I found this out riding a Citi Bike in Manhattan this winter.
I’ve seen some tricky times on the bike. Sliding along the wet Colorado asphalt at 30 m.p.h. during the opening miles of the collegiate nationals road race in Durango. Being chased off my bike by a Corsican bull enraged by the sight of a Bridgestone with panniers. Feeling my front wheel wash out in an icy West Philadelphia intersection, and then trying to scramble out of traffic with one foot covered only by a sock.
In those cases, catastrophe came unannounced. When you ride a Citi Bike in New York you know within a minute of pedaling the unwieldy machine into traffic what can do you in. Everything.
My route began on Lexington Ave, near the southern end of Central Park. I had a few hours between two appointments, and for the second one I needed to be energized and clear headed. What better way than a bike ride to get ready? It seemed like the right time to try out the Citi Bike system, helmet or not.
My second visit of the day was the culmination of a lifelong ambition to write a book, so I really did not want to die before meeting my editor for the first time. I would have to count on the storied qualities of my trench coat to keep me safe.
Then I found that going crosstown in Manhattan on a Citi Bike is no different than inching crosstown in a car. It’s soul crushing. The bike is too heavy and too wide to zip in and out of traffic, leaving a rider at something slower than walking pace. At least it’s not that cold. When you go slow enough, the engines and exhaust of the delivery trucks and taxis go a long way toward creating a pack-like warmth. Just know where you stand lest you find yourself fighting for the same stretch of street with a panel truck creeping to the left with the same care an elephant shows before it unloads its breakfast.
Visitors once saw New York as a really dangerous place, rife with sharp knives and a serrated demeanor that has largely been purged from Manhattan. It’s been years since you could smoke in a bar. Bottles are feared not for their utility as a street fighter’s weapon but for their caloric payload. Yet there is still a way to taste the perils of the past. The Citi Bike is your time machine. Just head southbound in traffic on the West Side as I did on the next leg of my trip.
Spartan rites of passage must have had fewer deadly pitfalls and traps. There was the taxi driver who made eye contact in the mirror and then opened his door into my path. Potholes that could stun a Boston driver into silence. Gleaming Town Cars driven with the post-apocalyptic abandon that comes from being chased by a sprinting horde of decaying flesh. Pedestrians using thumbs and not brains when they cross the street with a New Yorker’s indifference.
There was a better option: I headed to the river and stuck to the deserted Hudson River Greenway. I glimpsed how great New York could be with more bikes and far fewer cars.
Any worthwhile journey has its moment of respite, and mine came at the Rapha store in the Meatpacking district. I parked my Citi Bike nearby, trying to avoid being charged for taking too long because I was doing the great things commuting by bike enables you to do. I may have been slow because I stopped for photos and notes, but if riding a bike interferes with pictures and words, what good is it?
Rapha spelled relief. The retail outpost of the British brand has the cordial sense of purpose of a small consulate. One of the interesting things about really effective lifestyle brands is that it is hard to discern just what is for sale and the ultimate value of what you are considering buying. So much so that after eating a sandwich, gorging on free but expensive magazine,s and departing with an on-target caffeine buzz and no intention of ever owning anything from the company, I took a few paces out the door and then froze. I returned and bought a pair of plain black bib shorts that cost more than the new wheels on my bike. Just as every pro cyclist loses a battle with the desert tray from time to time, the recreational rider also inevitably slips and overspends when they least should.
As anyone trying to write fiction can tell you, that time is all the time.
The irony of the stop was that my riding was effectively done for the day before I even walked in. It was only a mile or so to my last appointment and I had decided to finish the trip on foot before I even shoved the Citi Bike into its rack with an indelicate, industrial move akin to train cars coupling. On the walk, I occasionally passed racks of the blue bikes and could not help but think, “there waits a machine wholly indifferent to whether it is being ridden.” It is a perfect bike for somebody who does not care about cycling.
When I left the Rapha store, they cheerily told me to bring my bike next visit for the midweek “Freelancer’s Ride.” Next time I am in New York, I might just do that. If you’re going to make it in New York, especially as a cyclist, there’s only one bike for you.
I need to be honest. I haven’t worn the kit from a team I wasn’t a member of in probably 15 years. Before I moved to Southern California, I and all of my friends wore any jersey or kit we thought was cool. I had team jerseys from PDM, Z, Gatorade-Chateau d’Ax and even a replica Banania-sponsored maillot jaune like Greg LeMond wore in the ’86 Tour de France. My PDM jersey was arguably my favorite jersey until I got my first UMASS team jersey. I still think the jersey that wrapped the granite bodies of Steven Rooks, Sean Kelly and Gert Jan Theunisse was as gorgeous a design as was ever raced. So why shouldn’t I have worn one?
But then I moved to SoCal. The single most image-conscious place on the planet. A place where, unlike Milan, wherein the sure sign that one is aware of the presence struck is being dressed to the proverbial three cubed, in the land where all the best parts are aftermarket—both on cars and bodies—we go to great lengths to make a sculpted appearance look accidental. What that’s about has dysfunction written all over it. However, I quickly learned on the group rides here that you do not wear the jersey of a team for which you did not ride. A simple rule, I suppose. It might have been the first cycling faux pas I ever encountered, aside from the excommunicable offense of not holding your line.
