Reviewed: Pearl Izumi Versa Pants

Casual technical cycling pants seem like an oxymoron. But there are times when you want to ride long, you know your pants aren’t up to the ride, and you don’t want to bring a change of clothes for what goes on after the ride ends.

It’s part of the endless specificity vs. flexibility debate that can pop up once you’ve started acquiring cycling gear. It’s nice to have clothes that are comfortable on the bike, but it’s also nice to have clothes that do well wherever you go and whatever you’re doing. In other words, spandex is great, but you don’t always want to hang out in it.

Pearl Izumi, long a technical bike clothing company, has recently expanded their offerings well beyond their roots. Part of it seems to be a rebranding effort, part of it could well be that as a Shimano subsidiary, they’ve got a bigger budget and are trying to hit more segments of the market, as the commuter/casual segment is growing.

Versa Pants are part of Pearl’s casual wear lineup. They boast that they designed their pants to be comfortable on rides up to an hour in length. This seems like faint praise, as most casual clothes can be worn on the bike. Initially, I didn’t give the concept much thought. Then I did an easy hour ride in what seemed like comfortable jeans. A saddle sore developed by the end. One conclusion is that my undercarriage isn’t as tough as I’d like to think it is. Another is that maybe cycling-oriented casual wear makes more sense than I initially gave it credit for.

I write that having already tried out two pair of Levis commuter wear. Kudos to Levis for getting in on the action, though I didn’t find their execution great. The first pair I tried, were, I believe, “messenger jeans” yet my thighs were too big for the skinny-leg cut. I got the next numeric size up. Another pair I tried was cargo pants. In both cases their cotton/poly blend had a little stretch in the leg and too much at the waist. To make the pants seem purpose-built, they added reflective tape to the outside seams of the lower legs, which seemed hard for drivers to “see” in the dark. They made the effort to reinforce the seat area, which was effective on the messenger jeans, but was too low on the cargo pants—I wore holes in the seat of those. The lock loop that Levis sewed into the waistband is smaller than any of my U-locks, so it was never utilized.

Versas, possibly because they come from a bike apparel company, are much better designed.

The Versas are made of polyester cloth, which Pearl calls Transfer Versa fabric; it is supposed to wick. The material is thin, smooth on the outside, appears brushed on the inside and is treated with a water-repellant finish. Weight is 353g for the sample tested; a pair of Levis 501s weigh 716g. The stretch is fairly generous for pants, though the waist has relatively little stretch. The crotch is gusseted and has flat seams. No spot in the middle of the crotch where four panels of denim overlap, which is pretty much standard construction for most pants.

There are five waist pockets, two in front, two in back, a change pocket on the right side, and a sixth pocket on the right thigh. All but the left rear and the change pocket are covered by zippers, ensuring that the items inside stay inside, at least as long as their zipped. The change pocket is triangular and Velcro-topped. The four main pockets might be a bit larger than typically found on jeans. The thigh pocket holds an iPhone 5 fairly comfortably, though it’s hard to tell if larger phones would fit, let alone be something you wouldn’t mind having mid-thigh while pedaling.

Pearl applied reflective tape to the back inside of the lower legs, in single 17cm long stripes per leg. There’s a third stripe of reflective tape on the left hip. The stripes are fairly narrow, 1cm in width—I’d like to see wider stripes—but they’re better than nothing.

The waist has belt loops that start at 1 3/8” in front and get longer in back, and there’s a jeans-style patch for a nod to fashion. The waist fits well enough to go beltless and not wish to have a waist-cinching accessory. It sits lower in front and rises to the rear and the rear of the waist has what seems to be silicone grippers embedded on the waistband’s inside. The ankles were narrow enough not to need some sort of pants-retaining band to prevent the legs from getting caught in the chain and crank.

The 30-inch waist comes with 33-inch legs, long enough that we were rolling up the ankles by a few inches when riding. Oddly, the numeric size for the waist is actually smaller than the waist measurement. The waist number for the size is an inch to two-and-a-half inches smaller than the actual waist. As in a 30 is actually 31-32 ½”.

Riding in them is comfy. They call the cut “relaxed fit” but that’s compared to spandex bottoms. If you’re used to narrow-leg pants, the cut will feel similar, but more free and forgiving, thanks to the stretch. They put the temperature range as 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit. We found we could ride in them comfortably into the low 40s and then about 65 was as warn as we wanted for riding in pants, though the brushed interior and polyester cloth helps somewhat with wicking. While we don’t see ourselves adding any kind of padded liner or shorts underneath, an hour ride in these is far more comfortable than in our jeans or even the Levis commuter pants. For the longer rides, a phone in the thigh pocket was a bit distracting.

The pants are comfortable sweaty and dry fast. The water repellent coating seems mostly suited for damp roads and tire sprays, not full-on rain. We did a few rides in heavy rain; they got wet fast, but once out of the rain, dried faster than any cotton or cotton/spandex pants we’ve had.

For washing, we just tossed the pants in with the rest of our clothes, washed in cold and dried with the rest of our cycling gar. They came out looking fine.

Even on days when we weren’t riding, the pants did well. They felt like pants. While that’s a simple criteria, it might be the one that’s most important. Bike clothing that works fine away from the bike is flexible and utilitarian, and makes the choice between bike and non-bike a non-discussion. Which is a long way to write they function equally well as non/bike clothing, and what we were looking for.

Now the question becomes how far does this go into the non-cycling wardrobe?




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