Wool socks have experienced a renaissance. Once, they were the last vestiges of antiquity in the cyclist’s wardrobe, after wool shorts, jerseys, and undershirts had been consigned to the scrap heap of history. Ever since that day, wool socks were probably destined to return, and lead a bottom-up return to the ancient high-tech fiber.
We never understood the disappearance of wool socks. Cotton socks never appealed to us, and synthetic never did well in poorly ventilated shoes. The issue of whether or not wool socks were “scratchy” always seemed like a non-issue, as once the shoe is clamped down, the foot doesn’t move and thus most of the potential itch goes away. To us, a bigger issue was stretch. The old wool socks stretched out easily. Way too easily. They had little or no elastic to them. And a sock that was loose to wear was distracting both in the shoe and around the ankle.
When wool cycling socks started reappearing, albeit wool with polyester and elastic in them, we started stocking them for winter use. One of the funnier pairs we own is the set branded Southern California Cyclocross Series; they were found at a cyclocross race in San Diego, where the temperature was in the high eighties.
We wouldn’t have used the SCCX socks that race day, but we have found they’re great for cool days and almost always for cyclocross.
Since socks are small, it’s easy to grow a trove without noticing. We’re now up to ten pair of wool cycling socks, which are more comfortable than the wool dress socks we used to repurpose, and are at the front of the sock drawer from October to April. We have Assos winterPlus Socks, wool offerings from Sock Guy and De Feet. And now Rapha.
Rapha’s Merino Wool Socks are different than the other wool socks we own. The wool content is much higher: 75% merino, 15% poly, and 10% Lycra. Most wool-blend cycling socks have wool in the 50-65% range. And you notice the higher wool content the moment you pull the socks on. You can feel the texture. It’s not as smooth as CoolMax and Polypro socks, but it is comfortable. Kind of nice how it reminds you it is different.
The construction is also different. There is longitudinal ribbing all the way around the sock rather than the more-common open mesh weave on top and solid layer bottom. Mid-foot, around the arch, the ribbing seems a bit thicker, as if it’s there to minimize slippage. To some sock manufacturers, this band constitutes arch support.
After pulling them on, the socks feel light, almost airy. Summer weight? Not sure: haven’t had them long enough to get them out on a 90-degree day. We wore them comfortably in the mid 40’s Fahrenheit to the mid 70’s. They felt good going on, comfortable while riding, and good enough when we finished that we could go from cycling shoes to casual footwear without taking off the socks. And, as should be expected with wool socks, we wore them three days in a row with no washing in between, and no putrification was experienced. Those prone to Athlete’s Foot should probably not attempt this test.
If you go the hand-washing route, the socks air-dry pretty fast. If you go the machine route, stick with warm or cool water and air dry. They recommend machine washing in cool water and air-drying: we found out why. We dry most of our cycling socks on hot with our regular clothes, and the socks typically come out fine. Not so with the Rapha Merino. They seemed to have shrunk in the dryer, though only a little bit. Kind of improved the fit as they went from fitting well to pleasingly snug, but we don’t want them to shrink any more and don’t recommend trying to do any controlled shrinkage on your own. We wear 44.5 cycling shoes, which puts us in the middle of their Large socks, which are supposed to fit from 43-46. Still, we’re now air-drying or drying them on low heat with most of our cycling clothing.
These Merino Socks being from Rapha, style is important. Their gear aspires to be timeless. The socks have that look; they could have been worn 30 years ago, maybe 40. The single black line running around the ankle is repeated around the heel and toe. It’s a timeless look and goes with everything. The color, while listed as white, is more of a natural-seeming off-white. If you need brilliant white socks, wool is not the medium you want to use. The cuff is, according to them, “short.” Short is traditional. We measured the cuff at 6cm from the middle of the ankle to the top of the cuff. The doubled-over area is 4cm tall. This is a good height for us, a classic height.
Contrary to initial reports and images, there is no side-specific sock, at least not anymore. Both fit on either the right or left foot. And, as such, the inner side is not thickened to minimize abrasion damage from chain stays or crank arms.
Now that wool is back, we have countless choices in sockwear. If you’re looking to simplify, Rapha Merino Socks can make things easy. They work great in cool weather, in warm weather, off the bike, and we bet they’re a great choice when wearing booties.