Reviewed: Universal Colours winter and spring cycling apparel

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I’m usually suspicious of plain-looking gear at high price points, but once I realized Universal Colors (“UC”) uses sustainable materials for its apparel I was more interested in the brand. Its aesthetic is modern materials in updated classic formats with subtle functional and visual touches, and this makes for a fantastic cycling kit. The unisex designs for outerwear keeps shopping simple. I like the overall ethos of broad, general usability, and environmentally conscious construction. It helps that the UC kit design looks great in an “if Katherine Hepburn wore cycling kit,” kind of way. It’s very classy.

Universal Colours packable puffy jacket. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Unisex Insulated Packable Jacket ($230)
Pros: glow in the dark rear flap, generous sleeve sizing
Cons: packable bag has no strap

I had been unconvinced of the need for puffy gear in road cycling at first. I prefer not to bring bags on rides, and there is no way this fits into a pocket. That’s one downside of this jacket: it can be packed into itself, in the valuables pocket, but that pocket does not have any strap or handle to make it easy to carry. That said, one cold, race morning in April convinced me an insulated packable jacket is a good item to have. The hooded puffy jacket proves to be the perfect piece for early mornings and late nights, or social rides where the pace is conversational and there’s more than one stop. It is perfect for trips to colder climates, where it neatly fits into my backpack. It also works well when I just need to run to the store, or want to bring a jacket along to my friend’s fire pit. The 80gsm 3M Thinsulate filling is lighter than many jackets, which makes it easy to pack down. The DWR coating on the 100 percent recycled nylon ripstop fabric shell is PFC-free, so it is considerate to our environment.

The Universal Colours Unisex Insulated packable jacket looks like just a simple quality jacket (especially because the hood isn’t oversized to fit over a helmet) but it has a feature of specific benefit to cyclists: the glow-in-the-dark flap in the rear that’s held up with magnets. And most importantly for me, the sleeves are properly long so that there isn’t an awful gap between wrist and sleeve for cold air to infiltrate. That is the problem with so many long sleeve items, but not UC – their insulated jacket is correctly proportioned.

Universal Colours unisex gilet. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Insulated Unisex Gilet ($200)
Pro: Fantastic weight to warmth ratio, high stretch
Cons: pricy

I never thought an insulated garment could feel so slimming. The main fabric is 48 percent nylon, 42 percent recycled nylon, and 10 percent Spandex blend, which observes UC’s responsible manufacturing goals and has just enough stretch to allow some give and feel supportive. The vest is exceptionally light and thin for the amount of warmth it provides. The lattice insulation mesh called Comfortemp is made of 50 percent polyester, 45 percent post-consumer waste recycled polyester, and 5 percent polyamide: my takeaway – polyester is expected, the recycled polyester is a thoughtful addition, and the polyamide adds some longevity and wind resistance.

The reflective emblem on the back makes me feel like a member of a dojo, which I personally like and adds visibility on dark rides. It has a double zipper with a nice long fabric pull. The Insulated gilet is, of course, not as thin as UC’s beautiful iridescent vests, but when rolled it still fits into a pocket with room to spare. It’s also not as visually arresting as the Spectrum gilet, which makes the insulated gilet a versatile mix and match item for building a cycling wardrobe. It has three rear pockets with a zipper pocket, so I can wear it with just a long sleeve base layer and bibs and still be able to carry things. The seam-sealed bottom hem that’s lower in the back with a silicone liner to keep the gilet in place is something that’s grown in popularity on jerseys. This is one item that makes me glad to ride on a chilly day, just to have the chance to wear it.

Universal Colours Spectrum Lightweight Unisex Gilet ($135)
Pro: visually stunning, packs into its own oblong pocket
Con: no double zip

This is the first piece from UC that I noticed on the road; the first time I had to ask a fellow rider “where did you get that?” It’s how I learned UC existed. There are two iridescent colorways of this 56 percent polyester, 44 percent nylon woven ripstop. I was disappointed to discover it doesn’t have a double zipper, but the “Vision Slim” zipper is recycled and lightweight – which is more than I can say for a lot of other one-way zippers. Besides, I love this vest enough to wear it anyway – to specifically shop for jerseys that will match my green-red colorway. Everything else about the Spectrum gilet is ideal: it packs into its own oblong pocket to fit neatly into the back of a jersey and leave space for other items (as opposed to packing up square, which would take up a whole pocket), the fabric blocks wind effectively has reflective accents, and the 85 percent post-consumer waste recycled polyester and 15 percent elastane mesh stretch panels that both let the gilet form around the body and give a peek at the jersey underneath like the stocking material it resembles. If this had a double zipper, it would be my favorite gilet of all time.

Universal Colours long sleeve jersey. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Mono Long Sleeve Women’s Jersey ($190)
Pros: High stretch material grants body-hugging full coverage, great sleeve length
Cons: Make sure the zipper is locked or the stretch nature of the jersey can  pull it open

The Mono is a well-made, comfortable light thermal jersey — what is a-typical about it is the material. Large reflective bands on the sleeves; three pockets and one with zip; the soft brushed lining adds just enough loft to hold heat under a windproof vest — nothing out of the ordinary. The main material is 58 percent recycled Q-Nova pre-consumer waste nylon and 42 percent lycra which is a unique feature. It gives the item a different fit-and-feel than I’ve found in similar garments like Rapha Club thermals. The Mono Long sleeve is as conscientious as it is stretchy: so stretchy that opening just the top of this jersey requires flipping the zipper pull down to keep it from unzipping all the way. And even the zipper is recycled PET. The materials used beg the question, “Why can’t visually comparable brands be as sustainable at the same price point?”

