the layering principle as applied to winter clothing is one that has curried favour with the outdoor brigade for many a long year. it is based on fairly sound thinking; not only does it allow the modulation of heat by diversting oneself of any items that prove to be surplus to requirements as the journey lengthens, but also from the point of trapping air between each layer. assuming one or more of those layers to be either hydrophilic or breathable, perspiration can be wicked outwards, keeping the torso warm and relatively dry, while evaporating moisture into the elements.
though it's hardly a precise science, by and large it works pretty well. however, with the majority of outdoor apparel purveyors toeing the party line, it has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. it wont necessarily work equally as well for everyone or, indeed, every form of activity. stopping to remove a mid or outer layer is a darned sight simpler for the trekker or hiker than it necessarily is for the cyclist. the professionals can avail themselves of its benefits quite simply due to the persistence of a following team car, something that remains true even in training. the individual, however, may find themselves without an appropriate repository along the way.
knowledge of this latter fact might often result in a compromise that exists at point of departure. it was ever thus, though technological advancements in garment manufacture have made this a less onerous initial choice. and at the risk of being a cynic, the latering principle itself lends well to the notion of selling more rather than less.
however, simply because the idea seems written in stone does not mean it shouldn't be revisited every now and again, particularly if to seek more beneficial alternatives.
though i perhaps attach more circumspection and credit to italy's castelli cycling wear than is ultimately deserved, their latest alpha jacket may just have provided a closely allied yet viable alternative. if i might revisit one of my earlier points above, the ability to shuffle off an outer layer while aboard the bike is not always as practical as it might at first seem. who amongst us has not set off wearing an outer windproof, water-resistant shell and felt the need to remove it after riding several kilometres? at the point at which perspiration makes this demand, removing it may engender somewhat severe cooling, notwithstanding the fact that a suitable sized rear pocket may not be immediately available. or to consider an alternative, unzipping the front relieves said garment of the ability to provide even a portion of its thermal properties.
castelli's alpha solves this dilemma with a clever piece of lateral thinking. while the outer shell is fabricated from gore's windstopper material, offering a high degree of water resistance and windproofing, the waffle textured thermal layer is stitched into the outer shell to form what can only be described as a zipped waistcoat. thus, when donning the alpha jacket, it is first necessary to zip up the thermal layer before closing the outer zip of the jacket. when or if it becomes necessary to cool down en-route, 'tis a simple matter of unzipping the outer as desired to let in cooling air, while the thermal layer prevents any loss of the cosiness acquired along the way.
in and of itself, this is a feature that is surely worth the price of admission alone, but it gets even better.
the full-length outer zip, with a castelli toggle to ease zipping up or down, ends not just in the ubiquitous zip garage, but in a commendably high, fleece-lined collar. this zip is asymetrically positioned to avoid the bulk of two zips atop each other. and it's within the collar that things become very clever. on almost each and every jacket i own, when unzipping to cool down, the constant inward influx of air has a distinct tendency to apply an unfortunate and persistent layer of cold air to the back of my neck. to get round this iniquity, castelli have attached a small, fleeced, upward curling flap. in practice, this flap sits close against the back of the neck, holding its position no matter what subsequently transpires. in the process, it completely obviates any cold draughts at the back of the neck however far you open the front zip.
through several lengthy rides, in climatic conditions that ranged from cold and wet to cold and windy, when i felt that my core temperature was rising just a tad too high, opening the zip on the outer shell provided a cooling breeze that failed miserably to upset the cossetting of the still zipped thermal layer. it is, in short, quite brilliant. however, not content to be obsessed with their cleverness in the realm of central heating, castelli have not forgotten what real cycing is all about. one of the successful points of their revered gabba jacket relates not only to its level of weatherproofing (remember 2013's milan-sanremo?), but also to the fact that the necessary three rear pockets were not conspicuous by their absence.
and it is thus with the alpha jacket. and then some. this fabulous jacket not only has three well-sized rear pockets, but a fourth zipped internal version on the left, the closure of which quite truthfully informs the owner that he has an unfair advantage. and there's also a small zipped pocket at front lower left. why aren't others so generous and practical with their pocket space?
the lower section of the jacket, below the windstopper fabric is of a more stretchy, lycra-like material that forms a close bond with, in this case, a pair of castelli bib-threequarters. the rear portion is scalloped to cover the posterior, internally featuring silicon gloop to prevent it riding up in use. castelli define their cuffs and waist as raw, in this case meaning that they just stop, forming in the process, an almost hermetic seal at waist and wrists. it makes wearing gloves so easy and devoid of bulk.
on all occasions i wore only a long-sleeve baselayer beneath the alpha, but had i paid more attention, the thermal fabric lines both sleeves, meaning on at least two occasions i could have managed with a short-sleeve. the versatility of the jacket is most impressive and a joy to behold. the term water-resistant is pretty much one of life's undefinables. a lack of taped seams means the alpha cannot be described as waterproof, but having been inadvertantly caught in rather a lot of cold rain, there was no noticeable ingress of water on arrival at the service corse (bike shed). no doubt trapped in a biblical downpour would not fare quite so well, but i've a pretty good idea as to what level of rainproofing i can now expect.
it's not too often that a cycling garment offers such a distinct improvement over the current state of play, and arguably even rarer that it manages to deliver on those promises. this particular alpha will find itself fully employed this winter.
castelli's alpha jacket is available in black, light grey (as reviewed), red and fluorescent yellow in sizes from small to xxxl at a cost of around £225. available from castelli dealers.
monday 10 november 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................