It’s been a while since I have covered Rapha on this blog. But I’ve been wearing bits and pieces of their clothing for a good few years now. And in the course of those years I have arrived at the opinion that Rapha makes excellent cycling clothes. The comfort factor is high. The fabrics are uniquely pleasant to the touch. The styling is flattering (inasmuch as such a word can be used to describe cycling clothes). The fit of the women’s collection - which was quite good to begin with - has improved steadily over the years. And the durability has, for the most part, proved excellent. Some of my oldest cycling clothes still in circulation are Rapha (i.e. my Ride Studio Cafe club kit circa 2010!), still going strong despite frequent wear.
It feels a bit unfair then to add, that I would prefer for all these praiseworthy features to come in a more low-key package. For I am in the category of those who find Rapha’s iconic white armband off-putting, their contrasting logos visually domineering, their themes of epic suffering comically exaggerated. I suppose what I really want from Rapha - whether it's "fair" to want such a thing or not - is their styling, fit and quality, without the overtly Raphaesque iconography. And even though in today’s landscape of boutique cycling apparel brands Rapha’s price tags are not as eyebrow-raising as they once were, of course lower prices wouldn't hurt either.
I am hardly alone in such criticisms. Nearly every review of Rapha ever written describes their garments as excellent, but a bit OTT in the branding department, as well as expensive.
And so, as if having finally decided to address the situation, this spring Rapha has introduced the Core Collection. Released simultaneously for men and women, the Core shorts and jerseys offer “the basic essentials in performance and functionality" - with subtler branding and a lower pricepoint than Rapha’s traditional lines. Having received a sampling from the range for review, what I am looking at is some handsome cycling kit, plain and simple.
As far as sizing: I am a size 4 US (38/40 EU, 12 UK) and am wearing the women's Core shorts in Size Small, the jersey in Size Medium (deliberately sized up to fit over a base layer - it's cold here!). My male tester is a size 34 (trousers) and L (tops) in street clothes; he is wearing the men's Core bibs is size Large, the jersey in size XL.
The short sleeve jerseys are available in black, as well as a range of solid colours, including red, navy, gray, light blue and pink (I am actually quite impressed with the colour selection considering they have just launched the line). The fit is generous enough to be worn over a base layer, but tailored to hug the body's contours - with men-specific and women-specific proportions executed pretty well.
My skin is sensitive to synthetic fabrics, and even in warmer weather I can't wear synthetic jerseys without a merino base layer underneath. Still, one thing I appreciate about lycra is that it is highly stretchy. The Core jersey in particular, I find, allows for a great range of movement without pulling at the shoulders, riding up too much, or bunching uncomfortably. The stretch also makes it somewhat versatile as far as sizing: size down for a tight, racy fit and it won't constrain; size up for a roomier fit and it won't flutter.
Designed to fit optimally when leaning over the handlebars, off the bike both the men's and women's versions of the jersey are quite loose around the lower back - an effect that is exaggerated by the deep rear pockets.
What it lacks in clever extras - key fobs, special compartments for pumps, and such - the basic 3-pocket system makes up for in roominess, swallowing bananas, scrunched up rain jackets and phones unceremoniously. And it still features a zippered compartment for valuables.
And once the rider is on the bike, the looseness at the lower back disappears entirely.
Distinctly devoid of white armbands, neon stripes or contrasting logos, the Core jerseys feature a subtle tonal armband on the left sleeve and two tonal logos: one on the chest and another across the rear pockets. The logos are so subtle, as to be near-invisible, unless hit by direct light. It's a clean and simple look if ever there was one.
While I prefer merino jerseys over synthetic ones, as far as the latter goes the Core jersey is certainly a nice one. I like this jersey for its excellent fit, generous degree of give, roomy pockets, and overall functional simplicity. As a fan of all-black cycling kit, I also appreciate that "even" the women's version comes in black. Not black with a splash of fuchsia just in case, but "pure dark black," to use the local parlance. Seriously Rapha, thank you for that.
