The day I met Ibex representative David Egan to discuss the pros and cons of wool cycling gear, a record snowfall was falling on a late-April afternoon, delaying spring once again.
Of all the times to be testing wool, this spring seemed perfect. With a winter that just wouldn't fade, I found myself reaching for Ibex's El Fito three-quarter-length wool knickers 95 percent of the time. Even now, well into June and still lacking a day over 70 degrees, these are the training tights of choice for me.
Wool cycling gear is not new -- in fact, it was the original material of choice for cyclists during the early 1900s, when the Tour de France got its start. It wasn't until the 1980s that flashy colorful kits came to be, made of such materials as polyester, Lycra and Spandex.
Being a longtime proponent of wool for outdoors and casual wear, I was intrigued by the idea of wearing wool while riding.
I have never been disappointed in wool before -- it keeps me warm while camping, comfortable while boating and stink-free on long backpacking or hiking treks, when wearing the same clothes every day is the norm.
Today's wool is as soft as cotton, resistant to retaining body odor and durable.
Cycling, though, poses unique problems. I knew wool could keep me warm while riding, but would it be too warm, getting me too sweaty on the uphills only to freeze on the downhills?
The short answer: No.
In Alaska, wool cycling gear works. It's been working for me since April and, given the weather of late, it probably will continue to do so in July. It's not as colorful as the rainbow kits worn by teams nor is it as affordable (a good long-sleeved wool jersey is $130 versus $79 or so for synthetic).
But it is durable and functional under a variety of conditions.
I tested three pieces of gear from Ibex over the past seven weeks: the women's El Fito three-quarter-length riding knicker (small, $120 retail), the women's Calais short (small, $90 retail) and the women's Balance seamless jog bra (small, $49 retail), an all-around piece of clothing suitable for any sport.
The Balance is a next-to-skin base layer that is made of Ibex's softest wool, a 17.5-micron Merino with just enough spandex to keep it in place.
Egan said the technology of the Balance line involves a seamless style of stitching designed to keep these base layers from hitching, rubbing or otherwise causing discomfort. (The Balance line includes sport tops, briefs, runner shorts and other base layers too).
The fineness of the Merino also makes it soft to the touch, like a cotton T-shirt only so much more efficient.
I've worn the Balance with up to three other layers of shirts, depending on the weather, and it has never chafed, slipped or created discomfort.
It's a pretty simple piece of clothing, actually -- thin, stretchy and odor resistant.
One week, I realized I had worn the Balance every single day without washing it. This included five days of riding and one 40-minute jog on the local ski trails.
Plucking the bra off the wooden peg where my workout gear hangs, I hesitantly pulled it to my nose, expecting a "wash-me-now!" result.
Instead it smelled like, well, nothing. No body odor, no wet-wool stink.
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
I feel a bit more particular about riding tights. Here's why: A year ago, I ordered a pair of Pearl Izumi riding shorts on discount from a biking catalog.
After wearing it twice, the mark-down made sense. The right side of the chamois, where the stitching meets the right rear cheek created a neat, long scratch on my rear end after riding. It didn't matter how I shifted the shorts or how I repositioned myself on the saddle.
The shorts were a waste of money.
So fit is important with tights -- not only the chamois, which pads tender parts on long rides, but the tights themselves.
Here is where Ibex gets mixed reviews.
Both the knickers and the shorts are baggy at the crotch, making it easy for them to catch on the tip of the saddle when dismounting or getting on the bike.
The nine-panel Calais shorts bunched and buckled in the rear, as if the stitching between the wool and the stretch panels between the legs somehow did not quite work. The chamois is quite thin too, making these shorts more fitted for the casual summer ride than part of a daily training wardrobe.
Still they are comfortable and soft. While not the most flattering, I still wear them on occasion for rides lasting less than an hour.
KEEPING THE CHILL AWAY
The El Fito is my favorite among the Ibex women's cycling line, and is an invaluable piece of my training clothing.
Made of a slightly heavier grade of Merino than the Calais, these knickers are just warm enough to keep the chill off at the beginning of a ride but wick away enough moisture to keep me comfortable once the workout is truly under way.
The knickers are wind and water resistant too, making them ideal for a range of conditions.
On a four-hour training ride, it can go from sunny to cloudy to rainy and back, all of which the El Fitos handles.
I'm particularly fond of the double weave over the knees, which is just heavy enough to protect them from the cold on long downhills or windy days.
Egan said Ibex is continuing to fine-tune its cycling wear.
The company also sells riding gloves as well as arm and leg warmers, which are some of its best sellers.
Others are catching on to the wool-cycling trend too. Smartwool has some cycling gear available, as does Swobo, a retro-cool cycling clothing company that has been in and out of the market over the years but has some of the coolest-looking gear around.
Find Melissa Devaughn online at adn.com/contact/mdevaughn or call 257-4482.
WHERE TO GET THEM
SPEEDWAY CYCLES (www.speedwaycyclesak.com, 2600 Spenard Road, 222-1967) is one of the best local spots to look for a wide range of wool cycling gear, but check these online sites, as well.
PORTLAND CYCLEWEAR: www.portlandcyclewear.com. This place can even do team orders if you can get everybody convinced wool is good. The designs are Swobo-like in style but more affordable -- we found a long-sleeved jersey available for $59.
BOURE: www.boure.com. These are some pretty cool jerseys and shorts too, although they are expensive. Think quality though. One jersey will outlast three synthetics if cared for properly.
RIVENDELL: www.rivbike.com. The makers of the retro bike also dabble in wool clothing sales with a variety of accessories. We like the sleeveless Aussie top that is a good base layer for chilly morning riding.
IBEX: www.ibexwear.com. My favorite for all-around cycling wear geared toward training.