Marginal chills: Ultra Cool Tech says its bar tape cools you down

The water-activated technology "delivers endothermic cooling as you ride" but does it improve performance or comfort?

Core body temperature has become the buzzphrase in racing over the past four years as more and more teams realise the detrimental effects of heat, and the potential benefits that heat training can have on performance. But even as our understanding of why maintaining thermoregulation has improved, one key question remains: What the heck can we do about it?

Sure, there are cooling strategies and ice vests, and slush puppies are a must-have in many warm-up areas these days, but out on the bike, the good old-fashioned sock full of ice is about as good as it gets. But even that only lasts a short while if it’s hot enough, and then replenishing said ice mid-ride is only available to those with a following support car or a stop at a convenience store.

What if your bike could offer some cooling? As wild and UCI-upsetting as it sounds, that’s exactly what start-up brand Ultra Cool Tech hopes to provide with a range of new “thermal comfort” enhancing products, including Glacier Tape and a cooling bar tape, a cooling vest, and a cooling towel.

Is it witchcraft?

The Glacier Tape, which looks like … well, just plain old handlebar tape, is said to provide cooling and “thermal comfort” while riding. No pre-freezing, batteries, electronics, or chemicals are required, as it is activated with just water.

Ultra Cool Tech (UCT) states that patent-pending cooling bar tape creates “an endothermic reaction that provides continuous cooling.” The water used to activate the “endothermic reaction” evaporates during the ride to provide a cooling effect on the hands which UCT says “can last hours” depending on temperatures and wind speed. The company promises that a splash of water is all that is required to reactivate the cooling effect when it wears off.

Of course, as great as that sounds, it is also bar tape and needs to function as such. We haven’t yet got our hands on the tape, but UCT claims it retains the “benefits of conventional bar tape” – which presumably means grip and comfort.

The image shows a close up of black Glacier tape
We haven’t got our hands on the real thing yet but, in photos, Glacier tape looks like any regular tape.

The main difference between Glacier tape and more traditional tapes, though, is in the material. Traditional tapes usually feature what Ultra describes as “non-conductive” TPU or EVA, which act as a “thermal barrier” retaining heat when warm. Glacier tape, on the other hand, is described as a “conductive material” that draws water through the tape to create the “endothermic reaction.”

UCT does see the Glacier Tape as a “seasonal item” because most riders probably don’t need colder hands in winter, but they do envisage a roll-lasting for a year or changing about as regularly as you might standard bar tape. You probably wouldn’t need to change your tape for seasonal reasons anyway; if your tape is dry, and especially if you’re wearing insulated gloves, any cooling effect would likely be unnoticeable.

So is it witchcraft or just a load of hocus pocus? Neither really. UCT is tight-lipped about how exactly the cooling effect is produced, and reading between the lines, it seems that is because it is relatively simple technology, and the brand probably doesn’t want to highlight that to any potential competitors. When I put this theory to UCT, the brand acknowledged the core technology is nothing new. Still, it stresses the challenge in incorporating it into functional bar tape that wraps nicely, looks good, provides a grip and comfort – and then also delivers that cooling effect.

Developed in collaboration with WorldTour teams and riders (UCT didn’t say who), the tape will officially launch at Eurobike early next month and is available for pre-order now in either black or blue, but surprisingly not in white given that the colour’s superior light reflection and thus cooler effect compared with black.

The image shows Glacier tape packaging.
The tape is supplied in these sealed foil packages to prevent it from drying out in transit; while drying out is not an issue on the bike, keeping it moist makes for easier application. Perhaps the biggest question is how strong that cooling effect will be, especially for riders wearing gloves?

Cool to the core

At US$55 / £42 / €50/ AU$81 per pack (enough for one handlebar), it’s not cheap, but with cooling such a hot topic, we probably didn’t expect anything less. Still, though, it’s cheaper than UCT’s other new cooling product, the US$215 / £165 / €196 / AU$318 Glacier Gear Cooling Vest. This vest features the same cooling tech as the tape in a wearable form for warm-ups and cool-downs.

The image shows the Glacier cooling vest

The vest features “mixed materials” for an “adjustable fitting solution” designed to better fit a wider range of athletes. A better fit is said to improve the vest’s cooling effect.

Although the vest uses the same water-activating technology as the tape and thus does not require pre-freezing or additional ice packs, Ultra has included 12 internal pockets for optional cooling inserts or crushed ice. The vest also features a hood, presumably helping the athlete keep a cool head, but it is officially listed as a “focus and privacy” feature.

The image shows a rider wearing the cooling towel on her back.

Again, we have yet to get hands-on experience with the cooling vest, but we have with Ultra’s final product: a cooling towel. Priced at a much more “worth a try” £12, it features the same tech as the tape and vest. Designed for use in training, pre-cooling during warm-ups, and post-race cool-downs, it’s like a regular towel but cooler when wet.

We’ve actually had the towel for a few months and used it mostly for indoor training rides and TT warm-ups. We’ll take a closer look at how it performed in tomorrow’s Performance Process newsletter.

Cool gains?

So, what’s it worth? How many watts will cooling bar tape save me, or how much faster will I be? Ultra Cool Tech isn’t making any promises and fully acknowledges that not only are gains potentially marginal, but the science can’t even fully agree on the benefits of heat alleviation sensations. UCT does, though, link to two recent studies (noted below) suggesting there are gains to be had.

That phrase “heat alleviation sensations” may offer a clue, though. As Ultra admits, these products will not offer ice bath-esque cooling, but the brand did want to stress that the refreshment and comfort these products offer as temperatures rise is worth its weight in, presumably, ice.

Christopher Jones of Ultra Cool Tech told Escape Collective that recreational riders can expect a refreshing comfort gain, while the more competitive and performance orientated will enjoy a “marginal gain.” While Ultra wouldn’t use the word placebo, it seems there is a strong placebo effect here. In stifling hot conditions, I’d take the placebo.

Whatever the actual benefits, which may even prove very individual, these three products do feel like just the beginning. If they prive popular, it’s not a huge leap to envisage Ultra Cool Tech branching out into other products like racing mitts, time trial extension pads, MTB grips, helmet pads, insoles, socks, or dare I say it… bib short inserts.

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