Yesterday I realized that I've worn my Icebreaker merino wool base layer every single day since well before Christmas.
That's impressive. One garment that performs so well at keeping me comfortable while the weather isn't, that I don't even have to think twice about what to wear in the morning. But what's even more impressive is that despite wearing this one item of clothing next to my skin for so long, it still doesn't smell.
Merino is a wonder fabric. It's soft, warm, cool, dry, breathable, lightweight and odor resistant, making it just about perfect for mountain biking attire, or mountain bikers who live an active life in variable climates. And those who probably would rather run the washing machine less often, but stink less.
Merino comes from the sheep of the same name. And while it might appear to be a primitive material in comparison to synthetic fabrics developed in the laboratory, it's probably much smarter, especially once clever clothing companies, such as Icebreaker (there are many others also using merino, but I'm most familiar with Icebreaker) run it through their looms.
Synthetic materials such as polyester are lightweight, comfortable on the skin (compared to regular wool) and easy to care for, but they are don't breathe so well and aren't as insulating as merino. Plus, they tend to get very smelly after moderate use. I shouldn't need to point out that wearing cotton in the mountains is about as smart as boiling your head in a vat of oil just to help you warm up.
I've been a big fan of Icebreaker for a while now. Icebreaker is a New Zealand company that recognized the potential of harnessing this wonder material for active wear back in 1994. The founders of the company, on a jaunt through the Southern Alps of New Zealand, kept seeing sheep adorned in giant wooly fleeces and farmers wearing simple woolen garments. They asked what it was and how they managed to wear these items through both the summer and winter. I imagine the reply went something like this: "The coat from the sheep is farkin' marvelous, mate. Keeps ya goolies warm and dry in the snow and cool and dry in the summer. Get some on ya, ya should." (You can find out how this conversation actually went HERE.)
The Southern Alps reach up to the hot summer sun and gather the storms in the winter. It's a rugged place to live (for both farmers and sheep) and work (again, for both farmers and sheep). Merino sheep are different from regular sheep because they can survive and thrive in such harsh environments. The fleece of merino sheep help them cope with extremes – it's breathable in summer, insulating in winter and exceptionally lightweight. Hence why the smart farmers were well into it for years before someone decided to make a solid business out of it so all us pampered outdoors people could benefit.
Icebreaker offer all sorts of garments made from merino – base layers, long johns, socks, gloves, hoodies, underpants, you name it – and the company is widely recognized as providing very high-quality goods. Like most merino it's a little bit more expensive than other fabrics but once you try it you won't go back. As well as being insulating, breathable, fast-drying, comfortable and odor resistant, it is also incredibly hard wearing. A good merino garment will outlast almost anything in your wardrobe and look almost as good as it did on the day you purchased it. I have a Howies merino T-shirt that was gifted to me in 2007 and hasn't faded one bit and I use it all the time.
If you are a mountain biker then there really might not be a better fabric to wrap yourself in. Sure, it might not come adorned with glitzy graphics, but it's far trendier to be able to enjoy being outside than impressing the other disco dancers at the trailhead while shivering or sweating like a pedophile in a playground.
Icebreaker did spend a short while producing mountain-bike specific garments, like the cycling jersey pictured with the yellow logo. Unfortunately it has since stopped catering to bikers. I wore this jersey everyday of the Mavic Trans-Provence race in 2012. It kept me warm when the storms hit us and wicked the sweat away when the sun shone. Then, if it became muddy and dirty, I could wash it in the sink at night and by morning it would be dry, even just from hanging it from the door of my tent. In fact, even if it wasn't entirely dry I would put it on and the damp sensation would soon evaporate as my body heat helped push the moisture out through the garment.
The Icebreaker long-sleeve base layer in the picture is called the Sprint Long Sleeve Half Zip. It's a 200-weight merino fabric that is stretchy, close fitting—merino needs to be to work best— and has thumb loops for when it's really chilly. The garment currently costs around $109, but can be purchased online for somewhat less from outdoor equipment websites like backcountry.com
I've gone weeks and nearly months without washing this top. You don't have to push your own comfort levels to appreciate merino, but I choose not to wash it so regularly because I just don't want to go a day without wearing it right now.