The Elite jacket is designed for inclement winter weather, and I also wore it on numerous cold but precipitation-free rides. The goal was to see if it would work as an all-round winter jacket. That would be ideal -- one jacket that does it all, no problem if a dry ride turns wet or vice versa.
The Elite passed the test quite well, but not before this veteran winter rider had to relearn how to dress. The usual garb I wear inside my old-tech Italian winter jacket (circa 1980) -- made of wool with a nylon panel across the shoulders -- was too much inside the Elite. It's built from material that does such a good job of blocking cold-air penetration that I overheated when riding hills or exerting for any other reason.
For the record, my normal inner attire is a polypropylene T-shirt covered by a long-sleeve polyester turtleneck, into which I tuck a thin polypro balaclava. That's it. Wearing the wool jacket, I'm good in temps ranging from the mid 40s (F) into the mid 20s. That jacket doesn't allow excessive heat buildup, and the front zipper slides effortlessly to let in cooling air if I do begin feeling too warm. No bells, no whistles, just good performance -- in dry conditions, anyway.
Now fast forward 25 years. The Elite jacket is totally high tech. It's made of a relatively light synthetic material called eVent that purports to move ("vent") moisture from inside to outside where it can evaporate. Sounds wonderful, but in practice eVent works about the same as Gore-Tex and other materials that supposedly "breathe" to let body heat and condensation escape. Which is to say it doesn't work all that well.
This brings us back to what's worn underneath. My first three rides in the low 30s while wearing the undergarments just mentioned produced lots of sweat inside the Elite, even with both 6-inch armpit zips open and the front zipper often down to my belly. A 20-inch-long mesh vent across the back helps air flow through the jacket, although the flap that covers it gets pulled shut in the normal road riding position. When sitting upright on climbs I could feel the vent letting in cool air.
My long-sleeve turtleneck is light gray, which makes it easy to see darker wet areas. After these rides, the shirt was dark almost everywhere and the jacket itself was wet inside.
I bellyached about this to Dave Morrow, the Seattle-based owner of Showers Pass. He said it wasn't so much a breathability problem as a dressing problem. He figured my two relatively thin undershirts were more than were necessary even in freezing temperatures.
Morrow was right. I substituted a see-through polyester tank top for the T-shirt and wore the same turtleneck. Most of it stayed a light shade of gray during a hilly three-hour ride at 32F degrees. I still needed to have the armpit zips open all the time and the front zipper down some of the time. But I was acceptably dry and comfortable.
The same light underclothing also was plenty in the coldest temperature I rode, 19F degrees not counting the windchill. In fact, the Elite jacket worked better for me in the 20s than in the 30s. In the 40s it was borderline overkill -- sometimes too warm no matter what I wore under it.
Unfortunately, I got only one chance to wear the Elite in steady rain. I didn't detect any leaks, and I don't doubt eVent's ability to repel water as well as it blocks cold air. Such materials seem to be very effective at stopping penetration, which is probably why they have a hard time preventing internal condensation from body heat. I've been trying these "breathable" miracle materials for years and have yet to find one that fully lives up to the hype.
So once I learned what to wear inside the Elite, I could focus on the jacket's other features:
Sleeve length. The sleeves on my XL test jacket were long enough to stay down around the cuffs of my gloves to prevent air leaks. That's important because I ride tall bikes and have long reaches for water bottles and down-tube shifters. The end of each sleeve has a hook-and-loop strap so the size of the opening can be adjusted. Sometimes you may want fresh air coming up the sleeves, often you won't.
Noise. On fast descents or when riding into a headwind, the eVent material doesn't rustle or flap loudly. Some synthetics sound like a sheet of newspaper held out a car window.
Visibility. The jacket comes in one color, "goldenrod." It's nearly the same yellow that's used in highway signs. It's loud enough to be visible without being garish. In addition, there are reflective 3M Scotchlight silver strips across the back and around each arm. I give extra credit for that, and for putting a loop on the back flap for attaching a small LED taillight.
Fit. An elastic cord through the hem lets you adjust its snugness. It's another way to control air flow as well as fine-tune fit. There's a similar draw cord for the high collar, which has three hook-and-loop tabs for attaching an optional hood ($20).
Rear pocket. It's actually a large, 20x7-inch chamber across the lower back accessed by a zipper near the right end. The pocket can hold lots of stuff, but it's tough to fish out what you need while riding, particularly when wearing winter gloves.
Zippers. A two-way front zipper gives you the ability to close the jacket, then zip down from the top or up from the bottom to adjust air flow. This zipper and the armpit zips are "waterproof," meaning the teeth are covered by a plastic material when closed together. This causes a problem: The zipper doesn't slide easily. When I didn't use two hands -- one to hold the jacket down -- zipping up would only lift the jacket. Morrow says the action gets easier as the zipper is used, but you can cheat by putting liquid soap on the teeth or using a toothbrush to apply spray silicone. I did the latter and the zipper slid better.
Tail. The Elite is cut long in back. It doesn't actually have a drop-down tail like some rain jackets. I wish it did. Perhaps because I have a long torso, the jacket needed to be 3-4 inches longer to completely cover the saddle as well as my butt. Maybe the length will be sufficient for people of normal proportions.
Washability. The Elite jacket can be cleaned in a washing machine and hung to dry. No special treatment is required. Steam ironing is the recommended way to restore full water repellency.
Upgrades. The Elite has been enhanced for 2006 with a fleece lining for the collar, a feature lacking on the jacket I tested. The armpit zippers have been repositioned lower to catch more cooling air.
The Elite is well-made, full-featured, and could be the only winter jacket you need no matter how wet or cold it gets. You'll probably have to wear less under it than you're used to. That's the key to improving the jacket's performance, particularly if you ride hard or climb a lot. The eVent material stops some moist body heat from escaping as it prevents water and cold air from penetrating. You still can't have it both ways, but credit goes to the Elite jacket for coming close.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred's full bio.