Words: Wil Barrett. Photos: Adam MacLeod & Eleven Velo
Here at Enduro Magazine, we’ve always been fans of natural fibres such as Merino wool. Aside from the material’s lower environmental impact in terms of production, it’s also much more easily biodegradable when compared to synthetic fabrics such as Lycra and Nylon. Most riders would also be familiar with the performance attributes of cycling in Merino wool garments; it’s amazing ability to regulate rider temperature whether you’re in hot or cold conditions, the fabric’s inherent breathability, and the drastically reduced stink factor when compared to wearing synthetic fibres. Merino wool has long been a popular choice for hikers and travellers due to that last performance trait, as you can get away with many days of use before having to reach for the washing detergent. As a cyclist who gets out multiple times each week on various test bikes, the daily commute, and on morning road rides, I’m a sucker for being able to wear Merino just so I don’t have to wash so many sets of kit each week. As good as Merino wool can be however, as with any garment, it often comes down to the quality of the raw material and the construction that can separate a really good product, from one that wears out far too quickly. So when a matching kit of ELEVEN vélo bib knicks and a long sleeve jersey showed up at the office for testing and evaluation, I was more than happy to get my Merino-love on to find out whether this stuff performed as good as it looks.
Based in Sydney, Australia, ELEVEN vélo refers to themselves not as a clothing brand, but as a ‘design studio’. That’s because their products extend beyond just cycling jerseys and bib shorts, but it’s also because owner Gerard Thomas has a level of design experience that is likely to see the Eleven vélo brand expand into new avenues in the future. Prior to launching the ELEVEN vélo brand, for 3 years Gerard was both the General Manager and designer behind the revamped Mountain Cycle brand. While Mountain Cycle ‘V2’ ran into production issues with their Taiwanese production partners, Gerard gained a significant amount of experience liaising between Mountain Cycle’s Californian headquarters and the Taiwanese factories. He was also to flex his industrial design capabilities with some of the new generation Mountain Cycle bikes including the classic San Andreas all mountain model, the Shockwave downhill racer, and the Zen II trail bike. While it was unfortunate that their Asian partners decided to pull the pin on the brands production plans, Gerard still plans to utilise his engineering connections to revive some of the design features that he worked on with the Mountain Cycle brand. Keep your ear to the ground for more on that one…
At present however, ELEVEN vélo is best known for crafting bespoke Superfine Merino cycling wear for the discerning cyclist, with each of ELEVEN vélo’s products being individually made to the customer’s specification. They don’t have a warehouse full of stock, and they don’t have rotating ‘seasons’ or ‘collections’ like most other clothing and fashion companies do. Instead, they offer the consumer a wide range of sizing, colour, and feature options for them to create their very own, one-of-a-kind product, which ELEVEN vélo then make to order. Their sewing shop is in Sydney, where they make use of one of the last remaining boutique fashion sewing shops left in Australia. Most of their garments are made from Superfine Merino wool that comes from Victoria (Southern Australia), which is also certified non mulesing, and produced to strict sustainable practices. Given the custom nature of their products, ELEVEN vélo source all of their ingredients from what they believe to be the highest quality suppliers from around the world. As an example, the premium quality zippers they choose come from Italy (as does the Lycra too), while the high-quality threads are from Germany. Once the customers garment has been designed and assembled, it is then shipped directly out to them, wherever they are in the world. Interestingly, Gerard sees the majority of his product heading over to the US and the UK, with a much smaller percentage being sold within Australia.
