Early last summer, I stumbled on the site by Rapha. I’m not even sure how I found it, perhaps I was looking for a new cycling cap. I’d never heard of them before, but was completely and utterly blindsided by their slick marketing: a simple but gorgeous site, generally clean copy (with only occasional hyperventilating), and a call to audacious riding that I admire.
My cycling clothing and style can be summed up as a desperate search to optimize a long distance traveling kit. For the type of riding I like to do, I need to be comfortable ambling on the bike for 10 hours at a time and not feel odd sitting in a bar somewhere along the road or taking pictures along the way. I’ve tried lots of Lycra, woolies, t-shirts, jerseys, padded, unpadded, liners, shorts, clips and clipless. This optimizing is a process to be sure, and always one of experiment, but ideally I’m traveling with not much specialized clothing, just stuff that works. It’s easy to clean. It looks good (enough). It’s comfortable.
I ordered a cap. I must have ordered something else as well, some small trinket that I could sneak through our budget..but now I can’t recall what it was. Perhaps the first pair of socks.
For months, I followed this site. I tried some of the longer rides or variations of them last summer…and most importantly for Rapha’s bottom line, I became a vein hungry, addled addict for their goods. One package and then another and another arrived from London. This lead to bitter domestic disputes, awesome rides, and the most expensive items in my closet, despite shopping in the clearance bin and waiting for free shipping. This stuff, as noted in plenty of commentary, is not cheap.
They aren’t making any claims on the actual work of producing this stuff: it’s a lot more heartless than the brand would have you to believe: the majority of the woolies (as far as I can tell) are being made in factories in Fiji by people who wouldn’t need the knowledge of wearing the stuff— and I can’t help but feel a little let down by that.
So here’s the fundamental question: is it worth it? How much of a premium are you paying to be involved in the brand versus the actual functionality of the goods? Are you really getting serious performance upgrade or are you just a sucker advertising that you’ve got too much money to burn?
Ah…but if there were a simple answer!
Alas, now that I’ve dropped an unhealthy percentage of my income with this company at the expense of doing other things like adding to my retirement account, I would say that overall, their products perform as advertised and as they hammer in the copy: it’s the detailing that make the garments, simple things like gripper tape, off-normal seams, longer sleeves for being down in the drops. I’d say it’s been a bit of a revelation to me.
I’d say that my overall disappointment is in the cleaning of any of the light colored material. It’s like the sizing (meaning whatever is used to finish the fabric) is not designed for road grim, dirt and sweat. Within three or four rides, the white merino base layers look like I’ve been gardening in them, dingy with ring-around the collar, my socks gray, the reflective tape on my bibs almost black with road grim that won’t come out. To spend $175 dollars on a jersey and then have it always look dirty, even from the minute it comes out of the delicate wash…well, that’s a tough pill to swallow and has definitely cooled my lust.
As a “brand”, I also can’t help feeling a bit of poseur in it—considering how slowly I bike, how distinctive it is, and how they’re as famous for items like thousand dollar bike suits and silky scarfs. My favorite ridiculous moment in the new campaign is a very sexy guy fixing his bike in a $125 “city” shirt. Oh, come on! I’d have a hard enough time eating at some cute cafe on a date in a good looking $125 shirt, let alone fixing my greasy steed in it. So there’s that: on days when I am struggling up some little pokey ridge and some kid on a one-speed whizzes by me in his skinny jeans, it’s hard to not think, “A fool and his money…”
I’ve bought way too much of this stuff, completely overhauling my wardrobe in the process. Full disclosure: my interactions with the company have been limited to going to my mailbox and getting packages except for one email exchange for some information about a jacket (not bought), and one painless return. I am a bit embarrassed about how much of this stuff I’ve gotten, but we don’t have a car, being reliant on our bikes as our primary transportation…etc., etc., etc.
Here’s the products in the order I’d recommend them, from “OMG! Who knew! Push send button, get them!” to a some “Meh! save your money, you addict!”. I’m not linking to specific products as they change the looks and goods every spring and fall and I bought what I could out of the clearance section.
Merino Socks: Cycling Weekly gives these a 10 out of 10. Yep. They are that nice. I had no idea how much more comfortable my feet could be while cycling. Super light, breathable, but also warm. However, like I said, my white socks looked like hell within a few wet rides, so if you’re really putting together some special occasion look, save your socks for then, you’ll never get these clean again.
These socks were so comfortable, I thought I’d pack them as my only socks for a bike/walking week in NYC. That turned out to be a mistake. For me, whatever greatness they have in riding, it does not translate into walking. Strange, eh?
Merino Hat: Straight from Fiji, it’s the winter hat! I’ve a couple little skull caps made from polyester for fitting under my helmet or just wearing around when it’s a little chilly for my bald(ing) head, but this little black number was, again, a revelation. I hardly used my beefy Newfoundland hat this winter. It’s just the right amount of warmth. It would be great if it came with a geotagging transponder so I could find it more easily as I am always slipping it in and out of pockets and bags. There’s a been a lot of heartbreak around this hat as I misplace it for days at a time, convinced it’s been lost, only to thankfully find it. This hat rules.
“Neck-(swea)ter” or Wool Collar: Related to the hat is what we’ve been calling around the house the “Neckter”. A simple thin tube of light merino wool, it slips over your head and takes the place of a scarf. Of course, we like seeing people with scarfs biking around so we kind of hope the Neckter doesn’t take off, but I am here to tell you in the cool Pacific Northwest, this is another lovely light thing to slip into your bag, not only for biking, but for when the day turns unexpectedly blustery and you’re just walking around. Gave one to a pal and his report is the same: it’s awesome!
