'Matter'

MATTER: Castelli’s Polare 2 Winter Bibtights = (Hard) Core

Preamble

This is the second in a series of posts focusing on core pieces from Castelli’s line I’ve been testing since winter, 2018-19. I’ve spent a lot of time in their garments, learning a metric tonne about their inspiration, intended use, and performance. Given I have access to some of the ‘worst’ weather in the world for cycling, and I make the most of my opportunities to ride in all-conditions, rain or shine, the testing I’m doing builds on that conducted in Europe by the folks at Castelli and the pro riders who train and race there. One of the benefits to working with Castelli as a product tester is that we get to learn what the limits of their pieces are, building on the real-world testing they conduct in Europe. If you’ve not caught the first piece, on the revolutionary Elemento Lite jacket, you can find it here.

Introduction

‘Rain or shine.’  ‘RoS’. 

If you think about it, this is a maxim of sorts for Castelli, and, frankly, it’s genius. RoS is an ethos, an attitude, an orientation in relation to the environment. In a sense, it’s a metaphor: reality, human experience, is constituted by rain/shine, dark/light, evil/good, night/day. Opposites, powerful forces, defined via contradistinction.

Cycling is a pursuit of endless possibility, exploration, growth, camaraderie, connection to the land and the cultures that shape and are shaped by it. One does not, probably cannot, be a rain or shine cyclist from the first push of the pedals. Like so many things of value, the rain or shine attitude, outlook, and capability is cultivated through years of experience, perhaps some insightful guidance, experimentation, and, let’s be honest, investment.

The beauty of truly well conceived, designed, and constructed technologies, be they soft or hardgoods, is their ability to blend seamlessly into our experiences across a broad range of intensities, durations, and terrain. There are many ‘one-trick ponies’ that fit into a very narrow band of use, and sometimes these pieces are invaluable. For example, Glacier Gloves are a lined, fully sealed neoprene option I’ve used on a number of occasions when virtually nothing else would have worked well (cold rain). They are a niche item that gets pulled out once in a while to do a specific job (for example, during Rasputitsa, 2019). These are more for riders who have to ride in particularly horrible conditions, rather than choose to. ‘Have to’ is often in the context of an event paid for well in advance that happens to land on an atrocious weather day. If at home, receiving the same weather, it would make all the sense in the world to ride inside. Unless you’re a commuter! I’ve used the Glacier Gloves for commutes numerous times.

Not all the pieces I’ve been testing from Castelli are branded ‘Rain or Shine,’ but they all mesh nicely with the ethos. The focus of this review, the Polare 2 thermal bibtights, are not bedazzled with the RoS logo, perhaps because the design team don’t want people to get the wrong idea. These tights are for cold, REAL COLD.

You must be asking, “How cold is ‘real cold,’ Matt? Are these legit?”

These are legit.

Naturally, I have to qualify this statement. I’ll cover the detail of what ‘legit’ means in the context of winter riding below in the Test Period section, which will follow an overview of the Polare’s construction and fit. I’ll cap these sections off with my results and conclusions.

Overview

Castelli’s Polare 2 bibtights are positioned as their warmest offering for winter cycling. Rather helpfully, Castelli provides temperature ranges for each of their pieces, which I’ve found quite effective at guiding me through the relative differences between options.

For example, the Polare 2 is warmer than the Nano Flex PRo 2 model, IF used in the conditions it’s designed for: dry cold. The Nano Flex uses materials in the back optimized for protection from road spray and water repelant fabric throughout; some of this fabric is less insulating than the Polare 2’s. So, if you’re like me, and you’d usually wear the Polare 2 on a fender bike when there’s water in the mix, you’d be covered with the one option. However, if you spend more time in the wet without fenders, the Nano Flex would be better suited. BUT… It depends. Read into the results section below to learn why!

Nuance. . . I realize this can all be confusing. The fine-grained difference between these tights reflects the RoS approach, and Castelli’s constant push to create pieces that support all-conditions riding, regardless of whether your bike has fenders. Let’s be frank, most of us won’t run fenders during races, but we certainly do race in the wet in temperatures hovering around freezing. It’s important to consider your clothing requirements for outdoor riding that is ‘optional’ versus ‘necessary’.

