There was a time when the MBT Test Crew fancied themselves a style-conscientious lot. Years of showing up to restaurants for post-ride refueling with dirt in our teeth, dust in our hair and mud on our shoes didn't do our reputations any favors. However we're still enamored with those rare products that come through our office that literally do the impossible: Combine functionality out on the trails with looks good enough to integrate into society without a hitch. Enter the Soft Shell jacket from Free Country- precisely such a product.
If you're not familiar, Free Country has been producing outerwear for 24-years and in that time expanded from a men's only line to include ladies collection, kids division and most recently a swimwear department. In a time where all we seem to hear in the news are tales of economic woe and downsizing, any company managing to not only survive but flourish is clearly doing something right!
With Free Country the formula for success has been fairly straight forward: Quality outerwear doesn't mean dressing for an exclusive club. Rather, universally great looks coupled to easy-going prices means gear that simply looks as good in the street as it does the remote mountainside. No need to take our word on the success of the formula; simply browsing their website (www.freecountry.com) reveals a massive assortment of outerwear for nearly every need and budget. Deciding upon a single product to test was no easy task!
After much deliberation, we opted for the women's Spectral Soft Shell in satin/ silver on account of the fact that winter was turning to spring as we were compiling for this issue and there is no denying the usefulness of a riding jacket in the oft-bipolar climate that is Western NY.
The Spectral Soft Shell features:
Soft Chin Protector
Tricot Lined Arms for Easy On/Off
Velcro adjustable cuffs
Contrast Color Trims
We know, we've put you through product specs and introductions but what you really want to know is how it performed out on the trails. The short answer: spectacularly. Fit and finish are top notch; a fact revealed the moment you touch the soft flexible outershell and even more ingrained once you slip it on. Tricot lining and silky along the skin contact spots, making putting the jacket on and sliding it off completely effortless and little details like a softer material with the collar meets with the chin hint toward impeccable attention to detail.
In action the jacket is just warm enough to make riding in those bitterly chilly pre-dawn hours wonderfully painless but the real magic begins once water finds its way across the jacket's surface. And with spring dew flinging from tires and dripping from the forest canopy overhead, this didn't take long for us even on the days it didn't rain. A water resistant membrane works to bead up water and wick it away from the Soft Shell's surface without the dreaded crinkle and stiffness of inferior products. In fact, never does this feature interrupt the flexibility of the outershell or the soft, warm interior lining.
Since all purpose-driven gear is usually a compromise, we feared the breeze and water resistance would come at a cost of poor breathe-ability. Fortunately, thanks to a combination of well-thought interior materials and a fit that allows for cracking the zipper without flapping around when needed, we never felt that the jacket was overly stifling. Of course, it should be noted that it is heavier than a simple windbreaker and thus more suited for use in the transition seasons of spring and fall than in the heat of summer, though we were able to put it to use throughout a majority of May and June thanks to early morning mountain temps that hovered near the freezing mark despite noontime temps in the 80s.
All in all, we came away very impressed with the Free Country Spectral. While this review represents our first foray with the company and their products, we can state with certainty that it will not be our last. Gear that fits well, works better than advertised and can be pressed into service both on the trails and at that cafe are always in short supply around here. Perhaps best of all, at the time of this review's writing, Free Country is selling them for $50 (down from $100) & with free shipping, we're tempted to stock pile up on every available color offered.
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