I need some of your sage wisdom: As a pretty serious mountain biker and alpine skier looking to the approaching winter, I want to score a hard shell that will serve me both on the trails and the slopes. I've looked at Patagonia, Cloudveil, The North Face, and Lowe Alpine, but I'm lost in the many options. I want something that breathes well, keeps me dry in wet conditions. Insulation ain't important (got a great Patagonia fleece already). Please, point me in the right direction! Nathan Washington, D.C.
One thing I'd avoid is a very heavy, three-ply jacket made with Gore-Tex or some other waterproof-breathable, as I think it'll be too much when you're biking. Better are the "two-and-a-half" jackets, which combine a traditional two-ply laminate (waterproof membrane and face fabric) with a light inner coating. These are lighter, more flexible, and more breathable. Cloudveil's Drizzle ($235; www.cloudveil.com) is one such jacket, incorporating Cloudveil's proprietary Cloudburst Stretch fabric, long pit zips, and stretchy underarm panels. It's cut pretty trimly, but I think would fit over most fleece jackets, except for the bulkiest ones. Patagonia's Lightning ($210; www.patagonia.com) is similar in design and weight, but I know from personal use that while it's a great jacket, it's VERY snug, so layering is difficult.
I'd also highly recommend anything made with eVENT, a relative newcomer to the field. eVENT is a fabric that is chemically similar to Gore-Tex but engineered in such a way that water vapor can vent much more quickly. I have a Pearl Izumi bicycling piece (the Channel Jacket, $200; www.pearlizumi.com) that uses this stuff, and it's borderline fantastic. Lowe Alpine is the latest company to use eVENT, so you might take a look at their Elite Jacket ($359; www.lowealpine.com), a nicely designed all-purpose shell that would be at home skiing, hiking, or on a mountain bike. The Channel Jacket is a good one, too, but I think it might prove difficult when you're layering for cold winter days.
So there you go. Good luck!