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Technique

How To Properly Care for Technical Mountain Bike Apparel

Do you REALLY have to keep your bibs out of the dryer?

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There are two types of riders in this world. The ones who follow the rules, and the uncivilized beasts who wash their bibs in hot water then dry them on high. I happen to be one of the goodie-two-shoes that won’t even bother doing laundry until I’ve amassed enough dirty gear to fill at least one cold, gentle load. But I still slip up sometimes. Once in a while, I’ll find my favorite bibs in the dryer, hiding among some like-colored items having just spent 50 minutes at 130 degrees. And for a moment, I always expect them to immediately turn to dust in my arms like half the Avengers… sorry for the spoiler.

But like the Avengers, those bibs turned out to be just fine. That’s not a spoiler, though. We all knew the Avengers would be fine. And as for my bibs, the seams didn’t split, the elastic didn’t go slack, and the chamois didn’t turn to cornbread. So, I decided to explore why we’re expected to treat our riding clothes like they’re the Shroud of Turin, and whether it’s really that big a deal if we don’t.

First, a little about labels themselves. Every country has different rules, but there are rules. That happens to be why there’s a thick, silky flipbook sewn into everything we wear these days. Labels have to suit the rules and languages of every country where that garment will be sold. In the U.S., our rules are written by the Federal Trade Commission. For example, a manufacturer must be able to provide  “reliable evidence that the product was not harmed when cleaned reasonably often according to the instructions on the label.” But opposite that rule, there’s this doozie: “However, the manufacturer or importer need not have proof of harm when silence does not constitute a warning. [For example, if a shirt is labeled “Machine wash warm. Tumble dry medium”, the manufacturer need not have proof that the shirt would be harmed if washed in hot water or dried on high setting]” Sheesh.

Hidden in that legalese is a clue that some brands may err on the side of caution with their care instructions, but does that mean we can disregard them? Some of them? Which rules are the most important and which can we break once in a while? What exactly are the benefits when we follow them and what are the risks when we don’t?

The answer, of course, is “it depends.” There are only a few laundry practices that can cause noticeable harm to your gear in one wash. The use of fabric softeners will coat your gear with a soft, nice-smelling film that will feel good in your hands and against your skin, but will immediately impact features like wicking properties or water resistance. Also, the motion that happens in a washing machine is, by design, rather violent. It’s easy for a bib strap to get caught on an agitator and ruined in one cycle. And of course, one run in the dryer can destroy your fancy Merino wool jersey. 

But for the most part, care instructions are about increasing longevity. And the brands I spoke with emphasized that this is not just an economical concern, but also an environmental one. Sustainability has become a major talking point in cycling clothing, with standards like Blue Sign or the Higg Index guiding many design decisions. But as Suzanne Atkinson, Pearl Izumi’s Sustainable Material Director puts it, “Garment care is the part of sustainability that’s entirely in the hands of the consumers.” There’s little use in chipping away at the environmental impact of manufacturing a jacket if it might end up being replaced every couple years. 

But the trick is, that jacket is made of multiple materials with multiple levels of resilience to washing and drying. The steps required for its care are largely determined before it’s even produced, during the stage when designers are choosing the materials it will be made of. POC ‘s fabric engineer, Oscar Darle, gives an example of how those decisions are made in the bike industry versus the larger apparel world.

A supplier may say, ‘Here’s a fabric with nylon, spandex and cashmere, and you have to dry clean it,’ and we would reject it because it’s not acceptable for our clients, while Louis Vuitton would be perfectly fine with it.” But even with more durable materials, the care instructions always have to keep the most fragile element of a garment in mind. 

One example is how a padded short behaves when getting wet and subsequently drying. Matthew Kent, Materials Developer at Pearl Izumi, explains why throwing in a set of bibs into a dryer until they’re completely dry can cause problems. “The chamois absorbs a lot of water, but the rest of the bib will dry quickly, so you’re exposing a dry bib to higher heat for longer times than you need to.” 

Following the example of that set of bibs, their highly elastic material can be pretty complex. Darle at POC explains what it takes to make a seemingly simple piece of stretchy fabric. “Most of our fabrics contain polyester, polyamides, elastin, or a blend of these.” That’s all in what would be considered one “material,” just to make a given panel in a garment elastic. But again, as Darle explains, that panel will not self-destruct just by being put in the dryer. “All of these have a melting point of over 200 degrees celsius. And the polyester or polyamides are quite stable.” But it’s elastin that is a bit more sensitive. It’s the active ingredient in brand-name materials like Lycra or Spandex. It is essentially rubber fiber. “Those materials have the tendency to age or lose their effectiveness over time,” says Darle.

Kent at Pearl Izumi likens it to any other repetitive stress damage. “Spandex isn’t incredibly heat-sensitive. It’s more like over time, washing, shrinking, drying, shrinking, stretching, and it breaks it down bit by bit.” 

So, the solution is moderation. In fact, thoughtful washing is actually good for technical apparel. DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating, for example, is designed to go in the dryer. Unlike waterproof clothes, that usually have a physical layer that can not be penetrated, DWR-treated garments feature a thin coating that makes it difficult for water to reach the fabric itself. To over-simplify it, that coating is like countless tiny hairs that, due to the surface tension of water, make it difficult for it to squeeze through and absorb into the fabric. But with use and exposure to oils, those tiny hairs are disrupted and flattened out. A few minutes in the dryer or even a brief pass with an iron can actually stand them back up and “refresh” them. There’s also the fact that contaminants like dirt can exacerbate the friction damage that occurs with normal use, and other contaminants like sweat and oil can lead to permanent odors. So we have to wash them once in a while. But to my surprise, everyone I spoke to while researching this advocated for the all-powerful Smell Test. The truth is, most of us wash our clothes, both technical and casual, more frequently than we need to. It was surprising to hear fabric engineers say this, especially with marketing managers listening in on the call. They expect us to spend quite a bit of money on their fancy technical apparel, and I didn’t expect them to advocate for riding dirty once in a while. 

But that approach encapsulates how we should be interpreting the care instructions we’re given. It is not as exact a science as we might think. Although the safest approach is to follow the labels to the letter, there’s no single rule to cover everything we wear. In fact, I’ll soon be changing my ways. Some of the gear that I once hung on a line, will now end up tumbling on low. But on the other hand, my bibs will not only continue to air dry, but will be getting washed by hand, not by machine. I’m not an uncivilized beast.

Photos: Ryan Palmer