Nobody enjoys riding in the rain but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And on those occasions you need to put something between you and the rain.
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A waterproof jacket used to mean a hard-shell garment made from a fabric that feels more like plastic. However, now we're seeing the rise of the 'jerket' or rain jersey. These are softshell tops that feel like a jersey but either see a waterproof membrane or DWR treatment to repel precipitation.
Things would be easier if it were simply a matter of keeping the rain out. But, pedalling makes you hot and sweaty, and the heat and moisture you generate needs an escape route. The trouble is, the very properties that allow a waterproof jacket to keep the rain on the outside also make it difficult to deal with the damp building up on the inside.
The ideal solution, therefore, is a cycling jacket that combines being waterproof with being breathable, which is a difficult — but by no means impossible — balance to strike. Some garments manage it by using advanced materials; others solve the problem by incorporating vents into their designs.
Aside from being both waterproof and breathable, it’s worth seeking out a jacket that packs down into a tiny package that’s easily pocketable. A garment that can be stowed in a jersey pocket, saddlebag or rucksack can be conveniently carried with you at all times. Better still, if the rain stops, you can take it off and put it away rather than be forced to keep wearing it long after it’s done its job.
How waterproof fabrics work
Waterproof fabrics are pretty amazing, and they work in one of two ways, either they are multi-layer laminate fabrics, or regular woven fabrics that get a DWR (durable water repellent) treatment designed to keep water out. While both achieve the same goal, they work slightly differently.
Durable Water Repellent or DWR is your wet weather gear's first line of defence. It's not a laminate or coating but a treatment applied to the fabric's outer surface, and all waterproof garments except for those where the membrane is the outermost surface receive a DWR finish. The treatment does not inhibit breathability because it doesn't fill the gaps between the fibres, instead, it bonds the individual fibres to help the garment shed water and prevent saturation.
DWR treatments are able the shed water because they increase the contact angle of moisture on a fabric by forcing a water droplet to maintain its surface tension, so when you see water beading on a fabric, the DWR is hard at work. When the DWR is applied to a fabric it creates what are called micropegs or microspikes that protrude from the fibres and prevent water from spreading out, forcing it to form round droplets. These 'beads' of water slide off the fabric without having the opportunity to seep in.
Unfortunately, DWR treatments are not permanent and wear off over time accelerated by abrasions and some detergents. When this happens the fabric will no longer cause water to bead and will become saturated and heavy. Not to fear, refreshing and retreating a garment is quite simple and there are plenty of spray on or wash in options available — more on that later.
The majority of waterproof breathable fabrics are made from laminate fabrics, that usually consist of an inner fabric optimised for wicking moisture, a waterproof membrane, and an outer face fabric with a DWR treatment.
Gore-Tex, Windstopper, and eVent are all internal membranes, which are sandwiched between two other materials – usually something abrasion resistant on the outside, with a soft liner on the inside. Even the Castelli Gabba Jersey is made using a Windstopper laminate fabric.
The reason these lamination techniques allow for water repellent characteristics is that the inner membranes are actually full of holes. This may seem counter-intuitive, but a Gore-Tex membrane boasts nine billion pores, each 1µm – a millionth of a metre – wide, per square inch. The holes are big enough to allow water vapour created by sweat evaporation to escape but are too small for water droplets to sneak through.
These internal membranes are quite fragile, which is why there's an abrasion resistant layer on the outside of the garment. This outer layer receives what's DWR treatment, and as we mentioned before the problem with DWR treatments is that they eventually wash away, causing a jacket to ‘wet out’, meaning the moisture escaping from inside, and landing on the outside saturates the outer fabric, clogging the pores of the membrane and eliminating breathability.
When a jacket stops breathing, the moisture your body creates gets trapped inside, creating that unpleasant steaming sensation.
Most outerwear today is based upon this 2.5 or three layer lamination, but the fabrics and membranes are continuing to evolve and we're now seeing jackets eliminating the outer fabric. Pioneered by Columbia with its OutDry fabric, brands have figured out how to toughen up these membranes and eliminated the DWR treated outer fabric. We've now seen a few cycling specific jackets using GoreTex's version, the One Active fabric, that allows the membrane to be used as an outer 'beading surface.' The advantage to these fabrics is they can't wet-out because they're is not face fabric to saturate, are weigh next to nothing and breathe better too.
What to look for when buying a waterproof cycling jacket
Taping is used to seal the seams in a waterproof jacket on the inside. It does add bulk, though, and reduces a jacket’s breathability – so some of the jackets here trade a bit of seam leaking for a better overall performance.
It’s no good keeping rain out if you get soaked by sweat from within. Different fabrics have different water vapour transfer rates but cut, lining, membranes and vents all make a significant difference to how dry you stay.
