Tag Archives: clothing
A while ago I heard from a man named Dan Marsh, who represents a clothing firm called Howies. They are based in Cardigan, South Wales. I had not heard of them before, but it turns out they produce a range of organic merino wool clothing, including a line of merino base layers. Having noticed my earlier interest and reviews of base layers (previous review here) he asked me if I would be interested in trying and reviewing one of theirs. I said yes and given a choice of their various styles I opted for one of the lightweight long sleeve classic ones, burgundy in colour. It duly arrived and over the past month or so I have been giving it a try. I am very glad to have done so.
I am quite a fan of base layers in general, as anyone would be who rides much in the cool damp conditions we have so much of here in England. Of the three I have been using regularly – Icebreaker, Rapha and Endura – two are fairly heavy weight (the Icebreaker and the Endura Baa Baa) and best used in very cold conditions. I tend not to suffer from the cold so much so I was keen to try out a lighter weight model.
Testing the Howies gave me a chance to make a useful comparison with the fairly expensive (£65) and luxurious feeling Rapha one that I bought a few years ago. I must say it compares very favourably. It should be noted that at £55, the Howies is not exactly a cheap option either (although I see on their site they are having a sale at the moment, with my version being offered at £29) At this price, as you would expect, the garment, like the Rapha one, is well made with flatlocked seams and with a soft finish so that it feels ‘invisible’ when you put it on. It is quite seductive, actually, so much so that I have been using it off the bike quite a bit as well, which is something I’ve not done with other base layers.
On the bike, as you’d expect from fine merino, it does a superb job of wicking away moisture and not becoming ‘stinky’, even after several long rides. It is cut to be comfortable while you are positioned on the bike. There is no hitching up of sleeves or misshapenness about it at all; it fits. I have worm the Howies lightweight classic on long rides in minus-1C temperatures, with a merino jersey and older-model Rapha softshell and been quite comfortable – perhaps a teensy bit chilly to start off with but then warming up after a mile or so to that elusive Goldilocks setting: my inner core not too cold and not too hot, but just right.
A final note about me – the tester. I am a little over six feet tall and tip the scales at a rather too comfortable 13 stone, or maybe a little more than that seeing as how we’ve just had Christmas and all; say 185 pounds or so if you think in pounds With the Howies I have an XL and it fits me the way I like things to fit – comfortably. As for my inner thermostat, as noted above, I am not unusually sensitive to cold.
Bitterly cold out on the marshes this morning, with another thick frost forming as I rode – and not just on the leaves and twigs along the roadside but a thin almost snow-like veneer on the surface of the road itself. I could hear it crackling softly like rice paper beneath my wheels as I pedalled along (carefully!) over to Pevensey and back. It was beautiful, clear and still. I left my run a little later this morning so I would have a hope of taking some photographs on the way back, and in doing so, in stopping and taking pictures along the way, I gained a new appreciation for my heavyweight Gore Fusion MBT waterproof gloves.
These heavy things I bought for an assignment in the arctic earlier this year. I would usually use them only on the wettest of rides, preferring as a rule the lighter, slimmer lines of my Assos Early Winter gloves when it comes to cold dry weather. The Assos ones I can pair with a matching lightweight liner or their weatherproof lobster-claw outer, giving me great warmth and comfort on long cold rides – as long as riding my bicycle is the only thing I plan to be doing. If I am stopping to take photographs along the way on bitterly cold mornings, and find myself having to peel off three pairs of gloves each time, the Assos system gets a bit fiddly. And so this morning I decided to go for the heavyweight Gore ones – just to see. And what a pleasant difference it made.
I’d peel them off – just the one pair – to manipulate the camera settings and rig up the tripod. Sure, my hands got red and very cold doing all this but at least after the shot I would have the pleasure of slipping my frozen hands into the heavy-duty warmth of these gloves. They mightn’t have been as breathable and tactile as the Assos ones, but they were instantly warm. And that was no small matter out there this morning. Indeed, it was so nippy that when I picked up my gloves, as I got ready to ride on, I would find a thin coating of frost already forming on the outsides of them. But inside, all was toasty. Straight away I could feel the circulation returning, and with it an eagerness to push along down the road, in search of picturesque new scenes and settings. And so I spent about nearly four hours on the road this morning, cruising the Sussex countryside, taking photos, revelling in the crystalline beauty of an early December frost.
