Review: Sportful Stelvio jacket

We were threading through the Essex marshes on the way to Wallasea Marina and it was raining. The kind of rain that doesn't seem much to worry about until it has soaked you through to the skin, so fine that it seems to sneak through fibres. Ninja rain, great weather for ducks.

I was well prepared on the top half at least, because I had chosen this day of all days to test the Sportful Stelvio jacket. A ridiculously light yet soundly waterproof outer shell. That was at least some comfort.

We'd planned on a longer ride. In fact this was to be the longest ride of the year so far but the rain soon put a stop to that. The thought of cycling any distance when you're wet within a few yards of setting off might be some kind of challenge to some but it was all we could do to get further than the end of the road. The only thing that did keep us going was the thought it might stop soon. By the time we were out on the country lanes it had become clear that wasn't going to happen. 

So we were on the way to a coffee stop when we were passed by a gentleman on a bike. He was riding a tourer, the old sort, built like a tank, panniers, a stack the size of Nelson's Column, drop handlebars turned up into bullhorns. He was a cheery fellow, full of the freedom of the road and the optimism of the ride. He made small talk as he passed, made a comment about the rain, of course. 

It should be pointed out here that he wasn't really going very fast. We, however, were going slower, so he was a good 50 yards up the road when it happened. A pair of ducks, deep in the throes of courtship, rolled from the hedge straight in front of his wheels. A plume of feathers rose and one of the ducks, the female, flapped off in panic. The drake had taken the hit, and was in a bit of a state back in the undergrowth. The man stopped and turned round to investigate and we continued to look for the coffee shop.

That was closed. On our way back the man was still there and his expression said it before he did. "Killed it." He was crestfallen. "You come out here to get back to nature, to see the wildlife and then this. Must have run straight over his neck." The drake was quite dead. He had checked. 

"It's not your fault," we assured him, recounting tales of suicide squirrels bouncing straight off our wheels but we were having little effect, this man would remember this ride for all the wrong reasons. 

A grim marker to a grim day, but one that at least didn't involve me getting soaked through to the skin thanks to that Stelvio jacket. Its waterproofing powers really are quite remarkable given its weight (262g), perfect for jersey pocket packing when not in use. It had been cold but even during moments of exertion the extensive breathability ensured I didn't get soaked from the inside out. The bits of me which the jacket covered were the only dry parts of my body, the long sleeve length and elasticated cuffs ensuring my arms were sufficiently protected. 

It's not entirely without its niggles. The lack of any pockets wouldn't usually be an issue if I could access my jersey but the Stelvio does not have a two-way zip so getting to the pockets meant unzipping it altogether. When it's raining, which it invariably will be when you're wearing it, an open jacket means you're going to get wet. The collar also is not quite silky enough to be fastened around the neck without some rubbing. You might not like the silver-grey colourway but there are reflective bits and a hi-vis yellow version is also available. 

Minor gripes for a jacket that does precisely what you want a rain jacket to do though - keep you dry. I'd sacrifice any number of pockets and zip options for that, plus the lack of them keeps the weight down.

This is a great, no nonsense jacket built for rainy days. Great weather for it. That day wasn't great weather for ducks after all, or one duck in particular. 

4/5

£270

Available here

Review: Ashmei Windjacket

By Graham Hutson

The irony of a windproof cycling jacket is that you're likely to spend a lot of time not wearing it. This tends to be the kind of garment that you'd rather have tucked away in your pocket in case the weather turns. 

It's why one of the main considerations when choosing one is how much it weighs. You want it to disappear when you don't need it, to remain there, ready for deployment when the time comes.

On a ride in the high mountains, that time is likely to come a few thousand feet up, when the balmy haze of the valley floor is but a distant memory and you're up there in the heavens, in a battle of wits with gravity. 

Descending off a mountain without a wind jacket can be an uncomfortable experience, the wind cutting through your jersey and into your very marrow as you steer yourself through barren switchbacks.