Because of the lower pricing, it is tempting to think of the Core Collection as Rapha’s “budget range” and, consequently, to look for signs of this in the look and feel of the products. I was therefore surprised to discover that I actually prefer the women's Core shorts to my trusty Rapha Classic shorts, which I have owned and worn for years.
The women's Core shorts offer the same key features that make the brand’s flagship Clasic shorts so comfortable: namely, the same excellent chamois and the same fold-over front panel construction that makes these the only non-bib shorts I've tried that don't pinch or create muffin-toppage around my mid-section.
I was then delighted to find that, in addition, the Core women’s shorts are made with wide laser-cut leg grippers - a feature that my Classic women’s shorts lack and I’d always wished they had. Apparently the laser-cut style of leg gripper is actually less expensive to produce than the fold-over style of the Classic shorts. If so, all the better, as this is my favourite style of gripper. Holding firmly in place over bare legs and legwarmers alike, it doesn't oversqueeze, saving me from rashes and the unsightly sausaging effect.
Wheareas Rapha's Classic shorts are available in a longer and shorter length version, the Core shorts come in the longer length only. But perhaps the most noticeable difference, is that the fabric of the Core shorts is denser and a bit heavier than the stocking-thin matte nylon of the Classic shorts. While I suspect that in super hot climates this denser fabric might not be as cooling, this is something that I personally am spared from worrying about in Ireland. Wearing the Core shorts on the bike, I appreciate the extra support and compression they offer, preferring this denser fabric to that of my Classic shorts.
The men’s Core bib shorts parallel the women's shorts, with the addition of (black or white) bib straps. With the straps being solid rather than mesh, I again suspect that for very hot climates these bibs might lack cooling properties. That said, the straps are of the fairly minimal variety, and described by my male tester as comfortable with and without a base layer.
The bib shorts are in fact my male tester's favourite part of the Core collection. He raves about them after every ride, saying they fit him better than any of his other cycling shorts and feel considerably more comfortable around the crotch area (both the chamois itself and the fit around it).
Aside from the fit, comfort and laser cut leg grippers (which is his prefered style as well), he also praises Rapha's choice of black for the chamois-cover fabric - clarifying meaningfully: "You don't want a light colour down there, like!"
"Ew. Are you sure you want me to publish that?" I ask.
"Yeah, write it down. Men like to know about that sort of thing."
With stitching that is only partly flat-lock, and a sewn-in label along the back seam, the inside of the Core shorts and bibs provides insight into the cost-reduction aspects of their manufacture. But as these details translate into no discernable discomfort, I see no cause for complaint.
I was also amused to notice that the Core Collection's lower pricepoint did not come at the expense of literature: Like many Rapha garments, the Core shorts and bibs are imprinted with cycling-themed stories (in this case, on the underside of the front panels).
So, should you ever want to ...erm, flirt with a Core shorts-wearing rider, just ask for a glimpse of their Marin Headlands/ Lonely Mountain (as applicable).
My overall impression of the Core Collection is that it is basic Rapha, but not "budget Rapha." While we have not worn the garments long enough to comment on durability, as far as fit, comfort and styling I feel that the Core range has much to recommend it. While I like the Core jersey, the item I love best is the women's shorts, and I note that my male tester is mad about the bibs. Additionally, I appreciate the Core's subtler branding and lower cost.
Priced roughly 30% below their flagship Classic line, the Core Collection still isn't exactly cheap: A jersey will set you back £75.00 (men's and women's), the women's shorts £80, and the men's bib's £100. But, whether we like it or not, that pricing is on par with what many other cycling apparel manufacturers are charging today.
Whether you are a fan of Rapha, or secretly wish you could wear Rapha without being a "Rapha Wearer," the Core collection could be for you. I wish their new endeavour well and hope to see the Core range expand in future - in particular, with cold weather offerings, and - a personal request! - pure merino.