From Panels to Stitching: Why cycling apparel varies in price.
We are all guilty of it: Buying the cheapest, sale item to save a few bucks only to find out that that the gear wasn’t worth even the few dollars spent. Worse yet is when you’re stuck wearing something uncomfortable for a long period of time. A long bike ride is the last place you’ll want to be when you find out your gear isn’t up to snuff.
Cycling gear is one of those categories where there is quite a vast price difference in apparel that appears to do the same thing. After all, aren’t stretch shorts, just stretch shorts? Not exactly.
If you’ve ever gone shopping for denim jeans, you’ll notice that while some brands are $30 a pair at a discount shoppe, others run upwards of $225 and higher. They are all of similar fabric and seems to do the same thing, so why the price difference? Well for one, it is how they are measured and cut. Inexpensive jeans are cut from a tall pile of fabric, and as the blades pierce the various layers, they shift a bit. This results in jeans of the same size having a different fit. On the other hand, expensive jeans are custom cut so that every pair in the same size will fit identically. Also the denim used in higher priced jeans often features slight stretch properties and will pull back into shape, rather than stretch out after each wearing.
While cycling clothes often don’t have the same fit issues as trying to find that perfect pair of jeans, they do have similarities when comparing similar gear in vastly different price points.
Lets’ look at a simple jersey and shorts kit.
The first thing you’ll notice when you look at the price tags is the material. While there are many types of stretch materials, the most well known being Lycra, less expensive clothing often uses simple blends with very basic weaving patterns. This means that they may not wick moisture and sweat or breathe to keep you cool. Additionally, treatments that protect you from the sun such as UPF coatings or odor control are generally not woven into the fabric and wash out over time.
With pricier clothing, fabrics become less generic and more proprietary. For example, various weaving techniques help to wick moisture from skin and mesh inserts are often included for additional cooling.
Silverescent treatments in the fabric are designed to keep you cool and reduce odors. Carbon fiber, which has a similar odor-controlling property, is sometimes woven into the fabric. It is also touted as being able to discharge electric ions from power lines and cell phones, which may enhance endurance riding. Each of these is designed as part of the fabric and not as added spray-on treatments. They are permanent. Many high end cycling clothing companies partner with weavers to create patented fabrics based on the exact specifications they are looking for in each piece of gear. With the advent of compression recovery wear, cycling clothing companies have added fabrics to their arsenals that support muscles and decrease road vibration to reduce fatigue. Each of these fabrics has been custom created for the individual vendor and every company has their own versions.
After the fabric, the next thing that you’ll notice is the fit. As with denim and many other items of clothing, there is a cost that comes with cutting fabric. Companies have to balance the cost of sewing a garment with the waste that may be associated with cutting. The less waste the less expensive the production process. Therefore clothing at a lower price point is often cut from a single piece of fabric. This leads to straight, less tailored seams and a boxier fit.
As the price increases, more attention is paid to how the pieces of the pattern are placed and cut across the fabric. Jerseys as well as shorts have more panels and become more fitted to anatomy as the price increases. With some kits, such as Castelli, the jerseys and shorts are cut to support muscle structure and to help the body perform while in a tucked cycling position. This means paying special attention to the stretch properties of the various fabrics (two-way verses four-way stretch for example) as well as to how they lay across various muscles.
If you take a lower priced jersey and a more expensive model and lay them side-by-side, you’ll notice that the more expensive one does not lay flat. That is due to the design and cut being based on the three-dimensional body. To obtain this type of final product, the pattern pieces must be carefully sewn. Many clothing companies hail from Italy where the looms and tailors have been making jerseys for decades.
After fabric and cut, the small, but necessary details stand out when compared across price points. Chamois pads are an excellent example. As price increases the pads gain more anatomic and gender specificity so that you’ll be more comfortable for longer rides.
Flat lock stitching is used in place of traditional seams, and in some kits, leg and arm openings do away with stitching entirely in favor of seamless construction and circular-knit banding.
You will find locking zippers, shorts that stay in place without sticky grippers, and even a variety of pockets that are designed to hold small items, such as identification, as well as larger sandwiches and spare tubes.
Price differences exist across all types of cycling clothing including rain jackets, winter thermal wear, and even socks. And while the recreational cyclist may be fine in kit with fewer bells and whistles, the more you ride, the more important fit and performance become. Layers work in conjunction with each other to keep you cool in the summer and warm and dry in the shoulder seasons. Thermal gear helps to regulate your core temperature by wicking sweat away while maintaining warmth.
The most important thing to look for is how each piece fits. Be sure to bend over as if you are riding and look for places where the garment may chafe or ride up. Try a few different brands, as each will feature a different cut and fit. If you prefer a looser fitting kit, look for ‘relaxed’ fit as opposed to ‘race fit’ kits. Whichever gear you decide upon, be sure you buy it for fit and comfort first and color last.