24 August 2009

bikefix Exclusive Review: Descente Optima Ice jersey

I think that its interesting that, while I almost never see Descente clothing in bike shops, I see it all of the time on the road. Riders I know have a handful of pieces which they've had for ages and which remain among their favorites. For the brand's fit and durability, people seem willing to order online and keep the company's jackets, jerseys and shorts in rotation far longer than those from other companies. Last fall, I had the chance to chat with the company about some of the pieces and technologies that they were especially excited about. These Boulder-based guys & girls know riding- and it really shows in the details.

One of the technologies that have Descente excited is the use of Icefil fabric in the company's top two jerseys. The Optima Ice and Lee Hill Chill's fabric takes advantage of a semi-permanant (70% effectiveness after 70 washes- at least two years' riding) treatment that uses Xylitol, a mildly laxative sugar alcohol most commonly found in low-calorie chewing gum. Somehow, the crystal has been repurposed to absorb body heat while blocking UV rays, allegedly cooling the wearer's skin by up to 5 degrees. When summer rolled around, I was given the chance to try both the short sleeved and sleeveless Optima Ice jerseys.

In contrast to other jerseys I've reviewed recently, the the Optima Ice is a true pro cut jersey, using quite a few panels (I lost count) to create what feels like a truly 3-dimensional garment. It's rare that I, at 145lb, fill out a medium jersey, but the Optima Ice is a pleasant exception. The fabric is comfortable on the skin but a bit heavier than I expected, with only the gray and black panels made of lightweight (though not quite mesh) fabric. The full-length front zipper is a very bling chrome color- one that works with the jersey's high-tech look. There are three pockets at the back of the jersey: a center zipped pocket with a headphone cable routing hole flanked by a pair of open pockets with angled tops and wide bases. The back half of the jersey's hem has a very nice silicone gripper which, combined with the snug fit, helps to keep even the heaviest loads from moving while riding. Also on the rear are two sets of reflective chevrons and a Descente logo- something that is always appreciated.

Somehow, reading up on Icefil, I expected the Optima Ice to feel as though it'd been soaked in menthol (the icy part of Icy Hot). That isn't quite the case. It turns out that the Icefil fabric works not just by absorbing body heat but also by preventing solar energy from reaching the skin- it's neither cool nor clammy to the touch. In fact, the Optima Ice feels largely like any other jersey- at least, like any other very well cut jersey. While I've ridden cooler jerseys made of more mesh-like materials, fair-skinned folks like myself need to be careful about wearing translucent clothing in the desert. The Optima Ice provides plenty of sun protection while remaining cooler than most and wicks very well- staying impressively dry even when riding with temperatures in the mid-90s. Despite their small openings, the side pockets are easy to access while providing safe storage thanks to their wide base.

All is not perfect with the Optima Ice, though. My only real problems with the jersey come from the two zippers. The front zipper has been very hard to operate single-handedly, catching or operating roughly, as a result of its lack of structure (which also makes it very comfortable). Also, on both the short sleeve and sleeveless jerseys, the front zippers' coils weren't cut short enough and were very sharp under my chin. Once I remembered to do something about them, a few seconds with a nail clipper took care of things. Out back, the zipped center pocket uses one of those locking zippers that are showing up everywhere. When the pull is pointed in the opening direction, it is in its locked position and won't open. Lefties will have a heck of a time of this, as it slides most freely when pushed from right to left. The locking zipper's use is surprising and it can be frustrating to operate with one hand behind the back. As a mountain biker and commuter who wears a pack as often as not, I'd just as soon go without zippered pockets altogether (its pretty hard to lose anything from a well-designed open pocket while road riding) and having only a small center pocket can make it hard to balance a heavy load. The jersey's side pockets are not as big as some I've used, though, so jersey stuffers might have to resort to using a saddle bag. Finally, while the Optima Ice's close cut minimizes flapping with the front zip open or closed (good), it also reduces airflow around the rider's sides and back with the zip open (not as good). As a result, I find myself having to take advantage of the long zipper on hot days, often reaching summits with a good deal of pale, bony chest exposed for all the world to see.

Despite a couple of zipper-related annoyances, I really like the Descente Optima Ice. The cut works very well and is clearly the result of a lot of thought. Not as cool as I might have expected, the Icefil fabric will work well from spring right through fall. Refreshingly, especially for a company's top jersey, the Optima Ice sells for $90- not cheap, but I would have expected them to ask at least 50% more for such a well made and technical top. These jerseys have become my go-to jerseys for hot weather riding and I haven't done a wash without them since the beginning of July. Thinner riders and those with fairer skin looking for a sharp spring, summer and fall jersey should seek one out. Available in white/black/red and, um, black/white/red.



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