Merino wool cycling wear: I’d try it if I were ewe

by Raymond Parker on January 21, 2013

in Cycling, Technical

Merino paceline

Merino echelon paceline

In fact, New Zealand’s fluffy export* has become my go-to winter cycling insulator.

A few years ago, I wrote about bicycling base layers in general, with a focus on the synthetic fabrics that flooded the market in the ’80s—polyester and polypropylene. Nonetheless, I’ve always been partial to natural fibres.

Back in my bush hippy days, I followed the lead of the trappers and prospectors I hung out with, ordering army surplus gabardine and thick Norwegian wool (not to be confused with Norwegian Wood) socks from warehouses in Manitoba, where they know a thing or two about frostbite.

Recently, I’ve bought a couple of particularly fine merino wool garments.

ibex-zephyr-t

Ibex Zepher-T (Photo: Ibex)

On a film trip to Clayoquot Sound, where I stood around on rainy, windswept beaches making timelapse video, I picked up a crew-neck top, the appropriately-named “Zepher” from Ibex. These things don’t come cheap, and a tourist mecca is no place to find bargains. On sale, it cost $135.

Back in the city, I found another end-of-season bargain: an Icebreaker “Circuit” cycling jersey for $125, down from the list price of $150.

These are not insubstantial sums of money, but I didn’t feel fleeced.

Right now, with temperatures hovering around freezing, I wear the short-sleeved jersey over the Ibex top, with a windbreaker or rain-jacket, depending on conditions and riding pace. This layering technique keeps me toasty, without overheating. As the weather warms, I anticipate wearing the jersey alone (with the addition of arm-warmers).

The Ibex full-sleeve undergarment has an 11″ zipper at the neck, while the Icebreaker jersey has a full front zip and three rear pockets. Of those, the middle pocket is too narrow to be of much use. The left one has an inside coin compartment; the right has a secondary zippered pocket on the outside. The jersey is not cut second-skin close; it’s roomy without being baggy, with extra length at the back for coverage in the drops.

Ibex Circuit Jersey

Icebreaker Circuit Jersey (Photo: VeloPix)

Merino wool is comfortable next to the skin and wicks well. It may hold a bit more moisture than synthetics in a comparable weave but, as mountaineers and sheep know, wool retains its insulation properties, even when damp. The secret is in its lanolin oil content, which also doubles as a bactericide, banishing the “Smelly Hansen” odour associated with synthetics. Cared for properly, merino wool will outlast other fabrics.

For tourers and long-distance cyclists, who don’t have a sag wagon or hot shower close by, it’s a sound investment.

* Wool was New Zealand’s main export from the 1850s until the beginning of the 20th century, when it comprised a quarter of the country’s export earnings. By the 1980s, when synthetic fibres arrived, that percentage had fallen to just 1.6 percent. Wool prices have trended upwards the last few years, making this renewable, natural fibre once more an important part of the NZ economy. Source: Statistics New Zealand

Jenny January 21, 2013 at 3:37 pm

I’ve got a couple of wool Ibex base layers. They are the best thing on the bike – not too bulky, yet warm and cozy. I’ll definitely be looking for a wool cycling jersey this year too. As a Kiwi, I have to say that the NZ merino is the finest!

Raymond Parker January 21, 2013 at 9:07 pm

Jenny: No bias there! I’m guessing you’re wearing your Ibex now, having just returned from summer in NZ, to a Canadian winter. 🙂

Jenny January 21, 2013 at 9:15 pm

You’re right! I am wearing one right now!

Raymond Parker January 21, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Very interesting to hear from Jess (below) that her merino also works well in the heat of the southern summer.

Ben January 21, 2013 at 4:38 pm

There’s a great company (actually, it’s just one guy) in Vancouver called Cima Coppi. I have two of his jerseys, including the BC Randonneurs club jersey he made this year and I just love them. He provides great service and he’ll make alterations to your jersey if you need them, which is especially convenient if you live in east Vancouver like I do.

Raymond Parker January 21, 2013 at 9:04 pm

I’ve heard good things about Cima Coppi. Thanks for the mini review.

Jess January 21, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I am a merino fan as well. I initially invested in a couple of wool shirts and socks for a cycling tour a number of years ago. They were so comfortable and worked so well that I have been cycling, backpacking and lounging about the house in their company ever since. Recently I moved from Victoria to Australia I have found that a loose, long sleeved and high necked merino base layer is an excellent shield from the hot sun and wind on long rides. The end of my ride this morning was approaching 30 degrees and a UV index of 10+ and I was comfortable and protected!

Raymond Parker January 21, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Jess: Thanks for this. I’m interested to hear that merino wool works as well in extreme heat as it does in freezing temperatures. The old pioneers referred to above wore their long wool underwear year-round.

Keith January 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm

“Didn’t feel fleeced…”

Raymond Parker January 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm

I know, it was shear punexploitation … but I couldn’t resist.

Stephen January 22, 2013 at 1:30 pm

I have a Circuit long sleeve cycling jersey and wear it year-round for my commuting. It and just a moderate cycling jacket, nothing substantial, keep me toasty during the winter. For summer, it is just the jersey. I don’t sweat any more wearing it in the summer than I do wearing a lycra cycling jersey. I definitely smell much better with the Icebreaker!

I have worn a long sleeve merino wool base layer in Las Vegas and Phoenix as I wondered inside and outside. The air conditioning indoors made it quite cool, such that people wearing hot weather clothing were chilled. Outside, temps were in the mid-to-high 30s (Celsius). I was comfortable both inside and outside.

Just love my merino!

Raymond Parker January 22, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Another vote for the Circuit! Glad to hear it works in summer. The full zip is a nice touch.

Bob January 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Love the Icebreaker merino jerseys… By far my favorite. Btw… The caption for the pic of the Circuit jersey states “ibex” , should probably state “Icebreaker” as proper brand.

Raymond Parker January 22, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Indeed, a great jersey. Too bad Icebreaker make it hard to find on their website.

I should also mention that Ibex has a full line of cycling gear, including wool shorts … hmmmm.

Thanks for the edit.

John P January 24, 2013 at 5:00 am

Merino is just wonderful. I have Icebreaker DHB, Shutt, and Rapha merino underlayers and tops. Warm and odour resistant.

Not a polymer in sight and natural

Dave Wyman January 27, 2013 at 1:36 pm

Nothing beats the feel of wool for me. I’ve got a lot of jerseys. My two wool ones are the standouts for comfort.

I have a lightweight jersey from Rapha. It’s comfortable and has some nice touches. It works well in warm weather, as long as I’m moving.

A few summers ago, I rode up to Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park, from about 6,000 to almost 10,000 feet in 12 miles. It was a very warm day and I wasn’t moving that fast. Without a flow of air, the front of my Rapha jersey was soaked with perspiration. So there are limits, even for wool.

And I have a Vintage Velos wool jersey, with slightly heavier-weight meriono, short sleeves, and a short zip. It’s difficult to find a day to ride it in Southern California, where I live, because the weather is usually fairly warm. I like to ride it on cool mornings, and don’t bother with it when the temperatures threaten to come near 7o degrees F and above. I find the jersey to be very comfortable on my skin (it’s the striking, yellow Wolf team jersey).

I’ve got a soft base layer from Kucharik clothing, in Los Angeles. It’s long and so tucks easily into my shorts or bibs.

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