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You need a good vest. You really do.
Why? Because as the mercury drops, keeping your core warm, but not sweaty, is the key to staying comfortable. Multiple layers are the best option, allowing you to fine-tune your clothing to changing conditions in real time, as you ride along, rather than simply putting on a big jacket at home and hoping for the best.
Vests are among the most versatile items of clothing in a cyclist’s wardrobe, extending the comfortable temperature range of a given kit by 10-30 degrees, depending on the design. But there is incredible diversity in the world of modern cycling vests, and so determining the actual scenarios in which you’re likely to use one is by far the most important factor in any buying decision.
We spent hundreds of road and mountain miles determining exactly how eight of the best vests on the market, ranging from $60 to $320, fit into a variety of ride types and weather conditions, so you don’t have to do the experimenting yourself. Read on to find your sleeveless soul mate.
Mavic Helium Vest
Pros: Exceptionally packable, wind resistant, water resistant
Cons: Very thin, not particularly warm. Emergency layer
The Helium is the ultimate emergency vest: highly packable, lightweight, and sufficiently wind- and water-resistant to handle a medium-length descent or a brief shower. It packs up so small that even when the forecast looks good there’s no real excuse not to bring it a long, just in case.
Despite its thin, super-light construction, it is impressively adept at keeping water off the torso, retaining its water resistance far longer into one early season downpour than we expected it to. The material is also windproof, making it a perfect layer for chilly descents.
The Dura Lite SL fabric has little thermal value; the Helium is far and away the least warm vest here. It doesn’t breath particularly well, either, so Mavic punched hundreds of tiny holes into the back to let air escape. The rather low-tech solution works surprisingly well.
The cut is well thought out, tapered nicely for the riding position, but the fabric doesn’t stretch, so even a perfect fit will result in some bunching and flapping. This isn’t a vest we’d want to wear in the wind all day; it’s one to stuff in a pocket for a climb, and then throw on for the way down.
We love the off-center zipper, both for the additional collar comfort it provides and how easy it is to find the big, cloth-looped zips. The lack of pockets is of no real concern given the Helium’s intended use, and a clever slit in the back panel allows for access to jersey pockets underneath, anyway.
As an emergency outer layer, packable into a tiny corner of one pocket for days in the mountains or when headed out into unpredictable weather, the Helium is excellent. Just don’t try to wear it all day.
Pros: Exceptionally wind and water resistant (and close to “-proof” as anything here), and thick enough to provide thermal benefit as well
Cons: No pockets, not very packable
The Fawesome reigns supreme in a narrow range of weather conditions and ride types, and is mediocre the rest of the time.
Castelli’s waterproof Gabba line has been frequently imitated, particularly in the last year or so, but is rarely bested. The magic is the Gore-produced fabric: a highly water resistant (on other garments, Castelli had to punch drainage holes in the pockets so they wouldn’t fill with rain), stretchable, breathable, thermal layer that is absolutely unbeatable in cold, wet weather.
This vest, which features the Gabba material on the chest and shoulders along with a more breathable, thinner fabric on the back, has no pockets to fill with water. It’s also not particularly packable — it’ll fit in a jersey pocket, but without any room to spare. For a vest we’re likely to wear all day, as the lack of packability would suggest, we’d like a few pockets. Castelli says the Fawesome is intended to be a race-day garment, but as most of us aren’t riding around with a team car behind us, the added practicality of pockets would be appreciated.
Fit is quite good, aided by the small bit of stretch inherent in the Gabba fabric. It’s tailored for racing, and the body type normally associated with racing. Be sure to try before you buy; we had to size down to prevent the shoulders from riding up a bit, creating little air scoops right at the edges. If you have the right size, it should fit like a race-cut jersey.
The Fawesome is a bit of a one trick pony, excelling in wet races or fast rides but falling short for most everyday use. It’s more comfortable and more aerodynamic than anything else that is equally water resistant, but that is its only real claim to fame. For something more versatile, look to Castelli’s Free vest.
Twin Six BKB Wind Vest
Pros: Inexpensive, simple design
Cons: Comes in any color you want, so long as it’s pink; pockets serve little purpose
The first thing about the Twin Six BKB Wind Vest that grabbed our attention was the color. It’s pink. Extremely pink. Then we noticed the logos and “Bareknuckle Brigade” printed on the chest and across the pockets. Aside from the color and the sublimation, there isn’t anything aesthetic about the Twin Six vest that makes it stand out from the crowd.