That's when you need a wind jacket, and you'll want it to do what it says on the label.

We had to make do with a windswept seafront in Essex to put Ashmei's version of a wind jacket through the ringer - arguably a less attractive prospect in the deep midwinter. But we shouldn't have worried.

Ashmei doesn't do anything on a whim, which is why it has taken a couple of years for the brand to produce the latest tranch of cyclewear. This is a brand founded on perfection, on developing everything from the fabric up to the final finishing. It occupies an increasingly exclusive niche in an increasingly crowded market. 

Time and thought has gone into every step of the manufacturing process of this gear, and each piece is a demonstration in great British design. Ashmei launched in 2011 as a running brand, providing a level of integrity previously unheard of in the market. In 2014 it moved into cycling with a capsule collection, bringing founder Stuart Brooke back to familiar territory. His company, Blue Associates, develops sportswear and played a pivotal part in the creation of one of Rapha's earliest and best-loved products, the Softshell Jacket. 

Ashmei's mission statement was simple: to produce the best there is, regardless of the cost. This is one of those brands you turn to if you're into keeping your wardrobe to a minimum, because you won't need anything else.

This is the kind of philosophy that has gone into this windproof cycling jacket. The fabric is ridiculously light, making a garment that weighs 163g (medium size) but it manages to pack serious windproofing to the front panel. Meanwhile the back of the jacket is made from a breathable, high stretch fabric that allows moisture out and has incredible stretch. Laser cut holes add to the breathability.

The Windjacket has been given a coating of DWR which will keep light showers at bay but don't rely on it to stop you getting wet in a downpour. The jacket also incorporates three pockets at the rear so you don't have to hoik it up to get at stuff. It does, however mean transferring everything from your jersey to your jacket when you put it on so you might decide to leave them empty. 

You'll notice the stretch the most. That and the softness of the microfibre fabric. It allows a fit that's so comfortable you'll forget you're wearing the jacket. The arms are nice and long and finished with a neoprene cuff to keep wind out. You'll struggle to find the standard features such as reflective shoulder seams and hem binding because they've been so well incorporated into the design. 

There are other features, of course. A zipped security pocket doubles as the pouch when you're not wearing the jacket and the jacket has a reassuringly competent zipper, which is more important than you think when you're trying to fasten fabric as flyaway as this.

So comfortable is this jacket, in fact that it defies the first rule of the wind jacket - that it should live forever in your pocket. This is one wind jacket you're going to want to wear as much as possible.

Summary: Stunningly constructed jacket that does the job so well that you'll find it difficult to put in your pocket - in a good way. There really is nothing bad to say about it.

5/5

£140

Available here

Review: Rapha Lightweight Transfer Jacket

It might be a good idea to think of Rapha's Lightweight Transfer jacket outside of the sphere of cycling, because it has the potential for so much more. 

This is a jacket with quite a narrow range of intended purposes. If you always fancied racing cyclocross - you now have the ideal garment for pre-and post ride hanging around. Or turbo training. When you're just getting going this is the jacket that will take the chill away. 

If you indulge in any of the above, you should have got this jacket long ago, but the versatility of the Lightweight Transfer Jacket means its usefulness extends way beyond standing in a field with mud and cow pats up to your knees. I am, for instance wearing the jacket right now, typing in a room that could do with a bit more heating. It's as far as you can physically get from a cyclocross course. 

This is the second incarnation of Rapha's Transfer Jacket and leans more towards everyday use than its predecessor, which was built with a shoulder pad for carrying a bike more comfortably, and an offset zip, which prevents zips bulking up when layering but also results in one hip pocket being as good as useless and the other so deep that any valuable that goes in it is unlikely to ever be seen again. The tail is also less obviously dropped while still managing to cover a decent amount of rear end.

These revisions were something of a gamble for Rapha. On the one hand the new version is more suited to casual, everyday wear; on the other it isn't quite so useful for cycling. You might think.