For some time now, with frosty moonlit nights being upon us, I have been wanting to do a review of merino base layers. I have had two in mind (and in my closet) that I have been using the past couple of years – Icebreaker and Rapha – but had wanted to include a third. It’s the old writer’s rule of threes, taught to me many years ago by a very cagey editor I used to work with at Time Magazine. Three, he explained, is the perfect number for a list, whether you’re citing examples or attributes or anything. Listing two of something isn’t convincing, sounds too much as if you couldn’t think of a third, and four is waffling on a bit. Three is just right, has a nice verbal heft and balance and ring of authority.
At any rate, while I was remembering my rule of threes and giving thought to what the third base layer in my review might be, I received an e-mail from Mark Cox at Tredz Bicycles, over in Swansea, asking me if I would be interested in reviewing a merino base layer. Snap. Among the ones he had on offer was the Endura Baa Baa, which funnily enough was the very one I had decided I most wanted to add to my list. He sent one along in size XL and for the past couple of weeks I have been trying it out on the frosty mornings and in the cold clammy mists we’ve been having lately down here in Sussex. In a nutshell, I have liked it very, very much, but more on that later.
Firstly a word on base layers in general: they are a very good idea, especially if you’re riding in the cold and damp. I learned my lesson the hard way when I was cycling around Australia and after months in the tropics found myself battling freezing rain and blustery winds along the Victorian coast, near Warrnambool – and with a feverish head cold to boot. Looking back now I can hardly believe my lack of sense in that I decided to put on a cotton T-shirt beneath my fleece and Gore Tex parka as an extra layer. All it did over the next eighty miserable miles was absorb sweat, cling to my skin and chill me to the point of hypothermia. I was one sick shivering puppy by the time I rode into Warrnambool, where an exceptionally kind family whom I had never met before took me in and nursed me until I got better. I was very, very lucky.
Looking upon it as one of life’s learning experiences, the first thing I did before heading out on the road again was to go to a hiking shop and buy myself a proper wickable base layer. I don’t remember the brand, this was years ago, only that it made a very noticeable difference in my comfort levels and well-being over the next few hundred miles as I rode on through Victoria and down into Tasmania in more mist and driving rain. In the years since then have never gone touring, even in hot places, without a base layer, and these days find them indispensable for riding through an English winter.
Over the years I have used both natural and man-made fabrics, and mixtures of both and pure merino is my favourite. Some of this may be my Australian background. In my years writing for newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne I did quite a few stories about the wool industry, made friends with graziers and learned quite a bit about the remarkable qualities of fine merino wool – enough to sell me on it as my fabric of choice. It insulates when wet, wicks nicely, dries well, and doesn’t absorb body odours – no small consideration in remote places where laundry facilities are not. Merino wool’s anti-bacterial quality is also useful for commuters, who aren’t going to want to appear at work smelling like they just came out of the gym.
And now to base layers themselves. To use a writerly analogy, base layers should be like font style in a book – something that delivers the goods but without calling your attention to it constantly while you are reading. There, but invisible if you know what I mean. Likewise, the best base layers are the ones you forget you are wearing. No scratchiness, no lumpy or ill-fitting seams. Happily this can be said of all three of the base layers I am writing about. They were all invisibly comfortable, well made, and did the job. That said, there are differences.
I’ll start with the oldest in my closet – the Icebreaker. I first became aware of Icebreaker about ten years ago when I was travelling to Antarctica regularly for work. They are quite popular down on The Ice. Made in New Zealand out of 97% fine soft wool (3% elastane) my base layer is their long-sleeve mid-weight crewe. It is soft and feels very nice, and so it should at the price (varies, but generally over £50). My original purpose in buying it was for a bit of extra layering while doing field work in remote places in Antarctica, but it has since seen ‘civilian’ service on the bike on long winter rides. It is quite warm though – I guess that is the point with this particular model – and so although I like it a lot, I tend not to wear it so much, unless the temperature is very bitter.