The BKB wind vest is a simple design; one like most riders would get printed up in their club livery. There’s a reason so many clothing companies offer a piece nearly identical to this: it works, and at $60, it’s worth it. The mesh back is breathable, the front is wind resistant, and the fit is comfortable.
The zipper sports dueling pulls so when the vest is zipped up, the rider can still open the bottom zipper to access jersey pockets. Of course, if you prefer to stuff the pockets of the vest itself, the BKB vest has three rear pockets; however, we didn’t find that they felt as secure as our jersey pockets. The zipper bunched up more than some of the other models here — a case of cheaper vest, cheaper zipper.
The Bareknuckle Brigade is a society formed by the Lalonde brothers, Jesse and Marko, back in 2005. Jesse, now a graphic designer at Twin Six, offers his “anti-team” clothing to the general public now, albeit in very limited numbers. The BKB vest, like many Twin Six products, is made in the USA.
Rapha Hi-Vis Gilet
Pros: Styling, wind and water resistant, packable, excellent pockets, highly visible
Cons: Styling, no added insulation, pricey
The Hi-Vis Gilet isn’t really designed as a high-performance vest; it’s for cutting through the dark, being seen during nighttime rides, commutes, or unexpected showers.
It’s certainly functional — the two rear pockets are large and well placed and the plastic-feeling main fabric (100-percent polyester with a DWR finish, according to Rapha’s website) is completely windproof and waterproof. But that material doesn’t breath particularly well, and the mesh shoulders and mid-back were not enough to keep us cool when the pressure was on.
Fit is well done. The Hi-Vis is tailored to fit well in the riding position, cut slim, with a very long tail to keep spray off your rear. The mesh back stretches quite a bit, allowing the vest to be layered over everything from a thin jersey to a thick jacket while still fitting comfortably.
We appreciated the off-center zipper and zipped valuables pocket, as well as the highly reflective logos and reflective center strip.
For an all-day affair, or a hard group ride, we’d take the Panache or Assos vests reviewed here, or Rapha’s own lightweight Gilet. The Hi-Vis’ greatest strength, unsurprisingly, lies in its visibility, so for dark commutes, or as an emergency layer when dark rainclouds threaten, it is an excellent alternative to the traditional neon-yellow monstrosity.
Pros: The warmest in this roundup, perfectly placed pockets, windproof, aggressive fit
Cons: Not very packable, insanely expensive
If you’re planning on wearing a vest all day, and you have the cash, this is the one.
The falken.Zahn has the most aggressive fit of any vest here, perfectly tailored for athletic body types and, as a result, not particularly forgiving to bodies that fall outside that classification. The four-way stretch fabrics, primarily Assos’ proprietary RXQ series, allowed the Swiss to build the vest with a fit that’s similar to a race-cut jersey; there’s no flapping, no wrinkles, nothing but tailored perfection.
Though it’s the warmest vest here, sewn from a medium-weight Roubaix-like wind- and water-resistant fabric, the Assos vest breathes impressively well, extending its useable temperature range considerably — from the mid 60s Fahrenheit down to the high 30s, at least with a good set of arm warmers. A panel of two-way stretch fabric on the back keeps vertical stretch to a minimum and allows the rider to stuff the three medium-sized rear pockets to the brim without getting any rear-end drooping.
Speaking of pockets, the falkenZahn’s are excellent. Though they seem small at first glance, the impressive stretch of the fabric created plenty of space, while maintaining a secure hold on anything we shoved in there. The pockets are placed in just the right spot, too, for easy access when on the bike.
Our only real complaint is the falkenZahn’s relative lack of packability. We could roll it up and forcefully stuff it into a jersey pocket, but it was the only thing we could fit in there. As the full-sized pockets and thermal weight of the garment suggest, this vest is really intended to be worn for an entire ride, rather than thrown on and off to keep chills at bay.
With a spine-tingling price of $320, the falkenZahn needs to be perfect. The good news is that for the right body type, and the right ride, it is unbelievably good; as close to perfect as anything we’ve ridden in. It’s the most comfortable and the warmest vest we reviewed, with perfect pockets and impressive temperature versatility. Just look elsewhere if you want something more packable.
Panache 13 Wind Vest
Pros: Windproof, warm, three big pockets, excellent zipper, perfect fit
Cons: Expensive, lacks water resistance, average packability
The 13 Wind Vest is the best all-around, daily-use vest we’ve ever used.