All those cool jerseys went in a container in my garage. I think they’re still there. I think. Eventually, I learned that there were exceptions, such as if you were given the jersey by someone attached to the team, especially if that someone was a rider. Fundamentally, the rule was about not reaping the reward of something you hadn’t earned. So for years, I wore only those kits from the teams that sponsored me.
So when I heard that Rapha was going to sponsor Team Sky, I hazarded a few connect-the-dot thoughts. First, I wondered what had taken to long. In a world starved for heaven-made matches, Rapha and Sky are the peanut butter and jelly of the British Isles. I mean, dude. This is cycling’s Brangelina. Next, I admit I wondered what the jersey would be, as in would it be an embroidered no-silkscreen affair. Would Rapha impose its style on the pro peloton? Alas, that didn’t happen. The new Sky kit is rather in keeping with a current trend in kits of, Just how black can we make it? If there’s one thing that does, it make the sky blue pop like a child’s balloon in a palm jungle.
What I didn’t expect was to receive said kit for review. I’ll admit, when I saw the box, I was torn. I simply don’t wear pro kits anymore. How would I say something true without dissing the pro-kit blunder? I’m certain other places don’t suffer this stricture, but my departure from the realm of cool happened when I stopped being one of the fast guys and that’s been a good 10 years. Point being, I’d like to avoid becoming any less cool ’round these parts.
So I pulled the kit out early one morning and dressed in near dark. There was no denying the quality of the kit as I pulled it on. There’s a synergy of cut and materials that occurs in those best-of-class pieces. They lack that little tug here, stretch there, of lesser garments. The jersey length was just-so—long enough to get your hand in a pocket easily enough but only long enough to reach your waist—a proper pro cut.
I headed into the bathroom for a final pit stop before heading out for the ride when I noticed the side panel I’d missed as I dressed. My name. There it was, billboard bold; my name paired with Old Glory.
I geek out on clothing with the regularity of moon phases. Occasionally, my wife will spy something and comment on how nice it looks. If she doesn’t comment, I take note. I never, ever, go racing to her and say, “Babe, you gotta check this out.” But that’s what I did with this jersey. I waited for someone on the ride to give me some grief. It seemed as inevitable as a baby barfing, which I can say with considerable authority is definitely inevitable. When it came, I simply lifted my arm and twisted a bit.
“Okay, that’s kinda cool.” Game. Set. Match.
Think back on childhood and the first sports jersey or shirt you wore with your name on it. So long as we’re not talking the plastic name tag of fast-food careers, having your name on your clothing is still cool enough to elicit a smile. When I think about it, it seems like I ought, at this point in life, to be immune to such charms. I’m not. I got stickers with my name and the RKP logo made last year, little ones to stick on top tubes, seat stays or any other place I felt compelled. (I also had a bunch made for RKP’s regular contributors.)
Rapha is rumored to have spent crazy money, Michael Jackson money, on this sponsorship, so to make it work, they need to be able to make this kit connect with the masses, and really, the best way to do that isn’t with a five-sizes, pro-cut jersey and crappy bibs. For those of you who have spent any time around Beatles memorabilia, you know how each of the Fab Four were marketed within a nose hair of their lives. And no matter who you were, there was a Beatle for everyone. So what is Rapha doing?
Rapha is offering the chance for you to order a Sky jersey with your name and flag on it. Before you suck in a deep breath and hold it, I should mention that it’s only $150. And it comes in six sizes, from XS to XXL. How it is that the brand most often derided for being over-priced is offering a truly custom jersey for only $150, I don’t currently fathom. I don’t need to. What I know is that you can spend more on a jersey that’s no better and still not have your name on it. The replica team jersey goes for $115. Rapha is also offering the national champion jerseys for Great Britain and Norway, plus a Wiggins supporter jersey , both in pro-cut a relaxed-fit version of the Sky jersey with “Wiggo” on the sides (they even do kids’ versions in both cuts). The replica jersey (pro cut) is $120 while the supporter jersey (relaxed fit) is only $65. Has to be the least expensive jersey Rapha has ever offered (save the kids’ version which is only $55. So stop complaining about how pricey their stuff is. There are 13 jerseys, two base layers, five bib shorts, three jackets (oops, two—one is already sold out), jeans, nine shirts, a belt, gloves; heck, there’s even a scarf. A proper Sky fan could remake their entire wardrobe in this stuff.
The Sky bib shorts are very similar to the Pro Team bibs that I reviewed previously. You can read that review here. It’s the same pad, and while the Lycra of the shorts has the same weight and feel as the Pro Team bibs I have been wearing, the fabric in the Sky bibs has just a bit more stretch to it. And like the Pro Team bibs, they also go for $260.
Rapha is offering the custom jersey for a very limited time. From their release:
The order window opens on Friday 26th April 14.00 GMT and closes on Friday 10th May 15.00 GMT.
Orders should arrive in time for the Tour.
