Triathlon wetsuits are becoming a lot like carbon road race bikes. It's hard to tell the difference between them at 10 paces. It wasn't always like that. The first carbon monocoque road bikes arrived in 1986, they were made by Kestrel. I bought one and was riding around on my Kestrel 4000 in 1986 while designing and testing the first "modern era" triathlon wetsuits.
Both of these products became, if not commodities, at least ubiquitous. In each case it took about 25 years. This doesn't mean that everybody who wants to make a triathlon wetsuit or carbon road bike can snap his fingers and have it be so. There is an art to making each of these products, and a manufacturer can fail miserably.
Zone3 is a brand from the UK, popular there for a few years, new to many American customers. Primum non nocere. That's rule #1 for every maker of every product in our industry, bike, wetsuit, nutritional, whatever. First, do no harm. That's harm to the end user as well as self-inflicted wounds to the brand.
For a brand like the Zone3 primum non nocere means checking a number of boxes. First, the suits have to fit, and then: offer sufficient sizes to accommodate the great majority of those eager for the suit; have a comfortable and watertight neck closure; hardy construction at the zipper base and the back of the calf and ankle (this is where suits often fail); high-end rubber that's flexible and durable; seams that don't separate; first-rate workmanship during the gluing and blindstitching; silkscreens that don't come off.
A look at the inside of the Zone3 suits reveals that they and ROKA are almost identical in the zipper construction and I think that's good for both brands, as it's among the best I've seen. Why do I care about that, you might ask. Because the very first things I look at when evaluating bikes or wetsuits are those areas where the product is most likely to fail (first, do no harm). There are minor differences in the construction in this part of the suit: Zone3 zigzags a Velcro swatch onto the closure flap, ROKA uses rubber sheets with Velcro attached one-side during the sheet manufacture. But if you look at the style and quality and pattern of the walking-foot double needle machine used to sew in the zipper, I kind of wonder if these suits are made in the same factory. Both are expertly done.
I have a lot of wetsuits in my workshop for evaluation and here's the unfortunate truth: none of them, not one, not this one, nor ROKA, nor blueseventy, Aquaman, Aqua Sphere, Rocket Science, go through the list, not one of them matches the contour of the patterns in the old QR wetsuits of the 1990s from the waist down. None of these wetsuits has gotten to that level of expertise yet. When you put on a Quintana Roo Hydrofull from the pre-2000 era, that wetsuit had an unparalleled fit from the waist down. Nobody making wetsuits since has figured this out, and that's because you can't reverse engineer a properly made glued & blindstitched wetsuit, when you cut the suit up the pattern pieces don't revert to their original shapes. Selah.
However, from the waist up – and this is where the fit of the suit is most important by far – these newer wetsuit companies do a great job, Zone3 included (further, these touches, like the style of zipper construction, might exceed what we did at QR). I'll be writing in the next couple of weeks almost daily about all the wetsuit companies, but I chose to write about the Zone3 and ROKA suits back-to-back, and first and second in this series, because they are alike in a number of ways. I found that these suits fit me pretty similarly. And not dissimilar to the blueseventy Helix, and the TYR Hurricane 5. The Zone3 and the ROKA each have a sizing scheme of stock sizes and then tall versions, as in, Small, Small Tall, Medium, Medium Tall and so forth. ROKA has 9 total sizes in its men's run, Zone3 has 8. Zone3 has 5 women's sizes for a total of 13 sizes and that's a nice run. This is where ROKA has Zone3 – and everyone – beat. It offers 10 womens sizes! That's 19 total size options and that's really unheard of. Nobody has 19 sizes.
Still, Zone3's 13 sizes is impressive. I believe we started with 11 sizes at QR, in 1987, and we eventually added maybe 7 more, as we found the need. Something around 16 to 19 sizes will pretty much take care of everybody. Wetsuit companies must offer a run of sizes where for every "circumference" there are two heights. At QR, it was Medium and Medium Short. At these other companies it's Medium and Medium Tall. Our patterns already were tall (they were made for me!). So we had to make the "short" version. These other companies use reverse nomenclature. No matter. The fact that these companies recognize this sizing paradigm and design for it.
Let's talk "catch panels" for a moment. This is another area where ROKA and Zone3 travel a similar route. Neither brand seems to me to claim a speed advantage earned through the catch panel. Rather, these panels offer "proprioception" (ROKA) or "sensory" (Zone3) advantages. Zone3's catch panel is adjacent. You can see the "Pro-Speed Cuff" (purple in color) that helps the suit pop off the wrist and ankle, and the catch panel (black) embedded in it.
I'm a simple guy. There are not a lot of things in my life requiring my nerve endings to be stimulated. By the time I and my wave-mates jump into the open water my forearms either know what they're supposed to do or they don't. The problem with catch panels is that these are stress points in the suit. More seams. More things that can rip. More difficulty exiting the suit. Some of the suits I really like the most – blueseventy Helix, ROKA's Maverick Pro, this Zone3 Vanquish – have catch panels that I really just wish weren't there. I always have to treat these suits with special care. This is why, if I show up at a race in a ROKA, it's going to be in the Elite, not the Pro. I can't sabotage my swim because my catch panel fails when I'm putting the suit on or taking it off. First, do no harm.
