Merino wool clothing review….the essential cycle tourists’ yarn.
From conception we had about 3 1/2 years to plan for our bamboo cycle ride from London to Sydney. The UK was a perfect climate to try out clothing options that are light weight, warm and or cool with dramatically changing temperatures.
Early on in my 10 years residency in the UK, I realised synthetic or cotton base layers, thermal wear, was unsatisfactory, it retained the smell of sweat or was unable to wick or else it deteriorated too quickly.
Firstly, I tried Icebreakers merino base layers and despite the high cost I was hooked…..and my first items of clothing lasted for years…. The initial cost became much less as I did not need to replace items at regular intervals. With the properties of merino wool I was also able to wear my merino winter layers as outer layers during the summer…..ok….I am not that big on keeping up with the latest fashion trends.
Over the past few years there have been many more brands of merino wool garments hitting the market, including those that are cycle specific.. I’ve tried my fair share……Icebreaker, Howies, Sherpa, On One, Rapha, Smart Wool, Finisterre, Kathmandu, Ibex and Endura.
I’ll start with the cycle specific.
Rapha does a few items of clothing that are more suited to full on road racing, commuting, cafe culture and even the office, rather than an extended tour. My short sleeve jersey is incredibly durable due to the combo of polyester. It looks great and I’ve taken it on the trip as a smarter outfit for cities, socialising, border crossings, etc. It’s a great piece of kit but I wouldn’t go out and purchase it for a tour if I didn’t already own it. I’ve left my other quality Rapha merino jersey in London as these items are really too expensive for the trials of camping. Rapha’s sportwool merino/polyester combo fabric wear is quality, it lasts unlike some of their supposedly cycle specific trousers and shorts which acquire pills in the saddle area within a few weeks of wear.
The pros are it can be durable when fabric is a merino mix while all items look great. The cons…..really, really expensive and Rapha does not produce a large range of women specific items. Sizing can be strange and I recommend try before you buy.
On One, is a brand that produces a small range of everything from bicycles to cycle clothing.I purchased a male specific singlet as I liked the full length and round high neck that was not available for women in other brands. This is very thin and quickly began to look too thin…..but was always designed as a merino base layer. I also have On One merino socks. Great for the price, thinner than icebreaker, cool in summer without becoming stinky for days of wear. In 6 months of daily wear I did wear holes in both pairs. Fair do…..and the cheapest merino socks on the market by miles!
Endura…..cycle specific merino socks……great for summer, not much different to On One socks but twice the price. If you cant get On One I would go for these.
We have both worn a few items of Ibex clothing. I loved the arm warmers and they come with reflective detail. I decided arm warmers were surplus to requirements for our tour, opting for full layers for the colder months. Ibex clothing has proved incredibly durable and Li has been wearing a jersey more days than not, especially in countries where the bare shoulders of a singlet has been culturally inappropriate despite the heat. 12 months riding in London, almost 12 on this trip, it’s looking shabby for bike grease and ingrained dirt but free from holes and incredibly soft. For cycle specific and durable clothing I will continue to look out for Ibex. At the time of purchase we could only buy Ibex on line in the UK. It is an American brand and consequently their sizing I on the generous side.
Icebreaker….my favourite merino clothing producers. Not cheap but fair priced considering the years of wear you will get out of them if not getting the yarn snared up in the bike, cat claws, twigs, or your luggage. In recent years Icebreaker has begun to bring out a range of cycle specific clothing.
I have been wearing this brand for close to 10 years. Apart from a wee blip one year, where the wool appeared to lose its colour in strange patches after several washes…..the sizing and quality continues to be consistent. (I wash all of my merino in the washing machine on the same programme……hot because I am filthy….or hand wash, because there is nothing else). The wool does not fade, remains soft and the choices and styles change annually.
My liner gloves sadly only lasted 1 month of hardship about the camp site. But they were so warm and gave me dexterity that I would not find in any other glove. I abused them when they were not designed for this purpose. I am also wearing….and now slowly patching and sewing a base layer and jumper I have worn consistently in the UK for 7 years. They are warm and why purchase something new when it will be grotty within hours of cycling, dust or snow or whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
I also purchased a merino fleece outer layer for this trip. Their socks are also fairing well…..as I hole my other brands I gain Li’s hand me downs…thicker Icebreakers, as she generally wears sandals. Some of the lighter grade wool garments do gather holes quickly…. Not so much of a problem on the road but trying to look smart for embassy visits? Even Rapha gear looks pitiful when you ride, eat, sleep in your gear without flowing water for days on end.
Non cycle specific, Howies….I have only ever bothered with one singlet…..too thin and fragile for my liking but Li will purchase the occasional singlets for the bright colours or design. Still preferable to cotton or non organic. Neither of us bought along Howies for the trip as they didn’t last the test rides.
Finisterre, a small UK cold water surf company. Great……when it fits or does not shrink. I find the products too unreliable. The wool is not consistent from one year to the next. A small company and will hopefully sort this issue out as the designs are simple but colourful. Li continues to purchase singlets and underwear but I prefer to lean towards icebreaker…..products I can trust.
Kathmandu makes their own small range of merino clothing that changes style from season to season. I have bought t-shirts, underwear and long sleeve tops during their annual sales. My long sleeve top and a pair of underwear are still going strong with zero holes. Kathmandu merino has for me been the most forgiving yarn without being mixed with cotton, polyester or lycra. My only slight criticism of their merino is it does not stay quite as soft in our battleground of our changing laundry routine and the styling is not always to my taste. I am not a pink or pastel kind of girl. Thankfully they always include some black items of merino travel gear.
I have only owned one item of Sherpa merino clothing. These leggings are 260gsm grade merino and perfect for cold nights in the tent or when I want to run around looking like a jul tomte (Swedish Christmas Elf)…. Look it up…. with very bright red, red legs. I believe it’s a good way to embarrass Li when I chose to wear them on their own. This is the only item of merino that has ever made me itch. It’s also incredibly durable and warm . It appears to have shrunk in a strange way but as I have increasing lost weight apart from a beer belly, this has proved to my advantage. I may not go with Sherpa merino again but I would never go without merino leggings on an extended tour. They aren’t worn every day, but when you have exhausted all other clothing, are wet and cold….or simply all other clothing is in the wash, leggings are a luxury. This item is durable enough that I will have it for years to come.
Before I forget….do not leave home without a merino “Buff”. This multifunctional item remains a most treasured possession. A hat, come scarf, dust and grit mask, balaclava, head scarf for mosques and even a pillow cover.
Merino has properties that ensure your warmth, even when wet, and ensure you stay cool and dry comparable to other fabrics when the temperature soars. Merino is biodegradable and ties in well with sustainable, responsible travel, bamboo bikes and a love for the environment. On a tour….. most importantly, merino also repels the stink. Days of not washing…..no stink! Perhaps this is why people have, across the globe, remained hospitable to us. Unfortunately, I was recently forced to dispose of my very much loved, worn, sun bleached On One singlet which resembled…in looks, not smell, a very holey Swiss cheese. Well being world tourers it actually got repurposed as a chain rag. It was stop wearing the singlet or ride alone. Li very quickly learnt her mistake in suggesting I purchase a cotton replacement. Its hot, I am wet…I stink. Li’s birthday is coming up….on our travels, merino is scarce. If you feel like wishing her a safe and happy 30th birthday, you could send a merino singlet…..for me!
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