You’ll be able to order the custom jersey here. You can also see the full range of Sky offerings there as well.
I’ve got my name on a jersey. You can bet your ass I’m going to wear this. And Sky isn’t even my favorite team.
In my efforts to (unsuccessfully) get back to my mandated editorial duties, which is to say posts in which cycling is the primary concern, I’ve flashed on a few different products I have reviewed previously and for one reason or another have felt a need to update readers with insights gained from my ongoing experience with them. I don’t normally feel a need to do this. I try to make sure that by the time I publish a review of something I’ve digested that product well enough that I am unlikely to have any further insight into its use or function in the coming months.
Every now and then I find out otherwise.
A great example of this is my review of Rapha’s shaving cream a few months back. I lamented how the high cost of the product ($20) was likely to keep some consumers away. At the time, I reasoned that the 150ml tin wouldn’t go far. In my head, I expected it would last me two months, tops. That made its per-use cost quite high—$10 per month for shaving cream is a bit luxurious for my household. Since my review, I’ve realized that I need far less of the cream to execute the perfect shave. I estimate that I used the first third of the tin in about three weeks. I’ve gotten through about another third of the tin (not quite, actually) in the two months since my review.
What I learned is that I just need to wet my face a bit more before applying it. Perhaps if I had one of those old horse-hair application brushes I’d have gotten hip to this sooner.
I bring this up for two reasons. First, I really think I owe it to anyone whose product I review to give it the fairest shake I can. I’m sensitive to the ongoing criticism that Rapha receives in the U.S. because their products carry such a premium. I have observed that some of this isn’t their fault: They can’t adjust the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar. That said, they deserve to have word circulate when a reviewer realizes a product is a better value than originally perceived.
The second reason is this stuff is just ridiculously good. Since my crash last fall, I haven’t been—ahem—enamored of my face. While no one else notices the change in my smile and no one else can feel the scar tissue in my lips, looking in the mirror is something I’m still adjusting to. That shaving my face (despite the ongoing numb spot) can bring me any pleasure is as odd and ironic an outcome as I could have this week. The way my skin feels and the way my face smells after shaving with this stuff is something that makes me genuinely happy. I figure if it’s my business to tell the world what I think of something then they deserve to have me be honest about this.
Next up, I need to go on record and say that as much as I love the revised SRAM Red group, I’m finding the new generation of Red brakes to be rather finicky. Keeping them perfectly centered while balancing left/right side spring tension isn’t as easy as with any of the competing dual-pivot calipers. Much of this has to do with the stamped-steel spring. While on one hand the spring gives the brake very light action, something that SRAM can get away with due to the used-car-salesman-slick Gore Ride-On cables. The issue isn’t that I can’t adjust tension or center the brake; the issue is that it just doesn’t seem to keep the adjustment for more than a couple of weeks. Still, if you accept the idea that any time you make a brake set lighter you’re going to give up something, I’d prefer finicky adjustment while keeping overall brake power, rather than what happened when Dura-Ace went from 8-speed to 9-speed: The brake set gave up power.
Some years back, when the bulk of my work was appearing at Belgium Knee Warmers, I reviewed the Assos Summer Gloves. The review appeared in 2009 after having used the gloves for more than a full season. By the time I wrote about them, as I noted in my review, I was completely in love with them and I reviewed them only because my strong feelings for their quality, fit and finish were so unexpected.
Well, I finally killed those gloves recently. That’s the pair I’ve been riding all this time, pictured above. The pink peeking out of the one palm pad is the padding creeping through a rip in the stitching. Yes, I mean that I killed that particular pair of gloves. The actual date they were pressed into service is no longer known to me, but I can say it was probably some time during the summer of 2007. That’s more than five years of use. It’s fair to ask though, just how many uses that was. We can factor out four months for late fall, winter and early spring, during which time I wear long-finger gloves. And we have to siphon off a fair chunk of the spring, summer and fall due to other gloves I’m sent to try. Conservatively, I think that leaves me with at least 100 days of use per year. These have absolutely been my go-to gloves for all rides where the temp is at least 60 degrees at the start. Factored another way, I can say that I’ve usually worn these gloves at least three days a week, and I’d guess for a good 30 to 35 weeks each year. That’s probably in the neighborhood of 600 uses. That works out to, what, a dime per use?
While I’ve worn some gloves made from Pittards leather that were as comfortable in the palm as … hell, I don’t know what to say here that won’t sound unintendedly sexual. The thing is, Pittards leather gloves are supple the way we wish our own skin still was. In that regard the first few wears are experiences that carbonate our senses with the infatuation of a first date. They possess magical properties to beguile our hands if not our senses.
If only they lasted as long as even the average romance. I’ve yet to get 100 wears out of a pair of Pittards gloves. There’s a distinct possibility that I’m part, if not most, of the problem. I’ve yet to figure out—even after following instructions—just how to properly clean Pittards gloves without them getting dried out and stiff like 20-year-old boot leather. Maybe it’s easier than I think. The thing is, I don’t want the graduate seminar in leather glove care. This is precisely why I love the Assos Summer Gloves. They have required no greater care than a jersey. I toss them in the wash and never worry about how they’ll come out. Because they are closure-less they have a clean appearance and lack all that bulk of material on the back of the wrist, making them more comfortable and giving them less material to soak up sweat.
