Guest poster Jeff Hemmel looks at the difference between the high-end stuff and inexpensive cycling gear.
It’s a question any bike noob has likely asked when stepping up to dedicated cycling clothing — just where does the money go? As in, why should you spend $100 or more for a skimpy jersey or shorts when countless cheaper alternatives can be found?
I put the question to two manufacturers — everybody’s favorite bargain choice, Performance, and the industry’s biggest player, Pearl Izumi.
Here’s what they had to say about where to spend your money.
Supply and Demand
One of the biggest differences between a high-end outfit and an economical alternative is the materials involved, and where they came from.
For their part, Performance looks at what the market is demanding, then goes to existing manufacturers with a laundry list of requirements — weight, type of fabric, chamois type, etc. They have a target price point in mind, one that reflects where the outfit matches up against those from Performance’s branded partners.
“They (brands like Pearl Izumi) spend a lot more time in the development side of the business, developing proprietary materials,” explains Performance’s Brett Lamm. “We basically go out to places that make the materials and take what’s off their shelf.”
“We sell a lot of product, we make a lot of product, but we don’t own our own factories, we don’t do a lot of proprietary development in the individual materials. That saves a lot of money for us.”
For example, Performance’s Elite series uses a chamois from an Italian manufacturer that supplies a number of worldwide brands. “We just happened to pick one that worked for our shorts,” explains Lamm, “and we’re able to hit a certain price point with those.”
In contrast, Pearl Izumi designs a chamois, and then asks a manufacturer to fabricate it. They choose the specific top fabric for comfort, and arrange multiple layers and densities of padding how a designer intended. That research and development is expensive, and that’s reflected in the price.
Performance Elite pad, left, and Pearl Izumi high-end pad, right
“There’s a lot of development time, effort, money and manpower in something as simple as a chamois, a leg gripper, a fabric, the thread used to stitch,” explains Lamm. “We do a lot of stuff right off the shelf, so that saves a lot of cost.”
“We take a lot of pride in covering the fine details,” offers Pearl Izumi’s Geoff Shaffer. “How do you make sure a leg gripper stays up in place, and how do you integrate with your shorts so there’s not a gap between short and leg? We don’t sell at super low price points, so we don’t have to cut a lot of corners.”
How does the ‘noob balance the desire for the best clothing with the desire to hold on to his money? Consider a few key areas.
Does one short have more panels than another? Chances are it will hug your body’s contours better, provide more flex, and prove more comfortable. The weight and type of fabric can also mean the difference between a sturdy short that will offer some compression, and a flimsy one that will soon be showing your derriere. Examine the stitching. Like its name implies, flatlock stitching lays flat, and will prove sturdy and reduce chafe. Does the leg gripper use silicone bands, dots, or a separate piece of stretchy fabric? It will stay in place better and prove more comfortable over time. Cheap shorts with a simple elastic band sewn into the hem will squeeze your thighs to stay in place.
Cheap elastic leg grippers, left - PI silicone dots and logo, right
For the rider putting in a lot of miles, however, it’s likely the chamois that can make or break the ride.
Don’t be fooled by a cheap short’s simple, one-layer pad. It may prove comfortable in the short term, but painful after you put some miles under you. Likewise, don’t think a fat pad is the key to comfort.
“Number one, you’ve got to have a soft comfortable top fabric,” explains Pearl Izumi’s Geoff Shaffer. “Number two, multiple density paddings. You want a couple different things when you sit down on a bike saddle. Initially you want it to feel soft and comfortable. But over the course of an hour or two hours, you need a second density or firmer foam that kind of holds up under that pressure long-term so that your butt doesn’t get sore or, worse, numb.”
Most experts suggest you get the best shorts you can afford. This is the gear you need the most. More wiggle room can be found with jerseys.
Like shorts, functional differences are mostly found in materials and construction. Most any jersey will pull moisture physically away from your body. High-end fabrics do it through costlier construction methods. Cheaper ones often rely on sprayed-on applications, which wear out over time. More expensive fabrics also commonly feature more stretch, which translates into a more comfortable ride. Balancing moisture wicking and stretch, however, can be costly. “In the past it was sometimes hard to have a real good moisture-managing fabric in a very stretchy fabric,” reveals Shaffer. “When you add stretch you add nylon typically, and sometimes those two don’t work very well together.” High-end materials have now evolved to offer more stretch and better moisture management.
Performance Classic jersey, left, $34.99, sale price: $19.99. Pearl Izumi P.R.O. Leader jersey, rt., $199.99
More subjective differences in jerseys can be found in graphics. Sublimation is commonly used to put graphics on high-end cycling jerseys. It transfers the graphic into the actual fibers of the garment, rather than layer it on top. That produces more stylish graphics and retains the wicking properties of the fabric. It’s cool, but costs. Companies like Performance will use it sparingly, and avoid combining it with the best fabrics to keep costs down. High-end manufacturers will combine the best sublimation with the best fabrics for great looking, but expensive, results.
In the end, it all comes down to getting the best gear you can for the money that you are willing to spend.
“Ultimately the top thing you’re going to get out of a bigger investment in your gear is better comfort as you go up the food chain,” suggests Shaffer. “If someone’s riding up the bike path for an hour, hour and a half, twice a week, our entry-level cycling short is going to be perfect for them. But if they start getting more enthusiastic about the sport and they start riding three to six hours a week, then that changes their interaction with their equipment.
“At that point, it probably makes sense to invest in a jersey that’s closer fitting, and a fabric that’s a little bit more technical, gets moisture away, keeps you drier and more comfortable, and a chamois that’s better as well.”