Here are the Polare 2’s specs:

  • Full Gore® Windstopper® X-Fast front for total wind protection
  • Thermoflex Core2 back for extra warmth with brushed fleece inside
  • KISS Air seat pad
  • Ankle zips with reflective detailing
  • Weight: 268g
  • Retail: $290 CAN

The fabric used throughout the tights’ protective panels have a distinctive feel to them that makes me think of a wetsuit, being someone who’s never actually worn one…. The fabric is very substantial, and far more ‘compressive’ than ‘stretchy.’ In other words, it has a lot of structure to it. Meanwhile, the bib straps are lightly constructed, which is definitely a smart move, as I’ve found thicker straps only inhibit the vapour release of my base layers.

The zippers at the bottom of each leg are of high quality, and don’t require extreme care to avoid blowing out when closing them. It is, however, always a good practice to help zippers out by pulling fabric together as you zip up.

I clued in, while checking out the Tempesta 2 legwarmer, that Castelli might have actually incorporated some extra wet protection into the bottom panel of each leg. The Tempesta is built to repel road spray below the knee, which is, again, genius. Were the Polare’s built the same way? I wasn’t sure, but I took a cue from the Tempesta description on the Castelli site, and wore the Polare 2 zipped up OVER TOP of my Pioggia 3 RoS shoe-covers on the next ride I did, and the system seemed to work wonderfully, even if I wasn’t getting a tonne of spray off my front fender. This is something I’ll experiment more with, but water-shedding tights/leg warmers over top of water-shedding shoe-covers seems like a darned good practice we should all aoopt!

When and where I rode the piece/s

Naturally, we always wish for clement weather as each weekend approaches, not least when we have an event on the schedule. The 2019 edition of Rasputitsa confirmed that there are both a lot of riders out there who have yet to build their RoS wardrobes due to inexperience and newness to the sport, and those who simply haven’t prioritized the necessary investments because they tend to avoid riding in foul weather. The reality check was grim out there, with scores of riders woefully unprepared for hours in the cold rain. To a greater degree than any other occasion since I’ve taken on Castelli kit testing, Rasputitsa posed a challenge I was actually excited about. On the eve of the event I barely slept. Had I brough caf, not decaf coffee for my evening brew? Nope; I was excited to ride in the grimmest of grim conditions. Sure, I’m a special sort of ‘weird.’

How can one be excited about racing in temperatures barely above freezing in the rain? What brand of crazy underpins this posture?

Rain or shine.

The thing is, when you invest the time, energy, and thought to how to ride well across the spectrum of conditions the world offers us, you build confidence. Cross that with exceptionally well designed and constructed kit, and you’ve got the conditions in place for a pleasant experience in the grimmest of grim. “I can.”

Results

During the 2019 edition of the Rasputitsa Gravel Race I wore the Polare 2 tights with Castelli’s Perfetto Light jacket (now discontinued to make way for the Perfetto ROS jacket), which has a wonderful drop-tail. To my surprise and absolute delight, I felt absolutely zero wetness on my skin during the race, including on my backside. The course was mostly dirt road, so there was less spray than the paved/unpaved 7-hour ride I did in March in the wet, which soaked by butt. So I’m now confident in positioning the Polare 2 as rather well suited to wet-but-not-ultra-wet-for-ultra-long conditions rides, especially if paired with something savvy like the Perfetto Light; it’s all about the systems approach!

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I hardly slept Friday night, @rasputitsagravel to begin at 09:00, cold rain virtually guaranteed; had I actually consumed caf, not decaf that evening? No; I was excited! Excited to test my resolve to have FUN on the bike in the race, no matter how grim the weather, how hard the pace, or how ideal my set-up. Rather than invest myself emotionally in an outcome, I was committed to listening to my body, going with the flow, and keeping it all positive. Anyone who saw me out there would attest that I was clearly having a good time, even though I was dropped like a bag of hammers from the selection through Cyberia. Stopping with fellow dropped dad, Jake – while in recovery mode – for shots of maple syrup was simply phenomenal. It was stunningly delicious. Invigorated by the confluence of sugar and recovery, I pushed on, ultimately duking it out with @anseldickey through the final kilometres – nets back on the road; GAME ON! I couldn’t be happier about having thought: “Oh, cool, it’s Ansel about to catch me, this will be fun, we can race!” Because racing can be, should be, is FUN. Our tractor pull smashfest through the mud and detritus of winter into the finale was 💯awesome, worthy of a dad-joke-triple-dab; for the kids. 16th feels like a nice spot for where I’m at in my #cxlife , no regrets! I’ll weave more storytelling on the blog soon, but for now, thank you to everyone who brought their ‘can-do’ attitudes to the event and made it great, and to everyone who offered kind words before, during, and after the race. I wish there was more time to catch up with all the wonderful people I only see at these races, and I really mean it when I say we gotta get together to ride! Thank you to all the amazing, passionate, talented people behind the brands that make it possible for me to undertake these challenges with confidence! 📷 1,2) @kraikerphoto 3) @andrealesiaemery // #rasputitsa #rasputitsagravel #artofthepossible #rainorshine #castellicycling #perfettolight #polare2 #wovenprecision #surlaplaque #springclassic #gravelgrinder #terrainlab #kogel #ovalrevolution #absoluteblack #renehersetires #steilacoom #lakecycling #mx241endurance #brodie #silca #teknecycling #teknecc

