How to Wash Your Cycling Kit, According to the People Who Made It
SPOILER ALERT: THE TYPE OF DETERGENT YOU USE DOESN’T REALLY MATTER.
BY JOE LINDSEY
Aug 17, 2022
Modern cycling clothing is increasingly the stuff of science-fiction. Technologies (and accompanying buzzwords) like bi-component knits, zone-specific compression and anti-bacterial treatments abound. At the high end, prices are increasing as well: $200 bib shorts and $150 jerseys are commonplace now. That’s to say nothing of jackets, baselayers and accessories like gloves, warmers and hats.
Since a cycling wardrobe represents such a significant investment, it’s worth asking: how should you take care of it to ensure it performs as well as possible, as long as possible? A number of companies offer laundry soaps claimed to work better on performance fabrics, but these detergents are also often considerably more expensive than everyday counterparts. We spoke with a number of sources in the apparel industry about what works for them, and tested several detergents ourselves. The answers might surprise you.
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
You can read our test results here, but as a spoiler, the brand of detergent you use is, according to our sources, far less important than how you wash your clothes. One surprising finding: from PEARL iZUMi to Polartec, not a single company we spoke with requires the use of a sport wash.
Ted Barber, Director of Advanced Development for Pearl Izumi, says that Pearl specifically seeks out fabrics that can be used with standard detergents and uses Tide for its in-house wash testing to assess fabric durability (yes, they test that – there’s even an ISO-certified test method). “We have to plan for people washing their clothes with a top-load machine and using Tide,” Barber says. “So we engineer our fabrics so they can handle standard washing while still maintaining the performance function they need and a long life.”
Q36.5 Absolutely Equipment Bergamo says he’s done extensive testing of detergents and found that “in general, all chemical detergents are very similar. In my experience, certain kinds of water have more of an effect on the garment than the detergent.” Bergamo, Barber and others say that the key to taking care of your clothes is, well, taking care of them. Here’s the best of their advice:
WASH EARLY, AND OFTEN
“Don’t throw your stuff in a hamper for five days,” says Chad Nordwall, owner of Mill Valley’s Above Category Cycling and a cycling apparel obsessive. The reason your cycling clothing stinks is that it was damp and stinky with sweat when you took it off, and then you threw it in a pile where it stayed damp, a breeding ground for bacteria. The biggest factor for funk is the amount of time that oils and dirt stay on the fabric, says Chuck Haryslak, a Senior Product Development Engineer with Polartec, which makes performance textiles like the next-to-skin Delta used in consumer brands like Velocio Apparel. If you don’t have enough cycling clothing to do a couple of loads a week, go ahead and just throw it in with your regular clothing. Synthetics are colorfast, but wash with like colors so other garments don’t bleed onto them.
WASHING MACHINES ARE FINE
The call for hand-washing jerseys and shorts is dead, said everyone we spoke with. Modern washing machines have so many cycle options that they’re fine for most so-called “delicates” and performance fabrics, says Haryslak. If you have a top-loader with a central agitator, use a mesh laundry bag, particularly for bib shorts; the suspenders can get wrapped around the agitator and stretch or tear.
Machine-wash may be more water-wise as well. Almost all washing machines made in the last decade also have load-sensing, so they can use less water than hand-washing. And don’t hold back out of belief that washing wears out clothing. “Some people don’t wash their kit enough because they’re afraid the agitation will affect durability,” says Pearl’s Barber. “But the dirt particles that grind into the knits cause more damage. Washing that stuff out prevents it from abrading the fibers.”
Don’t just throw stuff in the tub, says Barber. Take a moment to turn shorts inside out to limit abrasion on the face fabrics (it also helps the chamois rinse cleaner). Zip up zippers, says Dan Madden, a regional director at GORE-TEX Brand. It keeps the zipper pulls from banging around and getting damaged, and zipper teeth can be abrasive to fabric. The biggest abrasion culprit? Velcro. Make sure to fasten closures on gloves and shell short waistbands so that the “hook” side of the hook-and-loop system is fully covered.
Also, if you finish a particularly wet or muddy ride, pre-rinse first. “I just hose everything off,” says Nordwall. “If you stick stuff in that’s covered with mud, that will grind on your clothes and get stuck in the chamois.” A particularly muddy patch can benefit greatly from pre-treating with a stain-release product. In our test, we ran two swatches of muddy baselayer in one load: one we’d pre-treated with a Tide stain-releaser and one we didn’t. The stain-release version came out almost perfectly white and clean.
Washing in hot water is one of the two things that will damage a garment most, says Q36.5’s Bergamo (the other is in the next section). High water temperatures can irreparably damage garments, he says: not just the elastic in waist and short grippers, but the fabrics themselves. The fibers in next-to-skin fabric can melt slightly, which limits their wicking ability. Some fabrics, like shells, can benefit from a warm water wash and rinse, but most detergents today are designed to dissolve well in cold water, says Haryslak. Low spin is best, says Madden; it minimizes the abrasive damage.
USE DETERGENT, BUT NOT TOO MUCH
As we’ve laid out, what kind of detergent you use isn’t that important; just use it. But not too much: laundry detergent is highly concentrated, so you don’t need much, say Bergamo and Haryslak. “You’d be surprised what one drop of soap can do,” adds Haryslak, who notes that the measuring caps and instructions on detergent bottles often overstate how much is needed. Americans’ tendency to supersize things (cars, houses, sodas) doesn’t help. “The whole point of liquid detergent is that it is super concentrated,” says Gore’s Madden.
Also important: use only laundry detergent. Even non-chlorine bleach can damage performance fabrics. Avoid fabric softeners entirely, says Bergamo. Softeners work by leaving a soft-feeling residue on the fabric; it’s the opposite of rinsing clean and will trap oils and odors. Bergamo says that softeners can also damage the elastane that helps give synthetic fabrics their stretch, which can shorten the garment life.
That button on the machine is there for a reason. Other than using a little extra water, it’s pretty much harmless and helps ensure that the detergent rinses out cleanly.
HANG IT OUT
Never use a dryer for next-to-skin garments. If there’s any oil or odor left, the heat will bake it into the garment at a fiber level and you’ll never get it fully out, says Haryslak. As important: if hot water can damage fibers, then a hot dryer can too. Instead, hang shorts to dry; other items can hang or lay flat. An important exception: shell fabrics with a DWR treatment need a quick spin in the dryer at a low heat to re-activate the DWR finish.
Joe Lindsey is a longtime freelance journalist who writes about sports and outdoors, health and fitness, and science and tech, especially where the three elements in that Venn diagram overlap.