While ELEVEN vélo’s product is largely aimed at the road rider, the companies foundations were actually laid in the dirt. Previously known as ‘Lab Gear’, Gerard has been in the apparel business for just over eleven years now (making sense now?), though the focus of Lab Gear’s product range was much more towards mountain biking and general outdoors use. Using a similar model, Lab Gear offered up a more dirt-focussed range of custom baggy shorts and jerseys that were sold all around the world up until 2010. While Lab Gear built up a great reputation for producing high quality mountain bike apparel, sales never took off quite as much as Gerard had hoped. It seemed that while the advantage of having his product designed and made locally in Australia may have been his biggest strength, it also turned out to be his biggest weakness. As much as the cycling market in Australia has matured over the past 5 years, we’re still fairly small and new when it comes to high-end product. Just look at the range of bikes that Trek, Specialized or Cannondale bring into the country, and you’ll see that it’s pretty rare that many of the high-spec mountain bike models make it Down Under, if any at all. For whatever reason behind it, we’re a consumer base that’s just not quite as ready to dump cash on cycling products quite to the same level that our American and British counterparts are. When it comes to road however, it is a completely different story. Any trip down the local road cycling loop on a saturday morning will show you just how much money is kicking around on those expensive Italian carbon road bikes, deep-dish racing wheels, and boutique Rapha and Capo cycle clothing. Yep, when it comes to road gear, we’re much more comfortable spending the big bucks. And so it was one evening when Gerard bolted upright in bed, awoken by the realisation that the products and branding he had been working on so hard for over the past eleven years was simply going the wrong direction. Things had to change, and the Lab Gear brand was retired. With a bit of time off during his Mountain Cycle years, Gerard then brought back his apparel business, but this time with a new look and a new name: ELEVEN vélo.
Although a quick look at ELEVEN vélo’s product range will show you that the company is more invested in the bitumen side of things, you’ll also note that there are no riding photos or imagery on the website. Gerard has done this quite deliberately as a response to the heavy lifestyle branding that companies such as Rapha and Chrome promote. Not that Gerard thinks that branding style is a bad thing, it’s just that he’d rather the focus of ELEVEN vélo to be purely on the product, and for the consumer to make up their mind as to what sort of riding they’d like to do with their new shorts or jersey. That direction works quite well for us, as we’re big fans of riding in close-fitting Lycra bib shorts and jerseys for long distance riding, whether it be on the road, on singletrack, or on the cyclocross race course. With that in mind, we decided to get onto the ELEVEN vélo website to pick out some kit for riding through the Spring riding season.
When you log onto the ELEVEN vélo website, you’re presented with a number of choices for both jerseys and shorts. While they do sell mostly product to road riders, ELEVEN vélo offer baggy riding shorts for mountain bikers and commuters, which we’re hoping to try out for ourselves at some point in the future. This time though, we chose the ‘Premium Cycling Bibs’. The customisation option begins at choosing the right size for your body shape, and while there are some predetermined sizes available, you can also go fully custom if you feel like you’ve got some unique shapes and curves that need a bit more of a refined fit. Next up you can select a standard or 3/4 length to the lower shorts, as well as being able to choose various colours for the stitching and leg bands. You can even add a neat little ‘stash pocket’ for the rear back panel of the shorts for those who might want a little extra storage space for longer rides without a backpack. The ELEVEN vélo shorts start at $170, though our test bib shorts came out at $186 due to the 3/4 length and the additional stash pocket.
ELEVEN vélo offer a wide range of jersey types that largely differ by style, though the ‘Pro Merino Cycling Jersey’ offers a more snug race-day type fit if you’re after something a little more close fitting. They also offer looser fitting Mountain Bike jerseys, and a model that is purpose built for wearing a backpack, which features seamless shoulders. We ended up going with the ‘Team Merino Jersey’, which uses a separate panel around the chest of the jersey, that, well, looks cool. If you’ve got a shop race team or just a bunch of mates who wants to get some custom cycling jerseys made up, you can even get specific graphics across this panel for an additional cost. You can also choose to have a full-length or a shorter zip on the front of the jersey, as well as short or long sleeves. Pricing for ELEVEN vélo jerseys starts at just $95, though our Team jersey with the longer sleeves and a full-length zip set us back $133.
Once you submit your design to ELEVEN vélo, you receive a confirmation email that informs you which production run your garment(s) will fit into, and an estimate for when you will see the finished product delivered to you. During this time, large rolls of different coloured Merino wool are set aside according to the customers design, and the various patterns and shapes are cut out with the super-dooper sharp cutting tool that you see above. It might look a little vintage, but that thing is sharper than any knife you’d want in your kitchen – as Gerard informed us after cutting his finger the other day!
