The Rapha Super Lightweight jersey arrived on the Wheelsuckers doormat way back in early Spring, but ever since it has sat forlornly on a peg - a brief outing in Mallorca in April providing the only opportunity to wear the jersey, and the matching lightweight bibs, in the climactic conditions for which they were born. Now, with the Summer finally here, they have jostled themselves to the front of the queue. Their time has come.
As the name suggests, this is a jersey one would chose to wear in far hotter and humid conditions than we have been experiencing in the UK in recent weeks. But now, with the snowstorms of the Giro a distant memory, the Super Lightweight jersey and Lightweight bibs are in their element.
All this does beg the question as to why Rapha - a brand synonymous with classic English tailoring (with an HQ in one of the trendier parts of North London, but its spiritual home on the slopes of Alpe d'Huez and the Tourmalet) - are making garments that, by their own admission, are squarely geared for the fierce heat and energy sapping humidity one does not normally associate with the UK. It's worth pointing out that the Super Lightweight jersey is a further addition to Rapha's collection of hot weather garments - which in itself is a relatively new direction for the upmarket brand, heralded by the release of the merino-based Sportwool Lightweight jersey in 2009.
As Graeme Raeburn, Lead Product Designer at Rapha and a pivotal figure in the design of this collection concedes, these are jerseys that will appeal to more temperate-based riders travelling to Europe for a summer sportive, riding holiday or early season training camp, who will be encountering hotter conditions than they've been used to riding in previously.
Rapha, however, are expanding globally and the recent tie up with Team Sky provided the brand with overnight global notoriety. Retail partners and outlets in America, Australia, Japan and Korea are have now been established and overtures to the lucrative South-East Asian and Far Eastern market are being made. Spend some time on the company's website and you will find beautifully shot films and elegant blogs relating to cycling in Java, Vietnam and Japan and news about retail outlets in Osaka and Seoul. For Rapha, the sun is definitely rising in the East.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Rapha are keen to develop products for riding in the hot and humid conditions of these new markets and the Super Lightweight Jersey and the merino- based Lightweight jersey are perfect options for a cyclist riding in high temperatures and humidity, who yearn for that classic Rapha style.
Before we go into the technical stuff, let's dwell a little on the look. This being a Rapha garment, style is not going to be compromised by functionality.
The Super Lightweight jersey enjoyed its first incarnation in the Spring of last year, but for 2013, Rapha offer the jersey in three colours - a deep red, the darkest blue and plain white - with the same three colours replicated in a coloured band on the right leg of the bibs. The overall styling is subtle, unfussy and undeniably Rapha. The attention to detail - a trait synonymous with Rapha - is evident throughout: a zipped rear pocket; white collar and sleeve hem detailing on the red and blue versions (black on the white jersey) are all beautifully assembled with quality stitching and seams
Rapha is a label fully immersed in the history of cycling. This is an association that manifests itself throughout the marketing of the brand - in films, blogs, the garments themselves and even the resurrection of the famous Bordeaux-Paris race later this year. The Super Lightweight jersey continues this connection with the past, with biographies of three of the greatest modern day grimpeurs - Claudio Chiappucci of Italy, Scotland's Robert Millar and the elegant Belgian, Lucien Van Impe - printed in the rear pocket of the white, blue and red jerseys respectively.
Style is one thing, performance is another. The genesis of these two garments, and all the design and fabric innovations that followed, was to create a jersey and bibs that could be worn when the mercury is riding high. As the name suggests, they are very lightweight and the design onus has been on maximising the breathability of the jersey and bibs by utilising a combination of synthetic fabrics exclusively developed to meet Rapha's stringent demands.
I road tested this jersey only last week - a 110 mile undulating ride around the Cotswolds in temperatures, if the Garmin readings are correct, that reached 100 degrees. Perfect conditions, therefore, to see if they justified all the technical and design advancements that Rapha have put into their development.
Firstly, the jersey. Lightweight it certainly and though the fit is aerodynamic, the material does not rub against or feel heavy on the skin. Super Lightweight in name, very lightweight in nature, but Rapha have worked hard to ensure that the fabrics developed for this jersey are robust and not prone to stretching and sagging - a reason why they did not use a merino base, falling back on 100% synthetic fibres. The three rear pockets, full of the usual suspects, coped with the load well enough, though stopping and balancing out the gels and tools did improve the initial instability I felt in the lower back area.
The full zip - an absolute essential for me in summer - and the side mesh panel also aided the transfer of air, keeping me cool. Not surprisingly, given the heat I was riding in, the jersey remained dry and suggests that the material dries quickly as you perspire. How the jersey would stand up on a sustained, demanding climb is harder to predict, but on this showing, I suspect it would offer a high degree of comfort and functionality.
The bibs, though similar in cut to Rapha's Classic Bibs, also incorporate technical innovations and thoughtful design that, combined, aim to deliver a more comfortable ride in hotter conditions. Lightweight fabrics, mesh straps and a pad with small perforations around its edges work together to maximise the breathability. Even the cutaway section on the back is larger than the Classic bibs - again to ensure maximum breathability but without compromising their comfort.
It is the small attention to details that illustrate how much thought has gone into the performance side of these garments. The central rear pocket is designed to take an extra bidon - a great addition if you are planning any long, demanding climbs this Summer. In order to cut down body odours, the fabric incorporates an anti-microbial/anti-bacterial treatment, which lasts for the lifetime of the garment. Though not unique, this is not something you will find with all summer jerseys in this price bracket. And as the sun is most likely to be shining when you wear these garments, sun protection is also given a high priority too (SPF factor 50+), which is pretty impressive given the lightness of the fabrics.
So, to conclude, if you want to ride comfortably in the heat then the Rapha Super lightweight jersey and lightweight bibs are worth considering. It's a busy end of the market and the high end brands are continually pushing fabric and design innovation to entice us to buy their products. At £100 and £140 for the jersey and bibs respectively, these are not cheap and if the price doesn't put you off then the Rapha label might. But if you rate the upmarket British label - and I, for one, am an unapologetic fan of their kit - then these may just be the sartorial choice for those sweltering summer afternoon rides. I own summer jerseys from other brands in this price bracket - all delivering a similar level of comfort and performance - so it really comes down to a matter of personal choice and preference.
Designs on the South-East Asian market? A Rapha clad cyclist high-fives with some schoolchildren in Java in the film documenting a ride into the central hills of the Indonesian island
So if you are intending to ride the rainforests of Australia, the hills of Langkawi or tackle some climbs to isolated Javanese temples, then the Super Lightweight jersey and Lightweight bibs will help to make the heat a little more manageable and you'll be bringing a little bit of British style to the party too!
Review by Dave Nash
© Wheelsuckers 2013
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