January 2, 2014
A good technical jacket will make more difference to your winter riding comfort than almost any other bit of kit
While softshell might have stolen the imagination of the mountain bike clothing market, I’m still a big fan of hardshell jackets. It’s not blind loyalty or a dislike of the new: I’ve simply tried plenty of softshell jackets and discovered that while they’re great in cold, dry weather, they don’t do the job so well when it’s really chucking it down. A condition of which we get lots of here in the UK.
To that end, I’ve been testing two hardshell jackets back-to-back (sometimes literally, when rides got really wet and wild…). I’ve used the women’s versions of these jackets but a men’s version of each is also available, with the same features and price tags, just a different cut (and of course the better colours).
The Showers Pass Elite 2.1 is made from eVent, while the Gore Bike Wear Alp-X 2.0 Gore-Tex Active Lady jacket (I’ll stick to ‘Elite’ and ‘Alp-X’ from now on as both full names are a bit of a mouthful) is made from Gore-Tex Active – both premium quality technical fabrics which are purported to be the most breathable on the market. Now, although eVent and Gore-Tex clearly can’t both be the most breathable fabric on the market, most outdoorsy folk have a sworn allegiance to one or the other – usually as a result of previous experiences with a jacket that has either impressed or disappointed. However, because both brands have reputations (and sales) to upkeep, it’s very rare indeed that either ever turns out lemons – but no matter how good a jacket is as it rolls off the production line, once it’s on a rider’s back (and crucially, in their washing machine), those brands have lost control of how their fabric performs when made into a garment by licensed companies like Showers Pass and sold on to the end (ab)user – i.e. you and me.
Any waterproof and breathable fabric’s performance will suffer if it’s not looked after – dirt (mud and worse from the outside, sweat and worse from within) reduces breathability by clogging a fabric’s ‘pores’, while incorrect washing damages the DWR coating that’s usually applied to the outer face of the jacket as a ‘first defence’ against surface water. Unless a jacket made of eVent or Gore-Tex has actually been pierced (for example by crash damage or vegetation snags), it’s more likely to be too dirty to breathe properly so the sweat can’t escape, than it is to be ‘leaking’. So take with a pinch of salt anyone who tells you that their Gore-Tex/eVent shell ‘leaked’ and you should buy a jacket made with the other, as it’s more likely they simply didn’t take reasonable care of it.
Anyway, back to the jackets on test. Both have been washed several times over the test period – I tend to rinse them down in the shower between wears and save the washing machine for when it’s really needed in order to prolong the life of the DWR coating. Both jackets have fully taped seams and water-resistant zips, as well as one front and one rear pocket apiece. There is no doubt at all that they are both waterproof – no rain snuck in even in the worst conditions, and breathability was as good as it can ever get when you’ve masked a large percentage of a jacket’s breathable area with a large, impermeable backpack. They’re still quite different beasts, though, and which one comes out on top for you will probably depend on your own particular needs.
Both jackets can be fitted with a hood – this is an optional $25 from Showers Pass but comes included with the Gore jacket. As hoods go the Gore attempt is minimal, so well in keeping with the rest of the jacket – it doesn’t fit over a helmet but is slim enough to be comfortable underneath it. The Alp-X is definitely the more minimal of the two. It’s 120g lighter and rolls up small enough to stash in a jersey pocket if you’re careful with it. It does, however, feel like the flimsier jacket when it’s on your back; it’s nice to have a barely-there feel combined with full weather protection on days which are ‘just’ inclement, but if you are climbing a pass in a howling gale and the rain is coming at you sideways, it’s nice to be wearing a jacket which feels a little bit more rugged, and the Elite 2.1 is it.
The Showers Pass range is aimed principally at road riders and commuters, but the deeply scooped back, long arms and well-placed reflective tapes have a lot to recommend it to year-round riders, too. Protection is excellent and with everything zipped up or pulled down to meet the cuffs of your other layers, it is as snug as you could ever ask a hardshell jacket to be.
A crucial difference which sets the Elite 2.1 apart from the Alp-X is that there is a great big vent running the full width of the rear of the jacket, at about shoulder blade height. This is a clever way of improving breathability – when you’re stretched out on the bike it’s pulled shut as you reach forwards to the bars, but once you sit up a bit or are standing around chatting it opens, allowing sweat and heat out. The vent didn’t leak, with or without a pack, and markedly improves performance in those typically British winter conditions in which all breathable fabrics struggle – too mild for a jacket yet too wet to ride without.
Lastly, both jackets are undeniably expensive but I make no apologies for recommending either. A good technical jacket will make more difference to your winter riding comfort than almost any other bit of kit and as such it should be viewed as an investment. Yes, you can spend less, but you won’t be as comfortable – your call.Overall: Two very good jackets, either of which is more than worth your money. The Showers Pass Elite 2.1 has a more rugged feel and slightly roomier cut, while the Alp-X 2.0 Gore-Tex Active is more minimal and highly packable. Pick which one suits your riding, and get out there.