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In Pursuit of Performance

How Rapha’s drive for innovation fuels progress in the peloton, and beyond.

Whether in technology, industry, design or the arts, when innovation strikes, it changes everything. And while developments in cycling clothing are just one small part of the shifts forward we all make everyday, the spirit of ingenuity and a restless commitment to progress exists the very same.

Back in 2004, cycling clothing and its fabrics were restricted to a small range of synthetic materials – each as uncomfortable as the next. Garish colours paired with harsh, man-made fibres were an assault on all senses, but the need for something better was yet to be realised, let alone met.

Entering the market more than 15 years ago with the Classic Jersey, Rapha introduced its unique blend of merino wool to the cycling world. Chosen for its naturally superior qualities – odour resistant, breathable, and comfortable against the skin – this novel application of merino was a revolutionary leap, and redefined what cyclists could expect from their clothing.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Rapha product team were once again looking to provide cyclists with an advantage they didn’t know they needed. And just like that first jersey, the team knew that to garner major improvements on something so ubiquitous, they’d have to make another major leap in design and innovation.

“There was an obvious space to develop a top-of-the-range racing bib short,” explains Harry Osborn, product designer at Rapha. “In today’s peloton, it’s not just a case of being the fittest rider or having the most aero bike, you need the whole package to improve performance. From aerodynamics, to fit, to moisture management, a high-performance bib short needs to do everything extremely well, and that need hadn’t yet been met.”

For the product team at Rapha, development of these new, advanced bibs meant starting from scratch, and revisiting every element of the garment’s make-up. Working across design, fabric development, and atelier, they would set about creating an entirely new short pattern, and an entirely new short fabric, completely in-house. Fortunately, they had a strong starting point.

“A high-performance bib short needs to do everything extremely well, and that need hadn’t yet been met.”

Rapha Shadow, the groundbreaking breathable and water resistant material that powered numerous pro peloton successes, was developed together with one of the world’s leading fabric mills. Through a revolutionary process of stretch weaving yarns dipped in a durable water repellent (DWR), Shadow completely removed the need for a cumbersome and uncomfortable waterproof membrane when racing and training – offering wet-weather protection in a lightweight layer for world-leading performance.

Based in Como, Italy, the mill and its team are widely regarded as experts in the field of woven fabrics, and were an obvious partner for the new bib project.

“We wanted the bib shorts’ material to feel like a second skin, and not hinder a rider’s ability to perform in any way come race day,” says Emma Bentley, Rapha’s fabric development manager. “The mill really offered us the chance to create a fabric that wouldn’t just out-perform everything else, but would push the boundaries in material capabilities thanks to their state-of-the-art weaving technology.”

“We wanted the bib shorts’ material to feel like a second skin, and not hinder a rider’s ability to perform in any way come race day,”

And push the boundaries it did. Following an intense period of development, the new woven fabric, Powerweave, offered the same if not greater compression potential as knitted fabrics, while maintaining superior breathability at a far lighter weight. “Our traditional knitted Pro Team fabric weighs 200g/m2, while Powerweave weighs just 160g/m2. Not only is this beneficial for moisture management – with less mass to hold onto water – but the overall garment weight is vastly reduced, benefitting the wearer on multiple levels,” explains Emma.

Manufactured using a giant, digitally controlled Jacquard loom at the mill’s weaving plant, the team were able to manipulate each individual thread in the fabric’s assembly. This control opened up new opportunities as they progressed with development, particularly in terms of construction.

Traditionally, cycling shorts feature a separate silicone leg gripper panel at the base of each leg to keep the bibs in place. But with the mill’s advanced loom, the team were able to engineer the new shorts’ leg gripper directly into the fabric – completely removing the need for seams or extra construction, while creating a superior aerodynamic profile. And thanks to the precise control of the weave, a staggered taper was also built into the fabric’s shape, incorporating leg hold into the very construction of the shorts.

Fabric acquired, the design refinement and pattern creation going on behind the scenes could be applied to early prototypes. Key successes here included a 50% reduction in pattern pieces from previous Pro Team bibs, which also reduced seams while vastly improving the fit, as well as new, ergonomically shaped bib straps for better placement around the shoulders and chest. A new chamois was also developed specifically for the shorts, using a narrower, higher-density pad that saves weight and adds stability for consistent comfort.

On paper, the team’s objective of creating the ultimate pair of race shorts was looking promising. But to verify their new product, they’d need the help of someone who could feel the difference between a good bib and a truly great one: a pro cyclist.

Hamish Low, wear testing coordinator at Rapha, first spoke Mitch Docker of EF Pro Cycling about the new race shorts in 2019 – in what he refers to as the back third of the project. “We wanted to be in a position of confidence with the garment we handed over for testing,” he says.

The weight, the compression, the overall fit, and the general feel had to be suitable for high-level use to enable Hamish to acquire useful feedback from Mitch. And in the months leading up to his testing, countless fittings and fabric performance trials had taken place. But for a newly developed pair of bib shorts designed to revolutionise race-day performances, there is no substitute for a pro’s feedback, and the time had come to put them up for analysis.

“Mitch felt the bibs were as stable at kilometre 200 as they were at kilometre one, which for a pro, is huge.”

Mitch first rode the bibs as they were intended: fast training rides that would match the high-intensity of racing. After reporting “very positive sensations” with every element of the shorts almost immediately, his next riding test was to prove slightly more unorthodox.

Wearing the shorts on alternate days over a three-day bikepacking trip, Mitch reported a huge improvement over the other pair of team bibs he’d taken along. The new chamois was “amazing”, but the main feedback was the benefit of the overall fit. “Having a short that fitted me and didn’t allow for any movement meant that there wasn’t any extra friction,” Mitch wrote. The compression from the new fabric also contributed to minimal movement of the chamois, so no saddle sore issues. Even after the unintended period of hike-a-bike testing, he reported no issues whatsoever.

“It’s obviously a racing bib, but even with the volume of testing that Mitch put into them, there was no anecdotal reduction in output throughout his testing,” explains Hamish. “If he was doing a big day, he felt the bibs were as stable at kilometre 200 as they were at kilometre one, which for a pro, is huge.”

No movement of pad, compression where it’s needed, and an optimised fit thanks to the team’s joined-up approach to fabric and pattern development. The result? An unparalleled riding experience that’s reliable all race, just as the project had intended.

“The technology and process trickles down across all our products – benefiting every single cyclist who chooses to wear our clothing.”

Next year, the entire EF Pro Cycling team will be outfitted in Powerweave, providing them with both a physical and psychological advantage over their competitors. But this high level innovation won't stop at the pro peloton. The exact shorts used by EF – Pro Team Powerweave Bib Shorts – are now available to everyone, plus, the learnings from this project will inform product development across the entire Rapha range.

“From RPM (Rapha Performance Merino), to Shadow, to Powerweave, Rapha has a history of bringing new and innovative fabrics to market, and we’re always on the hunt for something that could improve the riding experience,” adds Harry.

“While these advancements may start at the top end of our range, the technology and process trickles down across all our products – benefiting every single cyclist who chooses to wear our clothing.”

Pro Team Powerweave Bib Shorts

Made to make the difference. Made for race-winning movement.

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RAPHA PRO TEAM

Made to make the difference.

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