You’ll pardon me if I think the care and feeding of a pair of gloves should be simple, a process as thought-free as drinking a glass of water.
As worn as they are, I’m going to continue to use these gloves for mountain bike rides and dirt road rides on my ‘cross bike. I figure they’ve got at least another season like this before there’s damage bad enough to toss them in the trash.
Okay, glad to have that off my chest. Seriously, these little details have been eating at me.
When I was new to shaving, which is to say in high school, my skin was awfully sensitive to the cruelty of dragging a blade across my skin. My neck was seemingly perpetually red and inflamed, swatted honey bee-angry. In my senior year my mother discovered a shaving cream made by some company better known for women’s cosmetics than men’s skin care, a concept which was at that time still exceedingly novel and prone to suggestions that the user may not have been the most manly among men.
Fortunately, my shaving cream wasn’t subject to public scrutiny. It stayed in a medicine cabinet I shared only with my sister.
I’d forgotten that I ever used the stuff until recently when I opened a tin of Rapha’s Shaving Cream. The consistency was that of buttercream frosting—creamy and with a stickiness that showed an affinity for skin. The moment I dipped my finger in the tin, I was transported back to 1982. Actually, the experience was kind of eerie. I even recalled how my mom told me the stuff was expensive, but if it helped, she’d keep getting it for me.
I don’t recall how long I used it; I don’t recall the brand or when I stopped using it, but it was some time in undergraduate school. My strongest memory of the stuff, aside from its consistency, was how much happier my skin was as a result of using it. Generally speaking, I think almost all shaving creams are created equal, if inferior. Foam or gel, it’s all about the same.
The Rapha Shaving Cream, which at $20 for a 4-oz. (125ml) tin is even more precious than some Napa Cabs, takes that man-care shaving cream and goes it at least one better. Frankly, it smells more amazing than most embrocations. The aroma comes from a complex blend of ingredients but what hits you when you open it is a lovely blend of lavender and conifer.
While I don’t suffer skin irritation the way that I used to, there’s no doubt that my face is happier when I use this stuff. Same for the insides of my thighs when I shave my legs with it (which I’ve done all of twice). Shaving my face with this is plenty; my household really can’t tolerate me being that amazing.
Were I English, or at least based in Europe, I’m aware that the price on this stuff wouldn’t seem outrageous; the exchange rate skews the cost from merely expensive to ungodly.
A word to our friends in Rapha’s product management: Can you please change the color of either the Winter Embrocation or the Shaving Cream? Identical black tins, both residing on my bathroom sink, is a disaster in waiting.
Which brings me to the Rapha Post Shave Lotion. At $27, it’s even more expensive than the shaving cream, but given that the pump bottle is 5 oz. (150ml) and how little you use following each shave, it’s a good deal better value. It also can’t be mistaken for an embrocation, so there’s that, too.
The Post Shave Lotion benefits from the same minty-lavender aromatics and can calm anything from the angriest razor burns to crazed meth heads. I would even nominate this stuff as a possible hostage negotiator.
Using these two skin care products reminded me what a peasant I am at heart. I absolutely love both of them, but my sense is that together they make me more terrific than I deserve to be. Of course, if I needed to charm the wallets out of a Wall Street board room, this stuff would rate as a daily necessity.
I’m being silly here, but that’s truly the point. I can’t explain it, but I get a bit giddy when I open the tin and prepare to shave. And that’s why I’m writing; I hadn’t planned to review these products and ought to be embarrassed to reveal that, but I really don’t care. These products are my new definition for luxurious.
Pardon me, I haven’t shaved yet today.
In what passes for cold weather in the record fall heat of Southern California, I’ve been wearing a couple of pieces from Rapha. Our mornings are still cool, cool enough to require long sleeves if you’re on the bike before 8:00 in the morning. I’m going to volunteer a piece of information I don’t put out there a lot: I’m not a big fan of long-sleeve jerseys. The challenge of the long-sleeve jersey is one of proportion. It seems that rarely are both the hem length and the sleeve length of the jersey correct. I’ve had jerseys that fit my chest, but the arms reached beyond my wrists and the pockets hung as low as those on my jeans. I’ve found other jerseys where the hem was perfect, but the sleeves ended about where my old concert baseball jerseys did—mid-forearm.
Even when those proportions are right, there’s another detail that can ruin a long-sleeve jersey for me—sleeve circumference. Most cyclists I know don’t have big guns, so having sleeves that leave room for biceps that can curl 150 lbs. seems kinda silly. For a lot of cyclists, you just end up with extra material that flaps in the wind. If ever I had a pet peeve, it’s fabric that flaps like a flag left out in a wind storm.