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Over Mad Alchemy’s greaseless warming embrocation, my legs were so comfortable across the 2.5 hours of racing, and following 2 hours of hanging out, I didn’t give them more than a cursory thought. While my feet spent a lot of time numb, my lets were unfettered (as was my core, the subject of another piece). Thus, on top of all the cold riding I’ve done in the Polare 2, down to windy -15C, they only showed weakness once, toward the end of a very wet, fenderless road ride that soaked by butt. Even an ass-saver might have prevented that, if not the Perfetto Light jacket.

Conclusions

The Polare 2 falls on the ‘damned cold’ end of the all-conditions spectrum, wet or dry, which is a band of conditions a lot of riders get, well, anxious about. And this is for good reason: it sucks being cold!

The Polare 2 is thus positioned as your go-to, all-in-one option for the cold. Rather than being worn over another layer with a pad/chamois, the Polare builds in Castelli’s relatively simple, medium density KISS Air pad, which strikes me as optimized for mid-length rides (1-4 hours). In contrast, the Nano Flex Pro 2 bibtights, which are built for longer, wet rides you’d typically undertake as part of spring base training and races, utilize their more dense, higher end Progetto X2 Air Seamless pad. So, the Polare is optimized for the sort of duration that is most likely for riders to undertake (1-4), and other bibtights in their line are tuned for longer rides that occur in different conditions. This makes sense.

I ride to work every day all winter. My hands freeze most days, since I don’t ride hard or long enough to get my blood going. On the weekends I ride outside because it’s fun, and I love it. But I don’t love doing it below -15C. Been there, done that, I’m over it. If the temp is below -15 I’m riding inside and spending more time with my family.

This past winter offered many opportunities to ride inside my -15C threshold, and more than 40 hours were spent in the Polare 2 tights. Before I received them I’d always done winter rides in two layers on my legs: padded shorts or knickers, Sugoi Firewall tights over top. I’d never tried a padded, fully thermal and water resistant option, and I had no idea whether the Polare 2 would be sufficient. My initial cold and dry rides went perfectly, but it wasn’t until Rasputitsa that the Polare 2 really solidified itself in my mind as virtually perfect all-conditions, rain or shine option.

While riders woke to rain and shuddered as they looked out their windows, impending suffering gripping their imaginations, I felt nothing but excited confidence in what I was about to do. My packing had been pretty simple: bring the warmest stuff. The apocalyptic stuff. Wear it. Be fine.

Waterproof socks and neoprene gloves duct taped to my skin. That’s what we’re talking about. Polare 2 tights. Perfetto Light jacket. A couple base layers. Simple, in a sense, but predicated on a whole lot of exceptional garment development.

While others grumbled about the spray as we descended, neutral, before the flag dropped, I was both fine and knew I’d remain that way. Anxiety? Zero. I was going to be warm, what was there to worry about?

Ultimately, I was warmer than I expected, because the Polare 2 outperformed my expectations. As I mention above, I felt no wetness on my legs, no soggy bottom. While gravel throws less spray than pavement, meaning I could have spend 2.5 hours being sprayed more, it was nevertheless raining and snowing most of the time. My legs were perfect. The only occasion I felt water penetration in the Polare was toward the end of a high-spray 7 hour ride in March at around 6C. So while they are certainly not impermeable (nor are they intended to be), they are definitely sufficiently protective enough to cover the range I want them to cover, and their polyvalence takes guess-work out of the equation.

If it’s cold: Polare 2.

If it’s cold and wet: Polare 2.

If it’s wet, not cold: NanoFlex, Omloop NanoFlex, Omloop Thermal bibs; a few great options. I’ll cover the Omloop Thermals in another piece.

Rain, snow or shine: RSoS. There’s nothing like having complete confidence in your kit.

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