And in my opinion, my guess, this is the dirty secret of catch panels. They're in these suits because you won't buy the suit if it doesn't have a catch panel. But I haven't yet found a catch panel that makes a whit of difference in the speed of the suit. Maybe I'm just not a good enough swimmer to know or use a catch panel properly. But if I can't tell the difference, you probably can't tell the difference.
Zone3 offers 5 or maybe 6 models of fullsuit and this is a ton: the top-end Victory, the Vanquish one rung down, the Align and the Aspire and finally the Advance, and the Vision. Forget the Align. You don't need it and you won't want it. It's for swimmers unlike anyone reading this. The others are priced roughly as follows: Victory @ $1000; Vanquish @ $625; Aspire @ $445; Vision @ $295; Advance @ $245. I have 2 of these suits, the Aspire and the Vision, and they each have old school standard zippers, that zip from the bottom up, which I prefer.
Let's talk about that just for a moment. The value of a suit that zips down from the top, the downward position meaning you're zipped, closed, ready to swim, is that nobody can grab your pull cord and unzip your suit while you're swimming. The problem with this zipper is that it's not easy to close by yourself. You must connect the disconnected ends, like zipping up your jacket, except upside down and behind your back. Yes, you can get used to it. but I don't swim often enough in my wetsuit to get used to it. Jordan Rapp likes the kind that zips down to close, up to open. I prefer the old kind, where you zip it up to close it.
The Zone3 wetsuits have one distinctive feature that sets them apart: slick cuffs at the terminus of the calf, so that when the suit is inside out it rolls off the foot a little bit easier. I alluded to it earlier. it's the Pro-Speed Cuff. I do think this works. Its value correlates to how much difficulty you have popping your suit off your foot. One thing must be said, one reason the suit does pop off easy is because the rubber is thinner down there in a Zone3 suit, and the leg of these suits is an inch or two shorter than a lot of other suits. The ROKA, De Soto's T1 wetsuits, they have longer legs, and if the legs are longer they should contour down toward the ankle. This makes these hole through which your foot must fit smaller. But these suits have extra flotation, and unless you're a really good swimmer and you don't need or don't want that flotation, that float equals speed. Pick your poison. I note in a number of images of Tyler Butterfield (this one below is just before his win at Abu Dhabi) that he prefers his Zone3 cut a bit on the short side, ankles and wrists both (see image at top).
One final general gripe if you don't mind (I guess I'm in a gripey mood right now). All these suits come off quickly if you take them off right after you exit the water. The water is a lubricant, and when you peel off your wetsuit like peeling a banana the outside of the suit rubs against itself. Water is the lubricant. If you run even 30 seconds, to your transition space, and then take off your wetsuit, that suit may well be bone dry by then, and I don't care how big or small that hole is through which your foot exits the suit, it's going to be tougher getting that suit off. So, you exit the suit as soon as you hit dry land. Then you carry your suit to transition. My gripe is this: Many of us just watched the ITU Chicago race and I'm guessing this might be the most-watched ITU race to date by a U.S. audience, excepting the Olympic triathlon. For everything good and great about these athletes – and there is much to admire and compliment – memo to them all: If you stop after you get up and off the pontoon, step to the side, and take your wetsuit off, and carry it to transition, you are not losing ground. I promise your competitors are going to eventually have to take their wetsuits off too. This insistence on running to transition prior to exiting the wetsuit is doglike behavior that resists all attempts at reason. This, unless there's an ITU rule I don't know about that mandates that athletes not exit their wetsuits until they reach transition.
My point to this digression is that you all will enjoy a wider range of wetsuit leg terminus options if you exit your wetsuits when you should, which is when you hit stable ground, that is, when you're off the beach and on pavement or asphalt, with the outside of your suit still wet.
As I look around the web, at retailers' prices, and rankings and ratings and whatnot, it seems to me the Aspire is the sweet spot of the line. But I must tell you I prefer the Vision. It has no catch panel which, of course, is no big loss to me. It's priced very well. And honestly the Vision just was better constructed. I don't want to make too much of that, by my Vision was glued up by an expert craftsman, and the Aspire I have was glued up by a typical, midrange craftsman who, if he worked for me back in the day, would still be honing his skill on seat covers.
Here's more information about Zone3 wetsuits. I see a lot of wetsuits that are the swimming version of the "open mold" bike frame. I can make one phone call and be in the bike or wetsuit business, out of my garage. In fact, in 1986 I did start out of my garage, so, nothing against garage businesses. Just, Zone3 is clearly not one of these open mold start ups. It is a bona fide wetsuit brand, it will continue to move forward, it makes fine wetsuits at great price points, great values, and deserves its rightful slice of the market.