Bicycling base layers

by Raymond Parker on September 30, 2010

in Cycling, Skiing, Technical

Foundation garments for the road

Synthetic Fibre

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MEC undies shoot, circa 1983

Polypropylene underwear was a great boon when it made its debut, back in the late ’70s, thanks to Italian chemist Professor Guilio Natta. It soon caught on with active outdoor athletes and adventurers, especially mountaineers, to whom avoidance of hypothermia is a life and death consideration.

A shivering, befuddled cyclist is also at great risk and should choose underwear accordingly. Let’s face it, moisture against skin on a cold day is no fun!

The premier polypro base layer manufacturer was, of course, Helly Hansen (or “Smelly Hansen,”as we used to call them due to the original product’s affinity for BO). They still make the flagship LIFA® undies. A well-stocked marine store is a good place to get your hands on—or your body in—a set of LIFA.

There are many new “second skins” on the market—VarithermT, VaporWickT, PolySENTRIC®, Capilene®, etc.—by companies that specialize in activewear—North Face, Odlo, Patagonia, Duofold—most of whom seem to have switched to polyester fabrics, boasting various “wicking” technologies.

Polypro and -ester are naturally hydrophobic or water repellent, however it is preferable to chemically alter fibres to make them hydrophilic so they absorb perspiration, where body heat forces them to a second layer. This is accomplished by “roughing up” the fibres.

A variety of new polyester fabrics are endorsed by outdoor athletes and are likely to work well for the all-weather cyclist. Any good system designed for cross-country skiing, for instance, will function as well for cycling. 

Natural Fibre

Regardless of any “old school” perception, wool is still an excellent choice, especially the new superfine wool produced by companies like Icebreaker and Ground Effect of New Zealand.

Ground Effect is a maker of cycling-specific clothing. Their line includes base layers as well as mid layers that work well on cold/dry days. Icebreaker uses straight merino wool (the non-itchy kind) while Ground Effect uses a mix of merino wool and nylon for their tops.

Janus, one of the original Norwegian manufacturers of fine merino wool and wool/acrylic blend underwear is still in business and the label guarantees high-quality, long-lasting traditional wear.

Wool has the additional benefit of not amplifying the aforementioned BO factor. Again, these garments will not torture your skin like a hair shirt, so you can concentrate on the pleasures of riding your 600k brevet.

Original published in British Columbia Randonneur, Feb. 2006 (PDF)

Ibex | Ground EffectHelly Hansen | Icebreaker | Janus

VeloWeb Winter CyclingHypothermia And Cold Weather Injuries

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