I hate bringing anything on a ride that I don’t end up using. Unless we’re talking about tools, spare parts or emergency supplies, I can’t help but end the day with a masochistic inventory of what I could have just left at home. Why did I fill my bladder all the way to the top? Why did I think I’d need my lights today? Why did I bring two Snickers bars and an Egg McMuffin? But the highest-stakes gamble is clothing. Wind, elevation, and the cruel dark of night can really sneak up on ya. Yes I live in Los Angeles, but barely a week ago–in mid March–I had to completely abandon a ride that would have otherwise had me high-stepping through eight inches of snow for an hour. But the thing is, I knew I might run into some weather that day. I could have gone with my fleece-lined thermal jacket, or I could have risked it with my paper-thin windbreaker. But I had just the thing. The POC Guardian Air jacket.
When I first picked up the Guardian Air jacket, I thought for a moment that, given its weight and thickness, it must be a minimalist rain jacket. There’s no insulation anywhere, but it’s still somehow heavier than any pure windbreaker I own. It turns out that, although there is a DWR treatment on the material, it is only enough to protect you from very light moisture and the occasional puddle roost. Once I started to get all touchy-feely with the material, I realized there was no waxy stiffness, no rigid taped seams or waterproof zippers. And it stretches. It stretches a lot. Enough so, that I actually sized down to a medium instead of a large. I’m slim, but I’m nearly 6’2″ and I’ve got wide-ish shoulders, putting me right on the border. POC is sorta known for form-fitting apparel. It’s that European fit. They’re also known for European prices, but $160 for such a full-featured jacket is pretty impressive, especially given how well it fits. Of course, if I had been planning on regularly pairing the Guardian Air Jacket with thick or bulky baselayers, the size large would have been the way to go. But I’ve already got jackets made for that. If I can get something form-fitting that can still envelop a baselayer, a thin jersey, and my torso without ever shifting up above the rim of my shorts, it’s on.
The arms, even in the large I tried on, are also relatively form-fitting. But thanks to the Lycra panel at the wrists, they’re easy to slide in and out of without needing an abrupt taper to an elastic cuff. And then, under the arms, there are some generous openings. Not microscopic perforations, but two spots in one of the seams that were left agape during construction, and it seemed to let in a breeze only when my skin was sweaty enough to notice it–or need it.
The hood is meant to fit under the helmet, which is what I want from a jacket not meant for the rain. I want to keep my ears and face warm without uselessly pulling in air like a 2016 Mustang’s hood scoop. The Guardian Air jacket has a loop and tab that can stow the hood when not in use, but it was never bulky enough to really bother me. The rim of the hood, like much of the rim of the waist, is edged with a strip of material that is even more flexible than the rest of the jacket. It keeps the front of the hood reasonably puckered without the need for a draw string, and keeps the waist from letting in too much of a draft.
The construction is a mix of softer, supple, more stretchy material across the chest and back and a slightly more stiff, coarse material on the shoulders and tops of the arms that is similar to an ultralight rip-stop fabric. It’s got less give than the chest and back, but still stretches in the way you want it to. The seams inside the jacket also maintain a bit of stretch. That’s where a lot of 4-way stretch garments fall short. On the neck and shoulders, where the stretch is needed the most, they’re often completely rigid. But there’s still a bit of give in nearly all of the well-reinforced seams throughout the inside of the jacket. And those are all real seams. There’s nothing welded or taped. It’s not doing anything outwardly fancy or over the top. It’s just good design.
And the design pays off in practice. I can do my two minimal layers with this on top, and be comfortable approaching freezing temps if I’ve got the rest of my body well shielded. But then, if I shed a baselayer, it’s not any stuffier than the ultra-thin jackets I’m usually wearing during what the rest of the world calls “shoulder season.” The breathability gives it a remarkably broad range of usable temperatures. And the fit keeps it from flapping in the wind or pocketing it like a sail when I’m at speed. That, combined with the flexible construction, makes it the kind of jacket I put on and immediately forget about.
I do not take the Guardian Air jacket on every ride. There were some early mornings this winter where it was too little. And soon, there will be rides where it is too much. I need a real pack, not a hip pack, if I want to stow it without it taking up all of the space I need for my Egg McMuffins. But this is the kind of jacket I bring when I’m already preparing for some variables, so I’ve got the space. If I’m erring on the side of caution, but want to avoid the horrors of overpacking, this is my go-to.
Photos: Anthony Smith