Merino Base Layers: Since they looked like I’d been out gardening in them after just a few hard rides, I figured I might as well be out gardening in them. These things are replacing all my normal t-shirts during the winter. I find that they offer great insulation and love how they feel. Victor doesn’t like his for being too scratchy.
As far as biking (since that’s why they arrived!), I’d never biked with a base layer under a jersey and definitely would never have thought to do so when it’s hot. Ok, it works pretty well, but since I’m not a high-performance riding, just a high-performance sweater, I can’t say if I’m getting any benefit. I am comfortable in them, and yep, there is no stink. You can wear them for days and days…I often do.
Despite my love of white t-shirts, I’m only buying these in black here on out. I can’t get the grim out of them. I have also noticed some piling on one of them already (within 20 washes).
Merino Crewneck: I can’t say how this feels except to say it’s heavier than the base layers. I bought this as a gift for Victor and he wears it almost every day and looks amazing in it. Nicer cut than your average sweater if you’ve got the body to pull it off, which Victor does.
3/4 Length Bibs: Dear God, these are expensive. New to bibs and new to the 3/4 length, both were recommended by a pal of mine. Now that I’m in bibs, I am never going back to just shorts. Wow, so lovely not to have my belly drooping over my shorts and it feels easier to “stay with the core!” as if I had a core to stay with. That 3/4 length is really perfect for quite a bit of the time in Seattle and gentle on the knees.
Again, I’d mention the reflective details completely grimy and the dye in it wasn’t set well so I the first time I wore it, oooh…not nice! The padding is great and they are lined with a soft fleece to keep you a bit warmer. They’ve got a great little pocket in the back for your keys (again, it’s the detailing that seems to set Rapha apart). The inner thighs are wearing quicker than they I think they should against the seat though I’ve got beefy, flabby thighs. Still, for this price, I’m open to exploring other company’s bibs.
Club Jersey: What’s not to love about a simple, pale blue soft jersey with a white stripe? A joy to bike in to at least 80 degrees (again, I’m not moving in a high-energy way), the only thing that keeps me from loving this jersey is that there is no cleaning out the ring around the collar or any smears on the white stripe. What’s up with that? I don’t have that issue with any of my other clothes… why these? Heck, I’ve even switched up from Woolite to the Grant Peterson recommended Kookaburra Wool Wash, to no affect. It’s such a shame because while I don’t mind a grease spot here or there, it’s hard to get excited about putting on a newish jersey that looks grimy.
Bicycle Cap: It is what it is, a good looking straightforward cycling cap and step up from the normal team or component caps you see hanging in most bike stores. I don’t know why I did this, but I also order the “tweed” version. Obviously made in a different factory with a different sizing, it may look cute on real people somewhere, but made me look like a true knob. I returned that hat (FYI: returns are very easy).
Long Sleeve Jersey: It’s in black, so there’s no grime to notice, but while this jersey gets lots of action, I’m always struggling to maintain the right temperature in it. Too hot when it’s over 60, it’s also not even close to warm enough when the temps are closer to 40….so you’d think it would be perfect here, but alas, for reason unknown to me, my arms are almost always too cold, or my torso too hot. Even with the base layers, I feel like the wind goes right through it. That said, when I get humming along, it definitely feels better…but it’s often the jersey I wear for quick errands around town (it looks GREAT) and well, maybe for that it just be better to wear a something a bit thicker. Details on this thing are wonderful, but the shoulder seam (I’ve broad shoulders) is coming undone.
Gloves (older Criterium): Ok, despite my illness for all things Rapha, there was no way I was going to drop over a hundred dollars on gloves. No way. I did however find a “barely used” pair on eBay for $40, so I thought I’d try them. They recommend sizing down so they’re nice and tight, and so if I was going to buy these again, I’d get medium..the large are just a tad loose. Would I buy these again? No, I would not. The leather keeps my hands way too hot, they are really quite difficult to get off. To get these off you have to really pull at all the leather finger holes. I’m a guy who likes knit backs and breathable gloves (or even no gloves) and these are the opposite of that. I’m still in the market for gloves.
T-shirt: Let’s be real: buying a t-shirt from Rapha is completely just being over the top. This came to me from the deep clearance section but I can’t wear it because it’s just too small for my current fatty self. One thing about cycling clothes are they tend to be sized small, which makes sense since most cyclists are in great shape. Rapha’s line actually seems sized for normal people and I bought the size I’d normally wear. In some cycling clothes I am comfortable in XXL these days, but in Rapha it’s XL and that’s fine. The t-shirt though is sized for cyclists, so maybe with a little less riding to the bar, it will fit later in the summer. I can report it is incredibly soft and the color pleases me, but otherwise, withhold judgment.
Finally, I am going to add that I have also picked up a short sleeve shirt for Victor and again, it looks amazing on him and he was delighted with all the little features on the shirt and can’t wait to ride around in it later this summer….
So that you’ll know I am not completely over-the-top with these people, some of the stuff I have seen in person is horrible: the “Portland Swift” jersey is one of the ugliest pieces of bike clothing I have ever seen…it’s true hideous nature doesn’t come out on the site, but to see it in person (River City Bicycles in Portland is the closest Rapha dealer to us) is to be amazed that anyone could think this was a good idea! Currently, this year club jersey look incredibly ugly and really, the “transit elite sweater”? No, really? Dear god, I don’t know how the models kept a straight face.
But for every ugly, ugly thing, there is a thing of great elegance: I won’t lie, I am totally vein-smacking jonesing for one French country jerseys. Just oh, wow. Lovely.