Thursday, January 1, 2015

Cycling Pants Review

A confluence of factors has produced the result that I'm wearing lots of semi-techno cycling/casual wear pants and shorts these days.  Those factors:
  • Rapha and Vulpine. I admit it, I've gotten suckered in to the "cycling lifestyle" sell.  In my defense, I primarily shop the clearance items.
  • Bike commuting.  It's fun getting on the bike daily whether to get to work or to do something more -- run errands, head to the airport, head to meetings uptown.  I don't feel like changing into and out of human clothes several times a day.
  • Age.  Not that I've ever looked good wearing spandex, but I didn't always feel quite this ridiculous wearing spandex.  
  • Touring aspirations.  I'm sick of trying and failing to ride fast.  I like the idea of spending a week or longer with nothing but a credit card and a bike.  Non-lycra cycling wear is more appropriate for that use.
These offerings can be grouped loosely into two categories:  (1) cycling-friendly casual wear and (2) real cycling wear that is less inappropriate than a full lycra kit for wearing in social settings.  Within those categories, here is the ranking:

Cycling-friendly Casual Wear:

1.  Rapha City Trousers -- A+, $$$
2.  Vulpine Summer Trousers -- A, $$
2.  Novara Cragmont Jeans -- A, $
3.  Levi's 504 Jeans -- B-, $1/2
4.  Levi's Commuter Cargo Pants -- C-, $1/2

Real Cycling Wear:

1.   Novara Westbrae Knickers -- A+, $
1.   Castelli Touring Overshorts -- A+, $$
2.   Rapha Touring Shorts -- A-, $$$
3.  Novara Westbrae Pants -- B+, $
4.  Rapha Knickers -- B, $$$

And here is 10c on each of several pants/shorts/knickers with bicycle-friendly features. 

Cycling-friendly Casual Wear:

1.  Rapha City Trousers.  First prize in cycling-friendly casual wear.

I have a pair in black and a pair in tan.  (Makes me thirsty just typing it.)  $145 each on clearance.  Yes, that is profligate.  No, it probably cannot be justified -- but having spent the money, I'm not disappointed.

The pants fit incredibly well.  Maybe it's just me, maybe it is cyclists generally, maybe a little of both, but pants that fit me in the thighs and butt -- and also in the waist -- are simply not available on  department store racks.  I repeat:  simply not available.  These are somehow cut to fit well up the legs and over the glutes but also to fit at the waist.  I just love the Rapha fit.

The Cordura seat panel is a nice touch.  It may be too big and too visible; I always feel a touch self-conscious using these for the "trouser" (instead of "cycling") function.  Otherwise put, I wonder when teaching class wearing my city trousers whether students think I'm wearing an adult diaper.  Note that there is not a pad, which I think is good.

Reflective feature on the inside of the leg:  a cute touch.  Amusing that it is on the right leg, which works well if you are riding on the left side of the road in England but much less so if you are riding on the right in the US.  Having seen Sam's Proviz jacket review, and purchased one for myself, I'm increasingly conscious that little reflective tabs here and there are of marginal, if any, benefit. 

Summary:  if they fit you as well as they do me, these pants are worth trying out.  The sale is back on at

Use model for this category:  dressing for the commute, whether to the office or to my office-away-from-the-office at Starbucks.  I am comfortable wearing most of the offerings in this category for even semi-professional encounters.

2.  Vulpine summer trousers.  Tied for second in cycling-friendly casual wear.

These are currently on sale for 45 pounds, or ~$68, at Vulpine.  They fit comfortably and look nice.  Despite ranking them second to Novara's City Trousers based on my own fit and fabric preferences, at the sale price they would be my first choice in this category.

Vulpine summer trousers.  Vulpine shows the possibilities of a bike as a fashion accessory.

Cycling specific features include an ankle button on the right leg and sufficient tapering that a left-leg button is not necessary; a gusseted crotch; a quick-drying poly-cotton fabric; and articulation at the knees.

The fit is very good if not as tailored as the first-prize Rapha City Trousers.  Just a touch too loose in the waist for my liking.  The fabric feels marvelous:  just enough cotton for next-so-skin comfort but the technical benefits of polyester.  They are a tad light for winter weather riding and rear-wheel spray penetrates them easily.  The articulated knees are a stroke of brilliance:  why none of the other so-called cycling clothing makers have discovered this, I have no idea.