Next out of the blocks is the Rapha pure merino base layer. This one looks and feels very sheer and very luxurious and very costly, and so it should at £80. Mine, I should add, is an older style from a couple of years back and didn’t set me back nearly as much, although it was still quite pricey. I like the Rapha’s lightness a lot. It is made of 18.9 micron (very fine) New Zealand wool and is very soft. It’s sheerness means it is a base layer you can wear on warmer days – something worth considering if you are, say, touring in cool summer rain and find yourself wearing a ‘breathable’ waterproof jacket for long periods. The wicking qualities of merino not only helps take the moisture away from your skin but in doing so reduces it into a vapor that is more easily transmitted through the pores on your ‘breathable’ jacket than glistening sweat. It won’t work miracles, but it will help, particularly if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself wearing one of those boil-in-the-bag waterproofs. I used to have just such a thing and I found that by wearing a base layer – and nothing else – under it I could actually get away with using the jacket (which I have since disposed of!) and stay reasonably fresh. In short, I like and wear the Rapha one a lot. I like its luxurious feel and, not being one who generally suffers from cold, it is generally just the thing for my early morning rides. It comes in grey and black.
Lastly the newcomer, the Endura Baa Baa. I had read a good many positive things about the Endura merino base layer and had been very keen to try it. I’ve not been disappointed. One surprise though, was how much different it feels from the Icebreaker or the Rapha one; the Endura fabric seems to have a harder less merino-like finish. I have read where some people have found this scratchy. I can’t say it troubled me. I put it on and soon forget I was wearing it. It is warmer than the Rapha one, considerably so, more like the mid-weight Icebreaker in that regard. On the other hand, it is very nice indeed when the mercury drops into the low single digits, or below, as it has been out on the marshes the past week – and most particularly yesterday morning!
Although I tend not to feel the cold when I am riding, hopping off to take photographs as I do, on frosty lanes and in clammy sea fogs, cooling down and then climbing back on the bike makes you want to have something warm and wickable underneath. I have really appreciated it these past couple of weeks. At £37.99 the Endura Baa Baa is the least expensive of the three merino base layers I have tried, and on that basis alone seems to represent very good value for money. It is an excellent base layer,and stacks up very well against the pricier offerings, especially for cold winter mornings. It also has a livelier colour range than the other two as well, being offered in red, blue, black and chocolate.
A final note about me – the tester. I am a little over six feet tall and tip the scales at a rather too comfortable 13 stone, or maybe a little more than that; say 185 pounds if you think in pounds On all three of these base layers I have an XL. Of these the Rapha would be the snuggest fit, although not annoyingly so, and the other two fit just normally. As for my inner thermostat, as noted above, I am not unusually sensitive to cold.
Being late on the scene, as ever, in the world of fashion and pop culture it should come as no surprise that I discovered this fox-and-hounds photo-shoot magazine advertisement for Brooks saddles only yesterday. It was shot last year by photographer Frank Herholdt in Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire, a beautiful piece of ancient woodland where Robin Hood and parts of some of the Harry Potter films were shot. According to a making-of video (here) the shoot took more than a month to plan and involved a team of assistants, stylists, lighting technicians, two models, a smoke machine, a pack of hounds and a three-year-old tamed female fox named Sorrel.
The idea was to convey a sense of Englishness and upper class tradition but with a raffish modern twist, as the two very proper English cyclists (who somehow, and totally illogically, happen to have been pedalling their road bikes through a pathless ancient wood) dismount and (very properly) rescue a fox from a pursuing pack of hounds. It is a whimsical scene and very well photographed, but taken with Brook’s expanding line of incredibly expensive tweedy, shooting-estate style cycling apparel it does leave you kind of wondering what is going on in the minds of the marketing guys there, where they see Brooks in the market these days and who they think the next generation of Brooks saddle users are going to be.
Among their offerings now is the Elder Street cycling jacket made of ‘fine water-repellent Fox Brothers tweed’, created by John Boultbee & Son and named after the street where bespoke tailor Timothy Everest has his atelier. Such a jacket, we are told, is a staple of every British wardrobe, but at nearly £600 I am afraid it will be a while before it becomes a staple in mine (but then again, of course, I am not British so perhaps it doesn’t matter).
