Cotton kills. Right?

Hi Lee, I’d like to start off by saying that if it wasn’t for your book and your website, I’d still be sitting in my saddle pedalling as fast as I can running over every rock in sight. Thanks to you I now understand the concept of pumping and am a better rider for it.

I do have a very basic question that has nothing to do with riding techniques or suspension setup I hope you’d spend the time to answer.

What is the purpose of wearing long sleeved race jerseys when you’re riding an XC type trail? I see a bunch of guys riding around in them at the local XC trail and I wonder if there are any benefits over my cotton t-shirt. Is this just an aesthetics thing or is there actually some functional benefit that I’m not aware of?

Hey Dexter,

Race kit looks … racy. How racy should you look on a mixed use trail? Bobbi Watt models her race kit in the appropriate place.

Cotton kills
That’s the adage, probably created by the synthetic fiber industry. When you sweat, cotton holds the moisture close to your body. In hot weather, this can make you feel yucky. In cold weather, it can make you feel extra cold; in very cold weather, I suppose it could help kill you.

Advantages of synthetic materials
I spend part of each winter writing marketing copy for apparel companies like Pearl Izumi and Descente. Our material keeps you cool and dry. Ours keeps you dry and cool. Ours keeps you not hot, and — at the same time! — not wet.

Basically, the nicer materials pull sweat away from your skin to the outside of the garment, where the moisture evaporates. This is called “wicking.” Wicking garments theoretically keep you warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Synthetic materials also tend to move more easily and chafe less than cotton.

Bobbi showcases the long sleeves, this time for warm, casual style.

As for me
While I do most of my practical riding in cotton t-shirts, I rock XC jerseys for longer rides and when I want the pockets. I also like synthetic t-shirts for long days of coaching. I feel less sweaty and more comfortable.

I very rarely wear long-sleeve DH jerseys. 1) If I’m riding DH I’m wearing armor, and long sleeves are extra hot. 2) I like the pockets in an XC jersey.

Also: For the fast couple years I’ve been rocking synthetic underwear. It chafes less than cotton, and it dries quickly after I ride. When I run errands on the bike or coach all day, that is key.

Long sleeve DH jerseys for XC riding
I dunno man.

– Quality synthetic materials can make you more comfortable on long/hot/cold rides.

– Long sleeves make sense when it’s cold out.

– Sponsor jerseys make your sponsors happy. Your own logos promote your business or team.

– Bold graphics and logos from companies with which you have no relationship — I don’t get it.

– Rocking DH kit on an XC ride for no practical purpose — that sounds pretty silly.

If you’re comfy in cotton, rock it. Just watch out for blizzards.

— Lee

Know more. Have more fun!

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10 replies
  1. Brian Bartholomew says:

    After wearing synthetic shirts I rarely ride in a t-shirt anymore. I get them from the sporting goods store for 20 bucks. I feel less sweaty and don’t seem to get as hot as wearing a t-shirt.

    Maybe they are wearing long sleeves to protect from poison oak?

  2. electric says:

    Lee, try some merino wool for an underlayer if you need it. There are some outdoor brands which sell very thin and lightweight stuff(undies included). A word of caution thou, it is expensive and habit forming.

    Problem with synthetics is they will smell and have to be tossed out eventually, faster than cotton and way faster than wool. Though now companies are making them with anti-bacterial coatings which should help the BO issue; wools are naturally anti-bacterial and won’t smell unless you seriously abuse them. Synthetics also can be contaminated with heavy metals due to some of their material being made of recycled contaminated plastic/oils.

    Some positive things about synthetics are it’s cheapness. I won’t feel too bad if i rip my $20 synthetic on a tree. Synthetics also wick almost as well as light wool and waaay better than cotton.

    And yes, cotton can kill, for one because it doesn’t wick but primarily because it holds water so well. This is very dangerous in sub-zero weather because your shirt can basically freeze into an ice cube were you to soak it via sweat or a fall into a creek. Wet skin can loose heat up to 25 times faster than dry skin. Heat conductance in air is something like 2.3kcal/hr and saltwater(sweat like) is 52 kcal/hr(brr!) wet wool is 8.0kcal/hr and neoprene is 4.6kcal/hr.

    And remember seamless is where it’s at!


  3. Chris says:

    I wear a long white cotton t-shirts to mop my extremely sweaty brow (even with a headband). Synthetics keep me no cooler and they don’t mop my brow. Wool is too itchy for my baby skin. I like the idea of pockets but I always have a Camelback on. Every now and then I will try a synthetic and it ruins my ride.

    I do wear synthetic Under Armour Heatgear Boxerjocks under my Pearl Izumi Pro knicks/bibs.

  4. Dexter says:

    Thanks for answering my question, Lee. I want to thank everyone else for their input as well.

    With snowboarding being another passion of mine for many years, I am always surprised at how there are so many similarities between snowboarding/skiing and mountain biking. Just when I thought the similarities ended with the concept of pumping and railing (carving) turns, I find out that they share another commonality with wicking garments. Only in the winter sports, you just hear stuff like, “Our stuff wicks away moisture so you stay warm and toasty.” Go figure.

  5. Stan says:

    As soon as you start worrying about long sleeve DH vs. short sleeve XC jerseys, I’m afraid that the next thing you will start worrying about is if your purple anodized cranks are going to match your new white stem. If it works, wear it. Don’t worry about what other people think it looks like.

    A young local DH ripper here entered a XC race last summer for fun. All of the XC kids in their tight spandex shorts and jerseys made fun of him for wearing his full DH kit (the Troy Lee Power Ranger look.) He kicked everyone’s ass and finished first. Braaap!

  6. Scott says:

    I always rock a long sleeve jersey while descending. Regardless if its XC, AM, DH, DJ. Nice to have a layer of something between you and the ground when you fall!

    On the way up its a sleeveless Under Armour shirt unless I’m worried about sunburning the guns, then its long sleeve UA.

    Oh, I ditch the gloves on the way up. Don’t want my hands to be too white!

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