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There are basically 3 different kinds of cycling jackets – fleece, softshell and hardshell. This post explains the differences between these 3 kinds of cycling jackets, to help you choose the right jacket for your current needs.
This chart shows the 3 different kinds of cycling jackets:
|Waterproof?||Not at all||Usually water resistant, due to a DWR coating on the exterior. Not waterproof||Aims to be completely waterproof, using a hard shell - such as a woven fabric with a laminate coating, such as Gore-Tex|
|Breathable?||Extremely breathable||Much more breathable than hardshell jackets, but less breathable than fleece jackets||Very limited breathability, because keeping out water has the obvious side effect of keeping water IN. Quality hardshell jackets strive to incorporate SOME breathability, by using the advanced micro pore technology developed by Gore-Tex to allow water vapor molecules to escape|
|Windproof||No||These vary from a little bit windproof to completely windproof. Some have a woven face to increase windproofness. And Gore uses WINDSTOPPER, a laminate that is sandwiched together with other textile layers to create a single fabric that is windproof but breathable||Yes, they are especially designed with laminate and sealed seams to exclude wind completely|
|Do they make a noise?||No||These are usually quieter than hardshells, as they are softer||These jackets can make a noise as you move, due to the hard materials|
|Texture||These are the softest jackets||These are the second softest jackets||These are the least soft. Nothing soft and cozy about these jackets, as they strive to exclude the elements|
|Packable||Quite thick, not designed to pack away in a pannier||Not as thin as hardshell jackets, as they include a fleecy layer. Harder to pack than hardshells||The thinnest, as they have no fleecy layers, so they pack well into a pannier|
What is a Fleece Jacket?
In 1979 a company called Malden Mills invented polar fleece. It’s made from a combination of synthetic fibers and sheep wool. The synthetic fibers enhance heat retention, while the wool provides warmth. Usually when a company says “fleece,” they mean polar fleece. The fact that it is not completely wool makes the jacket lighter.
Fleece jackets are ideal for keeping warm, but do little to keep out wind, and nothing to keep out rain.
What is a Softshell Jacket?
A softshell cycling jacket is more windproof and water resistant than a fleece, but it is softer, lighter, warmer, more breathable, and more flexible than a full waterproof hardshell cycling jacket. All of which makes it perfect for days when the weather is less extreme, but you still need a bit of help keeping warm and dry. Some of the best windproof cycling jackets use WINDSTOPPER technology.
How Does WINDSTOPPER work?
When the wind blows through a jacket that’s not windproof, it destroys your own microclimate, which is the warm layer of air next to your skin – and you are instantly uncomfortable. Gore developed their revolutionary WINDSTOPPER fabric to keep out wind while still keeping the jacket soft and comfortable. WINDSTOPPER is a high technology fabric designed to keep the wind out, while allowing moisture (i.e. your sweat) to escape, so you can stay dry while being protected from the wind. WINDSTOPPER is a laminate that is sandwiched together with other textile layers to create a single fabric. The WINDSTOPPER laminate is a super light, extremely versatile polymer which has 1.4 billion micropores per square inch. These micropores are 900 times larger than water vapor molecules, so that water vapor can easily pass through them and disperse into the surrounding air. Of course, this does mean that WINDSTOPPER fabric is NOT waterproof.
Typically, WINDSTOPPER is laminated with fleece, to provide insulation as well as windproofness. Of course, because of this WINDPROOF laminate layer, these fabrics are LESS breathable than softshell fabrics such as those made by Polartec that do not use laminates. However, they are MUCH more breathable than waterproof fabrics that are made waterproof with a Gore-Tex laminate.
With a softshell cycling jacket, you might not have to layer
With a hardshell cycling jacket, you might be wearing that hardshell waterproof jacket as your top layer, plus a fleecy jersey and a base layer, which might be an Under Armor type layer. This three layer approach is shown below, and would be ideal for a cold winter day with moderate to heavy rain.
Softshells take a different approach – they try to combine most of the layers in one garment. They will typically have an outer and mid-layer, to keep the elements out (make sure you don’t get damp) and provide insulation (keep you warm). Softshell cycling jackets are softer and more flexible than hard shells, so they are more comfortable, even if you wear them right next to your skin.
Softshell jackets were first introduced in the early 2000s, and were intended for outdoor activities like cycling and climbing — aerobic activities in variable weather conditions, in which a water resistant, highly breathable, somewhat windproof garment could keep the athlete reasonably dry and warm. Since then, softshell jackets have become very popular, mainly because you can wear them on and off the bike, and they can protect you in a wide range of cycling conditions. Of course, they are ideally suited to cycling in the Spring and Fall.
Soft shells can also be worn over a base layer of your choice when it’s a little colder. And you can carry a lightweight, packable waterproof jacket for sudden heavy rain. Clearly, this makes soft shell cycling jackets the best solution for cyclists looking for a do-everything spring and fall jacket.
What is a Hardshell Cycling Jacket?
A hardshell cycling jacket is intended to be waterproof, windproof, and breathable. It is intended for more extreme weather and is typically worn in winter. However, it is not designed to keep you warm. The basic principle of dressing for cycling is to wear layers, as explained above. Your hardshell jacket will be the outermost layer in cold and rainy conditions, and you would wear insulating layers underneath it to keep warm.
The clever trick that great hardshell cycling jackets get right is this: they stop the rain from coming IN, while letting the water vapor produced by your sweat OUT. So they are breathable AND waterproof. This is pretty sophisticated, if you think about it, because rain and sweat are almost the same thing – variations of water (H2O). Manufacturers achieve this by putting tiny pores in the fabric. Water vapor can pass out of them, because water vapor molecules are not bound together, so individual tiny molecules can pass through the tiny pores. However, water molecules are bound together and therefore bigger, and cannot get in.
Gore-Tex Technology for Hardshell Cycling Jackets
The W. L. Gore Corporation pioneered this breathable AND waterproof technology for outdoor clothing way back in 1978, with their popular laminate technology. They called their new fabric Gore-Tex. Since then, a lot of other name brands have arrived on the market, such as eVent, Polartec and many generics. But Gore-Tex is like Hoover – they are so associated with the brand that many people refer to the entire breathable AND waterproof category as Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex still make great products (and are my personal favorites), but they certainly NOT the only company that makes great breathable AND waterproof clothing.
GORE-TEX® fabrics are nylon and polyester face fabric, laminated with a GORE-TEX® membrane. They come in a range of grades, including GORE-TEX® Pro, GORE-TEX® Active, and regular GORE-TEX®. Active Shell is a newer Gore-Tex membrane, designed to be very breathable, waterproof, windproof, and lightweight. The company also offers soft shell fabric and a super light fabric called Paclite®. Their Paclite jacket is the best lightweight waterproof cycling jacket I have ever tried, but it is not very breathable. It has largely been replaced now by one of Gore-Tex’s newest offerings, the Gore Bike Wear Oxygen 2.0 Jacket. This is made of Active Shell fabric and is more breathable than the Paclite.
Fun fact: Gore-Tex fabrics have over 1.4 billion micro-pores per square centimetre!
I hope this post has provided all the information you need to know about how what kind of cycling jacket is right for you. Make your choice based on the climate where you live, and your cycling needs.
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