You’ll pardon me if I say I was flat-out shocked when I tried on the both the Long Sleeve Jersey and the Lombardia Jersey and they fit almost perfectly. At my chest they were fitted just enough not to bunch up when I leaned down and put my hands in the drops. The sleeves reached to the end of my wrists and the cuffs are cut on a slight taper so that you don’t end up with exposed skin between the cuffs and your gloves. The hem was expertly cut as well. My preference is for my jerseys to be cut just a bit shorter, but these have a very traditional fit, short enough that there’s no chance of me catching the back of the jersey on the saddle when I go to sit down following a standing effort. And yes, the sleeves were snug enough they didn’t flap. Holy cow; it was a veritable fit trifecta.
The jerseys share a few other features as well; they are cut from a 52/48 Merino wool/polyester blend which means they offer the temperature regulating adaptability of Merino with the fit and finish of polyester. It’s a great match on paper (or in pixels) but honestly, these are only the second or third wool/poly blend that I’ve ever seen that didn’t look like a shortcut straight to the junkyard. The two outer pockets are cut at an angle to give you easy access and they are also a bit wider than the center pocket. A slim pump sleeve shares space with the middle pocket; it’s a great idea, but getting a mini pump and a vest into that space is nearly impossible. There’s a fourth, zippered security pocket for something you can’t afford to lose, like say a house key, or your sanity. The hems sport a silicone gripper and elasticized draw strings to keep the jerseys fitting snug on breezy days.
Where the Long Sleeve Jersey and the Lombardia Jersey differ is in closure. Not that one of them has unresolved issue, mind you. The Long Sleeve Jersey features a locking, full zipper. As simple and straightforward as hamburger. The Lombardia Jersey, because it is meant to evoke the spirit of Giovanni Gerbi, features a button closure on the left shoulder (five buttons) and at the sleeves (three buttons each). Also helping to distinguish the $240 Lombardia from the $220 Long Sleeve is the embroidery on the rear pocket—a brief homage to Gerbi who was known as il Diavolo Rosso (the red devil)—and just below the collar. It’s a choice piece, there’s no doubt. There’s also exactly zero doubt that trying to button or unbutton the shoulder to adjust for temperature changes is utterly impossible, at least while on the fly. The buttons on the sleeves are a bit more doable and if you unbutton all three buttons, you can pull the sleeves up, effectively turning it into a half-sleeve jersey, which is definitely helpful.
I’ve found these jerseys to be terrific with just a base layer from low 50s to the mid 60s. Anything warmer and I pull a Wicked Witch of the West and melt. For colder temperatures, the addition of a vest or windbreaker is all you need. Both garments are best-suited to days where the temperature won’t vary by 20 degrees as we’ve been dealing with here. They are both starlet gorgeous. My wife says she loves how the Moroccan Blue of the Long Sleeve Jersey matches my eyes, but my son saw me in the Lombardia and said, “Ooh, cool shirt!”
It’s worth noting that while the very first Rapha jerseys I saw were well-made, I didn’t care much for the finish of the fabric and I liked the cut and fit even less. These are noticeably better than those first efforts. If these jerseys don’t last people ten years, it won’t be for lack of quality. For those who think $220 is too much to spend on a jersey, there are other good options. This is one of those occasions where the cost of this garment can easily be justified by how long it’s going to last. I’ve examined the embroidery, the seams, the fabric. I could foresee buying a steel frame to match either of these and retiring them both in the same season.
Here’s something I’ve been meaning to get to for more than a month. Travel has conspired to cause me to use these base layers from Rapha ever increasingly without singing their praises. Base layers are an item that don’t require a sales pitch in fall, winter or early spring. But it can be hard to convince some riders that they can be handy even in late spring and through the summer. I’ll admit that until recently, I’d go baseless during the dog days of August.
Well, I did that until these arrived. I’ve done more riding in crazy-hot temperatures this year than any other year in my cycling life. Now, I’m aware that compared to some friends who live in Texas, I didn’t suffer day after day of 100-plus temps, but in July and August I had more than 10 days of riding where temps climbed north of 104, and considering that I live and ride in an area that rarely sees 90 degrees, I nearly wilted like a flower in a broiler.
I can say that what did help were these base layers from Rapha. The Pro Team Base Layers are cut from the lightest polyester and Lycra I’ve encountered in a cycling garment. The poly is used for the mesh front and back and because that weave doesn’t have a lot of stretch to it, Lycra is used for the shoulders and side panels to make sure that it fits.
The sleeveless version goes for $70 while its short-sleeve brother goes for $75 which is not quite double what I’ve paid for some other base layers. This would be about the point at which some readers will huff with outrage. Yeah, I get it, Rapha is expensive. And yes, there have been times when I’ve found it difficult to justify what they charge for some items, but this really isn’t one of those occasions.
It’s worth noting that thanks to the inscriptions “Merci Roubaix” which Franco Ballerini scrawled on his base layer as his farewell in the 2001 edition of the Hell of the North, and “Vous etes des assassins” which Octave Lapize spat at Henri Desgrange as he walked his bike up the Col d’Aubisque in 1910, these base layers possess an entertaining quality, a cool, that no other base layer I own can claim. So there’s that.