Six hundred quid for the blazer though is a mere snip compared with Brook’s Gentleman’s Criterion Cycling Jacket, designed by Timothy Everest himself. This is a trenchcoat style affair, made of fine Ventile cotton and lined with fox tweed, and cut for a cyclist’s use and can be had for a mere £801.20. A ladies version is available for the same price.
For those caught out in a sudden shower there is always the Oxford rain cape, made by John Boultbee & Son and an absolute steal for a throwaway £184.
Throw in the £400 Barbican leather shoulder bag, and a £330 Islington rucksack and a Cornwall handlebar bag at £295 (and which weight 1700 grams!) and you are starting to talk some real money, at least to those of us among the great unwashed. And you begin to wonder if somebody at Brooks isn’t losing sight of the forest for the trees. Who is buying this stuff? Perhaps the astonished look on the fox’s face isn’t purely due to the approach of the hounds.
When you ride a lot at night or in the dark of early morning, you naturally want to see and be seen and so you spend a lot of time and money getting decent lights – powerful headlamps to illuminate the road in front of you, and dazzling LED beacons to indicate your presence to anyone coming up from behind. It is easy to overlook the importance of reflective material – be it the shinny little tabs on the heels of your cycling shoes or the reflective sidewalls on your tyres. Added together they can make a surprising difference to how well you show up in other people’s headlights – especially side-on.
I never realized how light-catching even the smallest tit-bits of reflective material could be until I began doing low-light photography for this blog and tinkering with the flash on my camera. It can be kind of irritating sometimes. As a rule I wear a Hi-Vis reflective vest when I am riding at night but since it looks so glaring and hideous in pictures I generally take it off when I am modelling for my own photography. And that works well visually for pictures taken the subdued light along the promenade or the soft spill of a streetlamp, but when I introduce a flash I am reminded of the more subtle reflective qualities of my clothes and bike.
In the photograph above I am wearing a black Rapha softshell jacket and bluish-grey Shimano MBT cycling shoes – nothing remotely suggestive of Hi-Vis if you were to see it in daylight. Yet in the harsh light of a flash (set low) on a small compact camera I appear all lit up. The reflective qualities of the sidewalls on the Schwalbe Marathon tyres I’ve known about and used artistically in photographs in the past (see here and here), but the efficacy of invisible-by-day reflective touches on my black Rapha softshell and the heel reflectors on the shoes came as an interesting surprise. To be sure, I wouldn’t and don’t rely on these subtle touches, but it’s nice to know they are there.
All the wind and chilly torrential rain this past week has underscored one of the great and often pointed-to drawbacks to relying on bicycles for your primary transportation – you’re going to get cold and wet. To be sure, if you’re out riding a bicycle in these sorts of conditions you’re going to be much more under the weather, so to speak, than if you were sitting in some warm dry sedan, purling through traffic listening to a jazzy Miles Davis number and keeping time to the steady throp-throp-throp of the windscreen wipers. Even so, ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ are pretty strong terms. Experience has shown me that if you kit yourself out sensibly you needn’t be miserable out there, even on the rainiest of days. In fact, over the years I have had some very enjoyable rides in the rain.
Just the other day in fact, when I was riding home from the recording studio in Robertsbridge I found myself caught in a sudden cloudburst as I was coming along the A2100 into Battle. The sun was still shining through a break in the clouds and the big rain drops sparkled like diamonds, forming a continuous series of tiny arching rainbows over that kept receding in front of me so that I was riding towards them, or into them, for several captivating minutes. It was magic. Who would want to be cocooned in a car speeding along at forty miles an hour and miss that?
One thing is certain though: if you’re truly going to rely on a bicycle for year-round transport a good weatherproof jacket is essential. I deliberately used the word ‘weatherproof’ rather than ‘waterproof’, because for the most part when you get into the genuinely waterproof end of the spectrum you are also going to be looking at either a lot of money or a fair bit of heat build-up and condensation which can render you hot and sweaty on the bike, and damp and chilly when you arrive at your destination. Waterproof and breathable hasn’t really been achieved yet, despite all the advances in fabric technology and the marketing bumf that goes with it.
