by Molly Hurford
When I first got into cyclocross, I heard whispers of a great brand of cycling apparel. Sure, it was expensive, but it was worth it, or so I heard. It seemed like all of the “cool kids” I was meeting had one thing in common: all sported some kind of article of clothing with the Rapha label on it. And let’s face it, when even Jeremy Powers’ dog is wandering around rocking a Rapha handkerchief jauntily around his neck, maybe it’s time to see what all the fuss is about. After all, the Rapha-Focus team sponsors the national champion (Powers) and the U23 national champion (Zach McDonald) as well as the Singlespeed world champions Julie Krasniak and Chris Jones. The team has had a good year, and their success on the cyclocross course is mirrored in the steady growth of racers sporting Rapha gear on and off the course. So when they asked if I’d be interested in doing a review of the Women’s Classic Softshell Jacket, I jumped at the chance to see what all the hype was about.
I’ve admitted to being a bit of a secret fashion snob, since I got my start in fashion journalism before shifting to cycling. So when I did shift to cycling, there was a teensy bit of dismay when I realized that a good chunk of my “clothing fund” would be diverted to spandex. This was before I discovered that I love the way my Rutgers Cycling skinsuit by Verge looked and felt, or before I’d discovered that legwarmers didn’t need to be frumpy. And now, thanks to Rapha, I’ve discovered that a jacket doesn’t need to look bulky or Nascar-like in order to keep me warm on longer rides. Sure, the pricetag ($375.00) is prohibitive for most, but for a blend of style and function, I haven’t found a jacket that tops it yet.
Rapha sets the bar high with this jacket, and makes it clear with the first sentence in the product description: “We are confident this is the best jacket in the world and you will be completely satisfied by the unrivaled comfort and performance it offers.”
Best jacket in the world, ehh? I put it through the paces to see if it lived up to the hype. And I have to admit, I was pretty darn pleased with it.
While obviously the jacket isn’t something I (or anyone, really) would ever race in, it’s definitely a nice change from all-team-kit-all-the-time for me. So far, I’ve tested it on a few long rides, a group road ride, some towpath dirt road training, and some plain old commuting to town and coffeeshop rides. And maybe out to dinner a couple of times …
Designed for “tough winter cycling,” at first glance, this jacket is a little on the thin side if it’s really supposed to keep me cozy in all but the harshest of conditions. The jacket is composed of polyester, spandex, and Hytrel membrane, rendering it “windproof, water-resistant and highly breathable.” Surprisingly, though it seemed like it might not be as cozy as I’d want it to be, I quickly realized that it did, in fact, keep me warm, even on a 15-degree, two-hour ride.
Functionally speaking, the jacket boasts three back pockets, four if you’re counting the small zippered one overlaying one of the larger ones. I was happy about this, as it was just the right size for a smartphone and credit cards. The center pocket in the back is fairly narrow, but then again, with the profile of the jacket leaning toward creating a slimmer silhouette for the rider, combined with the fact that a size small only has so much room for pockets, it wasn’t offensively small – just right for a frame pump and a banana! In fact, the center pocket has a pump sleeve stitched inside, which has been perfect for keeping my pump in place. The side pockets are a bit bigger and are easily to access while riding.
And you can’t talk about pockets without mentioning the coolest and nerdiest feature of the jacket: the underarm zips. Getting warm on your ride? Just lift arms and unzip for instant air-ation. Of course, I tried to practice my newfound no-hands-riding skills and nearly ran myself off the road while unzipping, so if you’re not too good with the balance thing, maybe stop to unzip!
Lastly, since this jacket is just chock full of zippers, there’s the iPod pocket. We don’t condone riding while rocking out, since it’s obviously dangerous, but if you’re going to do it, at least with the wires out of the way, you don’t have to worry about catching them on anything, since the right-hand pocket has a buttonhole for an iPod cable.
Now, let’s talk fit and fashion. The women’s jacket isn’t just a scaled down and resized version of the men’s softshell. Rather, the side panels give it a bit of shape, with a slight flare at the waist. My typical lament with most jerseys and jackets is that they tend to ride up, since they’re cut straight-up-and-down, rather than cut to allow for the fact that women have smaller waists and wider hips. So not only did this jacket avoid the riding up issue, I wasn’t worried about getting called “young man” during a ride (yes, it’s happened before!) From a strictly vain point of view, I was in love with this jacket when I put it on. It’s functional-looking, so you don’t feel like you’re “dressing up” to ride, but it’s lightyears more stylish than any team jacket I’ve ever seen.
My only con as far as styling goes is the arm length, which does seem like it’s taken straight from the men’s jacket dimensions. I’m fairly petite, but when a size small has arms about three inches too long, and a half glove attached to the end that can be used or tucked it, it’s a little bit irritating. Granted, too-long sleeves are better than them being too short, and I’m sure there are plenty of taller “size small” women who love the length, but as someone who’s probably the “average” for a “size small” buyer, I thought the arms could use some retooling.
But speaking of the arms, for a jacket to wear for commuting, this has one awesome trick… errr.. up its sleeve. It’s got a rubberized shoulder pad on the left, which may not do much for shouldering the bike while racing ‘cross, but is a pretty rad feature when using a messenger bag, especially one lacking in padding. It grips the bag to prevent slipping and sliding while you’re rolling across town, and it’s just one of those little details that helps to justify the cost of the coat.
Perhaps my favorite feature is the “storm tail” that the jacket has. Us cyclocrossers will commute in any kind of weather, and for those of us dumb enough to not have fenders for our bikes, this flap is a life-saver (or pants-saver, at any rate.) And if you want to show off that you have a Rapha jacket, here’s your change since the flap has a large, reflective Rapha logo, practically screaming style and class as you spray mud everywhere but the seat of your pants.
While the jacket won’t keep you dry in a downpour, it’s the perfect weight and water-resistance for a drizzly day or a light rain. Overall, so far this winter, it’s saved me from wind; with a base layer underneath, it’s kept me warm in 20 degree weather on long rides; it’s kept me dry on coffeeshop commutes; it’s kept me stylish on rides to brunch; and it’s certainly fit better than any other jacket I’ve ridden in. If you’re a serious bike snob with some cash to burn, this is a great investment.
For a bit more insight into Rapha, there’s a quote from a great interview with the man behind the brand, Simon Mottram: “Rapha is a sort of curious train smash of personal passion, a perceived gap in the market and some professional expertise in that I did lots of branding for luxury goods businesses. I had some insight into how you do that kind of brand – a sort of specific, authentic, exclusive brand for a very particular type of discerning customer.”
So for you naysayers out there, this just goes to show that Rapha never intended to be the go-to for every cyclist looking for clothing. Rather, Rapha saw an opening in the market and found a niche in luxury branding for cycling. So sure, Rapha may not be for everyone. But they want it that way.
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