Spandex road-bike apparel might look ridiculous, but it’s a necessary tool if you're spending several hours in the saddle. Good kits, with formfitting, aerodynamic designs and padded chamois pads, aren't inexpensive, but trust us: the stuff pays for itself in comfort over time. This summer, we’ve ridden all the best new pieces. What follows are our three favorites.
Rapha Pro Team Jersey and Pro Team Bib Short ($170 and $290)
Rapha's sponsorship of Team Sky has led to better, more unique road kits. The Pro Team Jersey, for example, is cut from soft, extremely stretchy Coldblack fabric on the front and rear that feels almost like wearing nothing at all, with even lighter, more breathable mesh panels on the neck and sides. The long-cut sleeves are super comfy and never ride up. The bright color and reflective hits add visibility, but still manage to look good.
The company's chamois pads are some of the thickest we’ve encountered: they’re great for those who are sensitive or for especially long days on the road, but a few testers said they’d prefer less bulk for better road feel. The bib straps are all mesh for improved breathability, and as you’d expect, there are color swatches to complement the jersey options.
Bottom Line: The best kit for long days.
Nalini Black Label Aeprolight Half Body and Aeprolight Bib Short ($234 and $265)
Nalini is little known in the U.S., even though it produces much of the high-end apparel on the market. In fact, its factory churns out over half the kits worn by Pro Tour racers, but licensing agreements mean it often appears under a different label. The Black Label gear is, according to the company, exactly the same stuff that Vincenzo Nibali of Astana wears, minus the toothpaste colorway and garish graphics.
The Aeprolight jersey looks sexy, but it also comes with a lot of built-in tech. The ribs in the upper fabric serve as thin, breathable vents for moving moisture, but the material still feels solid and also gives the jersey shape. The gauzy mesh under the arms and down the middle of the back helped with cooling, though this is never going to be the best choice for the hottest days given the black color. In fact, while we like the look of it, the color is our biggest complaint: black might look great in New York City, but it has terrible on-road visibility, in additon to the fact that it doesn't reflect light.
The Aeprolight bibs are even airier than the jersey, thanks to the gossamer, compressive materials. The uppers use a flat, yoke-style suspender arrangement attached to seamless straps, which were easy on the skin but also felt like they could use a touch more elastic. The chamois pad was the thinnest of the three, making these bottoms best suited for racers. The cut of the short is longer than on most bibs, while the grippers are wider, which helped keep the bottoms nicely in place. Sizing is definitively Euro racer, so unless you’re super wiry, it's best to size up.
Bottom Line: Performance cred with Italian flare for riders with some coin.
Castelli Climber’s 2.0 Jersey and Free Aero Race Bibshort ($130 and $200)
It feels strange to call Castelli, historically known as a high-end Italian brand, the best deal going, but it’s true that this kit serves up a lot of performance for the money.
The company’s seamless chamois pad has always been a favorite, while the revised Progetto X2 Air version here is better than ever thanks to the strategically placed foam and new perforations that help with breathability. We’ve ridden 24-hour races (and longer) in this pad, and it simply doesn’t chafe or irritate. The soft, seamless belly section is a nice new touch for added comfort. But though we liked the flat, yoke-style suspenders, the seams on the front and rear of the strap did rub our nipples wrong once or twice. The airy leg grippers, however, are incredible, and kept everything in place without the normal stickiness of a rubber ring around the leg. There’s even a built-in radio pack on the back, if you need comm with a team car—or just some tunes.
The Climber’s 2.0 Jersey is cut exclusively from three varieties of mesh, and the result is a garment that feels as if it’s barely there. That made this the coolest thing we’ve worn on a bike and the piece we reached for on the most scorching days (be warned: it offers no sun protection, so lather on the block before kitting up). The other slight downside of the fabrics is that they pull and catch quite easily, so this isn’t the most durable piece. Also, there’s no gripper elastic at the waist, which had the jersey occasionally riding up.
Bottom Line: Lots of tech at a reasonable cost.