The Ultimate Testing Ground

From the Grand Tours to the Spring Classics and even mud-spattered cyclocross courses, find out why pro cycling will always be the ultimate testing ground for our elite-level racewear.

09 April 2021

With one-day races up to 300km in length and Grand Tours more than ten times longer than that, pro cycling is the ultimate testing ground. Professional riders spend more time turning the pedals than anyone else, and it’s not just the length of time they spend in the saddle that stands them apart.

Day after day, week after week, they race and train no matter what the weather. Whether they’re sprinting out of the saddle to close a gap, grinding a gear on a mountain ascent or rattling over cobblestones at the Spring Classics, the pros put their kit to the test in a way that no one else can.

Originally created for the Rapha-Condor team in 2011, the Pro Team collection was designed to meet the exacting demands of the world’s best riders. And soon, it was being raced to victory by the most successful team in the modern era: Team Sky. Cat Heraty, Rapha’s Lead Designer at the time, remembers how the team’s marginal gains philosophy had a transformative effect.

“In the initial five months of the partnership, I worked on something ridiculous like 180 separate pieces of clothing,” she said. “I was used to an intense workload but this was another level. We had an initial range that included on-bike racewear and off-bike clothing but the team were constantly coming back with new requirements.”

One of those new pieces was the road race skinsuit developed ahead of the 2015 Giro d’Italia. Piers Thomas, who headed up Elite Athlete Innovation for Rapha at the time, assembled a crack team of testing experts to make this the fastest skinsuit in the bunch.

“We had Rob Hayles, a world champion on the track, as our test rider and a dedicated aerodynamicist as well as the expertise of the wind tunnel technicians,” Piers told us. “When it came to textiles, it was a sourcing exercise. We did microscopic imaging to figure out which was the best textile and then we focused on the form element of the suit.

“We were looking at things in a totally different way, pulling in a lot of Japanese pattern making and removing the normal waist seam in favour of a different construction. Instead of positioning seams where they’d always been, we placed them on the trailing edges of the garment where we wanted them.”

Ultimately, the speed of the suit was proven by Elia Viviani’s win on the opening stage of that year’s Giro. But more importantly for the team, it was proven in the wind tunnel: “We worked with the University of Southampton to test a bunch of different suits, textiles and trip systems across the body and the socks. We had the fastest suit.”

As well as helping professional teams achieve results, the technologies trialled in many of our most innovative pieces trickle down to the main range, as Piers pointed out. “There are functional elements like the square tabs of fabric used to reinforce the pockets. Before we worked with Team Sky, there was a strip of tape across the back which stopped the fabric from stretching as much. We also brought in darts over the shoulders rather than full-length seams on aero suits, and we started printing the Rapha armband rather than sewing it in, all to save a few grams. They’re just little things but they make the difference.”

Wearing Pro Team apparel, Team Sky riders collected three Tour de France titles and a Monument victory at the 2016 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where Wout Poels crossed the finish line in another Rapha innovation: the foul-weather specific Pro Team Shadow Jersey.

Just as those riders have now moved on, so too have our technical partnerships. In recent seasons, we have continued our pursuit of performance with both the Canyon//SRAM women’s team and the EF Education-Nippo men’s team as well as with a raft of individual riders who compete in cyclocross and ultra-endurance races.

Among those most heavily involved with our wear testing program are three-time Canadian cyclocross champion Maghalie Rochette and EF’s Australian road captain Mitch Docker. Both are emphatic about the value of wear testing to their racing ambitions.

“At the top level, we’re all looking for small margins,” Maghalie reminded us. “Everyone is racing at a really high level so the little things about your kit that bother you – pressure on your shoulders or not being able to reach your pockets – they’re just little things but in the end they do affect you.

“If you can just forget that your kit is there then it’s really helpful. I view wear testing as an extended part of my preparation for a race. Having tested every bit of kit in my race bag in all types of conditions and temperatures, I know exactly which kit to choose on race day.”

Though he competes in very different surroundings, Mitch echoes Maghalie’s sentiments. “Before you just got your kit and there was no opportunity for development but these days, you can’t afford to have anything other than the best kit,” he told us. “There’s so much emphasis on the one percenters – whether that be nutrition, time trial position or the kit you wear.

“Apart from the physical difference your kit makes – cutting through the wind that bit quicker or saving a watt here or there – there’s the psychological effect. If someone believes that they have the best kit, they believe that they can win. That is where I feel like I’ve got the edge.

“As a team, we must cover hundreds of thousands of kilometres each season and that feedback is an asset. It’s exciting for me that Rapha wants to hear what I think and make improvements to the kit that the team and the end consumer uses.”

“The best example of a product we’ve worked together on is the Pro Team Powerweave Bib Short. There were several riders on the team who wanted a pair of bibs that were a little more compressive and improved moisture management over the course of a long race.

“Rapha went away, developed this cutting-edge woven fabric and, better still, involved us in the wear testing process. Now, as riders on the team, we have another piece of clothing in our arsenal. And we trust it 100% because we helped develop it.”

With a team version now worn in elite-level competition by EF Education-Nippo’s leading lights, from Rigoberto Uràn to Hugh Carthy, the Powerweave Bibs are indicative of the Pro Team collection as a whole. From humble beginnings over ten years ago to the pinnacle of the sport, the collection has always been designed and developed with insight from professional riders. Together, we test our limits to help you test yours.

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