The road cycling clothing industry is a competitive market and as the increase of people taking up cycling has showed signs of reaching a plateau, there was a certain inevitability that some brands would never make the summit.
Some disappeared without featuring on many people’s radar and then there is the sudden demise of Vulpine recently, which imploded, or rather self-destructed, due to financial mismanagement and delusions of grandeur, coupled with an inherently flawed business model.
All of which makes the ongoing success of Rapha all the more impressive. Founded by Simon Mottram in 2004, few brands have generated so many imitators (Vulpine, and the ludicrously named Chapeau! being two that immediately spring to mind).
Mottram was several years ahead of the game and has succeeded where many have failed, though he has conceded that the journey was not an easy one. Attracting initial investment for a company selling online upmarket cycle wear proved difficult, even for a man with a record in luxury branding and a sound business acumen.
An experienced road cyclist himself, Mottram had one simple objective: to provide high quality, performance-orientated cycling clothing that was also stylish. No one, before 2004, was catering for this small sector in the market that Mottram identified.
Fast forward 17 years and Rapha is now firmly established as one of the most successful and coveted brands. Say what you like about Rapha, and Mottram has many detractors, but one has to admire his gut instinct, branding skills, commitment and belief. Not everyone buys into the ‘Rapha lifestyle’ and many baulk at the cost of their clothing and accessories, but there is one thing you cannot argue against: Rapha makes some exceedingly good cycling apparel. And if you doubt that statement, why do you think Sir David Brailsford chose to work with Mottram and his talented team?
It’s testimony to the brand that several of Rapha’s early garments remain perennial bestsellers. Their ‘Classic Collection’ features signature jerseys, gilets and accessories, but the stand out garment for many remain the Classic Bib Shorts, first introduced in 2006.
A Rapha advert from 2006, the year they unveiled the first pair of bib shorts ©Rapha/Ben Ingham
Their secret of their success was down to their simplicity. Soft, beautifully cut and constructed utilising Lycra and mesh, the shorts provided comfort combined with a paired down, stylish look, but the R&D was focused on the superlative Cytech pad insert. The shorts just delivered!
And, it should be said, they also last. I bought my first pair of Rapha Classics in 2010, convinced by a cycling friend prior to riding to Paris that all-day comfort in the saddle could make the difference between me shedding tears of pain or joy as we circled the Arc de Triomphe!
I still have them and wear them regularly. OK, they are a little faded, but the pad remains comfortable, the Lycra still shows no signs of disintegration and not one stitch has come undone. They may no longer be my ‘show pants’, so to speak, but for training rides, CX and short, sharp summer outings, they are still the ones I reach for.
A perfect, iconic garment, you would think? Well, the designers at Rapha might disagree, for this year the Classic II was unveiled, a carefully tweaked updated version that stays truthful to the original, but includes some notable advances.
An updated classic: Rapha's Classic II Bib Shorts, new for 2017
If Rapha’s link up with Team Sky taught the London-based brand anything, it was that perfection is almost unattainable. There is always a marginal gain to be made, whether it be in the cut or the combination of fabrics and this may go some way to explaining the evolution of the Classic shorts.
The most notable change – and one that impacts on the comfort more than anything else – is the new pad insert, which is not only body-contoured for optimum comfort, but the pad size is no longer a ‘one size fits all’. Three different pad sizes are used to accommodate the range of sizes available: one for XS and Small and one for Medium/Large and XL/XXL respectively.
The rear pocket, flatlock stitching and fabric has been retained, though the cut out at the back of the mesh bib straps is a longer oval than with the original Classic bibs and is designed to increase ventilation (see comparative image below). The leg grippers are a little wider and provide excellent grip around the lower thigh. The fabric is the same as the original – it’s wonderfully luxuriant and soft in feel and has a distinctively slinky character.
The rear bibs of the Classic and ClassicII (right), showing increase in oval cut-out
The tweaks in design certainly improve the performance, but for me the Classic II is ALL about the new pad insert. The chamois – I tested the medium – is a snug fit and moulds itself around the sit bones. It feels wonderfully soft on the skin and, like its predecessor, does not feel overly bulky, despite that fact that in the hand the pad has a reassuringly substantial feel.
And when it comes to performance, these shorts are up there with the very best. I’ve been fortunate to test a fair number of shorts from a whole host of manufacturers over the years. I’d argue that you pay for what you get when it comes to shorts: a mid-market price provides comfort but there is always going to be a compromise, but the Classic II compare favourably with the Assos s7 range, which since their release two years ago have been my benchmark for superlative quality.
Why are they so good? Easy. You just don’t think about your backside even if riding for the whole day – they just perform. Brilliantly. It’s really that simple and quality construction and improved design aside, one has to thank the new pad insert for delivering such exceptional comfort.
The good news is that the same pad has also been incorporated into the updated Pro Team Bib Shorts II, but these being Rapha’s ‘elite performance’ bibs, they also benefitted from a fabric upgrade too, with a new lycra that is a little more lightweight and high wicking. The fit is a little more compressive in feel than the Classic II, and having the choice of a ‘regular’ and ‘long’ leg length will appeal to many.
The Pro Team II Bib Shorts have also enjoyed a few tweaks to their design and pad insert.
The Pro Team bibs feature some striking colour variations, including the signature Rapha pink and the hi-viz chartreuse that has been as staple of their collections for several years now. The Classic II bibs have also had a overhaul when it comes to choice, with the dark blue with cream Rapha logo particularly striking. The blue, even more so than the black, positively shimmers in the sun.
My original Rapha Classic bibs still have a few more miles left in them and they, more than any cycling garment I own, convinced me that Rapha was not a brand preoccupied with ‘design over function’. With the Classic II, however, things have just got a little bit better!
The Rapha Classic II are available to buy exclusively on the Rapha website and come with a price tag of £165. This certainly puts them in higher price-point bracket, but it’s worth bearing in mind that is over £100 less than the Assos T.campionissimo _s7 Bib Shorts, which retail at a price that is knocking on the door of absurdity!
Review: Dave Nash May 2017
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