There are, however, aspects of the Lightweight Transfer Jacket that make it absolutely ideal for cycling. The Polartec Alpha insulation for instance, that was developed for use by special forces and is incredibly lightweight and packs down to a fraction of its bulk, while remaining nicely warm when in use. And the windproofing to the front panel that adequately blocks out cold breezes.

The extreme light weight and packability allows the jacket to be a constant companion when on the move. When not required, it is ideal for tucking away into hand luggage or as a warm layer in your backpack to pull out on chilly spring evenings.

The outer fabric has a DWP (durable water repellant) coating and is also incredibly soft, which means if you have stuffed the jacket into a tiny ball it won't be long before the creases drop out. There are also some really neat design features such as canvas trim that encloses over the zip to help keep the draught out and zipped hip pockets. Storm cuffs stop draughts going up your arms.

The ultimate test of the Transfer Jacket is whether it is actually warm, and when considered for its intended use then it is. This is not a jacket for freezing temperatures though; if you're going to wear it as outerwear you'll need to layer up a bit, and for something approaching double figures on the thermometer. As a mid layer, beneath something substantially warm, it is ideal. This is where the Lightweight Transfer Jacket offers another solution, as a sort of super-lightweight substitute for a cardigan.

This is a prime example of where Rapha is taking its City collection. While the cycling benefits of this garment are obvious, you wouldn't immediately twig that this is made by a cycling brand. That in our eyes is what makes the new Lightweight Transfer Jacket even more desirable, and why we can't think of a week since we got it when it hasn't been worn. 

Summary: An insulated jacket that you wouldn't immediately realise was made for cycling, incredibly lightweight and packable. Water resistant coating adds to versatility and total lightweight comfort makes it a garment that will become a true favourite, especially when travelling. Good for insulation on chillier days but not great for extreme cold.

4.5 / 5

£160

Available here

 

Review: Kask Protone for women - or not

Kask_Protone_women

By Mazy Ryder-Allison

During the 2014 season Team Sky was on fire, a great black skidmark carving its way around the countryside, dragging a multi-coloured peloton in its wake. 

Team Sky had it all, the Italian dream machines, the slick black kit, a massive bus. They even had their own mattresses. And they had those helmets. Lids of the kind no one had seen before. They were smooth, rounded off, and they had a back reminiscent of a Lamborghini disappearing off into the distance.

They were helmets from a different mould, literally. And everybody wanted one. Of course these being made by Kask, an Italian brand in both style and chronic disregard for any sense of urgency, it was more than a year before the general public got so much as a look in. 

Fast forward a couple of years and the Protone remains one of the most advanced helmets on the market. The flattering looks have garnered many admirers, even if they are based in the pretence of practicality. That smooth profile is supposed to aid streamlining and ergo aid riding efficiency, while the vents have been created to provide maximum airflow over the head. The two holes above each temple provides the perfect garage for your glasses.  

Male riders have embraced the Protone, and so have women, so much that Kask have promised a women's-specific version.

There's something about a Kask Protone that makes it a particularly pleasing object to wear on your head. t about 258g for a medium, it's not the lightest helmet out there, although it is close. But it is among the most comfortable I have worn. It feels reassuringly well seated on the head, too. The real clincher, however, is those looks, and that's with a lid designed for men. 

If you're after the women's version, you could be waiting a while yet - Kask announced this in the summer of 2016 but at the time of writing in early 2017 there hasn't been so much as a sniff of it.

Don't let this put you off. The male version is so capable and attractive that you have to wonder what they could do to a women's version to make it any more suitable. Should you wait, though? This is after all a high-end helmet with a high-end price tag, what if the women's version is a better fit? 

In answer to that I can only draw on my own experience. This is probably the most comfortable helmet I have worn, and I'm wearing the men's. It is comfortable both physically and mentally. You just know that you're wearing the best-looking helmet available.

So if I were you I wouldn't wait. Right now the Protone is the best looking and performing helmet out there for women, even if it was designed for men.

