Jul 192014

My only mode of transport these days is a bicycle.  I might get lifts from other people on occasion, but normally I ride everywhere.

It’s a great way to get around, good form of exercise, cheap and whilst I won’t be breaking any speed records, it’s not overly time consuming.  I spend more time waiting for buses and trains than I do getting places on the bike.  The downside is what to wear whilst cycling.  For cycling use, car drivers have a hard enough time seeing a cyclist as it is, so I feel safer if I’m at the very least, light-coloured, ideally day/night high visibility compliant with AS/NZS 4602:1999.  I’ve been cycling as my main mode of transport now for nearly 5 years, and over this time I’ve tried a number of things for clothing.

Regular clothing

“Normal” clothing, was naturally what I started out with.  What I find is that it quickly wears out, particularly trousers, when subjected to this sort of treatment.  The cycling movement puts a lot of stress in the crutch and thus, I find they give out within a year or two.

Cycling is also very physical, so one will sweat a lot.  So at the very least you’ll want a shirt to wear cycling, and another to change into when you get to your destination.  The high-visibility polo shirts work well for this, they’re cheap and lightweight, keep the sun off well without being too hot.

Work clothing

By this I mean industrial work clothing.  After finding that my trousers were wearing out at an alarming rate, I decided I’d go for more industrial type clothing.

I hate wearing belts, so I looked around and bought some overalls.  My preference is for ones that have a front zip.  A bloody pain in the arse to find in this country!  The likes of King Gee, Bisley, Worksense and many others tend to make those sorts for markets like in NZ, but over here they tend to sell only stud-fastening ones which I find are more time consuming to fasten.  A zip: you’re done in about 2 seconds, studs you’ll be clipping them together for about 10.  But I digress…

The ones I found were medium-weight ones, 290gsm or something like that.  In the winter, they’re okay, but once the fabric gets soaked with sweat one’s body temperature then becomes rather uneven.  In summer they’re often too hot to consider.

Lighter-weight ones might fare better in the sweat stakes, not sure about durability.  Given the high cost ($70~$120 a pair) I’ll just have to keep looking.

Ones made out of the same material as the high-visibility polo shirts could work well, no idea where to find them though if they exist.

Seeking the all-weather cycling suit

Some at this point would be screaming at me “why not lycra”?  Well, I’ve never been a fan of lycra and have no intention of becoming a MAMIL.

One evening coming home a few weeks ago, we had some very windy weather. It’s mid-winter right now, and this wind was going right through me. My clothes were wet with sweat, and with the wind, made the cold weather that much worse.

This got me thinking: what have I got or can I get, that will block the wind, without making me sweat ridiculous amounts?  It’s presently winter, and so now’s a good time to go try an experiment, and see how they fare as the weather patterns shift towards the more humid summer weather.  If I’m still wearing this clothing in July 2015, I’ll be onto something.

Breathalon spray coveralls

I had some Breathalon coveralls lying around, previously I had worn these in wet weather, and found they are not bad.

I bought this pair for about $15 off eBay, but they’re rare as hens teeth. One company sells them for about the AU$150 mark. So not the cheapest, amongst my gripes is that they’re not the most comfortable fit and they have a one-way zip which is an annoyance when nature calls. Apart from that though, they’re a bright yellow, and they’re breathable.

The other gripe I have is no pockets: this particular pair I tried cutting access slits in to gain access to the pockets in my trousers. This proved to be unwise, they now leak in wet weather, so I’ll have to look at sealing those slits somehow.

I tried them one week: I found I sweat less than I did wearing other clothing. With just a lycra stinger suit underneath, I got to work mostly dry and comfortable. This was in dry weather. Summer humidity might be another matter, but in bright sunny winter weather, they were fine. However, they’re very hard to get hold of, and are still quite expensive.

That said, they’re probably 60% of the way there.

Disposable clothing

With the above experiment being largely successful, I considered what else would make the grade. The Breathalon coveralls were okay, but they lacked some features. Could I find some material and make my own?

Will Rietveld provided the inspiration for a cheap alternative: Tyvek coveralls. These are about AU$10 a pair, are generally white in colour (okay, not strictly daytime high-vis, but at least not black like motorcycle rainsuits), very lightweight and were apparently not much different to the old Gore Tex for breathability.

Before doing this, I did some research.  I had seen these before but had dismissed the idea thinking, they’re disposable, surely they won’t last!  Looking around, I found Barefoot Jake’s article which gave them the thumbs up, and Ken K’s forum post giving them the thumbs down.  In the forum post, the comment was the failure was in the seams.  The other two articles mention taping the seams to prevent this problem.

For the cost I thought it worth giving a go. There are a few different fabrics used in this sort of clothing. Tyvek being just one.  They’re usually described in therms of protection classes.

Class 6 coveralls tend to be very flimsy, made from single layered polypropylene and are by far the cheapest at ~AU$5 a pair.  You can just about see through them, wind and water will pass right through.  Maybe you can get some in a bright colour, in which case they’re about as good as a high-vis vest.  For keeping wind and water out: useless.

Class 5 coveralls are made from slightly heavier material such as SMS fabric and are more expensive (~AU$8 a pair).  They’re more opaque (although you can still see clothing through these), will repel water and light spray and block a small amount of wind.  If you’re like me, and a bit self-conscious, you could wear these over the top of more conventional cycle clothing.

I found that water will pool on the fabric, and they are a bit more breathable.  However, the slight transparency is a little disconcerting.  They’re worth a look.

Class 4 coveralls are used for things like asbestos removal.  Materials vary, but in amongst these are the Tyvek ones recommended by Wll’s article.  They can be had for about AU$10 a pair.