But what really makes these base layers worthwhile is their gossamer weight. Even on the hottest of days they help wick moisture away and have done much to help keep me cooler than I would have been sans base layer. I did try one day going without a base layer on a ride in Serbia where the temperature hit 42 degrees Celsius. The next day, yet another kiln of a day, I returned to the Rapha base layer and found myself more comfortable. Not truly comfortable, but more comfortable. I took to washing them in the sink after every blessed ride.
I should mention that these are meant to be “race fit.” That’s code for skin tight. And they sent me the medium. I don’t wear medium tops except when it comes to T-shirts. It’s a good thing they chose the size, because had I specified small, I wouldn’t have been able to pull these things on. I must also mention one detail that is less favorable, though, is that they have all the stretch of a pair of Levis. There have been a couple of times where I was so fatigued I actually struggled to get them off.
I doubt I’ll be wearing these base layers this coming November, but while the hot weather persists, they will continue to be my go-to base layers.
I hadn’t planned on doing a second review of Rapha products right on the heels of my first, and it might not be fair to insert them into the current controversy with Lance Armstrong, but I suspect everyone knows which line of the sand they’re on.
If you be hatin’ on Tour winners who doped, hit the “back” button now.
If you’re over that and dig cool designs that draw their inspiration from the five most successful of the Tour de France champions, you gotta check these shirts out.
The creators-that-be at Rapha noticed a little something one day in discussing previous Tour champions. For each of the last five decades the rider who won the race in a year ending in the number two went on to win the race four other times … at least. Armstrong was the victor in ’02. Miguel Indurain was the man in ’92. Bernard Hinault takes the honors for ’82. In ’72 it was Eddy Merckx, of course, And ’62? That was the great Jacques Anquetil. The shirts, then, are dubbed the Cinq Decennies de Champions—the five decades of champions.
So will this year’s victor enjoy a similar streak? Who knows? We’re not going to settle that this month … or even this year.
The world is full of crappy T-shirts with barely more thought afforded to their design than the garden-variety reality show. These shirts are the West Wing of T-shirts. Witty, smart, insider and aimed at those invested in the whole series, each of the creations speaks to the history of the rider. The shirt colors evoke the designs of their best-recalled teams. Better yet, at the top of the back of each shirt, a small icon appears. The The icons recall details like Indurain’s legendarily low resting heart rate or, in the case of Merckx, a variation on the skull and crossbones to recall his nickname, the Cannibal. And in another stroke meant to speak to the cycling roots behind these designs, the shirts sport a pocket, only it’s not a breast pocket; it’s in back, practically on the hip.
Rapha claims that the shirts are constructed of an ultra-wicking cotton. I can’t really speak to how well it wicks as I never wore it in a sauna (or outside when I went back to Memphis). What I can tell you is that they travel well. I’m not wild about pulling a shirt from a suitcase only to realize it’s too wrinkled to wear. Even after a there-and-back I noticed the Merckx shirt was prêt á porter.
At $60 a pop, these are the most expensive T-shirts I’ve ever encountered. Kinda no other way to slice it, huh? The flip side of this is calling these shirts T-shirts is something of an insult. Never in my life have I owned a T-shirt made from such a fine cotton. And if I could source a shirt this nice for the RKP designs, believe me, I’d consider it. These things are likely to become heirlooms in my family.
Should you wish to go in for the full collection, there’s good news. You can get all five shirts plus a stylish (like it would be anything else) musette bag for the price of four shirts—$240.
I’ve always liked the passion behind Rapha products, but these shirts may be the best marriage of their passion, design work and concept of quality I’ve seen.
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.
I spent my formative years struggling between wearing clothes that were unfashionable but fit me and those that were fashionable, but didn’t remotely fit me. Not only did I not understand it, my mother didn’t either. Most of the pants I wore in grade school were loose at the small of my back; to keep them at my waist I had to pull my belt pretty snug. Most of my shirts fit okay at the shoulders and then billowed out as they went down, like I was wearing a tailored tent.
Eventually I began to notice from time to time that some clothes simply fit better than others. As much as I loved Patagonia casual wear, their polo shirts were flappy on me, even in small. Their pants and shorts either fit in the seat and loose in the waist or fit at the waist and tight across my crotch. Levi’s 501s stopped fitting me after I took up cycling. I had to switch to the 569s—sit at the waist and roomy through the seat and thighs. Those skinny hipster jeans? I’d never get ‘em past my knees, unless I went for the 40-inch waist.
It wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend taught me about fit models and how all clothing begins with pieces of fabric cut to fit some individual that I began to appreciate why some things fit and others didn’t. Understanding that actually made shopping easier; it eliminated whole product lines because I knew they weren’t cut for me.
When I first got into cycling I was pretty unaware of just how cycling clothing needed to fit. I got it more or less right, but I occasionally bought shorts that were too big and all my jerseys were a size larger than necessary. Even through the turn of the century, most cycling clothing had enough stretch to accommodate differences in physique within a given size.
More recently, with the advent of Power Lycra, compression panels and skinsuit-tight jerseys, I’ve begun to notice some stuff doesn’t fit as well as it used to, or as well as some of the competition. In my reviews of clothing I’ve begun to talk about the nature of the fit. The point isn’t to say this fit is good or that fit is bad, but to note how it fits. We can talk about features like materials, reflective piping, dual-density foam in pads and Power Lycra panels until our faces are cyan, but if you—like me—have a bounteous and spherical caboose, some bibs aren’t going to fit you all that well. It won’t make them bad, but it’s worth knowing that there are others that might fit you better.