Summary: At last cycling helmet that you don't feel a fool in. The Protone performs both in features and stunning looks, I can't think of a bad thing to say about it.

5 / 5

£195

Available here

 

 

Review: Kask Optics KOO sunglasses

How do you revolutionise sunglasses without waiting for evolution to do away with crucial elements of the human head? We all, for the most part, have a nose, a pair of eyes and two ears, so the basic principles of eyewear must remain unaltered.

Even given these very specific requirements, Kask have managed to do something quite ground-breaking with their new sunglasses range. To do this they went back to the very cyclists who had helped shape helmets such as the flagship Protone and asked them what they wanted from their shades.

The result is a pair unlike anything else you will find, with a revolutionary hinge that swivels rather than folds. If you’re wondering why anyone would even bother with such a frivolity, just wait until you transition from bright sunlight to a dark road tunnel. That’s when the design very suddenly makes sense.

This hinge is the key aspect that sets the sunglasses apart but there are others that are equally welcome, such as an interchangeable lens that can be swapped out with the flick of a lever at the side of the frame, so quickly and smoothly that you might wonder if you could do it while on the bike. We didn’t try. The lens itself is Carl Zeiss, crystal clear and available in a full range of shades for a variety of weather conditions. The lens fitted to our glasses didn’t appear to have picked up anything in the way of a scratch or abrasion even after extended use.

The frames themselves are manufactured from an incredibly lightweight polymer that, on our prototype test pair at least, proved virtually indestructible. The same might not necessarily be said for those arms if you persist in trying to unfold the hinge in the traditional manner, although the immediate resistance should give you ample warning that these unfold in an entirely different way.

This system does actually work when you make that sudden transition to gloom while you’re on the road. The rotation is stepped so you are able to turn the glasses down in increments. It beats leaving your glasses dangling from your chin or attempting to remove them. This stepped adjustment also helps prevent fogging - tip the lenses down a click to improve airflow and clear any mist.

These glasses are, as with Kask’s range of helmets, 100 per cent made in Italy and are also designed to fit neatly into the vents of a Protone, as well as sit in perfect harmony with the helmet on the head. That’s not to say you should remove them from consideration if you happen to own another helmet - they would work just as well with other brands.

These Kasks could be considered by some to look harsh on the face, a throwback to the severe designs of a few years back. There’s nothing you’re going to be able to do about that, because the design does serve a purpose - the wraparound frame protects vision from all angles and the curved nature of the lenses also helps prevent sunlight slipping through from above and below.

You can’t fault them otherwise and these Kasks are fast going to become a serious contender when picking your next shades, whether you own a Protone or not.

Summary: Kask has gone back to the drawing board to produce a pair of sunglasses unlike any other. Rotating arms might seem like a gimmick but are in fact quite useful and the glasses themselves are almost bombproof. The design could be considered a little dated, especially considering the Italian reputation for style, but that's a moot point compared to functionality.

4 / 5

Available soon at https://www.condorcycles.com 

David Millar Chpt: 3 kit

It might not be strictly sensible but that doesn’t make Millar’s new Chapter 3 collection any less covetable. The fact that he’s gone out of his way to stop you from buying it makes it even more so. You won’t find this kit in your local bike shop, or a high street bike shop, come to that. The only place you will find it from what we can see is Mr Porter, and even then you need to enter in the correct search term (or click the link below) . And Bespoke Cycling in London, and only then if you go in there.

Such exclusivity is quite desirable in these days of ubiquity. If you’re a snappy-dressing cyclist, being able to ride out in something that your mates don’t own is the holy grail of kit. Half the problem here is that to do this you often have to spend over and above the going rate to get something they can’t afford. No change there then.

If you want to kit yourself out head to toe in Chapter 3 you’ll need to be prepared to lay down almost £800. For that you would get a jersey, bibs, arm and leg warmers, socks, vest and a short sleeved softshell, all in super cool blues and greens and greys that remind you of the dark end of a Farrow & Ball paint chart, with the odd splash of red to contrast.

