i have used the following analogy on a previous occasion, but in the light of what i'm about to discuss, i feel it's one worth repeating.
in my early twenties i was the proud possessor of a beverley drumset, wrapped in a rather fetching gold foil effect finish. a combination of improving ability and over-confidence led me to consider adding a second bass drum mounted tom to the right of the existing example. by the time this decision had been made, beverley drums were no longer in production, but the premier drum company offered a similar finish in their range, so i ordered one from them.
since this additional drum was to sit on the right of the kit (from the drummer's perspective), the mounting bracket had need of being affixed to the left, displaying the red premier badge to a joyous and admiring audience. however, on placing the order with my nearest premier dealer, i was informed that it would be a month or so before i could expect delivery. the reason given was that premier "are making left tom-toms this month". on asking for further elucidation, it turns out that in order for the badge to face forwards, the drums currently produced would have the tom bracket on the right. at the end of the month, production would be swapped over and brackets fitted on the side i required.
this situation continued, i'm led to believe, until yamaha bought over an ailing premier drum company, pointing out in the process that placing a badge on both sides of the drum would mean any tom could be placed on any side.
as sergei would say "simples."
a classic case not so much of solving a problem as re-defining it. it's a situation that cycle clothing manufacturers have occasionally to consider, rather than simply attempting to progress the existing train of thought. this is the rationale behind rapha's pro team soft shell and its ilk. rather than simply aim at a constantly moving target, they (and others, it must be said) have shifted perspective. for many a long year, the thinking, in favour of the active and competitive cyclist, has been to continually search for the holy grail; total waterproofing combined with total breathability. except at a certain, undefined tipping point, the two become almost mutually exclusive.
so maybe it's time to re-define the problem.
over the years i have reviewed many a breathable waterproof jacket, all of which promise the holy grail, but few of which actually deliver. either the jackets could be worn by deep sea divers but simply don't breathe very well, or they do, but precipitation is offered unfettered access. as cyclists, we pretty much have to accept the fact that we're probably going to get wet one way or another. so perhaps the solution is to accept that as an immutable fact, and concentrate more on making sure the rider is warm and comfortable. hence rapha's pro team softshell.
i have avoided referring to this excellent item of apparel as a jacket, for it straddles the fine line between that and a more sophisticated version of a jersey. depending on your point of view, it could probably be either. the softshell fabric is not only impossibly soft, but uncannily stretchy. it's very close fitting; unless you are bereft of wobbly bits, you might wish to be circumspect in your choice of size. that's also a factor that ought to be considered depending on how much you'd like to wear underneath. when speaking to rapha's james fairbank as to the practicalities of such an item, he mentioned that fine tuning is designed to be made via the heft of your baselayer choice.
it's also what i might refer to as a race-fit, meaning it'll feel a smidgeon awkward when stood in the changing room admiring your slimline physique in the mirror. however, all falls into place (literally) when sat in the saddle, hands on the lever tops.
in the process of arriving at the ideal fabric and membrane combination for our delectation, rapha took former rapha condor jlt rider and acknowledged king of scotland, james mccallum all the way to iceland for three days to act as professional fall guy.
"I got up each day, hope it was raining (which it was) and head out for a couple of hours. I'd go through the testing protocol, provide rapha with feedback on paper and to camera while riding. Then it was back to the apartment, dry off the kit, and head out once more to repeat the process."
during my own review process i was more or less able to replicate jimmy's icelandic experience on at least a couple of occasions.
basically the softshell features a dwr (durable water repellent) impregnated fabric outer shell, sandwiching a breathable membrane between itself and a lightly fleeced inner. all seams are taped both inside and out, while the side panels feature small, laser-cut holes to aid breathability. the cuffs are also very close fitting, but highly elasticated, easing the process of fitting them over a pair of gloves and thus obviating any rain ingress at this juncture.
though we're all advised to have mudguards on the bike for close-packed club rides in the winter, that's not a protocol the pros are likely to observe, so the centre rear pocket and the portion below are coated in a waterproof plastic coating. though this might seem like something of a gimmick, in practice it works unbelievably well. those three pockets (and a fourth zipped security pocket) are also part of this redefined solution. though rapha and their competitors all offer foldable rain jackets, wearing one will more often than not obscure access to the three pockets on a race jersey. thus the choice becomes one of getting very wet, albeit briefly, or maybe losing the opportunity to eat. cold, wet hands are not the ideal tool to faff about trying to grab an energy bar from an obscured pocket.
i'm sure most of us recall a cold, wet and windy milan sanremo in 2013.
so far, so good. the build quality is magnificent and the fit quite impeccable, but how well does it work when push comes to shove? i asked james mccallum if he figured that product development such as this, benefitted from professional rider input?
"Yes. However, I believe it also depends on the individual. As a pro, you just ride what you are given. That usually consists of different jackets, jerseys, baselayers, gloves etc. Some of it is, great but some of it's not. You generally make do and if that doesnÕt work, you try something else or moan about how crap it is. Of course, sometimes riders will say it's great just to look good in front of the sponsors.
"The brief for this garment was very simple: does it offer protection in the worst of weather? Firstly, you need to have a good relationship with the elements; most just hate rain. Fortunately IÕm one of the weirdos who actually likes the rain and cold.
"Being a part of the Pro Team Softshell project was great, because i tried my damnedest to make the jacket fail. Every puddle, every kind of precipitation, i aimed for it. Needless to say, it didnÕt happen. Even at zero degrees with 30mm of rain and 70kph winds."
though i didn't get the opportunity to travel to iceland to ride with the softshell, i managed a combination of rain, hail, galeforce winds and temperatures ranging from minus three degrees all the way to eight degrees. perhaps the first thing to point out is that it's not totally waterproof, but then neither are similar garments from others and, ultimately, that's not the point. however, it was more waterproof than i expected.
i'm afraid to admit i didn't quite take james fairbank at his word. though i did vary the thickness of my baselayer, i chickened out by augmenting them with either a long-sleeve rapha 'cross jersey or more than once, the sky climber's jersey (i did say it would prove more versatile than its marketing promised). once or twice i erred too heavily on the side of caution, though i'm sure i can be forgiven. when it's wet, windy and cold outside, logic would dictate that a softshell/baselayer combination would be insufficient protection from those elements.
rapha were right, i was wrong.
the rapha pro team softshell is a superbly versatile garment, currently pretty much state of the art as regards foul weather cycle clothing. rather than making every effort to be specifically waterproof or breathable, it combines the best of both aspects to make a deliberate stab at keeping the rider comfortable and all but oblivious to any malevolent elements encountered along the way. i cannot deny i had serious misgivings as to its promised effectiveness prior to riding 2014's festive 500, but after 612km (i always said i was no good with numbers) clad in the red softshell, i am converted.
on my first outing i packed a rainjacket in case i suffered a puncture or mechanical, but there really was no need. granted, perpetual forward motion allows the softshell to carry out its mission in a more pragmatic fashion. once you're warm, it insulates particularly well for such a thin fabric. conversely, those perforations on the side panels do a very good job of preventing overheating.
technical cycle clothing is every bit as much of a moving target as it ever was, but it's comforting to know that apparel providers such as rapha are willing to consider a modicum of lateral thinking when attempting to re-invent the wheel.
the rapha pro team softshell is available in either red or grey, in sizes from xs to xxl (medium reviewed) at a cost of £200. thanks to james mccallum and james fairbank for assistance with this review.
monday 5 january 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................