In fact, it is one of the few we’ve found that is just as comfortable and versatile as Assos’ pricey falkenZahn. The 13’s fabric is a bit lighter, so it’s not quite as warm, but that’s not a real detriment; it just shifts the useable temperate up about 5 degrees. The 13 is still the second warmest vest in this collection.
The 13 is half the price of the luxurious Swiss option, but sadly, the Assos vest is so expensive that even lopping 50 percent off the price leaves Panache in the “pricey” category.
Like the falkenZahn, the 13 is a vest that can be worn comfortably all day. Three big pockets, larger than most jersey pockets, make it versatile and well suited to winter riding. There’s plenty of room for a set of spare gloves, an extra hat, or a pile of food for those long base miles.
The WinterBlock fabric is not particularly water resistant, though it does a good job of maintaining its thermal warmth even when soaked through. It is highly wind resistant, on par with Pearl Izumi’s Elite Aero vest.
Fit is phenomenal, perfectly cut for the riding position. The shoulders — often a problem area with vest fit — are tailored to stay flat. The back is a thinner mesh material, improving breathability and adding a bit of stretch. That stretch kept fabric taught against the torso, eliminating flapping and bunching.
The zipper hits the ideal spot between bulky durability and finesse. It’s easy to get started and has never, in an entire year of use, split or gotten stuck.
Packability is average; it will fit in a jersey pocket, but with little room to spare. The 13 is no emergency vest. Like the falkenZahn, it’s intended to be worn for most of the day.
Pearl Izumi Elite Aero
Pros: Wind- and water-resistant, packable, tight fitting
Cons: Not overly breathable; tight torso begs for a second zipper to make pocket access possible
The Elite Aero vest from Pearl Izumi is one of those pieces you’ll find yourself stuffing into your pockets habitually. Its cut and stretchy design allow it to hug the torso quite well and the clean lines will match just about anything.
The entire torso of the Pearl Izumi Elite Aero vest is made of Pearl Izumi’s Softshell Lite fabric, which offers superb wind and water resistance, keeping us warm and dry even when we were caught in light showers or jumped off-road to rip through some mud puddles on the ’cross bike.
However, even on those wet, chilly rides, a sweat spot formed in the middle of our back. Put in a few hard efforts and the breathability of the Elite Aero will be overwhelmed by perspiration — a mesh back would be helpful here.
It’s a somewhat expensive piece of outerwear, though affordable compared to some of the other pieces here. Unfortunately, that slight savings in the wallet coincides with the vest’s lack of breathability. That drawback, combined with the lack of pockets, makes the Elite Aero a poor choice as an all-day garment, but for a rider who is often climbing and descending the Elite Aero vest is just the ticket, easily thrown on for a chilly descent and then stashed away for the next climb. You’ll be thankful for the wind resistance and the Pearl Izumi “form fit.”
The snug fit of the Elite Aero does make accessing jersey pockets difficult and had us wishing for a second zipper at the bottom of the vest, rather than having to hike up the bottom seam every time we wanted to grab a snack.
Gore Xenon 2.0
Pros: Best combination of warmth, water/wind resistance, and packability
Cons: One small pocket hampers versatility
Though perhaps not as stylish as some others in this review, the Xenon 2.0 is technically phenomenal, providing the best mix of wind and water resistance, and warmth, of any vest here.
This wasn’t exactly surprising, as the sleeved Xenon jacket is one of our all-time favorites: packable, very wind and water resistant, perfectly cut, and much warmer than its thin shell would suggest.
The Xenon 2.0 vest has all those same attributes. It takes advantage of Gore’s excellent Windstopper Active Shell fabric, providing adequate (not as good as the mesh-backed vests) breathability along with plenty of wind and water resistance. The vest is hyper-versatile, warm when you need it to be, packable, acceptably light, and chock full of smart, technical features.
The back of the neck, for example, uses a soft mesh instead of the Windstopper fabric to further improve breathability and avoid that clammy neck feeling we all hate. Overall breathability would be drastically improved if this material extended further down the back, but of course that would spoil the vest’s water resistance.
Fit is good, though the wrong size will result in big bunches on the chest. Gore has the vest in its “slim fit” category, and it certainly belongs there; hunker down into the drops and the vest drapes perfectly around the shoulders and back, without any bunching up front. We had a few small ripples in the fabric, as it doesn’t stretch much, but the weight of the fabric itself prevented any loud, trash bag-effect flapping.
The single, small zippered pocket hurts the Xenon 2.0’s versatility, but at least there’s a bit of space to stash a tube or wallet.