Merino Next-to-the-Skin for Long-Distance Cycling

Nicholas Tarling

One piece of kit that required my attention in the early planning stages of our trip involved what I might wear in between my bike’s finely-aged leather saddle and my own more finely-aged nether-regions.  I’ll post later about what I’ve chosen to wear as an outer layer, so to be clear, this particular discussion is all about next-to-the-skin.  In this post, I’ll discuss the benefits of wearing Merino wool cycling base layers and, in my next, will review a particular brand of cycling-specific boxers that I chose for our travels.


To Lycra or not to Lycra?

There is a range of what folks find acceptable on tour as far as cycling bottoms are concerned and, as I found myself contrasting the various options, I quickly accepted the likelihood that I’d likely never be able to locate the perfect combination for this trip.  Or so I thought.

What material/fabric is best to wear for long-distance touring?  That question is likely as old as the penny farthing itself.  Traditionally, it has involved a heated debate over some kind of scratchy woven wool versus leather versus, perhaps, moleskin.  Today, it can best be summed up with the question:  To lycra or not to lycra?

Having spent countless miles in the saddle of my road bike clad in bright & garish spandex-reinforced lycra bibs, I felt adequately schooled in the synthetic options.  Skin tight and excellent for training rides and racing, synthetic bottoms nonetheless require regular washing to keep them acceptable on an olfactory and bacterial level – not the best option for the self-supported touring cyclist.  And even though subdued all-black options exist, at the risk of standing out more than I already do, I opted ‘not to lycra’.

And while many a long distance tour has been accomplished in cutoff cotton jeans, my requirement for something a bit more comfortable kept me looking.


My First next-to-skin test, Ibex T-Shirt

Merino :: Wearing is Believing

Enter Merino wool.

Until I opened my search, my experience with next-to-the-skin Merino wool and cycling was limited to my upper body and a couple of first generation Swobo cycling jerseys (by the way, second generation Swobo clothing – the stuff marketed now – is no longer produced in North America).  And these I had rarely worn without some sort of synthetic t-shirt underneath.  “Still too scratchy” is how I felt about Merino.  However, upon further research, it appeared as though Merino had somehow entered the modern age, with so many other touring cyclists raving about it, so I was at least open to reading more.  But to be honest, just the thought of Merino ‘below the belt’ made me itch.

Curious, I decided to give Merino another try and so ordered up a couple of Ibex t-shirts.  A couple of days into wearing one of them I knew something had definitely changed, for the better.  Even with nothing between my skin and the wool, I experienced zero itch and, amazingly, zero odor.  In fact, a week later no tell-tale sign existed that I’d been wearing the shirt for more than seven days straight!  All I had to do was hang the shirt up over night and when I awoke the next morning any odor was 100% gone.  Unbelievable!  And when another week of effortless wear passed, it was obvious that I was hooked.  This stuff is amazing!  But still, I wondered, would the feel-good softness translate, you know, ‘down there’?


The Search to Find the Perfect Cycling-Specific Boxer

Simon Howden

The search was now on for a Merino brief appropriate for cycling, that met our own ethical sourcing and purchasing guidelines.

Although Ibex is located in Vermont, and most of their line sewn in California, their lighter weight boxers are made in Fiji or Turkey.  Moving on…

In a case of bad timing, I discovered that our other local Merino cycling-wear manufacturer, Joneswares, had decided to take a hiatus from production.  Joneswares’ entire line is manufactured in western Massachusetts and they had two boxers that looked perfect for my needs.  Unfortunately neither was available.

Digging around on the internet led me to a couple of start-ups.  One, named WoolSports, was so new that they didn’t yet carry any bottoms.  Another named Pulse Activewear, located in Denver, Colorado, had both loose and tight-fitting boxers but neither featured a gusseted crotch.  As anyone in the know will tell you, the illustrious gusseted crotch makes a huge difference when on the bike since there is no uncomfortable seam in the way of your seating pleasure.  I decided to overlook this for the time being, as I needed off-the-bike wear anyways, and after a discussion with the owner of the company, I ordered up a pair of their “Made in Denver” loose fitting boxers.  When they arrived and I put them on (no itch!) I knew I had found my wonder material.

However, I still wanted to find something gusseted or perhaps even something with a light chamois, anything that might provide a little more comfort.  Thus, my search continued.

Additional Options & more on The Miracle of Merino 

During our stay in Berkeley, I discovered that Rivendell is now selling a MUSA (their “Made in USA” brand) loose-fitting and gusseted Merino boxer.  I purchased a pair when my friend Jason and I cycled to Walnut Creek and I have since found out they work well for shorter trips on the bike and are great for around town and when lounging.  And on a very practical note, Rivendell claims that one can take these boxers, “…three days without washing.”  This is an understatement.  Personally, I’ve found that they can easily go more then a week between washings provided I don’t wear them on the bike and even then three days is being conservative.  Merino’s miraculous and all-natural anti-microbial qualities are something I simply didn’t believe until I discovered it for myself.  In truth,  I only end up washing these boxers out of compulsion, eventually reasoning that “it must be time.”  As a result, I haven’t yet ascertained  the outer limits of how long they can truly go between washings.

This unique quality of Merino wool has serious and far reaching implications, not the least of which being that one can maintain a much smaller wardrobe.  As far as I am concerned, this is revolutionary!  In the realm of undies alone, I’d wager that the reason most folks have a pair for each day of the week is not because they necessarily want to but because they have to at the risk of offending those around them.  Being a recent wool boxer convert, I now realize that there is absolutely no reason to own more that two pair – you wear one while washing and then hanging the other up to dry.

Plus, wool doesn’t need (nor will it withstand) the kind of heavy agitation during washing that other fabrics require, so that makes not having access to a washing machine a non-event.  A small sink or bucket full of water, a dash of detergent and some light hand powered agitation is all that’s required to make quick work of a wool-undies wash.  And this is true of most anything made of Merino that a cyclist might have with them.  For us that includes tee shirts, long sleeve shirts, hats, gloves, socks, bras and long underwear.  Taken to its logical conclusion, just think of the water, soap, energy and time savings this equals!  And while these savings are of particular benefit to the touring cyclist, they also offer advantages to anyone living small or seeking a simpler way of life.

Drumroll Please :: My Final Choice 

While continuing my search and debating the limited options available, I, by-chance, stumbled upon what I will hereafter refer to as….

THE holy-grail of cycling specific boxers, with origins in, of all places, Australia.

On-the-edge-of-your-saddle with curiosity? 🙂  Well, then, stay tuned for the next post, in which “the goods” will be revealed!



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