Rapha Merino Short Sleeve Base Layer
If ever there were a cycling company that could create 21st century relevance for wool base layers, it would be Rapha. Their catalogs, their website, their Rouleur, almost their raison d'etre is to meld the modern and the classic into an appealing package. Even as they perform a tightrope act with mainstream popularity, every time they appear to head down some unexpected tangent (read: silk scarf), they seem to tack back. Other bike-oriented companies have played with wool base layers. Craft tried, and despite their huge following, their wool top didn't excite the masses. It didn't excite us either. Swobo offers a similar top, but Swobo has a more cult-ish following than Rapha. Does Rapha do something different?
Merino wool has been getting plenty of play lately. Merino, though it comes across as a brand name, is a breed of sheep that originated in Spain and has been bred with great success in Australia and New Zealand. The Wikipedia entry starts with the following sentence, "the Merino is an economically influential breed of sheep prized for its wool." The name Merino could be for a Berber tribe or the title of a Castilian inspector. The Merino sheep are very adaptable, do well in Australia's dry climate, and are grown mainly for their wool (they're smaller than sheep bred for meat).
Merino is widely praised for being soft. Still, it should be noted that Australian and New Zealand Merino farmers are definitely working hard at branding their product. Australian Wool Innovation Limited offers to work with companies to help them source and produce Merino products. Merino is soft. And, generally speaking, it's easy to care for. It's as easy as any other synthetic garment you own. Merino has a few advantages on your synthetic tops. It doesn't get as stinky and it doesn't stink up as easily. On the flip side, 100% Merino doesn't stretch as well. The garment will not fit as close and it can stretch out.
We went with a short sleeve black base layer in small. Short sleeves seemed the most versatile. It can be worn under short and long sleeve jerseys and worn alone for exercise and living. Black seemed like a wiser color choice as light colors can show ground-in dirt and would thus be somewhat restricted in social situations.
As a test, we first wore it almost every day for two weeks. We've often written of the debate between specificity and flexibility. By design, this top strays toward the flexible. Hanging around, riding, hanging around, running, racing, etc. It is comfortable enough to wear all day. It looks good enough to be worn at night, say a meal or in the midst of non-athletic endeavors. It is a great top for commuting; ride somewhere in the top, hang out in it all day, ride to drinks after work. Ride home. All in the same top.
In social situations, the base layer looks like any number of high-quality T-shirts. The exposed tag on the left side hem is a bit odd, but few seem to notice it. The tag below the collar hews close enough to classic T-shirt aesthetics that it doesn't attract notice. Helping with this is the black embroidery on the black tag.
On warm days, those above 80-degrees Fahrenheit, the top wasn't as comfortable as a cotton T-shirt for lounging. Cooler days, like those in the 70s and 60s, the top was great as a casual wear item. On cold days, wear it under a sweater and it works great.
While the material isn't as soft against the skin as a fine cotton t-shirt or Craft's ProZero Extreme or ProCool base layers, it's softer than a well-abused ProZero top or any number of inexpensive synthetic base layers. It's also more comfortable than the fancy hydrophobic/hydrophilic base layers from companies like Under Armour; such tops feel like you have a sponge next to your skin.
Running, the Rapha makes a fine single layer on runs in the 50-65 degree range. The loose-ish cut makes it appear to be a black T-shirt.
We wore it under short sleeve jersey on 55-65 degree days. While we've never been a fan of short sleeve base layers under short sleeve jerseys as there seems to be too much material under the jersey sleeves, the Merino sleeves were thin enough to work and short enough not to peek out below the jersey. We wore the layer under light long sleeve jerseys down to 50-degree days. Worked fine here, too.
We put it under a Craft ProWarm base layer and Assos Fugujack on a sub-30 degree ride. Here, the sleeveless version would function much better. The snug Craft top pulled the sleeves so they were at our shoulders. It was an endurance ride and while we could feel the Merino getting damp, it wasn't uncomfortable.
Our one mis-step with it was wearing it under a short sleeve skinsuit during a cyclocross race. It was probably 57 humid degrees out. We felt totally overheated. In this case, the base layer went from comfy to warm, to holding way too much heat on our torso. While this was going on, the Merino knit texture was noticeable, though it could have just been from the moisture having nowhere to go.
The race highlighted something we've felt about the Merino. It doesn't seem to wick as well as some of our better tops. It might not wick better, but it does feel much nicer against the skin when wearing all day. And when we unzip our jersey post-ride, none of the odoriferocity that can come with synthetic tops whooshed up at our nostrils.
On many days, we'd put on the Rapha, layer up over, ride, come back, layer down to the Rapha, start working, and work all day in it. The sweat quickly dried and we'd be comfortable in the top all day. We typically went three or four wearings between washings. Mostly, we'd just toss it in the sink, fill it with warm water, run some water over a bar of soap, agitate, rinse, wring out, and put on a hanger. Dry days, it would be dry within four hours. Other times, we'd wash it late afternoon and it would be dry by the time we woke up the next morning.
The top shrinks a bit after machine washing on warm. It shrinks a bit more if you dry it on the low heat setting. Ours went from a bit loose to form fitting as a result. But wearing it loosens it up a bit. Seems to have brought it back to its original state. Until we wash it again.
Simple, practical, beautiful. And designed to last for years. Rapha has a hit here. While the Rapha Merino Wool base layer isn't as light as our lightest base layers nor as warm and wicking as our warmest, it enjoys a good, broad, middle ground. We see this short sleeve top getting the call for training, travel, bike commuting, hybrid days, travel, cold days, and much more for a long, long time.