These are ride-to-work or -lunch meeting pants.  I rank them below Rapha because the fit is imperfect and the fabric is light for regular off-season use, but at the current sale price these are my first choice for a purchase.

3.  Novara Cragmont Cycling Jeans.  Tied for second prize in cycling-friendly casual wear.

These are stretchy denim jeans that fit more like technical fabric pants.  They have pockets front and rear and, like all the pants reviewed here, the convenience of an ordinary zip fly.  They also appear to be a Max Huffman favorite that has been discontinued by the manufacturer.  I do see they are available for $52 at REI outlet to a few lucky souls who get there quickly.

Novara Cragmont Jeans.  No longer available at REI!

Cycling-specific features: a gussetted crotch, a closer-than-normal fit, stretchy fabric, reflective piping on the inside of the bottom cuffs that becomes visible with one roll (though perversely is lost with the second to nth rolls), and reflective tape on tabs that can be pulled up from the rear pockets.  They also have a loop for a u-lock on the back left of the waist-band.  (Why?  Is every bike commuter a bike courier?  And what is the shoulder bag for if not to carry your lock?)

Review of those features:  the gusset works.  These are comfortable to sit and ride in.  I went 36 today with plenty of up and down in the saddle with nary a pinch or wrinkle undermining my comfort.  The stretchy fabric puts these above all other casual wear useful for cycling that I have found when it comes to actually riding.  They look like jeans but they wear like tights.  The reflective accents:  well, those on the cuffs are silly.  Those on the rear pockets are at least bigger and facing the would-be man-slaughterer (backward), but I think they are also silly.  The u-lock loop:  a dumb feature, but at least here, as opposed to the Levi's (below), the belt can run under the loop rather than over, so it helps to hold your belt in place rather than pushing it off over the top of your pants.

These are comfortable pants that are just a tad loose in the waist -- like most US vendors of consumer vestments, REI has not figured out that big butt does not mean big waist.  (You'd like to think REI, which pitches to an athletic consumer base, would be better on this score.)  They are not perfect for true casual wear -- a bit tight, a bit too sleek -- but so long as you have a bike helmet in hand or a courier bag over your back you can probably get away with it.  These were hard to categorize:  casual wear for cycling or cycling wear for casual use?  They ride better than anything else that I have found that is designed to be worth both on the bike and off.

4.  Levi 504 "Commuter" Jeans.  Third prize in cycling-friendly casual wear.

Check out that reflective accent. A car might think it is running over a fire-fly!
Levi's bills these as designed for commuting and urban cycling use.  Cycling-friendly features include reflective piping on the inside seams (visible from the side when legs are rolled up), a u-lock loop, and a fuller cut in the legs and butt with tapering toward the ankles and just a touch at the waist.

The u-lock loop is ridiculous.  If you want to go bike courier style with your u-lock, wear a belt.  This one just causes my belt to ride up over the top of the pant.   The fit is an improvement over ordinary jeans cut for skinny-legged gentlemen but is nowhere near what Rapha or Vulpine have achieved.

The reflective piping on the side is frankly silly.  A car is only seeing you from the side for the 1/2 second before it hits you.  Backward-facing reflective accents make some sense, although -- as I note above re: the Rapha trousers, small reflective touches do little to make me safer when riding at night. 

In short, they are jeans with bells and whistles that you can find on Amazon for ~$50.  I like them less than my other jeans and they add little to my cycling, so in sum I call these a disappointment.
5.  Levi Commuter Cargo Pants.  Fourth prize in cycling-friendly casual wear.

Another offering in Levi's commuter line.  They have buttons around the right lower leg to make pedaling possible without rolling up the leg.  They bluntly fit too tightly to be very useful for anything but the most casual of riding.

I found these for ~$40 on Amazon but the current price is closer to $70.  Not worth it at either price.

Real Cycling Wear:

1.  Castelli Touring Overshorts.  Tied for first prize in real cycling clothing.

I found these on sale at Competitive Cyclist maybe a year ago for, I think, $90.  They might be the single most substantial reason why I became enthusiastic about non-lycra cycling gear.

The Castelli overshorts have normal pockets front and back, ideal for casual use.  Like nearly everything reviewed in this post, they lack a pad, so are designed to be worn over other cycling shorts or padded boxer shorts.  As I discovered over 100 miles in Grand Cayman last April, they work fine for tourist riding with or without cycling shorts underneath.

If you are looking, my regrets that Castelli seems to have discontinued them.  Giro's New Road shorts, $100 or so on Amazon, are the closest I've seen out there, but I can't vouch for them based on anything other than their look and description.

