quite different from most of the other kit I’ve seen. My own eyes tell me so but it’s been the number of people either close to me (like my wife) or that I don’t really know (like a server behind the counter at a café I stop at) that have, unprompted, told me they really liked the look of the kit.
The dhb is clearly a break from the standard colors or styles you see in most performance kit. While it’s not quite Rapha styling, it certainly is different and a nice change of pace from most of what you’ll wear.
The Aeron Speed kit is decidedly not a narrow cut. It’s probably somewhere between a standard and wider cut, likely to fit you better if you are a large framed rider or one that is 10kg/20lbs above your ideal riding weight but fine about being there.
As with the other kit I wore, I did order the right size and it fit my dimensions right. It’s just as a rider with a narrower frame, there were a lot of gaps I don’t find in a narrow cut kit.
You’ll find plenty of stretch in the bib panels though no compression to speak of. There’s also a lot of room and give in the midsection and inner thighs that would allow the kit to expand or contract as you do. Unlike most bibs, the front area between the straps is higher than that on the sides but the stretchy straps allow you to lower the panel to provide quick access for a bathroom or roadside break when needed.
I don’t find the bibs very comfortable. While plenty wide and long, the chamois felt a little thin. The material used in the shorts is the same throughout and has a stiffer, rougher and less breathable feel than others I’ve worn. The grippers work well in holding the shorts in place and are longer than most with good coverage of my leg muscles, but the edges started to fray a bit after a half dozen washes.
The jersey, with its nicely coordinating colors, seems as though it was otherwise designed by a different team. The sleeves are shorter than those on most jerseys, usually resting in the middle of my biceps as they have no grippers to hold them further out my arm. The material used in the jersey’s front and back is quite light and soft and really feels good against my skin. A different material is used in the jersey’s side panels that run from your waist, under your pits and out to your arms is very breathable. I only wish the bibs had the same comfortable and breathable panel design as the jersey.
All in all, a good looking kit that’s probably best for shorter, more casual rides on a day that’s not too hot. You can get dhb Aeron Speed Bib Shorts and Aeron Speed Short Sleeve Jersey through this link at Wiggle.
FUNKIER – A UNIQUE CHAMOIS THAT I COULDN’T GET COMFORTABLE WITH
Funkier makes a sharp looking, standard cut pair of bibs, the alpha-numerically named and now discontinued Summer Mens Shorts S-9771 F1 which I worked into my rotation this summer. Their latest bib shorts have more memorable names like the current top of the line Matera F1 available here from Funkier’s store.
The F1 chamois in both use what Funkier calls a gel pad chamois. I discovered this only after wearing the bibs several times and trying to understand why their chamois felt so differently than others I was wearing.
Gel or gel injected padding is used in cycling gloves and bar tape and is very effective in dampening the vibration you might otherwise feel coming up through your handle bars. I don’t know whether Funkier actually uses gel in the chamois pad or just a dense foam that feels like it (it wasn’t clear from the description of the shorts), but I can only guess that they use the gel to try to dampen the vibration coming up through the seat post, similar to dampening you get from gel gloves or bar tape.
Further, Funkier puts the “gel” in raised sections of the chamois and has little indentations throughout the pad where there is essentially no cushioning. Compared against others, the Funkier gel pad is also narrower
Unfortunately, this chamois design didn’t work for me. It was hard and there is a limited width and overall area of cushioning. I couldn’t find a comfortable place to position myself on it. The bib straps, while light and comfortable, were easily stretched and didn’t really keep the shorts in place. I found myself adjusting the position of the pad from time to time to compensate. Perhaps if I had a wider bottom I would fill out the shorts and keep it in place better but I don’t think it’d be any softer and the contact area would probably feel even narrower.
Shame, as these shorts provide a good elastic hold around your legs and have effective grippers at your quads. They do breathe reasonably well through the legs and bottom but I sweat in them above the waist. I actually started wearing these on my trainer in the late winter and continued trying to make it work in different temperature and humidity conditions outside in the spring and early summer but just couldn’t get comfortable with them.
