What Carbon Fiber Did for Bikes, Polartec Is Doing for Bike Apparel


For too long, technical advancements for cyclists focused solely on what went onto a bike—agonizing over every gram shaved off, every potential for drag adjusted. Meanwhile, their apparel kits were, technologically speaking, analog. Breathability, waterproofing and insulation were challenges. Riders were forced to carry extra pieces of clothing, just in case.

Cue Polartec, the performance fabric company that, over the past five years, has been instrumental in upending prior assumptions of what cycling clothes can be. Polartec innovations ensure every rider has the correct clothing for the occasion, be they hot days on the open road, warm-to-cold mountain climbs, or mid-trip precipitation. Owing to Polartec’s dedication to engineering through fabric construction, each piece keeps the rider temperature-regulated, comfortable, dry and safe.

“What carbon fiber and titanium have done for hardware innovation in cycling, Polartec has done for cycling apparel through fabric innovation,” says Polartec CEO Gary Smith. “Polartec is enabling people to get out and be more comfortable year round, from staying warm in the winter to staying cool in the summer. Polartec fabric science allows the rider to focus on the ride and not their kit.”

The catalyst for these innovations was the cycling experience itself; Smith is an avid cyclist who knew firsthand the limitations of even the most expensive kits, particularly when it came to waterproofing and insulation that didn’t feel suffocating. Since a bike is only as good as its rider, Polartec got into the mind—and body—of cyclists through building meaningful relationships with brands that sought to give their customers a better riding experience. (This is Polartec’s approach across industries. To wit: Polartec has created over 900 different fabrics for customers ranging from the U.S. military to sports enthusiasts, often to solve a specific problem for the user.)

The world’s best cyclists have taken note, including Alberto Contador and his U23 and Junior Teams. The kit they use leverages several Polartec fabrics in thoughtful, custom designs to make riders feel their best physically throughout their excursion. The 19-piece kit takes all conditions into account, including in it lightweight, next-to-skin jerseys that breathe and wick better than traditional Spandex; insulation long-sleeves that use Alpha technology originally developed for U.S. Special Operations Forces; plus arm and leg warmers for the in-between times. The collection Polartec created and manufactured is the result of a close collaboration between the company and the team. For a sport in which a podium finish is counted in fractions of a second, the incremental gains achieved by performance-enhancing fabrics can be crucial.

“Working with Polartec is unique because Polartec creates a full range of performance fabrics and collaborates with the Contador Foundation cycling teams to solve any problems we encounter with our apparel,” Contador says. “In this case, Polartec handles the production of the Foundation Contador teams kits from start to finish, from fiber and yarn construction to manufacturing of all the finished pieces.”

And it’s not only road racers, either. Kitsbow Cycling Apparel, a sought-after boutique brand based in Petaluma, California, and known for solid off-road gear, has been using Polartec fabrics for almost two years.

“Polartec has provided us with fabrics and insights that allow us to work nimbly and be on the cutting edge of technology in the cycling and outdoor markets,” says P.K. Hart, chief operating officer of Kitsbow. “Our Coleman Valley Bib is a great example of collaborating to find a US-made fabric that matched the needs for an endurance bib short.”

The relationship between Polartec and Kitsbow reflects both brands’ commitment to the sport. Tyler Maheu, an account manager for Polartec, is himself a big mountain rider and helps develop the ideal fabric blend to suit all of Kitsbow designs.

Unsurprisingly, Polartec is a household name on an international scale, particularly in the cycling world. London-based Rapha has used Polartec fabrics to produce some of the world’s finest road cycling clothing. The association has led to award-winning products that have been proven at the highest level of cycling, such as the versatile and weather-resistant Pro Team Softshell Jacket, which is made of Polartec Power Shield fabric.

“Our association with Polartec has been instrumental in supporting Rapha’s ambition to make the finest road cycling clothing in the world,” says James Fairbank, Head of Brand and Central Marketing for Rapha.

“Cycling puts very specific demands on technical garments, and the ability to work so closely with a fabric supplier on research and development gives us the ability to constantly refine and redevelop our products. From the weather-resistant Power Shield that’s proven so versatile on our Pro Team Jacket, to the Alpha insulation used in the Brevet Insulated Gilet, our association has led to award-winning products that have been proven at the highest level of the sport.”

Certainly, the earlier start time and later finish of the pro tour made it mandatory that pros have kits for all seasons and volatile conditions. But with the rise in commuting and bike shares in the U.S., an increase in fat biking on snow and sand, and growing legions of riders in Europe and Asia, more and more people are attuned to advancements in cycling apparel. In Polartec, they’ll find clothes that are stylish, durable and environmentally friendly (consider that many Polartec styles are 100 percent recycled, made from material like plastic bottles and, recently, wood pulp).

For Polartec, expansion into different areas of the sport means more room for creative problem solving through performance fabric. “There are a lot of companies that can make a textile, but few that can create a textile—that have the capacity to define a problem and solve it through a textile,” CEO Gary Smith says.

For all that attention and expertise, Polartec’s goal is to create clothing that’s an afterthought. “The brands we work with—Rapha, Castelli, Kitsbow, Sportful—and athletes like Contador and Dylan McNicholas, come back and say that the stuff was so awesome, I forgot about it. The kit disappears and the athlete can focus on the race at hand. That’s our mission. To make apparel you put on and forget about.”

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