on my penultimate day in portland last month, chris distefano, and jay sycip from chris king's took me out on a tour of the city and several bicycle locations that cd figured would be of interest. and how right he was. our first stop was to a building not that far away from nw nela street, and housing the american headquarters of a company called icebreaker, of which i had to admit i'd never heard (though i had seen a shop in downtown portland bearing their sign outside - i had no idea what it was). their design and office space was what you and i would call fabulous, a description that seemed to sit well with messrs distefano and sycip, who discussed just how they could move their own deskspace into an anonymous corner. situated on the edge of northwest portland's industrial park, it was indeed an impressive ground floor space with a fabulous amount of light flooding through substantial glass windows to a large open plan work area. aside from the almost obligatory centrally placed sofa, icebreaker usa was notable for the largest amount of herman miller aeron chairs i have ever seen in one place.north american president, russ hopcus, dressed very casually in shirt, shorts and baselayer, happily showed us around and explained the development of their advertising and product range. thankfully he seemed unmoved by the fact that i'd never heard of icebreaker before, but before i left we'd swapped business cards and he offered to arrange for the uk office to contact me with a view to supplying product for review on thewashingmachinepost. and true to their word, that's exactly what happened.
in case, like me, icebreaker is a name you have not heard before, it may surprise you to know that the company was born in new zealand in 1994, and now offers what must be one of the largest range of merino wool products in the world; not only baselayers in various weights, but women's and gents merino underwear, casual clothing and even outerwear jackets all containing a high proportion of new zealand merino wool. they currently inhabit the active outdoor sports market - activities such as mountaineering, kayaking, running, cross country and mountain biking, though i'm sure there's a few others where icebreaker is quite prominent. as has been brought to your attention in these pixels on previous occasions, merino wool has the distinct advantage over man-made fibres in that you can wear it for days and days (the unofficial record is well over 100 days), under all conditions without starting to smell. a very important fact if you intend not being on your own while you undertake any sporting activity.
it's not a name you're likely to hear bandied about in roadie circles, principally because it's not a market that they currently inhabit. however, i was given to understand by mr hopcus that it was an area they were keen to take more than just a passing look at. it is with this promising future in mind that the icebreaker products were tested in washingmachinepost countryside and workspace. i received a superfine 140 weight t-shirt featuring a graphic of mount aoraki (the mountain that sir edmund hilary trained on for his conquest of everest), an icebreaker gt 150 with half-length zip, and a long-sleeve icebreaker gt200 with crewe neck. i was also sent a pair of merino leggings in 260 weight which are meant for later in the year (too warm for wear at present, so these will have to form the basis of a later review).
icebreaker are keen on the layering system, and the wide variety of weights available make that very easy to accomplish. in my case, i simply put the 140 weight on below the 200 long-sleeve and topped it off with gt150 which is the item that most resembles a cycle jersey. while the long-sleeve features a small zipped offset rear pocket, the blue zipped top has a similar pocket on the right rear, but this time without the zip.
in order to do this sort of thing properly, i have worn these baselayers everyday since i received them, both on and off the bike. despite more than a few sweaty bicycle rides, currently all three garments smell the same as they did when fished out of their plastic bags. merino really is odour free. it's also very comfortable: all seams are flatlocked and there are aerated panels under the arms of the long sleeve that remove seams from those sensitive areas altogether. similarly, a large panel on the back allows for cooling of those sometimes perspirational regions merino's other perhaps less well documented features is its delightful comfort: all of these are as soft as a baby's bum, and have this uncanny knack of regulating temperature whatever the ambient is; and believe me, islay has blown hot and cold all week.
on the bike and in the drops, the thumbloops on the long-sleeve prevent them either riding up or, in colder weather, act as a very effective draught excluder. however, the lack of roadie specificity shows in the style of all three: while the tails are all long enough to preclude cooling of the lower back, the front on each is pretty much the same length, and when on the hoods or on the drops, there is a bit of bunching up. roadie specific gear tends to be shorter at the front. however, one cannot be too critical, since icebreaker have been plenty upfront about none of their products being designed for skinny wheels and bendy bars. if they produced a jersey like the icebreaker velocity zip in 200 weight merino, or slightly heavier, added three pockets at the rear and shortened the front a bit, i figure they'd have a pretty decent road jersey. the added brownie points gained from pure merino (well, there's a smattering of lycra included to aid elasticity) would doubtless appeal to the sartorially conscious roadie.
icebreaker take traceability seriously, even if they deal with it in a humorous fashion: each garment features a unique baa-code on a sewn-in label. trot along to icebreaker's website, type in the code, and you can find out which wool station in new zealand produced what it is you're wearing. it might seem like trivia, but we like trivia and it's a neat idea. while none of these baselayers are really designed for the purpose in hand, it's very hard not to like them. they fit well, comfort is almost unmatchable, and they really do not smell (at least not after a week of constant use). for those relaxing summer rides, commuting, or anything less than competitive endeavours, you could do a lot worse than to wear icebreaker.
posted on thursday 18 june 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................