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I am no fair-weather rider. In fact, I get few greater pleasures than a good powder day on my ‘cross bike. If given the choice between wrapping produce bags around my socks for extra waterproofing and stuffing my gloves with ski boot warmers or staying in and sipping cocoa while I watch it snow, the former wins — although in an ideal world I would do both.
When I buy winter riding gear, it gets put through the ringer and tested on days from mild to comically cold. A few of the women’s-specific items in my arsenal this year have delighted me with their warmth and comfort on biting days this winter, so for the ladies that push the pedals through it all, here are my top picks for jerseys, baselayers and tights that I’ve been riding this season.
Castelli Trasparente W Jersey FZ >> $150
The lowdown: Women’s long sleeve jersey is windproof in front, wicking and insulating in back
Pros: Has the right protection where you need it most; high neckline
Cons: Zipper chafes a bit; no internal pocket holes for headphones
Starting with my top pick, I’ve never owned a jersey that I’m as devoted to as the Castelli Trasparente jersey. Windproof front panels and breathable, brushed thermal fabric in back make for comfy riding regardless of whether I’m riding at fast speeds, a bit overdressed, or slowly warming up on a ‘cross course. If I were to pick just one winter jersey to own for the rest of my life, this would be my hands-down pick.
The two fabrics are easy to recognize, by color, on my jersey, although there is also an all-black version and a black-and-white option. All white fabric on the jersey pictured is Windstopper X-Lite, a soft, lightweight and stretchy fabric that protects from wind and moisture. While some windproof fabrics feel plasticky and stiff, this feels like an ultra-thin Gore-Tex and is particularly comfortable. Castelli claims Windstopper X-Lite is splash resistant, and I was impressed with how dry I stayed in the snow and on days with slushy splash. Water instantly beads up, and I haven’t experienced it penetrating the fabric.
The jersey isn’t particularly suitable for wet riding, though, because the fleecy, cherry-colored fabric on the back and sleeves will take on water. The thermal fabric is extra cozy, keeping my back dry and warm, and the extra stretch makes the jersey all the more comfortable and fitted without sacrificing windproofing where it matters.
I’m ever thankful for the warmth offered by the high neck, which is slitted in back so it fits comfortably and doesn’t choke around my neck. It does zip up the center, though, and the zipper is a bit sharp, but I often wear a buff underneath, so it hasn’t bothered me much.
The elastic band on the bottom doesn’t have silicone grippers, but it sits pretty loosely at the waist with the relaxed fit of my jersey and I haven’t experienced it ride up — a pet peeve I’m not quick to forgive, especially when it’s cold and the wind starts blowing on my belly and lower back.
The reflectors are understated and elegant. Three decent-sized pockets fit a small stockpile of food and layers, and the oversized zipper pull is easy to locate and adjust in heavy gloves. Besides the technical features, I just find the jersey nicely fitted, attractive and able to hold up to the elements well enough that most of the time the jersey and appropriate baselayer suffice without a jacket. Spending $150 on this jersey is well worth the money, in my opinion.
Rapha Women’s Long Sleeve Jersey >> $220
The lowdown: Understated and high-quality women’s long sleeve jersey
Pros: No detail has been overlooked
Cons: Not my ideal fit
Winter is the season to hang up heavily branded kit and break out understated and classic warm gear. If you comply with that philosophy, Rapha is always a good place to start.
The Rapha Women’s Long Sleeve Jersey is an appropriate name for a jersey that doesn’t serve frills, sporty graphics, or a list of modern fabric blends as long as my arm, but does deliver the highest quality to meet my needs.
Made of a 52-percent merino wool, 48-percent polyester blend, the jersey is soft, stretchy and serves up heavy-duty warmth. It stays dry, regulates well and provides a lot of insulation.
The polyester blend seems to limit the smell of dirty rodent cage notorious of a sweaty wool jersey, which I appreciate. It also washes well, and unlike my Rapha Women’s Merino Jersey, made of 100-percent merino wool, it doesn’t seem to leave anything else in the load fuzzy from shedding. Inside it feels more like wool than outside, which looks and feels synthetic.
While it may not get carried away with wow-factor features, attention is paid to every detail. The zipper flap curves over the top of the zipper to prevent chafing on the neck. The cuffs are tapered so they cover more of my hands without making the sleeves too long.
The pockets are deep and of various sizes, not to mention abundant. In addition to the standard triple back pockets, the seam of the pocket on the far right reveals an invisible zipper pocket the full width of the right exterior pocket that can fit a phone with room to spare. Both outer pockets have holes inside to run headphones through. Inside the inner pocket is another slim pocket for a compact pump. Like all Rapha gear, it also has a written story hidden for the owner to discover, although I will admit that I was disappointed that mine was about men’s racing.
There are elastic drawstrings along the back seam, but I find that it stays in place better when sitting loosely. Nonetheless, it is nice to have the flexibility to fine-tune it so the jersey doesn’t slip and isn’t too loose. It also has a basic silicone gripper along the bottom.
