August 16, 2017

Improving Next to Skin Comfort: A look at the evolution of technical fabric in the last 30 years

Jasen Thorpe looks back at some of his favorite cycling jerseys from the past, and the improvements in fabric technology that have happened since.

I was not quite twelve years old when Greg Lemond won the first of his three Tour de France titles. Like most kids at that age, I’d already been riding a bike for fun, and also to get to and from friends’ houses for some time. But the Lemond notoriety in the states, combined with having a school guidance counselor who was a committed cyclist, is really what set me in a direction of riding bikes for the sake of sport, rather than for utility or transportation.

Those early years of being a cycling fan were pretty easy. Lemond and Hampsten and the rest were easy to cheer for, and as I extended the length of my rides, my sense of independence, strength and freedom grew, as did my experience of the world outside of my hometown.

Anyone who’s followed the sport knows that it’s not always been easy to be a cycling fan, though. In the US, the story of initially being excited about Postal/Discovery and that generation of riders, then being crushed and angry about the same generation as the truth of their performances emerged, it’s a well-worn story at this point, and I lived it’s elation and agony as much as anyone else, I suppose.

At some point, I just decided to embrace that era for what it was. As part of that, I made an effort to acquire a team jersey from each rider who had been stripped of a Tour title, or who had been kicked out of a grand tour while in the leader’s jersey. These held a place on my office wall alongside jerseys of more admirable riders from other eras, as well as jersey of my own. It was part of my way of coming to terms with that era as a fan.

Somehow, I ended up with two jerseys from the first year of the US Postal Service sponsorship. One went on the wall, of course, but the other, I kept and occasionally rode in. Over the years, it’s proven something of a lightning rod for comments from passers-by, whether pedestrian, motorist or fellow cyclist. Similarly, it’s a bit of a litmus test – does the passer by offer a hearty “GO LANCE,” or something more derisive?

From a technical perspective, though, it serves to remind me how far garment technology has evolved. Its construction is questionable – no tailoring to the torso, tight in the neck, loose in the sleeves. And it’s fabric, though it looks good, is horrible in terms of moisture management. Sweat seems to briefly condense on the inside surface of the jersey, and is slow to move through the fabric and evaporate. It feels cold and clammy and heavy and wet next to my skin.

So the jersey only comes out for easy rides, when I want the engagement from strangers, or to make something of a statement about doping and the excesses of the 1990’s. Otherwise, I’m thankful for newer technology, and the effort that GORE® makes at continuous improvement of next-to-skin comfort and moisture management, both in its GORE-TEX® and GORE® WINDSTOPPER® products, as well as its non-membrane garments.

There are really three parts to consider in terms of this type of garment performance: How fitted can the garment be while still being comfortable for a variety of body types? How does the fabric actually feel on the skin? And how quickly does the fabric transport sweat away from the body, to the surface of the garment and evaporation?

These are related, of course. To make a fitted garment that is comfortable for a number of body shapes, the material must be elastic and well tailored, with element of structure added back in for the sake of support and stability (think jersey pockets, for example). But the point it that having the garment in constant contact with the rider’s skin means immediate/maximum contact with sweat, increasing the rate of moisture transport through the garment and maintaining a consistent next-to-skin feel and temperature. If the fabric is always going to be on the skin, then how this feels is critical to rider comfort for obvious reason. This is why GORE® spends so much time and energy working on the mesh inner layer of its GORE TEX® and GORE® WINDSTOPPER® garments, in addition to making them more elastic and better fitted with each generation. The mesh, baselayers and other fabric selections also play a key role in moisture management, and are developed specifically for their ability to quickly draw sweat away from the skin.

The combined end result of GORE®’s continuous-improvement approach to developing these technologies and designs is that they’ve provided me with even more reason to be glad to see 90’s and 00’s cycling and cycling technology fading into the past, as well as reason to be more optimistic looking to the future, at least about clothing technolgy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s an Oxygen CC day here on Colorado’s Front Range, and I’m headed out for a ride. (Of course, it’s Colorado, and the weather is as predictably unpredictable as anywhere, so I’ll be wearing a baselayer and pocketing a Shakedry jacket. Hope for the best, plan for the worst, right?)

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