Waterproof and breathable – enough is enough?

Lately I’ve been experimenting with different jackets for cycling/living after spending years trying to disregard the over-engineered shortcomings of ‘technical’ jackets.

I’m talking about the holy grail of outdoor outerwear here – ‘waterproof and breathable’. Since the advent of Gore-Tex and its host of followers, it’s become the must-have feature of outdoor jackets, of which cycling jackets are a subset.

Now I’ve owned a fair number of such jackets at all price points and without exception, in all but freezing conditions, I’ve ended up clammy and uncomfortable on the inside after a fairly short, fairly moderate ride. From my £50 Altura Nevis jacket to a £200 plus Berghaus Gore-Tex Jacket, every one has done an admirable job of keeping the rain out but a similarly sterling job of keeping the sweat in.

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Really?

The bare facts of this have been eloquently voiced by ‘lone voice of sanity’ Grant Petersen in ‘Just Ride’, in his essay ‘The Breathability Ruse’ – how can a jacket with a micro-porous membrane on the inside hope to cope with the level of moisture that an average rider produces on an average ride, let alone a high velocity athlete on a high octane ride?

All of this pondering has led me to largely ditch my stable of technical jackets for everyday commuting and look for alternatives. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m (a) a staunch advocate of looking normal on my bike and (b) a closet fan of militaria. So lately, by means of a popular auction site, a US Army M65 jacket has come into my possession.

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The M65 Field Jacket – if it’s good enough for a tour of duty it’s good enough for the daily commute.

The M65 jacket was a staple of the US armed forces from its birth in the jungles of Vietnam in 1965 (hence it’s name) right through to the late eighties. The jacket is a polyester cotton mix, with a tight weave, a DWR (durable water repellent) treatment on the surface, a poly cotton drop liner and most tellingly of all – no bonded Goretex style membrane.

I’ve worn this jacket through the last few weeks which, coincidentally, have been some of the chilliest, wettest weeks the UK has seen for some time, with widespread flooding. I’m pleased to say that the M65 has done an admirable job of keeping out the worst of the rain out on rides up to about an hour, whilst never once feeling clammy on the inside. Never before have I been able to arrive at work feeling as comfortable, despite the jacket not being totally waterproof – I’ve arrived at work with a better level of ‘net dryness’ than when wearing technical outerwear. I generally team the coat with a merino base layer/t shirt and a mid layer if it’s really cold and it’s just dandy.

Cut wise, the M65 is as far from a proper cycling jacket as you can possibly imagine – and for these reasons it’s an instant winner for the cycle commuter who wants to look normal. The jacket comes down to the upper-mid thigh but the zipper stops at waist level, therefore not hindering the pedalling movement or bunching up. This combination is excellent as it allows free pedalling but also keeps the lap and lower back covered. The arm/shoulder joint is superbly tailored with a concertina style ‘bi-swing’ back, meaning that the cycling position is easily achieved. The arms are long with extending cuffs which come into their own when on the bike and slightly stretched out. There’s a popper-fastened storm flap over the chunky brass zip and drawstrings for the waist and hem. The jacket also packs a useful zip-away hood which is great for off the bike situations.

The whole design, in my opinion, oozes utilitarian cool. It’s a real American design icon, as worn by thousands of Vietnam vets, Al Pacino in ‘Serpico’, Robert de Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ and Sly Stallone in ‘Rambo’ (OK let’s forget that last one – the first three are stonewall cool). There are lots of versions out there from the £100 Alpha Industries original down to the version I got, which set me back just £37 plus shipping.

If you are a looking for a great on/off bike jacket that looks good, rugged, non-technical yet, in real world situations, outperforms ‘performance’ jackets for commuting purposes, then the M65 is well worth a look. Moreover, its made me redefine what constitutes a ‘performance’ jacket.