To be officially waterproof a garment has to withstand the pressure of 1000mm of water without leaking. This test concentrates on jackets that keep moisture managed so you stay warm however foul the forecast. Usually, this is achieved through an internal membrane like those from Gore-Tex and eVent, which see perforations that are too small for water droplets to squeeze through but still allow water vapour to escape.
The worst enemy of your wet weather gear is your washing machine. Detergents strip off waterproof coatings and conditioners will clog the pores and fibres that help fabric wick and breath. Still it's important to keep waterproof fabrics clean as dirty and oil can clog membranes and degrade DWR treatments. Always read washing instructions.
Often overlooked is the outer DWR treatment, if your jacket is wetting out as described above, there are ways to 'revive' the treatment on your jacket, some manufacturers say to throw it in the tumble dryer for a few minutes on low to medium heat, others recommend 'touch ups' with an iron on the 'warm setting. Again refer to the manufacturer's instructions.
Finally, if the DWR treatment can't be saved you're going to want to retreat, and there are quite a few spray on and wash in products available from brands like Granger's and Nikwax. We're beginning to sound like a broken record here, but again always follow manufacturer's instructions.
Pockets, hoods and zipped vents might seem a good idea on a hanger, but not if they make a jacket too bulky to shove in your back pocket when you’re not wearing it. Extra features will all add to the cost too.
Endura MTR Emergency Shell
• Price: £90 / US$TBC / AU$TBC
- Beautifully minimal with practical performance
- Lightweight and packing loop make it easy to keep it with you at all times
- Slim cut that doesn’t restrict your freedom of movement
The Endura MTR combines a beautifully minimal design with eminently practical performance. There are no weighty extras, just a slim cut, deep dropped rear hem and a little loop that secures the rolled-up jacket in the corner of your pack or jersey pocket.
It weighs a barely there 135g and the construction is very clean. The styling is pared-back simplicity and its slim cut manages not to feel restrictive thanks to stretch inserts at the cuff and shoulders. The zip has a full-length flap both inside and outside, which adds virtually no bulk but is, we found, very effective.
The MTR’s fabric is a microscopically thin two-layer waterproof — the unlined and rubbery-feeling stuff — but given this jacket’s explicit ‘emergency’ nature that’s how it should be. We had expected there might be a compromise in durability due to the lightweight and two-layer fabric used, but after more than a year our original MTR still looks as good as new.
Gore One Gore-Tex Active Bike Jacket
• Price: £220 / US$300 / AU$TBC
- True waterproof performance with excellent breathability
- Barely-there weight
- Doesn’t absorb moisture — shakes dry
Less is definitely more with the new Gore One breathable waterproof jacket. While the performance and price are high, the weight and size are tiny with the jacket packing down into its own pocket that’s about the size of a fist. A quick shake of the jacket removes most all water so you can easily tuck it into your still-dry jersey pocket.
We weighed a test size Large at 109g, and Gore achieved the low weight and small size by completely reworking the structure for what a waterproof jacket is. Instead of a normal protective outer fabric laminated onto a delicate breathable PTFE membrane, the One just has a single, breathable, waterproof layer.
With no brushed fabric on the inside there’s no thermal value apart from wind protection, so teaming it with the right weight of base layer for the temperature and your work rate is crucial if you’re going to stay comfortable on long rides. To be fair though you could say that of any waterproof jacket, and the level of protection offered for its weight and pack size is phenomenal.
If only the tail were longer with a bit of gripper, and perhaps the wrists were easier to get on and off, this would be the perfect rain jacket.
B'Twin 700 Membrane
• Price: £60 / US$N/A / AU$N/A
- Outstandingly good value
- Quality fabric and construction
- Plenty of nice touches, including storm flaps for pockets and pit zips for ventilation
A three-layer waterproof with bike-specific cut for £60; there must be some mistake. No, actually there isn’t. It’s simply a very good garment at an especially good price.
Out of the box the first things that strike you are the quality of the fabric and the construction — it’s of a standard you usually only see at three-figure price points that start with a two.
There’s only one chest pocket, which has a waterproof zip, but there are two long pit zips (needed when you start to get warm), which are covered by a storm flap and a dropped tail that stays well in place thanks to a touch of elastic.
The three-layer fabric does have a firm-ish feel when new as well as a faint crackle factor, but that’s offset by soft inner cuffs that extend well over the wrists with thumb loops for those who love them. There’s even a cutout so you can easily view your multi-function sport GPS watch on the fly.
