Swiftwick Pursuit Merino Wool Socks and Swiftwick Aspire Socks
We're dedicated to the idea that all of cycling deserves careful analysis. Some time ago, we decided that socks aren't merely a foot covering that protects your skin from your shoes, but a clothing item that, when done right, improves performance.
So it is that we now turn our attention to Swiftwick socks. Swiftwick makes a point of calling their foot covers "compression socks," and the melding of socks with compression alone is one worth investigating. We picked up two pair: the Aspire and Pursuit. The Aspire is the jewel of their line. The sock is heavy on the Olefin fiber, a polyester fiber that is light, stretchy, durable, and retains .01% of its weight in moisture—it wicks and never saturates. The Pursuit is their Merino wool-mix sock. In both cases, they use "200 Needle Construction," meaning the socks are produced on looms with 200 needles. This means that the weave is denser than many other socks, where 144- or 168-needles are more common. A denser weave can create a more compressive sock if you work the right fibers.
On the packaging, there is the claim, 'Managed Compression™' -proven to reduce swelling, improve blood circulation and increase your endurance.' The claim is correct in that there have been tests that have shown compression leg wear to do all those things, but these socks haven't been put through a lab. These are, however, tighter than your average sport sock. You might scoff at the idea of experiencing such a difference, but it is noticeable from the moment you try to tug on the socks. The cuffs definitely have greater resistance to expanding to get the tops around our feet and over our ankles. The body of the socks needed to be tugged into place. We'd stretch the socks over our toes and get the cuff to the back of our arch. Then we'd pull the rest of the sock over so that the front of the socks were abutting the toes. From there we'd work to get the cuffs over our heels and ankles. Taking them off was similarly more work than the average sport sock. Having the socks on for a few hours left an impression on our lower legs; you could see that the cuff had compressed the area of the leg around the ankle.
In both socks, we went with the Four model. This refers to a four-inch, doubled-over cuff. The doubling-over of the cuff helps with compression. The cuff is also different from the rest of the sock, not only in how it is knit, but the fibers. With both models, the cuff loses most of the advertised fibers that make the Aspire and Pursuit what they are, and use a nylon-dominated blend for strength, compression, and durability.
The Pursuit is a sock dominated by Merino wool. We're fans of the sheep hair, have bought several pair of socks dominated with this natural fiber, and have tested out Merino offerings from Assos, Curve, and Rapha. In general, we've been able to use Merino-dominated socks in weather hot and cold. The issue with this is the density of the knit rather than the fiber. The Rapha and Curve socks are sufficiently thin all around that they work in the cool and the hot equally well. The Assos is knit thicker and as a result, is a good deal warmer. The Pursuit is similar to the Assos in the padded (some might call it "lofted") sole and thicker top coverings, though the doubled-over cuff feels a bit warmer. It is a warm sock, one we'd be reluctant to pull out on warm days. And we'd be similarly leery of the thicker sole taking on too much water on a rainy day.
Because of the padded sole and our custom shoe insole, the Pursuit was hard for us to wear for any length of time in our cycling shoes. If you're wearing shoes that provide you a 'slipper fit,' the Pursuit probably isn't your sock. But, if your shoe has some room in it, and/or you're using insoles with little to no arch support, you can probably wear this sock for cycling. The people at Swiftwick told us this sock is more popular with mountain bikers, possibly because they tend to wear larger shoes. All the same, Swiftwick is releasing a new Pursuit that will have a similar sole thickness to the Aspire. We're looking forward to it.
Since we didn't log much riding time in the Pursuit, we logged many walking miles in it underneath a waterproof shoe. It's a really comfortable sock. And, just to test the anti-stink strength of Merino, we used them several days in a row without washing. They resisted odors well.
If the Pursuit can be knit as thin as the Aspire, we'd probably love it for riding, as the Aspire fits great. It's thin all the way around and even has a waffle-knit on the sole that feels thin and relatively airy.
The Aspire is actually harder to pull over our feet than the Pursuit; the cuff is more compressive feeling and perhaps the polyester is not as easy to slide on as the Merino. The sole has a waffle-knit while the top has a pinstripe knit. Around the arch is a more densely-knit band. This band is also present, but less apparent, on the Pursuit socks.
We did rides long and short in both cool and warm weather. Never did the sock feel too cold or too hot, but the temperature range we were riding in was from 42-72 degrees Fahrenheit. When we first started using them, we had this funny feeling. It was as if when we flexed the foot when pushing down on the pedals, the knit of the sock was helping our feet back to a more neutral position. While we doubt this saved any energy, it was a nice feeling.
In terms of the socks' compression aiding performance, we can't find any direct link. However, the socks are really comfortable. They've never slipped, nor have we experienced any bunching. We never felt ourselves distracted or uncomfortable as a result of the socks. And they are snug in the way that the right compression tights feel snug. All these things are small, but small things add up. A little more comfort could mean you're fiddling with shoe straps less, not thinking about overheating feet, not slowed by a desire to take off all your clothes (this happens to everyone on hot, humid days, no?), you'll probably go a little faster.
An interesting side effect of wearing the Aspire socks was switching back to regular socks. We found, in comparison, that in some of our older socks that probably have 'tired' cuffs, the socks felt uncomfortably loose.
The people at Swiftwick say that if you want the socks to last a long time, wash them in cold water and either air dry or dry on low heat. They're right that the socks air dry fast, but we're generally too lazy for sorting out socks. We generally washed on cool and either dried on low- or medium-heat, depending on what was being washed. After several washes, the socks are fine.
Our only beef with the socks is the color, or rather the lack thereof. Black socks are pretty boring. Grey socks are equally dull. We'd love something more colorful. Our guy at Swiftwick told us that compression is harder to control with different colors as they could have different compression. As an example, he offered that their custom sock program, they only offer 168-needle construction. There's also a bit of an oddity. Taking a really close look at the Black Aspire sock, it's apparent that the black of the body is a different color value that the black of the cuff. This is a result of the different fiber composition of the two segments.
Our one worry about the socks is that the area between the heel and the cuff will wear out fast, as that seems to take the most stress when mounting the socks. Now that Memorial Day is around the corner, we're thinking White Aspire socks are in our future. And a shorter cuff for more skin exposure.