The Scuba Jacket

When I started training in 1983, aka riding through the winter in bike clothing, it seemed like winter bike threads had barely gone past the 1950s, while summer bike clothing was starting to catch up with the times. We had spandex shorts, (some) comfortable synthetic short sleeve jerseys, and even some synthetic long sleeve jerseys. But winter clothing was still mostly wool, which seemed ridiculously expensive for a broke teenager, or polypropylene knock-offs, which were cheap, ugly, and scratchy.

Assos was making some primo winter stuff out of synthetic materials, but with that exception, it seemed the only choices were all wool or polypro. I had a single Sergal long sleeve jersey and a single pair of cheap spandex bib tights, and that was what I wore from the mid-fifties until it got too cold to go out—a nylon rain cape would come out on the coldest days, but that was the only additional exterior riding layer I owned.

I wanted a winter jacket. After some price comparisons, I got one from my local shop. It was from Bellwether, made of black polypro with grey nylon wind-resistant panels sewn over the chest, shoulders, and the front of the arms. For some reason, it came with two pockets, not three, and they were zippered, which didn’t make sense to me, but was consistent with most better jackets, both then, and now. It was a mashup of the rain cape and a jersey. It was an improvement, a real one, but still felt kind insufficient. The only way to stay warm with this marginal improvement—much better than wearing the wind jacket over a jersey–was to put on several layers, and for me, that included a scratchy wool undershirt, a moth-eaten wool long-sleeve shirt that my dad didn’t have the heart to throw away, a nice long-sleeve baselayer, and then the Bellwether jacket, which was hard to pull over my arms, as the nylon fabric barely had any stretch to it. That was bulky but reasonably comfortable (for that era) into the mid-20s, but below that, it was just cold. But if being cold was the price for riding outside, I paid it, many times gladly. It allowed me to go out on the coldest winter days, and so long as I had people to ride with, I was happy to do it.

That changed with the scuba jacket. Assos was probably the first to market with them, and I saw pictures, probably in Velo News or Winning Magazine, of winter team camps with pro riders wearing single color Assos jackets with a patch indicating their pro team. I don’t know if the jackets actually had a name, but they seemed like they must be the best thing going if pros were riding them.

The first scuba jacket I saw for sale in a shop was made by Giordana and was in the design of the Lowenbrau Cycling Team. It must have been the fall of 1987. I knew I had to have it, and for $80 or thereabouts ($175 in October, 2018 dollars), it was mine.

The jacket had a smooth, shiny finish on the outside. The interior was lined with some kind of three-dimensional synthetic fabric that was laminated to the exterior, presumably to trap and channel air, as the material seemed to have grooves in it. The jacket was windproof, or at least felt so at the time. The lining felt like foam, and seemed to trap air and held sweat vapor. Some called them “foam jackets.” My friends and I went with scuba, possibly because we were starting to wear neoprene surf gloves (repurposed from surf shops; my first pair were by Body Glove) in the winter as well.

The jacket was heaven. Putting it on before going out on a cold winter day felt like zipping into armor. I could wear a single base layer under it down to about freezing. And three layers underneath took me to around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It was even pretty good in the rain. Or at least that’s what I remember.

At the time, club bike clothing was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. There was a single order per year for club clothes and the choices were pretty limited both because suppliers didn’t offer many options and because minimums needed to be pretty high to get anything made with a custom design. On club rides in the winter, everyone was wearing whatever they had; club clothing was only worn when the temperatures allowed, and for many, club clothing was only short sleeved.

So the jacket was worn all winter, for all rides, only getting cleaned when it was too stinky or sufficiently dirty.

I even got a pair of tights in this material. They were never as comfortable or magical as the jacket, so they only came out on the coldest days.

And the jacket worked, and worked, and worked. For years. In the late 90’s. I picked up a used Team Shaklee jacket from a friend, who had picked it up used from a pro. It wasn’t clean or crisp. But it was warm. Having two in the rotation was better than one.

There appeared to be better jackets out there. But as long as the scubas were working, I didn’t need to bother thinking about upgrading. I was out in the cold all winter, and pretty happy with my gear choices most of the time.

I got a new winter jacket in 2005. This time, in club colors. The winter jacket design had changed a good bit. A windproof exterior material laminated to a fleece interior. With breathable brushed-fleece panels under the arms and along the sides. It was much warmer and more comfortable. And three full-sized pockets, a big plus. All the same, I kept using the old jackets, just on not-quite-so-cold rides.

And then, suddenly, the scuba jackets didn’t seem warm at all.   I noticed I needed more and more clothing under them for the same temperature. Even in the forties Fahrenheit, they weren’t warm. Looking carefully at the liner, it appeared to be de-laminating from the smooth, shiny exterior. And, I started to notice, breaking down as well; I finally noticed that some kind of dust seemed to lift out of the interior when I stretched it a bit to put it on. The jackets even looked old and broken down.

Checking out a thrift store in Chicago, I found one from a long-defunct Belgian squad. I picked it up, along with wool long-sleeve jersey, for about $20. It lasted for several rides, before it, too, wasn’t warm.

I also picked up an Assos Fugujack. This was a step beyond; form-fitting winter armor. It almost felt too warm above freezing. It has never gotten anything near daily winter use, but for a decade, it has come out when the mercury can’t reach freezing. Putting it on has always felt like the final layer before tempting the fates on a ride into the void.

That jacket I got new in 2005 is still going, though it seems to be suffering the same fate as the scuba jackets. It doesn’t seem as warm as it used to. The Assos is starting to look a bit sad,too. The exterior is starting to delaminate in places.  I’ll get it out shortly, but it, too, might not be as warm as it used to be.

Temperature is objective. Cold is subjective. Hard to tell if my body is changing or the clothing is, or neither. The feeling of being armored up against the winter has often been the first step to a great winter ride.




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