Endura Women’s Singletrack
• Price: £100 / US$170/ AU$TBC
- Keeps you warm and dry without leaving you overly clammy
- Flattering slim cut that’s roomy enough for stylin’ your airtime
- A competitively priced jacket that does it all
The SingleTrack’s fully sealed 2.5 layer waterproof fabric breathes well, keeps you dry and causes no more clamminess than is typical for waterproof garments. It balances temperatures well, so you’ll stay warm when you’re stopped but won’t overheat when you’re pedalling.
It has a rollaway hood at the top that tucks neatly into the collar and a subtle dropped hem at the bottom that’s adjustable to keep drafts and moisture at bay. The sleeves are also a generous length with adjustable cuffs and zippered underarm vents for when things get a bit heated. It also packs down reasonably small, but not tiny, when not in use.
It’s a slimming, flattering jacket which didn't flap at high speeds yet afforded me the space to pull some funky shapes on the bike without moving position or leaving me feeling like I was confined in a straitjacket!
• Price: £320 (can be bought for £240) / US$299 / AU$TBC
- Exceptional eVent fabric is waterproof and breathable
- Great feel — more like a light windproof garment than heavy waterproof jacket
- Pockets are an unusual but welcome addition
The Castelli Tempesta Race Jacket is a protective, foul-weather shell that breathes so well you can race in it.
It’s made with eVent fabric, Castelli's answer to Gore-Tex, and it’s exceptional. Breathability in a fully waterproof layer is no easy trick to pull off, and the Tempesta is right on par with Gore-Tex's best offerings. Further, the light, silky fabric feels more like a windproof soft-shell than a stiff, waterproof hardshell.
The rear flap extends below the pockets and is welcome when the rain is pouring. Reflective, elastic seams ring the bottom of the extension and the two large, mesh-bottom pockets. The presence of pockets on a rain jacket struck me as odd at first, but you’ll appreciate the extra storage and the ease of access they provide when the alternative is removing your jacket or searching through a tightly packed saddle bag.
• Price: £230 / US$TBC/ AU$TBC
- Multi-purpose jacket with cycling specific touches
- Non-rustling fabric keeps out the wind and rain
- Lacks the usual plasticky feel of waterproof jackets
Páramo is best known for high-end hiking jackets, but the Quito is a multi-activity waterproof designed with an emphasis on cycling.
The sleeves are lengthy so don’t drift up when riding and the back is long enough for all but the most stretched out riders. Elasticated drawstrings allow you to cinch in the hood and hems to eliminate draughts and flapping fabric.
It’s made from Páramo’s Nikwax Analogy Light Waterproof material, a non-rustly fabric that’s incredibly waterproof while remaining breathable. It’s also windproof and will keep you warm on colder days as well as being comfortable against the skin, feeling more like a shell suit than a waterproof jacket.
Endura FS260-Pro SL Thermal Windproof Jacket
- Price: £129 / $224 / AU$TBC
- Fits like a thermal long-sleeve jersey, but with extra protection
- Front, arms and shoulders have a windproof and water-repellent exterior, and the rear is thick thermal
- Nice 'toothy' zipper, and the thick reflective stripes can withstand washing
'Dress in layers' is common wisdom for cycling, but if it's going to be cold all day, then a nice thermal jacket is far preferable to stacks of clothing. Endura's Thermal Windproof Jacket generally fits like a thermal long-sleeve jersey, but with extra protection.
We used the jacket quite a bit in the late winter and early spring, wearing it over jerseys or just baselayers. The arms and wrists are snug, which makes pulling gloves on over the jacket easy, but can limit what you wear underneath on your arms.
A long-sleeve baselayer is fine, but there wasn’t enough room for us to comfortably wear a thermal jersey underneath. That said, there was no need to; the jacket with a short-sleeve baselayer is good for down near freezing, and a long-sleeve baselayer makes it comfortable below freezing.
The front, arms and shoulders have a windproof and water-repellent exterior, and the rear is thick thermal. The tall collar keeps the chill at bay, and a creative interior collar gasket keeps the wind from sneaking down your back when you have the jacket unzipped.
This interior collar was a double-edged sword. It works like a charm with the jacket unzipped, but we found the extra material made the collar too tight when fully zipped. (our tester's neck is 40cm at the Adam’s apple, and the jacket shown is a medium.) This could vary person to person, we're sure.
Despite the svelte fit, there are a few chunky features, some good, some not as positive. We appreciate the toothy zipper, which is easy to work in cold weather with gloves on. The thick reflective stripes on the back and shoulders withstand washing. And the taller collar is warm. We don’t like how heavy the bottom double-fabric hem and rear grippers are, but that’s a minor point on a winter jacket.
Price wise, it comes in lower than similar pieces, such as the Alé PRR winter jacket, another piece we wore quite a bit last winter.