Use model for this category:  strap them to the bike when I may need to look presentable before I have the chance to get home to change.

2.  Novara Westbrae Knickers.  Tied for first prize in real cycling wear.
Knickers.  Is he not wearing a shirt?  Not a good look.

These were on sale for $35 or so at REI so I gave them a try.  They were well worth it.  They fit well -- not unlike the Rapha knickers, but, like the Cragmont jeans, not as well-tailored in the waist.  They have a very light pad that adds little and would need to be supplemented for a longer ride, but it is light enough one could wear these knickers over an ordinary pair of padded cycling shorts.

Cycling features:  stretchy "Schoeller" polyester fabric, reflective tabs on the rear pockets (which are exposed by tucking the pocket flaps inside), and a closer-than-average fit.  They also shed water reasonably well in the rain.

I wore these when Sam and I rode the Beach-Tuckerman-Glen-River-Persimmon-MacArthur loop on December 28.  They performed perfectly.  I added a pair of cheap padded boxer-briefs to supplement the thin sewn-in padding.  I would say these ride as well as an ordinary pair of cycling shorts but the fit is just a tad more appropriate for all but the most serious of cycling applications.

Of the five cycling pants for casual use, these are tied for my favorite; at the $35 sale price these are the first choice for a new purchase. 

3.  Rapha Shorts.  Second prize in real cycling wear.

Rapha calls these the "touring shorts."  They fit closer than casual wear but looser than ordinary cycling spandex.  I like them; they look fine; they serve the goal of being wearable in semi-polite society.  Like the trousers above, they do not have a pad, which works well when I want to wear them over ordinary cycling shorts or even over padded underwear.

Biggest complaint apart from the price:  the pockets are designed for a key and a small batch of cards/IDs/cash, but not a wallet or a modern-sized smartphone.  Second biggest:  the seam on the small front waist pocket tore through quickly when carrying a ring full of keys.  An easy fix, of course.

The price is prohibitive.  I paid $125 for these and I am not convinced they add that much to the touring set-up.

Here is the use model: I will keep these strapped under the saddle with the rain jacket for a light touring application, e.g., on a Fleche or weekend credit-card tour.  From time to time I may keep them on while riding -- imagine wine touring by bike or short rides from inn to inn on a casual vacation.  With those ideas in mind, I think these should serve quite well.

4.  Novara Pants (Westbrae?).  Third prize in real cycling wear.

These were also on fire sale for perhaps $40 and are made of stretch Schoeller fabric.  Like the knickers they have reflective tabs that become visible when the pockets flaps are tucked in.  They have a very light crotch pad and, like the Novara jeans, a meaningless reflective flap inside the left leg that becomes visible with the first roll.  These fit too tightly to be casual wear and are just a touch looser in the lower leg than real tights, but they serve ideally for cold or rainy-weather rides when you may find yourself off the bike from time to time.  I cannot find them any longer on REI's website, so I assume they have been discontinued.

One unique and nice touch is the ankle gathering elastic on the right leg with the tab hidden inside a zipped pocket.  Unzip, cinch, enclose the plastic fastener inside the pocket.  The tightened ankle easily clears the chainring even under aggressive pedaling.

Rear reflective tabs just like on the knickers.  Nice, but not enough.

I wore these over ~5 miles of errands on a nasty sleeting day in November.  They shed the falling sleet without trouble.  I did suffer some amount of wetness from rear tire spray but the pants dried quickly.  Keeping the pants at full length rather than rolling them up was a big benefit for my shins and ankles, which otherwise take the brunt of the cold and wet.

And I wore these on a cold-and-windy winter ride with Sam for just shy of two hours on December 30.  They kept me warm and handled the rigors of on-and-off aggressive pedaling without difficulty.  I'd rank these higher if I had more use for full-length pants when cycling rather than when commuting.

5.  Rapha Knickers.  Fourth prize in real cycling wear.

These are no longer available, probably because they frankly look a tad goofy.  They work remarkably well, however.

The fit is quite like that of the City Trousers -- enough room in the thighs and butt while tapered into the waist for us skinny sorts.  They have a better assortment of pockets than do the touring shorts, which helps for the walking around part of touring.  Among other things, I do like the zip pocket for keys and cash.

To my view these serve precisely the same purpose as do the touring shorts.  I think they do the job just a tad better.  One option to handle the sort of silly look may be to cut them down to above-knee length.

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