11 January 2010

bikefix Exclusive Review: GORE BIKE WEAR Oxygen WS tights

Man it's cold out. I'm sure that I say this every year, but this has to be the coldest winter I've experienced since leaving the Northeast. Normally, I'm reluctant to suit up for road rides in temperatures below 30, but a well-timed shipment from our friends at Gore has made the idea much more appealing tolerable. I've been riding in the company's Oxygen WS tights several times every week since October and they have a lot to recommend them (with only one minor reservation).

It's becoming very clear to me that the German-based wing of textile company WL Gore & Associates is staffed by people who not only know cycling, but aren't afraid to rethink things that are often taken for granted. One example: the Oxygen WS are the only tights I've ever tried on that have stirrups rather than the common ankle zipper. It feels funny at first, but when you realize that really warm tights are almost always worn with tall shoes or booties, having one less thing to chafe is certainly appreciated.

The Oxygen WS tights, as the name implies, make use of Gore's WINDSTOPPER Soft Shell fabric. The windproof fabric runs from the front of the shins, up over the knees and around 3/4 of the thighs to seat. The backs of the calves up through the sides of the thighs are a very stretchy material with a tight outside and fleecy interior- like a lightweight Roubaix fabric- for improved flexibility and breathability. A comfortable mesh starts mid-torso and makes up the shoulder straps and there is a short 4 1/2in zipper at the front. The backs of the ankles have a generously-sized reflective panel to aid in nighttime visibility. The Oxygen WS tights are available with ($200) and without ($180) an OZON gel foam pad.

As odd as it sounds, it took me several rides to figure out how to pull the stirrup'd legs on efficiently. Once I'd got the right foot wriggle figured out (and realized to pay attention to the reflective patch so they didn't go on backwards), I forgot about them. The lack of a zipper makes for comfortable pedaling and doesn't interfere with tall winter riding shoes or thick Neoprene booties. The OZON pad has a nice feel and density to it (not too soft, not at all squidgy), but seems to be about 1/4 larger than it needs to be. It and the tights' cut also didn't provide as much package security as I like, allowing a bit more movement down there than would be ideal. I thought the zipper was a bit unnecessary to begin with, but it allows for a higher, warmer front than would otherwise be practical as well as ventillation when open and [easier] access for when nature calls. As riders who've unintentionally peed on their Camelbak bite valve will agree, that's a very good thing.

The use of the WINDSTOPPER material makes the Oxygen WS true cold weather tights. For those looking for something to pull on when temperatures drop into the 50s, these will be overkill. Even on sunny days in the mid-40s, I managed to work up more sweat than the fabric was able to deal with, making them somewhat uncomfortable. During the first mile or so on really cold mornings, I noticed the lack of insulation at the back of the legs- I could really feel where the WINDSTOPPER stop and lighter panels start. As they say, though, if you start out comfortable, you're probably overdressed. Within a few minutes things start to equalize and once generating a bit of heat the extra breathable bits are appreciated. As a result the Oxygen WS really come into their own is when working hard between 25 and 40 degrees. The windproof fronts keep cold winds at bay while the more breathable calves and sides keep moisture from building up. It's a narrow temperature window for sure, but big enough to cover several months' riding in these parts. The WINDSTOPPER Soft Shell material in the seat and shins also does a good job at keeping tire spray out- but the thin side panels soak through very quickly with any real rainfall.

The only real disappointment in the Oxygen WSs is the OZON seat pad. While it's comfortable enough, it's a bit bulky and does a very poor job of moving moisture away from the skin- it was often wet to the touch after even short rides. That combined with the insufficient, erm, homeland security provided ultimately led me to remove the pad altogether (it's stitched in very well, for what it's worth). Paired with any old shorts out of the drawer, the Oxygen WS felt great- another layer of fabric at the hips keep them just a tad warmer when things get really cold and, more importantly, allow me to get away with wearing the tights several times between washings- something that's key to getting $180 worth out of them. After removing the OZON seat insert, I haven't once noticed an unusually wet pad- suggesting that it was the chamois rather than the WINDSTOPPER seat that was the problem. As an added bonus, the tights are $20 less without it.

While the $180 price will be a bit tough for many riders to justify, it's actually very competitive- soft shell tights aren't exactly high-volume sellers and they use acres of pricey fabric. It's still early, but the GOREs' construction seems top-notch and the fit (when used with separate shorts) is excellent. The Oxygen WS tights' details are generally excellent. Because they're usually covered by tall shoes or booties, I wouldn't mind seeing the reflective panel moved from the ankle up to the calf. That's really my only suggestion for the pad-free version. They don't work as well for mountain biking as on the road (the WINDSTOPPER panels can overheat a bit at lower speeds)- though I was more than happy to have them along for a recent (and admittedly silly) 16 degree night ride. All in all, the Oxygen WS seem to be very well designed and made tights for those of us who refuse to hang up the bike. Look for a final review early next winter.



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