Rapha has gone through a few brand image makeovers over the years. The cycing apparel brand has portrayed itself as the darling of the retro-crowd, who seemed to think cycling peaked around the Second World War; the go-to choice for the sort of riders who have long beards, emaciated physiques, steel bikes, and somehow enough money for $300 bib shorts; and now as the apparel of choice for top-end World Tour teams like EF Education First and as the apparel sponsor for L39ion of LA, who are anything but old school. Throughout this, Rapha has built up a cult-like following. This has made it a big enough brand to have been acquired by Wal-Mart heirs, but has also been the root of more than a little disdain in the cycling world. In Britain, we’d say they were like Marmite, you either love them or you hate them. I’m not sure what the appropriate US analogy is, but you probably already know how you think you feel about Rapha.
During this evolution, Rapha has expanded its product line and came out with some genuinely innovative pieces that appealed beyond the acolytes who will buy just about anything that’s merino and or pink. When Rapha first introduced shoes, the company simply rebranded existing footwear from Giro. Then, last year, Rapha introduced some nice-looking leather lace-up road shoes that were great for a cafe rid, but not really what I’d turn to for peak performance. Now, with the brand’s commitments to riders like Lachlan Morton and Justin Williams, the company likely knew it would have to develop something a little more performance-focused with a Boa closure, lighter weight, and less reliance on traditional fabrics and fasteners. Now, Rapha has released a shoe which fits in their new “Pro Team” line up as a race-ready option that is at home at the Tour de France as it is at the tea shop.
The Pro Team Shoe is not something rebranded from another manufacturer, it uses an upper that Rapha designed in collaboration with Avery Dawson, a textiles giant. The upper is made from a Jacquard fabric. For those of you who were not paying attention in history class, Jacquard is a weaving process invented in the early nineteenth century that allows for industrial manufacture of patterned fabrics. Patterns were stored on punched cards at first and these cards played a vital role in the development of modern computer hardware.
Why is this important for your cycling shoes? Because the weaving process, which Rapha calls Powerweave, allows for a virtually seamless upper that can be shaped to the foot without sacrificing hold where it needs to. Compare this to a shoe like the Specialized S-Works 7, which uses high tech fabrics like dyneema to achieve the same goal of hold and comfort, and I think you’ll agree this is a very fitting solution for a brand so enamored with history.
But this shoe is by no means a relic, I have been riding them since a Rapha event in Mallorca this November and I’m very impressed with the comfort and fit. The woven upper hugs the foot really nicely and doesn’t create hot spots along seams or folds (which I tend to get with synthetic leather shoes). The shoe uses BOA fasteners which are free to replace, and easy to both tighten and loosen on the go. The claimed weight is 4g less than my benchmark performance shoe, the S-Works 7. The shoe also comes with an insole, which is decorated with some very Rapha invigorating statements –“roll the dice”, “turn the dial”. Inspirational messages aside, these insoles offer very nice exchangeable arch supports and should be enough for most riders to find a comfy level of support. There is also a nice level of arch support built into the shoe, which worked well for me and my high arches but might be troublesome for people with very flat feet. The external heel cup gives the shoe a bit of protection if you heel scuff, and the heel hold is firm without being vice-like and didn’t cause discomfort on long rides and the sole is carbon and stiff enough for anyone who isn’t Robert Forsterman.
At $350 these shoes aren’t cheap, but they slot into the lower end of the performance market with similar products costing the same or more and often coming without adjustable insoles. Specialized’s S-Works shoes are available for $299 but MSRP is $400 and your insoles might cost you another $30, Giro’s Imperial retails from $450 but is sometimes available for less, Shimano’s S-Phyre shoes are $425. There are some things their competitors do better, like the wider range of adjustment and better sole marking on the S-Phyre shoes. (I found Rapha’s circular sole lines to be of little use).
Of course a lot of shoe choice is based on foot shape. I found the Rapha Pro Team shoes fairly neutral for my high arch, medium volume foot. For reference, I like Specialized and Shimano shoes and I don’t get on with wide flat shoes like Bonts or very narrow shoes like the Giro Empire.
I also like colorful shoes, which the Rapha Pro Team shoes certainly are in this purple colorway. There’s an admirable restraint in the use of neon pink stripes, but still plenty of character (those stripes are not a strange lens distortion, the shoes really look like that). Of course, if you’re more into the classic look, the shoe comes in black and light grey. The fabric has a hydrophobic treatment and that should keep the shoes looking good after rides in the rain, although I haven’t been able to verify that since I live in Southern California. The shoes do breathe well in the heat and don’t seem to get sloppy over time which is something many lightweight synthetic shoes are guilty of.
Overall, the Rapha Pro Team shoes might be one of the first Rapha products to appeal to buyers who don’t see themselves as Rapha customers. It’s a genuinely very good shoe, as good as anything else I have tested. It looks good with any kit, and doesn’t scream Rapha. It is also reasonably priced, and comes with an easy 30-day return policy if you’re worried about sizing. I’m by no means a Rapha zealot, but these shoes have really persuaded me that the brand can stand up to others with its product as well as its marketing.