This is the spirit of David Millar realised in cycling kit - cool, high performance and incredibly stylish. You couldn’t imagine anyone else coming up with it.

If you’re thinking about getting this gear, then looks are going to be your primary concern, because while the functionality is there in bucketloads, you can find that in numerous other products, including from Castelli, who produce this line.

This is kit for the poseur, the cycling flanneur. It isn’t for racing and given the little details isn’t particularly intended for really heavy duty riding of any kind, even if it is more than capable of undertaking it. It is more for the gents’ cafe outing which finishes with kicking back to sink a cortado.

All the same, it has been designed using some of the most advanced fabrics known to the sport. The range utilises materials that can’t even be used for racing, “because they’re either too expensive or can’t be justified,” says David Millar. “For example the jersey is a third lighter than the lightest TDF jersey - something like 50g per sq m. They can’t use the fabric for racing because you can’t put sponsors’ names on it.”

The Rockr, the Chpt3 version of Castelli’s now legendary (if a piece of cycling kit can ever be such a thing) Gabba, is made from a material which is 30 per cent lighter than the Gabba so it can fold up and fit into a specially-designed back pocket. There’s even a pocket for the arm warmers, up the back of the jersey, where a lot of cyclists end up depositing and subsequently losing them.

The Rockr is actually the star of the Chapter 3 collection. If there’s one thing you should get, this is it. A totally useful short-sleeved softshell that you can wear on its own as a jersey or over the top of another jersey as an additional layer in the manner, Millar insists, Castelli intended the Gabba to be worn. It is an ideal weight and incredibly comfortable, even if it does incorporate a fairly unnecessary chin strap that folds around the back of the neck.

Details such as this strap, and the horn buttons on the jersey are functional in the sense that they do something but entirely unnecessary in the sense that you’re never going to need them to actually do it. But the odd thing is this wouldn’t be Chapter 3 without these elements, and you will grow to love them.

Another oddity about Chapter 3 is that you buy it according to your shirt size, or at least you are supposed to, although my shirt size is a 39” and I found the size 40” to be the correct fit. Except for the bib tights, which would fit me well were my stomach to be of the six-pack washboard type. The fact that there is a mildly stubborn rounded nature to it is enough to make the compression element of the bibs push my gut up and over in the style of a well baked muffin. It also makes for a sensation I would imagine to be similar to that of wearing a corset. As for the bulge that protrudes through the shirt, well it’s just wrong.

Of course this should be incentive enough to shift that final lump of belly, although the temptation is always to wear a different pair of bibshorts instead.

The bibs are the only weak spot in what is a phenomenally well designed and beautifully crafted collection, which uses the very latest in manufacturing techniques.

If you abide by the strict washing instructions (wash immediately after riding, or if you have help, get them to do it and by help we assume David means staff, as opposed to a carer) then this stuff will last you for years and still look good after a good few of them.

Summary: Millar’s entry into cycle kit is as slick and stylish as you would expect, although the snug fit of the bib shorts does make you wonder if the average rider was taken into account when designing the range. If you get one item, make it the superb Rockr softshell.

4 / 5

£790 (for full kit)

Available here

Dromarti race classic

True leather cycling shoes are few and far between

True leather cycling shoes are few and far between

There was a time when all cycling shoes were leather. Back in the days when you changed gear by taking your wheel out and swapping it round. 

Time and innovation have left leather in the monochrome anals of cycling history, the few remaining examples displayed among other memorabilia in cycling museums at the top of Italian mountains.

One company is changing all that. Dromarti, established in Putney in 2009, has revived the leather cycling shoe, much to the relief of riders of vintage and custom-built bicycles. 

These aren’t any old leather shoe either. They are vaguely reminiscent of a pair of vintage football boots and the first thought you will have will be that they look far too cool to wear just for cycling. The second thought will be how you can realistically walk around town with a pair of cleats attached to your soles. 

