09 December 2009

bikefix Initial Review: GORE BIKE WEAR Oxygen Thermo jersey

For as long as I've owned full-zip cycling jerseys and jackets, I've wondered if there was a way for manufacturers to avoid the belly pouch that zippers inevitably create. It turns out that someone over at GORE may have figured it out- and it's so simple that I'm amazed that no one else had thought of it earlier. While jerseys don't often have much detail to write about, the handful of details that make up GORE's Oxygen Thermo jersey are spot on. As unfamiliar readers might have guessed, GORE BIKE WEAR (their capitalization, not mine) is a branch of WL Gore & Associates- the company that makes GORE-TEX and WINDSTOPPER fabrics. As we're finding out, the details in the German-designed range of cycling clothing and accessories is more than just a vehicle for the company's fabrics.

Charlie and I have both long admired GORE clothing from a distance. While the slick ads in UK magazines no doubt helped, so did the no-frills, unabashedly technical look of the clothes themselves. We sat down with Jessica from the company's US office at Interbike this year and were impressed with what we saw. They offered to send out a handful of pavement and dirt pieces for us to try in the real world- the first of which are a jersey and some tights from their Oxygen series.

Ever since I mentioned a while back that I've never been a fan of long-sleeved jerseys (having traditionally preferred long base layers and short sleeve jerseys instead), the world seems to have been conspiring to prove me wrong. After a month of cool- and cold-weather riding in the Oxygen Thermo, I'm becoming more and more of a convert.

The jersey itself is made from an unnamed fabric that's about as close to the 'jacket' end of the 'jersey' spectrum as I can imagine. The fabric is densely woven on the outside with a slightly softer (though not quite fleecy) inside. Two deep, open back pockets provide secure storage for (light) gloves, snacks and hats, while a center zipped pocket with a long pull keeps phones and keys where they're supposed to be. The hem features some substantial silicone grippers to keep the pockets' contents from shifting the jersey and there's a nice little garage at the top of the locking front zipper to keep it from rubbing under the chin. In a much-appreciated nod to traffic safety, long reflective strips are sewn into the seam from the neck to the wrist (and seem much more permanent than printed-on reflective hits).

GORE's catalog breaks their clothing into three general fits: Comfort, Slim and Tight. The Oxygen Thermo is categorized as "Tight"- and they're not kidding. The medium jersey hugs my 6', 145lb frame like nothing else I've tried. What's cool is that, thanks to a stretchy fabric and cut tailored for the riding position, the Oxygen Thermo is not the least bit restrictive- while riding. With it's extra-long tail, pre-bent elbows and extra-high front, the jersey feels and looks goofy while standing- but looks and feels awesome on the bike. Because the front of the jersey is cut high, the zipper isn't pushed up and out by my thighs- there's no belly pouch to be found here.

Because the Oxygen Thermo is designed for cold weather riding, its cuffs are long and snug to keep drafts out. The neck is cut high and tight in the front, which also keeps the wind away (but requires active zipper use as the day warms). The fabric itself is less wind-resistant than some jerseys I've ridden, but also warmer. This makes the GORE more of a layering piece than a standalone- for days in the high 40s to low 50s, I find that it's great over just a short-sleeved base layer. The addition of a windbreaker will easily see this jersey down into the high 30s (if it's sunny). I find myself wearing the jersey over a synthetic tee and under a mid-weight soft shell jacket on morning commutes in the mid-20s- and being surprisingly comfortable (fingers and cheeks notwithstanding)- I haven't tried another jersey that I can say the same about. While wearing winter gloves, I was initially frustrated by the way in which the zipper pull fits into its little garage. Realizing that this was the point of locking zipper (flip its pull up and the jersey can be pulled open without finding the pull itself), I began tugging at the neck of the jersey to cool off a bit, which works just fine.

What would I change? About the Oxygen Thermo, very little. Because the cuffs are so snug (good when it's cold), they're hard to push up on my (admittedly small) forearms when it gets warm- a more elastic fabric there might be nice if it didn't compromise sealing. The fabric (especially across the chest) could be a bit denser to keep the wind out- but probably not much without adding a lot of bulk. That's really it. The cut is fantastic and as a layering piece, nothing I've tried comes close for seriously cold rides. Of course, as a high-end jersey, the $130 price is getting up there. Still, its performance justifies the cost. As I tend to wear it with a base tee, I've been getting away with wearing mine 2-3 times per week. It's also cheaper than (and works far better than) many wool jerseys I've tried over the past couple of years. Just tell the family accountant that you only need one (though it does come in a very nice bikefix orange if you need a second)... Look for a final verdict in the spring.



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