Obviously some fabrics and designs are better than others and as a rule the nearer you get to this elusive balance the more money you are going to have to shell out. This can get prohibitively expensive with some top-of-the-range jackets costing £400 or more – although if you keep an eye out for sales you can save heaps. Bear in mind, too, when reading reviews for weatherproof cycling jackets that we all have different metabolisms and a jacket that might keep me feeling cool and fresh as I pedal along might be a boil-in-the-bag nightmare to you. Whatever the fabric or design, though, try to get a jacket with pit zips. Cycling even at a moderate pace generates a fair bit of body heat and pit zips are wonderful mechanisms for letting this excess heat escape before it makes you sweaty. By this same token, unless you are racing, looser-fitting jackets are better than road-cut designs simply because they are roomier and the air can circulate inside.
Weatherproof over-trousers can be another useful (optional?) thing to have in your wardrobe, the three-quarter length ones being rather better at keeping you from becoming overheated. I tend not to worry about my shorts getting wet as a rule, at least not on my morning pleasure rides, but if I am out touring and going to be in the saddle all day, or (thinking back) when I used to commute to work and didn’t relish the prospect of putting on damp shorts at the end of the day, a pair of weatherproof over-trousers can be pretty handy. Ditto overshoes – those stretchy Neoprene things that slip over your cycling shoes. Nobody likes wearing wet shoes, let alone putting on a pair at the end of the day as you start your homeward ride, and a pair of these can save you from that unpleasantness. They will also keep your feet that bit warmer in the winter. Add a pair of weatherproof gloves (see some reviews here) and you’ve pretty well completed your armoury.
None of these accoutrements needs to cost the earth, especially if you are just starting out using your bicycle as about-town transport or commuting to work, although if you are adopting the bicycle in a big, lifestyle sort of way it will certainly pay to invest in some better quality gear as you go along, tried and tested to your own metabolism and personal circumstances. My own personal wet-weather gear set-up, figured out and invested in over the years, is a Gore Fusion jacket, Endura eVent three-quarter length over trousers, Endura MBT overshoes (now tatty and much in need of replacement) and a pair of Assos Early Winter 851 gloves. Gird myself with these and I can set out on a ride in the rainiest of weather feeling snug and self-reliant and revelling in that fierce satisfying sense of independence that comes from being out and about, a host in yourself, meeting nature on its own terms – to say nothing of chasing rainbows.
A brisk ride along the seafront this morning with cold clear skies and temperatures down in the single figures, which made me grateful for my long-sleeve sportswool jersey and a nice lightweight breathable softshell. Between these two articles of clothing and a pair of three-quarter length cycling shorts, I was comfortably cool, the autumn chill coming across as crisp and fresh and invigorating rather than chilly.
Following on from my post the other day about discovering my inner MAMIL, I should also concede that I have become quite a fan of dedicated cycling clothing, after years (nay, decades) of disdaining it in favour of general casual street wear. On my long trek around Australia I wore just plain old ordinary running shorts and cotton T-shirts, with a lightweight fleece for those rare occasions it was cool enough to warrant one. I didn’t care for the bright tacky polyester cycling jerseys, covered with brand names and logos, and in those days, the mid-1990s, that’s about all that was on offer.
I was able to get away with wearing cotton in the desert and tropics stretches of my Australian trek, although later on when I was pedalling along the Victorian coast in a cold miserable driving rain I came down with a very nasty fever and chills and sore throat that I could directly attribute (at least to some degree) to my poor choice of clothing, particular those cotton T-shirts. Cotton as everybody knows (and I knew too, even if I didn’t act on the knowledge) doesn’t wick away moisture, nor does it keep you warm when wet or damp. All it does when the going gets tough is draw away your own vital body heat and set you up for a fine case of hypothermia – which is exactly what I got on the outskirts of Warrnambool. It was an unpleasant lesson, but I learned it and when I eventually got to Melbourne I raided the outdoor clothing shops and bought up a decent stock of wickable undergarments, long and short sleeve, and was gratified to feel the difference.
Even so I never cared much for these tight-fitting backpacker-style threads, effective though they were. Still less did I care much for the garishly branded cycling jerseys made out of the same or similar fabrics. Where possible I like to look presentable on my bicycle, even if I am a bit of a slob in real life. I also much prefer natural fibres. Although I eschewed the garish cycling jerseys, I did adapt to the snug-fitting, wickable base layers as a necessary evil, and indeed I wore them almost constantly when I pedalled from London to Istanbul a few years later, during what was one of Europe’s coldest and wettest summers in decades. I wore them, but I didn’t like them.
