It has been a long, hard winter in Northern Europe for cyclists. Wet and cold weather, the Spring Classics blighted by freezing temperatures, snowstorms and riders stumbling to their team buses in the early throes of hypothermia.
For pro peloton aficionados, the start of Giro d'Italia is the cycling equivalent of daffodils and cherry blossom bursting into flower. The Italian Grand Tour hails the arrival of Spring and the signal to coax our short sleeve jerseys out of their extended hibernation. This is the time of year when some of us will take a razor to our legs and we begin to take an inappropriate amount of time studying the sharpness of our tan lines.
Black Knights: Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Team Sky Giro d'Italia squad
The affable Canadian, Ryder Hesjedal, will begin his defence of the maglia rosa in Naples on Saturday, but he will face strong competition from home favourite Vincenzo Nibali and, of course, Sir Bradley Wiggins, who has made no secret of his desire to secure the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia double.
If you are British or a fan of Sky Procycling, then now is the time to firmly nail your colours to the mast and Rapha, the official kit supplier to the British Team, have duly obliged by rolling out their collection of Sky replica kit. Now we mere mortals can emulate Sir Brad and his black knights as they focus their collective gaze on Brescia, in the Northern Italian region of Lombardia, where the Giro climaxes on May 21st.
Rapha and Replica kits. Both divide opinion.
Any article on the high end cycling clothing company will provoke abuse and defence in equal measure. I would guess there are many cyclists who would refuse to wear the Sky replica kit due to their aversion to the brand. Replica jerseys, likewise, are not for all and Wheelsuckers member Nick Williamson's entertaining post as to why he could never wear replica kit is a point of view that is shared by many.
I am a supporter of Team Sky. OK, I sometimes wish they would demonstrate a little more panache in their riding and their metronomic wearing down of the opposition is ruthless and, at times, tediously dull. But these are minor quibbles when you look at what the team has achieved for British cycling in so little time. I am also an unashamedly enthusiastic wearer of Rapha clothing. Not all the time and not head to toe, but all the garments I have not only look good and perform brilliantly, but have retained their shape and colour despite regular use over many miles of cycling in all conditions. Rapha gear comes with a hefty price tag, but in my opinion, it is a price worth paying for stylish and durable kit.
The Sky replica jersey and bib shorts that Rapha released last month are no exception. Both are an authentic reproduction of the kit worn by the Team Sky riders, but Rapha are keen to point out that whilst the replica kit retains the quality and technical excellence one associates with the brand, the performance level gear, as worn by Team Sky members, is a far more technically advanced article of clothing.
The difference in the two ranges are reflected in the prices. The Team Sky Pro Jersey retails at £140. The replica jersey for £75. You would have to fork out £170 for the Pro Bib Shorts as opposed to £100 for the replica bibs. It is a price deferential that is not surprising given the technical innovations (not to mention the consultation with the riders themselves) that went into the design and manufacture of the high-performance Pro gear.
The cut of the replica range is less aero than the Pro range and less suited to the rigorous demands of elite racing, but the real saving is provided by the fabrics used. Yet whilst the replica kit represents a huge saving in cost, Rapha have not compromised on quality.
As David Hemming, Commercial Director for Sky at Rapha, explains: 'Our focus was to bring Rapha craftsmanship and detail to a price point that would give a new level of experience to on bike clothing for the supporter that purchases our replica kit. The whole commercial line has been built to provide, depth, style and quality'.
Having road tested the replica kit I am inclined to agree with Hemming's and Rapha's positon. The cut of the jersey is similar to that of Rapha's highly rated Classic jersey. It’s made from performance fabrics that wick moisture and both the lightweight lycra and the mesh side panels are highly breathable and treated with an anti-bacterial treatment to reduce odours. Marry this fabric combination with a full zip, three rear cargo pockets and side panels to increase ventilation and you have a jersey that not only looks stylish, but is comfortable to wear and performs well.
The same can be said of the replica bib shorts, which are panel construction and made with a breathable, high wicking, anti-bacterial fabric and feature a pad that, though not in the same league as the award-winning Cytech insert used in the Pro gear, is a high quality pad nonetheless.
The caveat I would add, however, is that the replica jersey and bibs fall a little short in quality to some of the best selling items in the Rapha stable. My bib shorts of choice, every summer, are Rapha's Classic bibs and the Sky team replica bibs did not offer nearly the same level of comfort. But then again, at £150 and featuring the Cytech pad, you wouldn't expect the Classic bibs to be outshone by this Sky upstart!