Design sheets and Merino panels awaiting for final assembly and stitching.
Within a couple of weeks, a soft parcel showed up at the Enduro office with an ELEVEN vélo sticker on it. Like a kid at Christmas, the bag was quickly unravelled to get a closer look at our new Merino riding kit. Here we wanted to take you through a closer look at the finished garments on their own, but you’ll be able to read our full review in the upcoming issue of Enduro Mountain Bike Magazine (Issue #28).
First impressions were very, very good. The stitching and the small details on the ELEVEN vélo bib shorts was impeccable. The Premium Bib Shorts use a hybrid construction that sees Australian Merino wool paired together with Italian Lycra. In the above photo, the Lycra panels make up the middle and crotch area of the bibs, while the side panels are made from Merino wool. Lycra has a lot more stretch and ‘give’ to it than Merino does, so it makes sense to make these high-stress areas of the garment from Lycra rather than Merino.
The straps for the bibs use a similar hybrid construction with the upper portion that sits over your shoulder and chest being made from stretchy Lycra, with the inner face and the lower portion of the bib straps being Merino. Note the super-clean stitching lines all the way along the bib straps. That’s the kind of quality you get when your garments are produced in the sample room of a sewing shop that serves the top-100 fashion designers in the country!
Hidden stash pocket at the back gives you another spot to stow nutrition or spares. Of course this design will be useless to mountain bikers who normally wear a hydration backpack, but if that’s the case for you, then don’t order your bibs with the stash pocket – simple! In the above photo you can also see the different materials used around the bib shorts, with the lower portion around the waist being stretch Lycra.
As with the Lycra, the padded chamois is also sourced from Italy, where most of the high-end apparel brands also source their shorts padding from. In the ELEVEN vélo Premium Bib Shorts, the red chamois utilises a multi-density foam construction with multiple layers formed into the one piece. The padding is generous and is also treated to an anti-microbial lining for exactly the reason that you’re thinking right now.
You might need to scroll up to look at the above photos to double check, but this tiny little label on the lower leg band is literally THE ONLY logo on the entire bib short. Wow – what a refreshing change from pretty much every other cycling garment on the market! When we first checked out the ELEVEN vélo bib shorts after pulling them out of the bag, it didn’t take long to realise that Gerard is telling the truth when he says that he’s “not interested in selling an image or a lifestyle”. A lot of other companies say that, but ELEVEN vélo is one of the only companies that we can think of that really stands behind that claim. Not plastering their logo all over their jerseys and shorts is a good way to reinforcing that ethos, and we like it a lot.
Unlike the Premium Bib Shorts, the Team Jersey is 100% Superfine Merino wool, aside from the stitching and the zip of course. The Merino wool that ELEVEN vélo utilise is a 170gsm Woolmark fabric, which is what gives it the ‘superfine’ tag. The end result is an incredibly soft feel to touch that will have all of your current synthetic jerseys feeling scratchy in comparison.
Heavy elastic is employed into the pockets on the rear of the jersey, which help to avoid the ‘sag’ that you can sometimes get with a Merino jersey. We’ll be interested to see how this changes over time during the test period.
Ok, so we lied about the jersey – there are TWO tiny labels on there.
If you’re digging the vibe that ELEVEN vélo are laying down with their bespoke Merino cycling apparel, you best make yourself a cuppa and be prepared to waste some serious time designing your new cycling kit on their website. Admittedly, it took me a couple of days to come up with the colour scheme of our test kit – these things are important right?? Keep an eye out for Issue #28 of Enduro Magazine on the newstands in the coming weeks for our final thoughts on the ELEVEN vélo jersey and bib shorts, but we can tell you that this is some of the finest damn cycling apparel we’ve ever had the pleasure of wearing. If you want to read more about what products they offer, head to the ELEVEN vélo website.