Happily though, in recent years there has been a trend to tasteful cycle clothing cut out of various wool-polyester combinations. Rapha has probably been the best known and most influential fashion brand in this regard, but there are others, and the trend seems to be growing in line with the uptake of cycling everywhere. I love it. Me, a guy who shops for clothes in Tescos, poring through the new autumn collections of the clothing houses. Between the new found popularity of cycling, the renaissance of hand-made bicycles and classic steel frames, and this trend towards tasteful yet functional cycling clothes, a middle-aged stick-in-the-mud like me could think he’s arrived; that these are the best of times to be out and about on your bicycle.
Just for fun the other day, when the weather was still balmy enough for such foolishness, I set up my camera and tripod on the Bexhill promenade and by the use of a self-timer did my own send-up of a Rapha fashion shoot – posing with my ‘epic’ face, that hard, gritty Rapha-rider look, as though I had just ridden two hundred kilometres to get there, all of it in 53×11, and was now contemplating the homeward journey and wondering if I’d get back in time for an early lunch.
It was an amusing way to put I half an hour but I don’t think the results will fool anyone, or have Rapha’s stylists clambering at my door anytime soon. Even if my utter lack of credibility as a Rapha model didn’t give the game away, the presence in-frame of an old, hard-bitten expedition touring bike (whose eleven ring, by the way, is spick-and-span, having never been used) should surely have done the trick. But you never know. Rapha’s imagery and art-house style of advertising cuts so close to self-parody sometimes, just about anything could be possible.
Rapha, in case you have been off cycling the canal paths on Mars and are unfamiliar with the name, is a relentlessly upscale London-based cycling fashion house that was launched a few years ago by a group of street-savvy, style-conscious road cyclists who tapped into the zeitgeist and almost overnight created a much-talked-about label that is either loved and loathed depending on your demographic and the depths of your pockets.
It isn’t just a matter of Rapha’s products being expensive. Other top-of-the-range brands, Swiss-based Assos, for instance, charge as much or even more for their cycling jackets and bib shorts without anyone kicking up a fuss – or at least not the kind of seething class-conscious resentment Rapha seems to inspire. But then again the folks at Assos don’t go miles out of their way to cloak themselves and their products in an aura of smug, English, upper-class exclusivity. The folks at Rapha do. In fact, they revel in it.
And it has earned them an absolute fortune. And the thought of that is like a red rag to a bull to certain elements of cycling’s garlic-and-onions proletariat.
For my part I have to confess that I have a liking for some of Rapha’s stuff – clearly I do or I wouldn’t have had the jersey, gloves and the pair of three-quarter-length Fixed shorts on hand to model for my silly photo shoot, although I should probably add in the same breath that all these things were bought on sale some years ago, and even then they were heavily discounted. I suppose the fact that I feel the need to make this clarification says something on its own about the unease I feel in buying into, or being perceived to have bought into, the Rapha ‘thing’.
And truly, that part of it is not me at all. I am no racer; still less am I out there on the roads and cols punishing myself, seeking the ‘glory through suffering’ that figures so prominently in Rapha’s race-oriented imagery and advertising. Not for me a reliving of the Belgian spring classics, or charging hard through a brutal Tour d’Etape, or the public Calvary that is the Fred Whitton Challenge. I’m out there on my bike simply to see the countryside and enjoy the freedom of the open road. As a cyclo-tourist I suppose I’ve done my share of suffering on a bicycle. Transiting the Great Sandy Desert in the height of summer, all alone, on a laden touring bike was no picnic, but I never felt like making a melodrama out of it afterwards. Indeed, when I think of it now, or tell others about the experience, I am more likely to recall the pleasures of solitude, the simplicity I found out there and the magnificence of the starry skies at night.
No, when it comes to Rapha, I admit to feeling a bit like the guy who says he buys Playboy for the writing and the articles. I buy Rapha stuff simply because it’s good. It’s tasteful, beautifully made, well thought-out and most importantly functions really well on the bike. And because their stuff is so well made, and lasts so long, and is backed up so well by the company, it represents really good value even if the up-front cost is high.