The importance of this was driven home for me this past winter when I had an experience I really didn’t want to have. I’ve long been an admirer of Vermarc clothing, but I’d never had the opportunity to wear any of their stuff. It’s a big world and I just didn’t get around to it until this winter. I tried one of their top pairs of bibs. On my first ride, I cut a three-hour ride short because my ass hurt. How could that be? I was wearing the pride of Belgium. What gives?
In objective terms, I’ve been riding 143mm-wide Specialized saddles, though it was recently suggested to me that I might do well to try the 155mm-wide version of the Romin. Not the Incredible Hulk, but not bantam, either.
Well, as it turned, out my sit bones are wider than the widest portion of the densest foam in the pad. I was writing out of the margins, so-to-speak. It doesn’t mean they are bad bibs at all. It just suggests I’m seven feet tall and the owner of a new Mini Cooper.
While this won’t be complete by any means, I wanted to note my experience with some of the different lines out there to help give you a better basis for comparison. For the record, I’m 5′ 11″ and currently weigh 163 lbs., which I hate to admit, is heavy for me.
- Assos—the Uno and Mille bibs are fairly consistent in their style of fit, though the Unos are a bit more snug on me. Like I said, I’ve got enough of a butt that I can’t do straight-leg jeans. The Mille in particular is a fantastic fit for me. And with both pads, my sit bones come down squarely in the middle of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Castelli—these are cut for riders with a slighter frame. For me, by the time I’ve crowded my ass into them they are a bit tight across the front. I’ve experienced this more with some of their bibs than others, but I do get it to some degree with all of them, save the Claudio (thermal) bibs. In my mind, most are climbers’ bibs. I wear a large.
- Capo—This line is pretty remarkable for its middle-of-the-road fit. I’ve had no issues with their bibs, nor have any friends reported issues with their stuff. I wear a medium.
- Voler—I’ve had issues with being sort of between sizes. I was too big for the smalls but the mediums weren’t as snug in fit as it seemed they ought. I can’t recall ever being between sizes with another line. The quality has come a long way from what it once was, but the pad will only stay put if the bibs are tight enough that you don’t catch the bibs on the nose of the saddle. I wear a medium.
- Panache—this is another line that offers ample room for my bumper. In addition to being roomy enough to accommodate both of my glutes, the pad is one of a handful that can rival Assos’ for comfort in terms of width and placement of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Rapha—I’ve just begun wearing the new Pro Team bibs and have been impressed with the fit. They are cut with plenty of room for my glutes without being loose up front, which is what happens if the butt is too roomy (which I did experience once). I wear a medium.
- Hincapie—like Castelli, these tend to lack a bit of room in need in back. I wear a medium.
- Giordana—Giordana has so many different product lines, there’s no one essential truth to their fit. Most of their stuff fits me pretty well, though the FormaRed Carbon bibs use the same narrow pad in the Vermarc bibs I tried. I wear a medium.
- Vermarc—overall the fit was good; I just need a wider pad. I wear a medium.
- Etxe Ondo—these could use a bit more room in the butt, but overall the fit was pretty good given the Power Lycra panels. I wear a medium.
- Specialized—these had a very traditional fit. It may be that the Lycra they used was just particularly forgiving (I believe it was 6-oz. throughout) and that what made the fit. I wear a medium.
- Primal Wear—not quite enough room in back, so it ended up being a bit snug in front. I wear a medium.
- Nalini—another pair of bibs that needed more room in back to keep the front from being too tight. I wear a medium.
- Assos—all the Assos jerseys I’ve worn have been cut on a pretty noticeable taper. However, there are always materials with such great stretch utilized that the fit ends up being remarkably forgiving. distinctly short, lengthwise. I wear a medium.
- Castelli—the jerseys I’ve tried are cut a bit more straight than Assos jerseys, though it appears their top-shelf stuff is cut on more of a taper. Mid-line stuff is somewhat long, but the pro stuff appears to be shorter. It’s really easy to buy a size too big with Castelli. I wear a medium.
- Capo—cut on a slight taper and cut on the short side, though not as short as Assos. I wear a small.
- Voler—cut remarkably straight and nearly as short as Assos; it’s a unique fit, but one I like when I’m not in perfect shape. I wear a small.
- Panache—these jerseys feature a significant taper and run short. Out of season I need to wear a medium; when I’m fit and want a pro-style fit, I’m a small.
- Hincapie—these are cut straight and long. They’ve got to fit the man himself. I wear a small.
- Giordana—again, Giordana offers so much stuff their fit is all over the place. Inexpensive stuff is generous in fit, while primo stuff like the FormaRed Carbon is short, snug and tapered. I wear a small.
- Vermarc—they feature a tapered cut and run slightly short. I wear a small.
- Etxe Ondo—yet another tapered cut, but these run on the long side, though not so long as Hincapie. I wear a small.
