In the eternal hunt for the best on-the-bike/off-the-bike clothes, who does it better: big-name Levi v Vulpine, a tiny start-up?
One of the best gauges of cycling’s ever-increasing popularity is the explosion of “commuter” clothing ranges, designed to be functional both on and off the bike.
My instinctive reaction is often sceptical: if I’m riding quickly or a long distance, nothing beats cycling gear, but there’s no reason why other trips can’t be tackled in ordinary clothes. There’s nothing specifically bike-unfriendly about, say, a pair of jeans.
This attitude has been reinforced by some unexceptional early examples of the genre. A couple of years ago I was cautiously positive about the Bspoke range of in-the office/on-the-bike clothes. In retrospect I don’t think moleskin trousers with a generously cut, MC Hammer-style gusset are the future.
But equally, I’ve been proved wrong. One of the most-worn items in my cycling wardrobe is a pair of ultra-light, sleek and supremely versatile shorts by Surface, the clothing arm of the Charge bikes empire, equally at home in the saddle, on the beach or mooching round the house. I’ve been stopped several times at traffic lights by riders asking where to buy them. This isn’t the sort of thing that usually happens to me.
After that long introduction, down to business. I’ve been trying out examples from two new ranges which offer something of a contrast, not least in origin. One is the Commuter series from Levi’s, the clothing behemoth’s entry into the cycling world.
The other comes from Vulpine, a tiny venture set up by a cycling-mad couple who left their jobs to pursue their dream.
It’s fair to say that this difference shows. The two items I tried from Levi’s bear the hallmarks of things designed by a committee given, from on high, the brief: “This cycling stuff seems quite trendy, how can we get on board?” Inevitably, the range’s website shows a very cool model holding up a narrow-handlebarred fixie, albeit with front and back brakes, probably on the advice of the company lawyers.
Levi’s Commuter series jeans Trousers from the Levi’s Commuter series
The two most obvious innovations on the jeans I tried out were on the same lines: an extra loop of fabric on the rear waistband from which to hang the ubiquitous mini-Kryptonite lock, and reflective seams on the inside, for rolling the trouser up the calf in the approved courier-style fashion. The slightly stiff, crinkly fabric is supposedly more resistant to water, stains and odours, but to me mainly felt a bit hot.
I was even less impressed with the grey long-sleeved shirt, which seemed equally boil-in-the-bag despite a breathable mesh strip at the top of the back, hidden with a neat seam, and small mesh patches under the arms.
I think it’s wonderful that cycling is now seen as sufficiently aspirational for such a vast company to want to hitch itself to the bandwagon. I’m just not hugely enthusiastic about the clothes. Worse still, the Commuter series is currently a men’s range only. Maybe the Levi’s focus groups forgot to mention that women also ride bikes.
By contrast the Vulpine range is clearly a labour of love. Even the items I was less keen on were well thought out and beautifully made.
Vulpine cotton rain jacket The Vulpine cotton rain jacket
The star was a lightweight cotton waterproof jacket which managed the near-unique trick of being both fairly impermeable to water but reasonably breathable. Even if you don’t like the slim, almost militaristic styling â€“ I think it works very well Ââ€“ you can appreciate details like a neat bum-guarding flap, tucked out of sight when not in use with a magnet, and the ultra-cosy rings of delicate fleece around the inner cuffs. Vulpine also do a thicker softshell jacket, which again looks well-made, even though the one I was sent ended up being too big to try out properly.
I even â€“ and these are words I never anticipated typing â€“ liked the gilet, a clothing item I’ve previously scorned. Slim-fitting and lightweight it makes short work of chilly mornings and takes almost no space in a bag.
The merino button jerseys and crew-neck T-shirts were slightly less to my taste, if undeniably sleek and comfy. I found them a bit too snug to resemble something you might wear to work, unless maybe you work in a gym.
There is, of course, a catch. The Levi’s range isn’t cheap, but Â£80 for a posh pair of jeans is not so exceptional these days. The Vulpine range is that bit more: Â£195 for the rain jacket, for example.
It’s almost pointless rehashing the arguments over such prices. At one extreme some ascetics affirm a pair of sellotaped bin bags provide sufficient rain protection and it is immoral to pay more; others think Â£200 is worth it for a well-made, comfy jacket which will get a number of years’ use.
The more relevant lesson, I’d argue, is this: the more a company appears to genuinely love and be obsessed by cycling, the better their cycling gear.