The important takeaway is the correct sleeve length. This is one of three long-sleeve items from UC that has given me faith that the brand understands people with long arms exist, and further, that the riding position requires additional length. The length for the xs accommodated my 23-inch sleeve measurement without a wrist gap!

Universal Colours rain jacket sleeves are the correct length. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Chroma Women’s Rain Jacket ($270)
Pros: Good sleeve length, Truly waterproof
Cons: no double zip, no hood

The Universal Colours Chroma women’s rain jacket has well-articulated shoulders, underarm and back vents, and a microfiber collar lining that keeps the inside of the jacket — and the rider — dry. The adjustable cuffs, a dropped rear hem, and 20,000mm waterproofing rating (meaning water would have to be stacked in a tube 1mm/20,000mm for 24 hrs before it soaks through, or that the fabric can withstand 20,000mm of water in a day) that resists rain. The seams are taped and the zipper is waterproof as well; this is serious rain gear. When I ride in this jacket without VeloToze shoe covers, my feet are soaked well before I even feel a hint of moisture underneath the jacket. It even comes with a Tech Wash kit to help maintain the waterproofing. On the downside, it has no double zip, which would have been welcome to help with venting. I’m also not sure about the lack of a hood, even a roll away one, which would have extended the use of this garment off the bike, as well as work well for those who ride with the hood under a helmet (I’ve been caught in a downpour during a commute that forced me to such an unattractive style choice).

Women’s Chroma Bib Shorts ($200)
Pros: Compressive, easy to use
Cons: the length granted to the sleeves didn’t carry over to the bibs (for most women, none)

These UC women’s chroma bib shorts bring the brand to my attention as a serious competitor in the cycling kit space. The drop tail design is excellent overall: I’d give it a 5 for chamois quality, as it’s dense, supportive, and the seams around it are fine. A 5 for the straps and ease of use, and a resounding 5 for the 60 percent nylon – 40 percent elastane woven main material that feels compressive and tough. Oeko Tex certification means there are no harmful chemicals in the fabric. For a drop tail of a woven nylon bib with a good chamois made of recycled materials, the price is fine. I just wish this top had an extra inch of length in keeping with UC’s long sleeves.

Mono Lightweight Gloves ($60)
Pros: Excellent usability with the phone, great warmth to weight ratio
Cons: high elasticity may affect grip

The 80 percent pre-consumer recycled nylon and 20 percent pre-consumer recycled elastane fabric has a brushed lining that makes these otherwise summer-weight gloves warm enough for use in spring and fall. The high elasticity results in a very comfortable glove, but that same high elasticity means if the glove isn’t tight across the palm it may result in kind of a floaty feeling on the bars when the gloves stretch. The palms have grippy silicone patches to help with bar grip, but that won’t matter if the fabric moves. On the upside, the fingertip’s touch-screen compatibility worked well for me in testing. Sixty bucks for a summer glove is a little rich for my taste, but if money is no object these are good objects to buy.

Universal Colours Mono neck warmer. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Mono Neck warmer ($27)
Pros: Anatomical shape provides better coverage than a simple fabric tube
Cons: Even with the holes you can’t breathe through it easily

No sheep were shorn in the making of this neckwarmer. It is  80 percent pre-consumer waste recycled nylon and 20 percent pre-consumer waste recycled elastane. It’s as kind to the environment as it is to your neck. It’s long enough to go up over the ears and is lower in the front than the back to accommodate a cyclist in a riding position. The fabric is brushed to make it warm and comfy on the inside. It does such a good job insulating that the holes in the front had to be positioned carefully for me to breathe. It does its job of keeping my neck warm.

Universal Colours socks. (Photo: Aliya Barnwell)

Spectrum Tie Dye Merino Socks ($34)
Pros: good height (not ankle height), roomy toe box, tie-dye!
Cons: pricy

I usually never comment on cycling socks and I almost always think they are a waste of money and show a distinct lack of design or inspiration. Often, socks have just a solid color with the brand icon or name on it, and if I’m going to be a walking billboard I’d rather not pay $20 to be just that. In rare cases the sock has some personality or design; but the materials have that synthetic feel that some cycling socks have, which personally doesn’t appeal to me. If I’m extra lucky a sock will look cool, feel cool, and fit properly (as in being the right length, and not constrict my toes after a few miles). Universal Colour’s tie-dyed 69 percent Merino, 29 percent nylon, 2 percent Lycra blend socks have all those features and were the first pair of cycling kit company socks beside my beloved Ostroy that I wanted to wear off the bike. I’m surprised something so simple — tye-dye, reminiscent of grade school art projects — could bring me so much joy. They’re also not my typical comedy-inspired or artsy-looking socks — they still sport UC branding. But they are so comfortable, a bit taller than the average, and the tie-dye is so natural for this accessory that it makes it all ok. If you’re going to spend $34 on a pair of socks, I recommend a pair of these. I’m shocked that I wax nostalgic about a pair of socks.

If anything these socks are exemplary of the broader Universal Colours line; beautiful, simple, of quality materials. Universal Colours made me reconsider my stance on expensive but plain kit with their insulated gilet, and based on the quality of materials and fit (and the color palette that fits right in with earth tone trends), the brand deserves more stateside market share.