A single reflector is sewn into the bottom of the right pocket — no doubt emblematic of Rapha’s British roots, but poor placement for U.S. riders. Besides that, the design embellishments are limited to the signature Rapha armband.
I find that in general I don’t seem to have the ideal body shape for the Rapha women’s line. Items that are tight enough strike me as too short, and while the Women’s Long Sleeve Jersey provides the length I want, it isn’t quite as fitted as I like. Also, I have worn this piece for a limited time and, although it looks and feels very sturdy, it hasn’t seen very many wash cycles, so the jury is out on durability.
The jersey is currently available in fig (pictured), black, cream and blue, and sizes run from XXS to XL, though Rapha warns that the cream and the blue may not be restocked. Like all things Rapha, it will set you back — $220 to be exact — but is a great piece for layering throughout fall, winter and spring rides.
Rapha Women’s ¾ Bib Shorts >> $245
The lowdown: Women’s thermal knicker bibs with chamois
Pros: Ample warmth where I need it most
Cons: Not an ideal fit for tall women
When I come back from a ride in the cold, even if I don’t feel cold, my hips, butt and thighs are generally bright red and ice cold to the touch. Then begins the thawing process before I can tolerate a luke warm shower without the painful tingly sensation of warming up too quickly. In my opinion, warmers really only serve for emergencies or moderate days, because where I need warmth most is still only covered by a thin layer of lycra.
After getting altogether too creative last winter with layering multiple pairs of shorts to stay warm where I needed yet avoid overheating in full thermal tights, I decided this year demanded a quest for the perfect winter warmth. Thermal knickers are a great solution for me on moderately cold days.
These bibs are now my go-to solution for the chilly fall-temperature days when full thermal tights would be too warm, but I need something extra to keep me warm above the knee.
Rapha Women’s ¾ Bib Shorts are full-coverage bibs. Unlike the men’s version, which has a pretty standard bib, these zip up the front clear to the neckline, and the fleecy back continues to midway up the back, with fine mesh straps connecting front to back. I admit that I love the jumpsuit-style bib for cold days, since I hate standard suspenders on women’s bibs. On the right day, the brushed bib eliminates the need for a baselayer, too, which pleases me, given how quickly my laundry basket fills up this time of year. There is also a small pocket on the back, though I find it awkward to reach and don’t see much use for it besides an iPod.
I also very much appreciate the black chamois, as I live in a household of non-cyclists that aren’t thrilled about the rainbow collage of chamois constantly hanging in the laundry room.
Visible branding is limited to a gloss black-on-matte black logo near the knee, where a small reflector is sewn.
My size medium bibs don’t fit perfectly, though. While they are very comfortable in width, they are shorter than I would like, and the seam of the contour sewn for the knee sits on my kneecap, rather than below it, and the hem lies in the crease of my knee. I would be interested to see how well a large fits, though I imagine it might be looser than I would like.
I happily forgive that, though, and will pick them over warmers for a cool day any day. They run in sizes XXS through XL for $245.
Pearl Izumi W Elite Thermal Cyc Drop Tail Bib >> $175
The lowdown: Women’s thermal bibs with chamois and drop tail
Pros: Drop tail is a great solution for those who don’t like waist bands or peeling layers
Cons: For the type of cold these suit, wind panels would be a huge asset
Thank you, Pearl Izumi, for offering a solution for those of us who can’t stand waist bands but are willing to suffer them if the alternative is removing every article of winter layers for nature breaks.
I’m going to recommend that any woman who goes for long rides in the winter put some money down on these tights. They are not Pearl Izumi’s most high-end tights or bibs and they don’t feature windproof fabric. But they do have a very convenient drop tail, and provide the comfort and coverage for long, moderate winter riding.
The bibs are full-coverage, and zip all the way up with thermal fabric on the front and a lighter full back. Only eight inches of seam in the front connects the bib top and the bottoms; the back of the legs and back of the bib are completely separate and simply layer on top of each other. There is no clasp or latching mechanism, unlike the Pearl Izumi drop tail Women’s P.R.O. In-R-Cool bibs I reviewed during the warmer months of 2012.
Amazingly, the system works without complaint for me. The waistband in the back keeps the tights in place without the irritating pressure on my stomach I sometimes feel in tights. Pulling down the tights while keeping the bibs on is simple, as is pulling them back on. Since they have a built-in chamois, you don’t have to mess with layers of shorts, making for the quickest winter breaks ever.
Plus, unlike tights, the Drop Tail bibs don’t leave any back or belly exposed to chill because the front of the bib is connected and the back tucks in.
They zip at the ankle and are easy enough to pull on and off over shoes, if need be, and silicone grippers help keep the ankle from wiggling up. There are a few small reflectors down the leg, some of which double as Pearl Izumi branding and, inexplicably, one on the chest.
They were toasty enough to get me seriously sweaty during a heavy ride on a nearly freezing day with two baselayers on top and no jacket, but regulated well enough that I didn’t overheat or get chills immediately after.
Given that they are designed for really chilly days, I think they would benefit from wind panels for road riding, but other than that, I don’t feel a need for more performance from winter tights and if you ask me, the drop tail is far more valuable.
At $175, they are well worth the money.