With so many synthetic base layers aimed specifically at cyclists on the market, wool may not be your first choice, but perhaps the I/O Merino Altitude will change your mind…
Cycling and wool have had a long, if not always comfortable, history together. Glance at any photo of the Tour de France peleton from before the 1970s and you’ll see the pros tooling along in something not unlike what you would expect your grandmother to knit. As if the torture of riding insane distances over major mountain ranges in the summer heat was not enough, imagine doing it in an itchy, scratchy jumper…
But, discomfort to one side, the old timers were onto something in their preference for wool over cotton, hessian, leather or just about anything else available in those pre-synthetic times. Wool has certain properties that, put together the right way, make for good sports gear – it is a very good insulator, it has good moisture wicking properties (it can absorb moisture up to 35 per cent of its weight, compared with 24 per cent for cotton and 1 per cent for polyester) and it is harder to make it smell bad, not to mention, if you are wearing wool, you are less likely to burst into a ball of flame while demonstrating your favourite trick with a Flaming Lamborghini…
So, although lycra remains king, it is not altogether surprising to see wool making a comeback in the world of cycling – just not in a form that Anquetil, Coppi or Tommy Simpson would have recognised. I’m not talking here about nostalgic re-creations of the jerseys of yore, but the emergence of technically advanced woollen fibres and garments that are giving the synthetics a run for their money, particularly when it comes to insulation.
Most people who have been riding for a few years have a few pieces of kit in the cupboard that they find themselves reaching for more often than not. In my case, because I live in an area prone to frosty mornings and cool starts (at least for half the year), toe warmers, arm warmers, excellent gloves and a good gillet are indispensable. And so is a decent base layer.
What makes for a good undershirt?
By my reckoning, the best base layer is something that you are barely aware is there, but you appreciate as soon as you begin an eight-kilometre descent into freezing fog with an ambient air temperature somewhere in the region of minus five degrees.
On this front, the latest offering from Australian firm I/O Merino ticks the boxes. Made from super-fine Merino wool, the lightweight Altitude base layer t-shirt seems, at first touch, way too thin to do much of anything. But, as is often the case, appearances are deceptive. Put it on under a jersey and start riding, and its insulating properties soon become apparent.
On a recent test ride, while my bare arms flared with goosebumps in the morning cool, the combination of the Altitude top and a summer weight jersey was ample to keep my torso warm. This gave rise to concern that the heat might soon become stifling, particularly with a couple of solid climbs ahead. But I needn’t have worried. Drop the jersey zip down a bit and the natural breathability qualities of wool made it a cinch to control the temperature. And when the sweat did flow, the Altitude top seemed to be as effective as any synthetic base layer I’ve used in wicking the moisture away from the skin to prevent that uncomfortable clammy feel.
According to I/O Merino, the performance of their base layers is down to the quality of the wool they use and the propriety treatment they give it. The company say they only source top-shelf superfine Australian merino wool (18.5 micron diameter) and control every part of the manufacturing process, from spinning and dyeing to knitting, to create what they call MicroMerino. The result, they say, is a woollen garment that perfects the balance between comfort and performance.
I don’t have a micrometer or forensic lab to verify all these claims, but I can confirm that wearing the Altitude t-shirt, you wouldn’t know it was made of wool. It is soft and comfortable on the skin, with none of itchiness or scratchiness I’ve usually associated with woollen garments. It is designed to be close fitting but, because it stretches, you barely notice you are wearing it.
Attention to detail in its construction enhances the comfort – the label is printed, not sewn on; the seams are flat lock stitched; and there are thoughtful touches such as thumb holes in the cuffs on the long sleeve version to make sure you can pull it on without losing the sleeve halfway up your arm.
As to temperature control, it certainly kept me warm without getting clammy. Sure, I wouldn’t be wearing it in any temperature above the mid-teens Celsius, but why would you need to?
So how do you get one, and how much does it cost?
The Altitude base layer t-shirt I tried (which comes in navy blue and a colour called carbon) retails for $A69.50, and the long sleeve version with a quarter zip cost $A94.50. But don’t bother looking for I/O Merino gear in your local shop.
The company, which was founded in 2004-05, became an online-only operation in 2012 after global wool prices virtually doubled overnight. Rather than compensate by diluting the quality of wool they used, they instead axed their retail network.
Any purchases less than $100 incur a $A9.50/$US9.50/Euro9.50 shipping charge, while shipping is free anywhere in the world for purchases worth $100 or more.
Underlining their confidence in the quality of their product, I/O Merino provides their customers with a 60-day guarantee – if you wear it and don’t like it, you can return it and get your money back or swap it for something else.
Wearing base layers might not be everyone’s cup of tea – they don’t provide the same on-the-fly flexibility of arm and leg warmers or a decent jacket. But if you appreciate what base layers can do to make a chilly autumn or winter ride that much more comfortable, then I/O Merino gear is worth checking out.
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