Must-Have Features for a Cycling Jacket (with bonus Patagonia Light Flyer review)

Maybe not exactly this

Expanding on Cupcake’s post about biking in winter, I wanted to talk a little about jackets specifically. When I first started biking in winter, I just layered up whatever gear I already had. Luckily, as a snowboarder I had LOTS of cold weather gear, though I quickly learned not all of it is really ideal for cycling. I had my polarfleece neck warmers and snow pants and bulky two-part Burton gloves and a crazy Moonstone Mountaineering jacket that kept me warm high up in the screaming winds on chair lifts at the tops of mountains in West Virginia, New York, Vermont, and Colorado.

But the thing is, riding a bike in the winter is not like snowboarding. I don’t have to worry about sitting motionless on 40 minute chair lift rides while all that sweat I worked up turns into mass-chill-effect dampness in my clothes and icicles on my eyebrows. On the bike I’m moving constantly, and putting out a lot of body heat (and sweat. I’m a sweaty girl.) So here’s the Kaz List of Must-Have Features for a Cycling Jacket:

  1. Waterproof. For some of you, mere water resistance may be enough, but I ride in the rain and the snow and have no interest in showing up at my destination looking like a drowned rat. 100% waterproof or GTFO.
  2. Windproof. This is so key. If your jacket blocks wind, you need little in the way of bulky layers to stay warm, especially once you get moving. I typically wear only two layers under my jacket (a base layer like Omni Heat or Icebreaker wool long underwear or whatever, plus a wool sweater) on all but the coldest days.
  3. Breathability. C6H12O6 + 6 O2 = 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + Energy (34-36 ATP + heat)… In other words, organic compounds + oxygen = carbon dioxide + water + energy. Your body is constantly making water as a byproduct of turning your food into energy so you can mash those pedals. Plus you’re generating heat so you’re probably sweating too. The solution is (Fuck Yeah) Gore-Tex. Even with Gore-Tex my base layers tend to be a bit damp upon arriving at the office, but I’ve ridden in a not-breathable windbreaker before and the rain/snow would have gotten me less soggy than wearing that awful thing.
  4. PIIIIIIIT ZIIIIIIIPS (or equivalent). I have got to have ventilation. Seriously you guys, I sweat like a 14-year-old boy going through puberty just sitting still, and I have a hard time “taking it easy” when I’m riding my bike. So no matter how much I try not to, I’m always working up a sweat on my commute. Pit zips or chest zips or upper arm zips or some features where you can get some ventilation flowing through/around your body without having to actually unzip the front of your jacket are really fucking amazing.
  5. Long sleeves. No one wants that strip of skin on your wrists between the end of your gloves and the beginning of your sleeves getting all drafty and frostbitten.
  6. Long torso. Gotta keep my badonkadonk covered.
  7. No hood. Reasonable minds may disagree on this, but my previous jacket had a hood and honestly it just got in the way. It was uncomfortable under a helmet and restricted my ability to turn my head if I stretched it over my helmet, so it was useless and flapped around back there and sometimes got in the way of me being able to look back over my shoulder.

Now, on to my current jacket of choice: The Patagonia Women’s Light Flyer Jacket.

Patagonia Women's Light Flyer Jacket

Shown in the lovely “Maraschino”

Hey, notice anything weird? The description says this jacket is for trail running. But the thing is, it has all the features I want in a waterproof cycling jacket, plus a few other nifty attributes that make it my fave jacket of all time. I don’t care what some marketing jackass thinks a jacket is for if it meets my criteria.

The Light Flyer is three-layer Gore-Tex with sealed seams and amazing Patagonia construction and quality, which means it’s 100% waterproof and windproof yet breathable. 1, 2, and 3 – CHECK. It has upper arm zips, combined with a covered vent in back. The upper arm zips are in the perfect position when my hands are on my bars to direct air flow across/around my pits and out the back vent. It’s really awesome and I like it better than the pit zips on my previous jacket. 4 – CHECK. The sleeves are long — super long, because they have these little cuffs that are supposed to fold out into mini-mittens. Unfortunately when I’m stretched out on my bars the mini mitten things don’t work for me but I’ve taken to tucking tissues or a handkerchief in the pouch they make – perfect for cold-weather snotty nose cleanup! 5 – CHECK. The torso is long and there’s a bit of a tail in the back which keeps my ass nicely covered. 6 – CHECK. No hood. 7- CHECK.

So, the main con is a big one – the damn thing is expensive. $280 expensive. I only have it because I had an employee discount hookup. So I recommend, like, making friends with your local Patagonia employees or something. But Patagonia stuff is good, and their guarantee/warranty pretty amazing, so it might even be worth looking into at full price, or if you can find it on sale.

Something else to note is that the fit is really, really slim. I mean, I’m a Tiny Fix girl – 5’1″, between 110 and 120 lbs depending on how many Christmas pierogi I stuffed in my face over the holidays. I wear smalls and extra-smalls. But this jacket is so lean that I had to order a medium to be able to wear a sweater under it. I don’t mind the extra length the bigger size gives me in the arms and torso, but it was a bit of a surprise. And even the medium probably wouldn’t fit my puffy down vest under it if I needed it to.

The little waterproof zip pocket in the back would be PERFECT for a phone – if only my phone fit in it! It’s really only big enough for your ID and maybe a couple keys. A minor disappointment, but worth noting since the jacket has no other pockets to speak of.

The “tailored grey” color I got is really beautiful in person – almost silvery. Of course I’ve already got bike dirt and grease all over it, especially the long-ass sleeves, but it still looks pretty good on me, don’t ya think?

Me in my Patagonia jacket in the aforementioned office building locker room facilities

6 Comments

  • J January 9, 2013 at 2:43 am

    You forgot highly visible and reflective.

    Reply
    • kaz January 9, 2013 at 2:47 am

      I can see how that’s important to some people. But I prefer using powerful lights to make sure I’m visible and not relying on patches of reflective fabric that can easily get covered in grime. Plus, reflective items require a light shining on them, and I want to be seen by pedestrians and other cyclists as well as cars that may not have their headlights on.

      That said, I do like that the light grey color does make me pretty visible!

      Reply
  • Erik January 9, 2013 at 2:57 am

    You can always wear a mesh reflective vest over a great non-reflective jacket/jersey too.

    Reply
  • Kit January 9, 2013 at 3:14 am

    Looks like the Patagonia jacket in maraschino is on sale at moosejaw.com. Also, using the code RMN5 you can get an extra 5% off. About a hundred bucks less than full retail, all in all. Free shipping, too. Thanks for the rec!

    Reply
  • Steven Vance January 14, 2013 at 6:57 am

    I agree with you on all 7 counts. Sometimes I wish I had a hood for the times I didn’t bring anything to cover my neck or deflect water from my face.

    Pit zips are essential!

    My first cycling jacket in Chicago was made by GORE bike wear and had “windstopper” – it really stopped the wind! But it was only water resistant. So I upgraded when that jacket wore out, to a breathable, windproof, waterproof, pit zips, no hood, long torso (I’m 6’4″), long sleeves (again, I’m tall), from Showers Pass (the Touring Jacket).

    Reply
  • The Epic Tiny Fix Guide to #BikeWinter | Tiny Fix January 14, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    […] I spend a ridiculously long stretch of fall in just my wool base layers, but when temperature drops I reach for my Mavic Gennaio soft shell. If it’s raining, I put my Marmot Pre-Cip waterproof hardshell on top. Kaz wrote a long, great article about things to look for when buying a cycling jacket here. […]

    Reply

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