You could of course go for the other model in the Dromarti collection, which takes SPD mountain bike cleats and actually has a sole. 

We, however, tested the Race model, a super-slim and gorgeous shoe peppered with perforations of varying sizes, which has the combined effect of offering incredible ventilation and looking rather fetching at the same time. 

This ventilation was a welcome feature in the deserts of Dubai, where we took the brown pair for a warm weather test. Temperatures over there at this time of year are around the maximum UK summer levels (25-30 degrees), and a stuffy pair of shoes is going to prove fairly uncomfortable. 
Over three rides, one on the 85km Al Qudra cycle track, another up the Jebel Jais mountain in Oman and the other around the rural roads of Al Madam, never once did I even think about my feet. The nicest thing was they actually felt as if they were being ventilated - you could feel that breeze coming through the holes. 

Not only that but considering they had never been worn prior to this trip, the shoes offered an unparalleled level of comfort. While there have been reports of them loosening up as the soft Italian leather warms up and stretches, this didn’t present an issue in this case. 

In referencing a vintage look in their design, Dromarti have circumvented any hint of a trend in cycle shoe style. No need to worry about velcro or Boa fastenings here, just a good old fashioned pair of laces. Tried and tested footwear fastenings that have been around for years and something Giro is also dabbling with at the moment. 

Laces of course have their advantages. Should one fail on a ride it’s likely you’d be able to either bastardise the piece you have left or find a fresh pair from a newsagent. Dromarti themselves also sell replacement laces. As a side note, the Dromarti David Millar wears have blue laces, which either indicates a custom pair for him or that he’s gone elsewhere to do his shoes up. 

There isn’t much to fault Dromarti shoes on a comfort level. These shoes are made with all the expertise and attention to detail of a master craftsman, and the leather lining and insole are on a par with the finest handmade shoes. 

They don’t cost a lot more than other shoes either which leaves you wondering why everyone isn’t making shoes out of leather. 

And then you wear them in England. In winter. 

The black pair we were sent got the bum end of the deal, by all accounts. While the brown pair sunned it up amongst the camels, the black pair were covered over with a neoprene overshoe for protection and taken onto the filthy, greasy, wet and muddy roads of Essex. This is a place where the sun never seems to shine much anymore, where there be monsters. That’s probably what the shoes thought. 

The comfort levels remained the same although the holes in the uppers worked to our disadvantage and just facilitated even colder feet. But the wet made it through the neoprene and got into the leather. By the end of the ride we had sodden feet. The shoes spent the next few days stuffed full of newspaper. The only benefit in riding these shoes in the winter was the ease with which you can get the overshoes on, given the Dromarti’s slim silhouette and lack of buckles. 

So they are summer shoes really, and therefore entirely appropriate given that summer is approaching. 

A couple of other things to point out. The sole, while stiff and compliant, is fairly unremarkable and lacks any replaceable parts. The raised heel and toe protectors are simply part of the moulding of the sole. Once these wear down, the shoes are essentially knackered, which is a shame really because properly looked after, the uppers would go on for ever. 

But perhaps the biggest issue was with attaching the cleats to the black shoes (not the brown ones, weirdly). For some reason standard cleat bolts were too short so we had to buy extra long cleat bolts which were too long, so we had to hacksaw them down. All six of them. We would imagine this would be considered a technicality too far for many a purchaser and represents a fairly fundamental problem. Dromarti either need to address the manufacturing process of the soles or provide suitable length cleat bolts in the box. 

Otherwise these shoes are stunningly amazingly fantastic. Perhaps not the first choice for a cyclist who races or who likes their bikes and kit to look pro tour, but that’s not who they’re aimed at. If you’re someone who appreciates timeless style and probably rides a custom frame, most likely in steel or titanium, there really is no other shoe to consider this summer. 