Take my old pair of Rapha leather gloves for example, hand-stitched in England out of soft kid leather and, at the present price of £100 a pair, one of the items in Rapha’s product line-up that comes in for the most derision from those who see only image and a price tag. I’ve had these exceptionally comfortable and smart-looking gloves for five years now and given them an awful lot of use, and they are still going strong. They might have died a year ago, having developed a tear along the wrist, but I sent them back to Rapha who repaired them, free of charge (offering me a discount on a new pair if it turned out my old ones were irreparable) and set them back special delivery. With their new lease on life they are good for another few seasons at least.
Do the math. Say I get another three years’ use out of them – probably I’ll get more, but say three – that’s eight years for £100 (although, once again, I bought mine on sale) which works out to about £12 a season for superbly made kid leather cycling gloves. I don’t think that represents bad value. And what’s more when I called up Rapha, the phone was answered by a real live human being, someone who lived in the same hemisphere as me. I liked that. That alone is worth a bit of a premium in my book.
I have nothing but praise too for Rapha’s jerseys, softshell jacket, and the three-quarter length Fixed cycling shorts all of which I have had and used incessantly for several years now and which show no signs of wearing out. They are stylish, comfortable, and beautifully designed for cycling and given their durability also seem very good value. And while they were cut with road racing in mind, their classic styling – a gentle harkening to road cycling’s perceived golden age in the Fifties and Sixties – makes them presentable off the bike as well, even dressy, no small consideration to touring cyclists who may find themselves being invited into local peoples’ homes, or wanting to enter a church or mosque without causing offence. When they stick to their knitting, so to speak, Rapha’s stuff is the best money can buy and given the longevity and reliability great value.
On the other hand, some of Rapha’s lateral offerings over the years have been simply cringe-making, patently a triumph of hype and hyperbole over common sense – and are the kinds of things that fill me with a certain wincing self-consciousness about wearing anything Rapha, and a sense of embarrassment on their behalf. Who can forget the gilt-paged leather-bound training diary, made for them by Smythson of Bond Street, that Rapha was (very optimistically) spruiking a few Christmasses ago for £135? Or the gentleman’s leg-shaving kit, I kid thee not, created especially for Rapha by London’s Geo. F Trumper, for £130. Both of these items, I noticed, soon vanished from their line-up and have never yet made a return. Nor, for that matter, do I find any mention these days of the £3500 bespoke three-piece cycling suit, inspired by gentleman riders of the 1930s and made by Savile Row tailor and Rapha collaborator Timothy Everest – which Rapha launched, for real, believe it or not, on April Fool’s Day in 2009.
Oh to be a Rapha project manager, and sit in on product development meetings and to hear the suggestions that were rejected for being too ostentatious and over-the-top. They’ll never stop coming up with them though. Why would they? This is their bread and butter – especially in the burgeoning and lucrative American market with this sort of arch English snobbishness goes down a treat. Where else but in the cloistered clubby Wodehousian world of Rapha would you find a tailored cycling jacket that you could wear with equal aplomb while shooting partridge on a Scottish highland estate? Or a range of skincare products based around herbs and aromatics that, we are told, grow on the slopes of Mt Ventoux? Or a collection of gentlemanly accessories that runs the gamut from tweed cycling caps to silk cravats to a discrete zipped leather ‘essentials’ bag (a steal at £40) in which one can stash one’s spare inner tube, keys and mobile phone while one rides.
And these things, by the way, are what’s available right now on the ‘general public’ pages of their website, stuff the hoi-polloi like me can ogle, snigger at or aspire to if they like. There is another, altogether more exclusive section of their site called Imperial Works, where the really upscale and limited production products can be found. God alone knows what’s on offer there – assuming He’s a member, that is. Access to those pages is by invitation only.
I’ve never been invited behind those doors, nor am I likely to be – nor, indeed, would I ever be likely to accept the invitation if offered. Not out of any inverse snobbiness, you understand, just simple, straight good old-fashioned hauteur of the sort that would no doubt draw an approving nod from the boffins at Rapha themselves. You see, I have my standards too. It’s like Groucho Marx said, I’m not so sure I’d care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.