By Genevieve Walker
I have always liked getting ready for a winter ride better than a summer ride because there are more opportunities to wear interesting gear. Since I am hopelessly in love with cycling gear, I think about this stuff a lot. Right now my thoughts are focused on why wool rules for winter cycling warmth — especially when it comes to layering.
Wool is a near-miraculous fiber that keeps you warm even when you’re wet, and does not––contrary to popular mythology––smell like lanolin when exposed to moisture. It repels water, but also absorbs it; it handles odors like a champ and it’s flame retardant. Wearing wool doesn’t have to mean scratchy, itchy skin, either.
In recent years synthetics have led the way for cyclists owing to their weight, texture and availability. Prior to the development of synthetics though, wool was the classic choice in the world of bicycle racing. Today, a new generation of road cyclists is rediscovering, in updated form, wool jersey styles made popular by riders like the great Eddie Merckx in the 1970s.
The Secrets of Wool Revealed
What makes wool so special is that it is a fiber built for heat, cold and wet. Wool is basically another name for animal hair, but sort of like feathers, wool distinguishes itself from fur and hair with a few important attributes that offer considerable benefits when you’re riding a bike in all kinds of weather:
- Insulation: The actual wool fiber is crimped. When the fibers are bunched, air gets trapped among them, providing natural insulation.
- Durability: The wool fiber is a protein (keratin), which, like muscle, has an inherent elasticity, a property that isn’t easily replicated in synthetics. This makes wool durable and able to hold its shape.
- Water-Repellancy: Wool is also coated in lanolin, a waxy substance that makes the fiber water-repellent.
- Wicking: On the inside of the fiber, the cortex is “water loving,” and “can absorb [up] to one-third of its weight in moisture (estimates range from 27 to 36 percent), typically without feeling damp,” says the comprehensive wool guide from R.E.I.
The general conception of wool as too scratchy, too heavy, too hot or not warm enough, comes from the days before technology made it possible to produce wool garments with superior properties. Lucky for us, today we can pick from a wide assortment of soft, thin and machine-washable wool garments.
The Magic of Merino
Out of the many types of wool, Merino is the most popular for active wear. It comes from Merino sheep raised in New Zealand, Australia, South America and South Africa. The fiber is softer and finer than other types of wool––the fiber’s diameter is smaller and has more crimps––making it silky, but resilient. So when you’re layering up for a ride in the rain (dare I say snow?), and are considering wool to wear close to the skin, Merino is the way to go.