Base layers: the old man and the undershirt

Part two of a series on my search for the perfect all-day cycling kit. Base layers.
Base layers: Detail from Rapha's mesh base layer
Rapha base layer: makes a huge difference on hot days.

Base layers. Aka undershirts. Either to insulate (in cold) or keep air between skin and jersey (in hot). I never used to wear one of these things. Why, I reckoned, would you add a layer to your kit on a hot day? And why not just use a thicker jersey in the cold? Two words, comrade riders: nipple chafing.

I’ve arrived at the end of a couple of Rideau Lakes Cycle Tours with red dots on my jersey, positioned over raw, sore nipples. Typically when it’s been raining. Typically if my jersey is a bit loose and flappy. You can still wear flappy jerseys if they’re flapping against some sort of taught base layer that isn’t moving.

Running taught me that and it’s a good lesson.

Base layers can also keep bib short straps from causing you irritation. And they also keep you from getting the ‘I’m living in a sandwich bag’ feeling you get from riding in polyester and lycra all day. Especially when it’s hot and you’re sweating.

I’ve tried four: Under Armour Compression t-shirts, Rapha mesh base layers, Assos Skin Foil and Castelli Mesh sleeveless. All, fitted properly (as in extra tight) will stop nipple chafing. But that’s where the similarities end.

Of these I would say the Under Armour compression t-shirts offer best value. But you can’t use them at the height of summer. Too hot and they don’t wick all that well. Plus they are a bit too long. A medium stretches down over my ass where they only need to go past the navel. But for $30 how can you complain?

The sleeveless Castelli Core Mesh Base Layer is a better bet in the serious heat but it’s so light and meshy it seems fragile. I swear the first time I put it on I heard threads snap. I half expected it to unravel in my hands. For $50 I expect better.

Rapha and Assos: tops in quality and price

So we march up the price and prestige ladder to Rapha and Assos. Rapha’s mesh base layers are light as air. Diaphanous. They feel kind of like they were woven from unwaxed dental floss. But much they’re better put together than the Castelli offering. For $75 they ought to be. Even when you pull them on, skin tight, you never get the feeling that you’re about to tear them. And they work. They do wick moisture away from your sweaty skin, leaving you dry, with less chance for irritation, rashes and that cold clammy feeling.

But for me the prize in this category goes to the Assos Skin Foil summer weight base layer. It’s a thicker fabric. And it feels, oddly enough, like cotton. But the wicking action is as close to suction as I’ve ever experienced. I wore it on a three hour ride on one of the hottest, most humid days Ottawa has lived through this year and – while I could definitely feel the heat – I was unaware that it was actually making me sweat.

Until I felt my jersey. I could have wrung it out and made salt, Ghandi-like, it was so drenched. Underneath, in skin foil land, I was completely dry. I was astounded at how well this garment works. But it costs. $99.00. For a base layer. Yes. But if you want all day kit, this is it.