I decided to start with these, buying 3 pairs of these.  I noted the fact that the seams were taped a bright orange.  The fact they were taped seemed to suggest that someone had noticed this particular failure mode and had taken particular attention to the problem.  These ones I think are the Hazguard MP4 type material, similar to Tyvek, but with a plastic-like coating.

As I’m after a single-piece suit, I dispensed with the scissors.  When I got home, I tried grabbing a pair, turning a tap on and running the water over them to see what the waterproofing was like.  The water pooled, running my hand under the pool did not reveal any leaks.  So from that perspective, they should do exactly what I’m after.

Things were getting draughty outside so I put the pair on, and after wearing them for a few hours basically just pottering around the house, I hadn’t broken out into a ball of sweat, so breathability was there, a PVC suit would have had me sweating like a pig by then.  I wore them on my way into work to try them out.

First experiments with Class 4 coveralls

First thing that became apparent: as I cycled, the back part ballooned out.  Not necessarily a bad thing, as it made me very obvious to drivers by enlarging my apparent size.  Pedalling appeared to act like a pump, pushing air into the suit, and the air appeared to be trapped.  Like in Will’s experiment, I found that I was starting to sweat after about 20 minutes, and when I got to work, I was noticably more sweaty.  However, it was just humidity, I didn’t feel like I was overheating, nor did I feel cold when the wind blew.

So not quite there, but close.  I can buy Tyvek material on a roll cheap enough, so maybe with some work, we can improve on this.

Class 5 coveralls experiment

Since the humidity really did build up quickly, I thought maybe there was something a little more breathable.  I bought a pair of coveralls that were an SMS-type fabric.  The seems are not taped, and so I suspect these will probably have a blow out at some point.  I did the same waterproofness test and found the water pooled there also, however they’re considered splash resistant, so I suspect the water would seep through eventually.

It was at this point I noticed they were slightly more transparent.  So the following Monday I cycled in them, with one of my lycra stinger suits underneath.  I got to work, not quite as sweaty as the previous week, but still with a noticeable amount of moisture.

One hypothesis: with the Breathalon suit, I also had my stinger suit underneath.  Maybe that was helping by soaking up the sweat rather than letting it bead up on my skin, and allowing it to be more efficiently evaporated?

Class 4 + stinger suit

I tried the stinger suit underneath the class 4 coveralls, and found that the amount of sweat hadn’t changed.  In fact, doing this made things worse, the moist air didn’t dissipate fast enough and once I cooled down, the cold sweat kept me a little too cool.  Without the stinger suit, I’d eventually dry out inside the coveralls after about 15 minutes, but with the stinger suit, I was still damp after 30.

Alternative options

So I hit the web again.  Was the answer to buy another pair of spray coveralls like the Breathalon pair?  There aren’t too many options around here in Australia.  Elliots did make some out of their Zetel material, but they’ve stopped making those (pity, they had pockets!).  Castle Clothing over in the UK make something that looks ideal.  Alas, I tried emailing them to see if they had an Australian distributor — I’m yet to hear back.

Neither of these options are meant for cycling.  Looking around I saw the BikeSuit.  Clearly Olaf Wit had a similar idea, and actually got his to production.  A few comments:

  • The bikesuit comes in one colour: black.  There are some reflective stripes, so I guess that’s kinda class N (night-time: i.e. reflective) high visibility, but I’d like class D (daytime: i.e. bright colour) too.  In fact, if I had to choose between them, I’ll take class D over class N.
  • The idea of using ventilation to prevent sweat build-up looks like just what the doctor ordered.  That said, wearing this over regular clothes — I sweat in regular clothes without any waterproof gear over the top, surely this will not improve the situation?
  • The suit packs up into a bag about the volume of two soccer balls.
  • Watching the video, it appeared clumbersome to put on.  There are zips everywhere.  The fellow takes it out of its bag at time 0:20.  At 0:50, he’s still adjusting things.  10 seconds later, he’s ready to start cycling.
  • They cost over US$340.  Sure breathable and durable fabric can be expensive, but Ouch!

The class 4 coveralls: I timed myself, and it took me about 50 seconds and I was zipped up.  I had work boots on at the time which I did not remove.  About the only thing BikeSuit has over the dispsable coveralls, is ventilation, durability and built-in shoe covers.  It loses on price, availability and visibility.

Poor man’s “bike suit”?

That got me thinking, could I turn these coveralls into a poor man’s bike suit?  I observed how the back of my coveralls ballooned out, what if I made some ventilation holes?

I tried making 10 small holes just below the line of elastic at the back.  I covered the area over with plastic tape first to give the material some re-enforcing, then punched the holes.  The next day I got to work, not quite sweat free, but certainly much dryer than before.  About on par with my experiment in the Breathalon suit.

I’m thinking if I cut a slit horizontally about 30cm long, then glue (sewing is not good with Tyvek) a triangular patch of mesh fabric maybe 40cm wide and 60cm tall to the inside, that would allow the coveralls to vent.  Fold the material over at the bottom so the bottom of the slit is covered by a layer of material, or use some sheet Tyvek to make a flap, and I think I might be onto a low-cost alternative.  Tier Gear sell sheet Tyvek, so a metre or two of that would suffice for adding the extra flaps needed.

As for day/night high visibility: they exist.  More expensive obviously, but they do exist.

The only real question is one of durability.  Thankfully these things pack up so small and are lightweight enough, I can have a spare pair on the bike for wardrobe malfunction emergencies.  They should be good for WICEN events too: often I’m out on a checkpoint in the wind and rain.  Time will be the ultimate test, we shall see.