Summary: A classic cycling shoe manufactured in beautifully soft Italian leather which offers supreme comfort out of the box. Could do with replaceable elements on the sole and we had issues with fitting the cleat bolts. The soft leather and perforations makes these unsuitable for wet winter conditions, even with overshoes, but they excel in dry heat. 

4 / 5

£223.70

Available here 

Rapha Core Collection

Over the years as the potshots have ricocheted around it, Rapha has resolutely gripped onto its premium pricing perch, defiantly refusing to give any ground to those who would brand it elitist, or sniffy.

So what are we to make of Rapha Core, the new, more affordable range? The purists must be puking in the gutter at this new capsule offering of shorts and bibs. “Something the peasants can afford? What is this atrocity?” It’s enough to have them tearing off their Rapha bar tape in disgust. 

They might well console themselves in the knowledge that Core is a somehow substandard line that fails to meet the stringent standards of fit and quality that Rapha has built its reputation on. 

They might, if that was the case.

The thing is that despite what many might think, the people behind Rapha are as normal as you and I. Just like us, bikes and cycling occupy their every waking hour as they go from day to day trying to earn a living. Some of their customers might live in Chelsea mansions with a bike for every day of the week, but they don’t. It is from among these very devoted employees that the Core range was born.

Rapha themselves are at pains to point out that despite the lower price point, Core is not a cheap version of its clothing. It is more intended for “putting in the hours” on midweek training rides and the like. It turns out that a lot of Rapha customers regard the brand’s kit as a sort of Sunday best, to be wheeled out only on special occasions, which almost makes a mockery of the reason Rapha costs more - because it lasts longer.

To say that Core was a no-frills version of Rapha would also be missing the point, because there’s no less attention to detail in Core than there is any other line. Instead the savings are made in production techniques. 

There are, for instance, only two types of fabric used in the construction of the jersey as opposed to five in a pro team jersey. Then there are savings in the manufacture itself. The trademark armband is actually just the sleeve sewn to look like a band, as opposed to being a separate piece of material. This saves time and therefore money in the production process. 

Rapha say they also lowered costs by manufacturing in larger volumes than usual and the block colours serve a dual purpose - to lower the cost of using multiple dye techniques, and make Core a more versatile option so it can be combined with kit from other brands.

“It is like having staple clothing in your closet,” say Rapha. 

There are areas where costs have not been cut. The quality of manufacture is as sharp as you will have come to expect and the fabrics are tried and tested and already used in other Rapha garments. Most importantly the chamois padding is the same as used in all Rapha bib shorts. “There are some areas where you don’t compromise,” insist Rapha.

So you get Rapha quality for a fraction of the Rapha pricing, pitching it against the middle market brands. 

When you compare Core to what else is available, the value becomes phenomenal. The kit is superior from fabric to cut and comfort. This might raise eyebrows as to how rivals can justify their pricing although Rapha insist they are only capable of producing such a range because of the volumes they are now in a position to produce, an option not available to smaller operations .

Once you get it on, there’s really not an awful lot to tell Rapha Core apart from the mainline collections. There is nothing about the kit that makes it feel cheap, or lacking in quality in any way. You still get the three pockets around the kidneys, the little zip pocket for your valuables, the gripper around the hem and the zip garage at the neck. There’s even a little story inside, as with all Rapha garments.

The hem grippers are slightly different - wider - and more in line with what you might find elsewhere and your colour options are limited but that’s the only difference really.

The only real issue we found was the height of the rear pockets up the back, which required a little too much contortionism of the arms to access. As little as a centimetre lower would have made all the difference, but we’d rather the pockets too high than clanging around our backsides and getting caught on the saddle. 

Fit is as per your usual Rapha size, but is based more on the club jersey cut than Pro Team and the shorts are modelled on the classic cut.

On a final note, if you find the palette of the Core range a little limited, hang on a little while. We understand Rapha will be using Core as the base style for its next line of replica jerseys.