HINCAPIE – A GOOD SUMMER AND SHOULDER SEASON CLUB KIT BUT NOT AT THE PERFORMANCE LEVEL OF THE BEST KITS AVAILABLE AT RETAIL
If you belong to a cycling club, you’ll likely be wearing a kit with its logos on group rides. Since many enthusiasts buy a club kit as one of their first, I thought I’d evaluate a top of the line one to compare against some of the best kits you can buy at retail and that I’ve evaluated elsewhere in this post.
Hincapie is one of a handful of cycling clothing companies focused more on making kits for clubs and teams than for retail stores. My club offers riders Hincapie’s top performing Velocity Plus bibs and short sleeve jerseys. If you order them in volume, the prices run about $125 for the bibs and $100 for the jersey, not a whole lot less than the market prices of many of the brand name kit.
The Velocity Plus is a standard cut kit, something I’d expect to suit the variety of riders you find in a group. For the narrow framed me, this was only an issue across the rather generous chamois. The rest of the kit had enough stretch in it and was cut right so that no gaps developed.
This is also a summer and late spring/early fall “shoulder season” kit rather than a dedicated summer one. Since club rides happen during that entire period, I like the long season aspect of the kit. It doesn’t breathe as well as dedicated summer kits and will get a little warm in the full midday summer sun (or if you are working extra hard pulling out front a lot rather than enjoying the draft and lower watt output tucked away in the bunch). Like most groups, we’re usually out in the cooler early hours and back by late morning so getting overheated is seldom an issue in this kit unless you are pulling a lot.
The bibs swoop down below your belly button, stay below your ribs on the sides and stretch about halfway past your mid-calf and up from your knees. The straps are wide, lie flat and give you enough stretch to move where you want to go. They don’t hold your chamois in position as well as some of the better bibs but the chamois is larger than most and provides good coverage so it still feels good for those long 65 to 100 mile rides. The latest generation of grippers do the trick holding the your shorts in place.
While not offering any compression panels, the Velocity Plus bibs and jersey stretches with you well and seems to be cut with a good knowledge a cyclist biomechanics. The fabric combinations they use also have a sensation of high quality – the right weight and level of elasticity without feeling restrictive. They’ve held up well in the washer for a couple years of at least 40 wash cycles per year.
The jersey has diamond mesh in the side panels and in a section that comes down from the width of your shoulders to the narrow small of your back. I especially like the cooling that panel brings when I’m in an aero position trying to close what seems like the reoccurring gap between me and the leaders charging away at the front. The collar is taller than most and doesn’t quite lay flat. Unless I’m racing for the line, I usually have the zipper down to aid in the summer cooling
All in all the Hincapie kit (available here) works well but isn’t at the level of fit or material performance as the best summer kit.
PACTIMO – BREATHABLE AND COMFORTABLE IF NOT A TAILORED SUMMER JERSEY
Pactimo is another brand that makes custom cycling apparel for teams and events. For the last couple years, I’ve ridden in their Ascent model jerseys for a 135 mile late June ride into the mountains and proudly worn it from time to time during the summer. As with the Hincapie kit, I’m including the Pactimo jersey here as comparison with top performing brand name kit.
I, and others I’ve done this ride with, have always found this jersey well made and very comfortable, far better than most of the jerseys handed out or that you pay for at major events. It breathes well, obviously a great asset for long summer rides anywhere but certainly in the mountains. It’s also well made with zippers, seams and colors all holding up after numerous washes.
The fit is comparatively loose, likely by design for an endurance ride event rather than for fast training or Class A or B group riding. You do get a fair amount of air running through the jersey rather than across it so it will puff up a bit when you get in an aero position. The silicone elastic waist gripper keeps the jersey down put doesn’t pull it flat or tight and the elastic sleeve grippers are a generous 1.5″ wide sewn into the fabric.
A more direct comparison to the best performance kit in this review would likely be Pactimo’s Summit line. It’s unlikely you’ll see that issued even at an event where the entrance fee is twice the amount of the distance. But as endurance events go, this is one of the best jerseys I’ve worn, good enough to keep in the rotation with my other top kit.
You can see the Ascent kit and other Pactimo gear at their site here.
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