Saying that, I would argue that for £70 and £100 a piece you would be hard pressed to find comparable products at this price. Which brings me nicely onto the price tag issue. It would be wrong for me to contest, especially in these more frugal times, that the replica kit is a steal. A quick look around the official websites of some of the leading Pro teams shows that the Team Sky fan is going to have to pay a little more than his Orica GreenEdge or Saxobank counterparts, for example.
Rapha argue that the price differential is reflected in the quality of the Sky replica kit. Hemming is keen to point out that the Rapha garments are second to none. 'The price reflects the quality and length of time the kit will last.'. Other manufacturers for pro replica kit like Santini, Castelli and Sportful may beg to differ and all have a formidable pedigree in providing quality cycling gear. Without doing comparable tests in the saddle it is difficult to gauge whether Rapha 's claims of superior quality, performance and durability can stand up to scrutiny. From my own initial look at the kit, coupled with Rapha's proven track record in design quality and innovation, Rapha's confidence is the replica jersey and bibs is not misplaced.
Keeping on the issue of cost, comparisons with the replica kit of other pro cycling teams is one thing, but when you compare the Rapha replica jersey with a Premiership football jersey you really have to pity the football fan. Take the Arsenal kit, for example. £45 for a short sleeve jersey may seem reasonable, but add on the obligatory personalised name and number (and optional FA and Champions League badges) and you are getting pretty close to the £70 mark. Made by Nike, the jersey is a very basic garment - fine for a kick about in the park but essentially an expression of which tribe you belong to.
Add to that the habit that football clubs have of rebranding their jerseys every other season and you don't have to be Einstein to work out that it is your average footie fan who is being swindled on an annual basis. Rapha, meanwhile, whilst not giving too much away, have no plans to overhaul the fundamental design of the Team Sky jersey, so the current strip should not date either.
The sheer breath of the Team Sky collection manufactured by Rapha is an indication that the company appreciates that not all fans of the British team have the inclination or the financial resources to pay £70 for a replica jersey. To that end they have provided two other replica shirts: the Team Sky Supporter jersey at £40 (a more relaxed fit with 1/4 length zip and two pockets) and a T-shirt at £25. There is also an extensive women's and children's range and, should you be inclined, a Wiggo version including the Union Jack detailing on the right hand sleeve. The National Champion jerseys of Ian Stannard and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen are also available.
When you compare the whole Rapha Team Sky range with other UCI Pro teams you begin to appreciate that the Team Sky/Rapha link up is generating a vast amount of clothing and accessories for fans. Yes, they will expect to benefit financially, but the emphasis on providing an extensive range of styles for fans of the team - over 50 that can be worn on and off the bike - is an indication that team merchandise to suit all wallets is a priority. And just as many of the pro teams are employing the same 'marginal gains' philosophy, as pioneered by Sir David Brailsford and the Sky management, I would put money on them also increasing their collections of clothes and accessories in the coming seasons. Where Sky leads, the others follow.
I was recently in Mallorca for a week and was surprised by the number of cyclists I saw wearing Team Sky jerseys. It left me in little doubt that there is a growing demand for replica jerseys. The young Team Sky rider, Ben Swift, was asked in an interview last month if he ever gets used to seeing fans wearing the team jerseys. "It's a brilliant sight to see," he replied. "Spotting any cyclist on the road is great, but the amount of people I see wearing our jersey is something I'll never quite get used to."
It was a magnanimous comment and though some of the riders I saw in Mallorca wearing Sky jerseys possessed neither the physique nor the cycling prowess of Swift, they certainly looked the part! Road testing the Rapha kit resulted in several approving comments - more about the 'look' admittedly, but this is definitely a replica kit that performs to a very satisfactory standard.
You too can look like him (well, sort of). Chris Froome, training in Tenerife in April.
It is no surprise to me that Rapha, a label synonymous with high quality design and performance, would ever compromise their whole raison d'etre in pursuit of a cheap buck. The Sky replica jersey and bib shorts offer a quality, yet affordable addition to their extensive stable. So, if you want to wear cheap imitation Sky kit that rubs in all the wrong places and gasps at the mere hint of sunshine, then look on Ebay, where you will find plenty of cheap imitations.
If, however, you wish to cheer on Sir Brad and Froomy in style this Summer, then treat yourself to a bit of authentic Rapha Team Sky gear! Style and team loyalty have seldom enjoyed such a happy marriage.
For more information on the Team Sky replica jersey and bib shorts and to view the full Team Sky Collection, visit Rapha.cc
Photos courtesy of Rapha and Scott Mitchell/Team Sky
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