- Specialized—this is a remarkably straight cut with a little more length than some stuff. A conservative, fit-almost-anyone cut. I wear a small.
- Primal Wear—cut pretty straight and with a fair amount of length. I wear a small.
- Nalini—tapered cut, almost as short as Assos. I wear a small.
Bottom line: I’m not trying to steer you into or out of any one clothing line. I have my personal likes, but the value in this is to give you a greater frame of reference for choosing clothing next time you go to buy something. Fit is at the root of comfort. Go be comfortable and ride well.
When I heard (through a somewhat cryptic email) that Rapha was going to offer cycling shoes, I need to be honest and admit that I was more excited than intrigued. My duty as a reviewer obliges me to maintain a certain skepticism about any new product. Alas, I’m a bike geek and some companies tend to do consistently good, if not excellent, work. With Rapha, quality is never really up for discussion. I’ve yet to see a product of theirs suffer from a corner cut, so I had what I believed was good reason to expect that a pair of cycling shoes by them would be very good, if not stellar. Is that more credit than an unknown product deserved? Probably, but consistency of practice is how one earns a reputation.
While their early jerseys were cut on the large side and difficult to size correctly, for the last three, maybe four years, their apparel has fit very true to size. How is this applicable to a shoe review? If I had any concern about the shoes going in, it was whether a pair of 42s would fit the same as my others. Any concern I had that way was laid to rest the moment the shoes arrived; as you’re probably already aware, the Grand Tour shoes use the same sole and last as the Giro Prolight SLX and Factor shoes because they are produced to Rapha’s spec by Giro. I can report from previous experience, the Easton EC90 sole is lighter than the touch of a pickpocket and stiffer than my first belt of Yukon Jack.
If you’re familiar with Giro’s Factor then you’ve probably noticed the more subdued appearance of the Grand Tour shoes. Rapha sourced yak leather (yes, yak, as in those big furry beasts that occupy climates less hospitable than outer space) from the shoe maker Ecco. The yak leather is reasonably soft and because it is perforated it also breathes better than a great many other shoes I’ve worn.
Like the Factor, the Grand Tour shoes feature two velcro straps and a ratcheting buckle for adjustment. This is where these shoes have to come in for a knock from this reviewer. First, let me just say that when it comes to shoe closures, the Boa has it all over everything because it does a better job of distributing pressure across the foot. It’s superior the way The Who were superior to every band you ever heard in a neighbor’s garage. Those garage bands were a fun way to pass an afternoon during high school, but they were no match for Townshend and co.
Moving right along. The bigger issue with these shoes—for me—is that they really aren’t intended to hold a foot as high-volume as mine. As has been explained to me, I’ve got a foot that is wide (E at minimum, but on one occasion an Italian crispin created a set of 41.5 EEEEE dress shoes that fit me terrifically), and that detail is compounded by a really high instep caused in part by a very high arch. The Grand Tour’s velcro straps barely pull far enough around to attach.
Turns out, that’s probably very good news for you. This shoe really isn’t designed for my ridiculous dogs. It’s designed for a typical American, roughly D width and with a bit more volume than your usual Italian shoe. But thanks to the Giro SuperNatural fit system, my high arches are well treated by the biggest of the arch supports. Like the Factor, the SuperNatural insoles include three different arch supports, depending on your personal fit requirement. I like these insoles so much, I’m willing to overlook the shoes’ other drawback just because how good my feet feel when they are within these shoes. I suspect that riders at the other end of the bell curve—those with especially flat or narrow feet will end up with little strap wings protruding from the sides of the shoes—curb feelers for the pedal set.
One natural question about these shoes is whether the yak leather will stretch. Because this is a natural leather, it’s going to stretch some, sooner or later. In the weeks that I’ve been riding these shoes I’ve been able to readjust the velcro straps and I tighten the ratcheting buckle one click more than the first time I saddled up with these. I attribute that mostly to the leather settling into the shape of my feet—getting those straps to fold around a different point at the D-ring wasn’t easy. I should mention that in only my second ride in these shoes I got caught in five hours of drizzle on a day that was supposed to be simply overcast. I was as pleased by that as the time I was hit by a snow squall while riding to work. The shoes cleaned up easy enough, though.
Now, these shoes are by Rapha, which is to say that you’re going to pay a premium for them, and by some reckoning, a painful one at that. The Factor goes for $289. The Grand Tours go for a whopping $450. I mean, Edgar J. Hoover, that’s a lot of greenbacks! The difference in price—$160—is a not insubstantial pair of cycling shoes in their own right. Everything about these shoes is top-notch, from the box they come in to the shoe bags to protect them when you travel to the leather conditioning cream included. Whether or not these shoes will work out to a reasonable balance of value vs. quality vs. luxury is an answer that can only be arrived at individually. What I can say in their favor is that they are the best-made production cycling shoes I’ve ever worn and the natural leather has made for an appreciable increase in comfort—especially for a shoe not really designed for my foot. I love the Factor, but the Grand Tour is a noticeably superior shoe. It’s easy to quibble about price, but it’s much harder to criticize anyone for producing the best product they are able.