Shorts are shorts. Of course they are. And they aren’t. We’ve all had bad shorts, or shorts with just one detail off, a detail we ceaselessly focus on whenever wearing said imperfect shorts. Back in the day, we had a few pair of bottoms that were only good for 90 minutes at most. All good shorts are comfortable. All bad shorts are bad in their own inimitable way.
Rapha put themselves on the map by going zag when everyone else was going zig. Most discussions of Rapha clothing focus on their jerseys, jackets, and casual riding wear. Even though their bibs have been a core part of their offerings from day one, they are typically overlooked. Bibs are bibs, right?
The Rapha Bib Shorts definitely zag. They, possibly more than Rapha’s wool jerseys, seem to lack the “technical” details that people typically expect to read about and witness in shorts. The Lycra is Lycra. It has a matte finish. There are but six panels. There are no reflective elements. Even the logo is hard to notice. While writing the following seems like a contradiction, it also feels true: Rapha bibs are big on understatement. Which is very Rapha, working hard to make it look easy.
A careful inspection reveals that there is much more to the shorts than an initial impression suggests. Take a look at the bibs. The straps are made of super-thin, super-stretchy mesh. Rather than have the mesh go down the middle of the back, the strap design almost makes the bibs back-less, as the mesh goes up either side of your back and joins behind the neck. And below the bib in the back, there’s a pocket big enough to stow a smart phone. Flip the shorts inside out and you see even more. The chamois is a Cytech EIT pad. The seams are all flat lock construction. And the legs are finished with logo-less silicone grippers.
The first issue with any shorts is making sure the size is right. We reflexively choose Mediums in most bottoms, and a quick look at the Rapha size guide indicated that with a 31″ waist (measured “from above the hips, close to the navel” as per Rapha’s sizing guide) we were halfway between Small and Medium. We chose Medium. Once they were on, we realized that Small probably would have fit a bit better. The shorts aren’t supposed to feel like sausage casings squeezing your legs, and these didn’t. But the bibs fit close; they weren’t as snug as we would have preferred.
Still, the look Rapha is going for is one that is wool-like. Wool-esque, perhaps. Which is to write that they shouldn’t look like your legs are going to pop a seam on the shorts, but that these shorts bunch a bit, as wool shorts did, and still do. The matte finish is supposed to yield a look that is equally rich to the look of wool, not the oil slick aesthetics of spandex.
Whether or not the shorts fit perfectly, the big test is whether the chamois and the legs stay in place. If they fit without sliding, all is good. And the shorts passed both these tests easily. And some shorts that don’t have fit dialed sometimes get loose, or at least allow the chamois or legs to slide when they get wet. We rode these on cool days, wet days, wet cool days, warm days, and hot days. Never a problem with the legs or pad moving, no matter how soaked the Lycra and chamois were with sweat or rain.
Fit is one thing, comfort is another. Here, too, the bibs excelled. The pad in particular. Cytech supplies pads to many top brands, including Assos and Capo. This pad felt like the one in our Assos knickers, two extra-thick stretch pads stitched into a thinner stretch pad. The differences are two, one is the covering material; the cloth is smoother. The second is the shaping. Because this is a two-piece pad, with a separate left and right stitched together, it looks and feels as if there is a more dramatic front to back curve to the chamois, also evidenced by the difficulty we had getting the pad to sit flat for photos. Don’t know if this means it hugs the body better or if it just looks different, but the pad is super-comfy and the center seam is not noticed on four-hour rides.
As we wrote, we wore the Rapha bibs in all sorts of conditions. The Lycra feels heavier than the spandex of some shorts we own, so we were happy to get out the Rapha on wet 50-degree days. The shorts didn’t feel as warm as fleece bibs, but they were comfortable. As the mercury moved upward and the sun returned, we started getting the shorts out on sunny days in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and even low 80s. Each step of the way, we reduced the layers. Each step, they were equally comfortable.
On days in the 80s, the “backless” bibs were particularly nice. Riding into the broiler of summer, we are wondering if their newer Pro Team Bib Shorts are better for the hottest days, as the Lycra is thinner and treated. But insofar as our riding temperature range up to this point, they’ve been comfortable every step of the way.
As time went on, and we fully integrated the Rapha Bibs into our lineup, we realized that, whether it is by feel or look, these bibs seemed more like clothing and less like gear. It might seem like too fine a distinction to some, but it was definitely palpable.
Washing, Rapha recommends cool water and then air-drying. We tried to stick to this plan initially, but found that on particularly humid days, the chamois took a long time to dry, like overnight long. So we started drying them on the low heat setting. We’ve even washed them on warm a few times. So far, no problems have arisen; the color is still black, the stretch is still excellent, and the fit is as it was when we first tugged them on. We’ll try to go back to air-drying when the atmospheric conditions are more favorable.
Rapha Bib Shorts are excellent bottoms. Rapha refers to them as “Classic” because they’re designed to hew to timeless values. We’ve noticed that when people go to a professional bike fitter, they’re selecting for philosophy as much as anything else. This extends to aesthetics and purchases as well, and it seems that the Rapha Bibs make this fairly clear. The endless debates some people can have about Rapha clothing puts the matter in stark relief. Whether or not they’re for you probably depends on whether or not you agree with Rapha’s philosophy.