For athletes, having even a small advantage over everyone else in the pack is everything. Practically, physically and emotionally. Everything.
In my time as a pro tri-athlete having an edge on race day had everything to do with the end result. So many things were out of my control – mastering as many things in my control became an obsession.
However, I was never close to any of the designers of the products I had to wear. I was totally at their mercy. I’d often be found cutting, snipping, tying and altering anything I could within the bounds of the rules of the federations, and my sponsors, to make the products fit and perform better. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if the designers of some of my apparel had even asked what a cyclist needed, let alone ever worn one on a 5 hour ride in hell like conditions to test it. It was telling and also embarrassing to wear at times.
Post my professional career as an athlete, I was fortunate to be able to work with Nike at their global Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon in the heart of their Global Apparel design and innovation center. I was fortunate to have experienced the cutting edge of apparel design – truly industry leading and revolutionary – but also the flip side when apparel was churned out as a “generic” offering no different to anything else out there. I got to see what great apparel looks like but, more importantly, what regular, undifferentiated apparel looks like.
Too many cycling brands solve for one or only a small handful of the things that matter to cyclists. However, even the smallest edge or misaligned seam significantly magnifies significantly over the course 3, 4, 5 hours on a bike (or less), and in some cases can be make or break for an athlete. Just remember, if you’re not comfortable, confident and feel good in your apparel, you won’t be focused on what you really have to do.
There’s another other set of brands currently in the market trying to woo us into becoming fashion victims or part of some artistic renaissance movement. You, the consumer, ends up spending more money on a marketing campaign and an aesthetic appeal as opposed to actual product development or any tangible benefit. Sorry this isn’t right, and by the way it’s not giving any cyclist a competitive edge.
Cyclists seeking performance benefits are very discerning and have a very good radar for fact versus fiction – there’s a healthy (maybe too healthy) level of skepticism however, whether we admit it openly or not, we all want an edge. Small medium or large. We’ll take any (legal) competitive advantage we can get. We’ll spend thousands of dollars on expensive components, often with marginal (if any) performance benefits, and gloss over your apparel as an area where you can extract real performance benefits. Many people are blissfully unaware of the performance benefits that exist through true performance cycling apparel.
Form and functional design need to coexist and meld as one to deliver something truly special that ultimately enhances performance – some brands understand this. Too many brands out there will now use the label ‘pro fit’ as means to imply some performance advantage. Is there an actual definition for ‘pro fit’ and if so, what performance benefit should it deliver? Does that mean only pro’s can use it? What if most average cyclists are not ‘pro’ shape? Cyclists / consumers should really be focusing on what gives them the best / right fit and be aware of what makes great apparel from something that just looks visually great. It’s very easy to distinguish great apparel from average. For example,
- Ever felt like your back pockets were sagging down past your butt? Most apparel brands don’t consider how the rear pockets are designed and placed so that they minimise sagging of the jersey when you have your pockets filled. More than pocket design, this has a lot to do with material selection and placement on the jersey.
- How comfortable are your bib-straps? Did you know that the thinner the width of the strap, the more concentrated the load and stretch of the straps, which leads to straps that are uncomfortable against your skin?
- Why would any decent apparel still use single hem cuffs with elastic grippers? All that does is lead to products that cut into the skin, restricting circulation and unevenly stretching the material, especially when wet;
- Silicon beads for arm and leg grippers…not a great design option either for comfort or function. There’s much better ways to achieve grip without having to resort to stuff like this;
- Short lengths that are too high, whilst giving your legs a better tan, do nothing for aerodynamic efficiency. The same applies to arm sleeve length
- Multi-panel jersey with ill-thought seam placement will destroy aerodynamic efficiency (significantly), reduce wear life and annoy the shit out of you on a ride.
- Having a zipper that’s too light, whilst giving clean design lines, results in something that can be very difficult opening and closing when riding or which gets material caught in the zipper;
- Collar heights that are not designed from a riding perspective can become a nuisance and cause irritation, and lead to zippers that are hard to open and close;
- The choice of seams stitching can have a huge impact on comfort and durability. For instance, the zig-zag stitch pattern that is commonly used to hold a chamois pad in place may look clean, but has a higher rate of unraveling if a thread is broken compared to a flat lock stitch.
- Hem construction on the jersey is another area to take note of. It’s important to look for a jersey that minimizes any added pressure and material around the lower abdomen but also creates a firm seamless look to keep the jersey in place while also improving aerodynamics
The aim of proper apparel design is to get every distraction, dis-function and irritation out of the equation. Don’t get me wrong looking damn cool matters too, but give me an ‘edge’ also! As an athlete, I always wanted both aesthetic appeal and a performance edge and I wouldn’t compromise on either aspect. Nor should you.
Professional cyclists and teams have been investing considerable attention into apparel design as a true benefit area – not just a marginal gain, but a significant performance enhancer. We’re talking minutes over a 40km TT. Cycling Weekly recently posted a video showing the performance benefits of various items for a cyclist through wind tunnel testing. Clothing/apparel delivered more power (and therefore time) savings than any other item – more than a helmet, wheels and TT frame! The good news is that these benefits are completely accessible to any cyclist and at very reasonable prices – just choose your apparel brand very wisely and don’t get sucked into fancy designs, and colors over real performance enhancement.
About the Author: Ryan Carter enjoyed a long, professional career in triathlon both training and competing at the highest international levels. He represented Australia at World Cup events, was Asian champion in 2000 and spent several years on a French professional racing team. Of the three disciplines, cycling is his foremost passion. After retiring from professional sports in 2001, Ryan enjoyed a 12 year career at NIKE Inc’s Global Headquarters in Portland Oregon, U.S.A., he held several positions on both USA and Global Apparel teams and always focused on presenting, communicating and delivering NIKE’s spectrum of apparel innovation platforms.