Of the many products I’ve been asked my opinion of, but haven’t ridden, the number-one, top-of-the-list item is a pair of Rapha bib shorts. It seems any time I review a pair of bibs—by anyone—the first question I’m asked, either in comments, in person or by email is how they compare to bibs from Rapha. Until recently, I had no answer for that.
Then Rapha sent me a pair of their Pro Team Bib Shorts.
Now, I need to insert a little caveat here: The Pro Team bibs are an item new to Rapha’s offerings, but some riders will already be familiar with them. This is the same short as the Rapha Condor Sharp Bib Shorts. So it’s not like I’m reviewing a product to which existing Rapha shoppers are wholly unfamiliar.
The 21st Century is a place of paralleled partisanship. It’s not only okay to be biased, the world wants to know what your biases are. “Fly that freak flag,” is as much a statement granting permission as it is a request to tell us who you are. Rapha, to their credit, have told us they live in a world of Plus X film, pre-helmet, and that the only phone they answer is at a café in the shadow of Mont Aigoual. Oh, and that they don’t do rides shorter than six hours.
Good thing they made these bibs. I don’t put these on unless I’m going out for at least three hours. Anything less is something of an insult. How come? Well, it begins with the pad. It always begins with the pad, doesn’t it? The pad is not just the foundation of a good bib short, it is the cornerstone of said garment. Begin with a crap pad and you can do all the Lycra acrobatics you want and the shorts will still torture you after two hours.
So Rapha begins with a very fine Cytech pad, the same pad they use in all their other bibs. It is one of the two best pads I’ve ever worn, though not quite the very best. In a world crowded with Kias this is an Audi. I did a humbling six-hour ride in these just this weekend and returned home to a happy undercarriage. The pad, as has been noted by some, is thick, but I’m less concerned with its thickness than how firm it is. I don’t really notice how thick the pad is, just that the saddle never feels uncomfortable. Which is saying something because, in the parlance of Fi’zi:k, I’m not a snake and I spent all of Saturday’s ride on an Arione. Somewhere in my little black book of equations it is written that Padraig + Arione + 6 (hours) ≠ Happy Ass. Or so I thought.
Now, getting that pad in position and keeping it there is the second important ingredient in a pair of bibs. The first time I put these bibs on—I gotta be honest—I took them off immediately. I thought they might be the wrong size. Yes, I got them on, but they were tight like, well if you’re truly responsible, condoms ought to fit this tight. So I checked with them and I found out that, yes, these are supposed to compress. I noted a corollary to their suggestion when I put them back on. While they were tight around my legs, they weren’t tight at my belly and the bib straps were long enough. Had these been a size too small the straps would have turned me into a hunchback with belly spilling from the waist.
So about getting the pad in the right spot … these bibs take a minute or so to worry into place. I can get the straps over my shoulders while the pad only glances by the machinery, so getting them into place requires a bit of squatting and a few small tugs. But once into place? They are as intractable as a cinder block wall. Which, if you think about it, is kinda what you want. Their only movement will be with you, not again’ you.
All this compressive Lycra comes with an extra dollop of quality. The material has been treated with Schoeller’s coldblack technology. I could go into all the technical details behind coldblack but I’d put you to sleep and you wouldn’t read any further. Here’s what matters—coldblack is a treatment given to fabrics that does two things. First, it helps reflect light, including UV rays, to help keep you cooler than you would be were you wearing an ordinary black garment. Second, because it reflects UV rays, it offers UV protection, which is a handy thing given that you’re a cyclist and not a couch potato.
Patterning on these bibs is exquisite; if you told me they’d been cut by Coco Chanel herself, I’d be apt to believe you. A pair of bibs this tight has the potential to dispense discomfort like grains from a salt shaker if the pattern isn’t right. Were there no room for my caboose I’d suffer, either at cheek or beak. The other potential pitfall is that any garment this snug could limit movement. Overly tight, ill-fitting bibs can restrict your power at the top of the pedal stroke. Say it with me in your best ironic voice: That would be genius!
Of course the other facet of fit that people are prone to complain about is the length of the bib straps. For me, the length is perfect and the material used in the bibs is very light weight, lighter than what is used in many other bibs I won. Also, at the top of the bib, basically extending from the top of the shoulder forward to the collarbone is a small length of Lycra to give the bibs a bit of extra stretch.
I’m wearing the mediums, which places the sizing squarely among many American brands like Capo, Hincapie and Voler. That said, just bear in mind these won’t feel like a medium from those other companies. Oh, and for you beanpoles out there, they do a version with a 30mm longer inseam. Why don’t more companies do that? Be aware, though, that the bib straps do not increase in length, so if you’re 6′ 4″ and 140 lbs. you will only be slightly better off.
You’re an observant bunch and have no doubt noticed I’ve just mentioned some of Rapha’s competitors. So far as I can tell Pro Team Bib Shorts were designed with a sniper’s scope aimed at a facility in Switzerland. Yeah, Assos. If these bibs are meant to compete with anything on the market it has got to be the Assos Mille bibs. I can’t help but make the comparison in my head even though the experience of wearing the two different bibs is, well, dissimilar. And this difference isn’t something that causes me to choose one for one sort of ride and the other for something different. I have three go-to bibs for long, hard days. There are my Panache RKP bibs. I’ve got a set of Milles. And now I’ve got a set of Pro Team Bibs. Everything else is limited to rides two hours and shorter.
These bibs carry a suggested retail price of $250. Again, the suggestion is that these bibs are meant to compete with nothing other than the Milles. Rapha has on occasion been criticized for what has been perceived as a style premium, that, perhaps, their goods weren’t truly worth the price being paid. I can say there has been a lot of thought put into these bibs. How many of us really need a radio pocket is, at best, debatable. I know I don’t need one, and don’t slip an iPod into it. While I do mountain bike with an iPod Shuffle, I clip that to my jersey pocket. However, if I did need a radio pocket, it would be nice to have a choice of two pockets, right and left of my spine to that a piece of electronics isn’t resting against bone. Who needs that?
Do I really need a laundry tag on which to write my name? It’s been a lot of years since I last had a roommate who could wear my cycling clothing, and even then we didn’t do laundry together so that’s one of those value-added propositions that doesn’t actually add any—value, that is. But good style is worth something to me and I thoroughly dig that the Rapha block letter logo is done in white in one leg and black on the other.
All the seams are flatlock and the leg bands at the bottom of the short feature a repeating mantra of “PRO TEAM” around the band. As it’s in black the understated presentation tickles my sense of un-obnoxious style. And for those of you who, like me, prefer a leg gripper that does the job but doesn’t get overzealous about it, you’ll like these. The tiny bands of silicone are just enough to get the job done.
So, are these things worth $250? My sense is that they will last longer than the Eurozone, that you’ll never get home from a ride wondering how you missed putting chamois cream on that one blessed spot, that you’ll never wear these with any jersey you own and look like a dork, that you’ll never regret your purchase.