Summary: Rapha’s new Core range represents astonishingly good value cycling kit. All of the Rapha quality but for a fraction of the cost, this new range is going to be a wake up call for the myriad mediocre cycle brands offering up inferior but more expensive products. For the weekday training and commuting market this is aimed at, Rapha have totally nailed it. Bravo all round. The only downside for the purists is that this kit is going to fly out.

5 / 5

Jersey: £75
Shorts: £100

Available here

Castelli carry on wheelie bag

Before we go any further we need to make one thing clear: there is no point whatsoever arguing the toss over baggage dimensions at an easyJet check-in desk. If your bag doesn’t fit the hole they ask you to put it in, tough. Either unpack something or it goes in the hold.

They won’t give you a tape measure to allow you to prove that their hole is actually smaller than the 56 x 45 x 25cm they allow for carry on luggage, even if they claim to have a tape measure behind the desk. This is actually a good thing because that hole is the size they say it is, and there is no undersized hole conspiracy in operation to force you into paying a hold luggage charge. Put simply, you overpacked your bag.

I of course refused to believe it was even possible to overpack the Castelli rolling travel bag to beyond carry-on dimensions, and I spent a good five minutes pointing exactly this out to a frowning member of the check-in desk. It would have been longer had my dignity not been saved by my travelling companion who had mistakenly paid for hold luggage he did not need.

So the Castelli bag disappeared down the conveyor belt of doom, its little red wheels still rolling in a quiet desperation, me looking on helplessly and wondering if it would survive the total battering I knew it would receive in airside baggage hell.

I shouldn’t have worried. Castelli have a reputation for producing solid kit, and they weren’t going to let themselves down by cutting corners on the vessel they had designed to carry that kit.

The rolling travel bag I was testing is the smaller of a pair of wheeled bags in the Castelli luggage range, which also features a wet bag, saddlepack, holdall, backpack and more. The whole range is styled in a tough, rubber-coated matt nylon with minimal branding, which amounts to a couple of strategically placed logos.

Castelli have stuck their collective necks out with this range - it’s the first luggage collection they have produced and marks an expansion of the brand’s scope. It is a departure from the clothing they have become famous for - decent, dependable, hard wearing clothing. Luggage needs to withstand a hell of a lot of abuse, from the occasional flip on a drain cover and belly-up drag along the pavement to whatever sort of torture lies in the minds of airport baggage handlers. Get it wrong and you could be watching the contents of your bag being paraded along the conveyor belt,Generation Game style. Not a good advertisement for a brand.

It is evident Castelli went to a lot of trouble to get its luggage right. The construction is ridiculously tough, zips robust and wheels of the type that would be at home on a decent skateboard. The extendable tow handle releases at the push of a button and pulls into place with a reassuring click. It is luggage of a quality that befits the brand.

The bag packs a decent bit of kit, too. It unzips at the centre and unfolds to reveal a red centre, a bit like taking a knife to a Turkish delight. Zipped mesh compartments separate kit and ensure it doesn’t all come spilling out upon opening. The back half has an additional zipped compartment for some flattened garments, like the swimming shorts you never use. The front zipped compartment is smaller, to accommodate a travel essentials pocket, accessible when the back is fastened. This pocket is big enough to house a gilet, book, passport and assorted other bits you might need to access quickly.

What you will be able to fit into the bag as a whole is going to depend on how you want to transport it and the duration of your stay. We’ll start with what I crammed in: helmet, shoes, trainers, four complete kits including socks and caps, rain jacket, gilet, mitts. For off the bike: four pairs of underwear, four t-shirts, hoodie, sweater. I think I also squeezed a shirt in and there might have been one or two other bits that never saw the light of day. The wash kit, before you get the wrong idea, went in the bike bag.

So the Castelli rolling travel bag is capable of packing a decent amount of gear - far more, it turns out, than will allow you to take the bag into the cabin of an aircraft. In order to conform to the carry on rules, keep an eye on the depth. Due to the rigid nature of the bag, the length and the sides will not move and are within the size limits. The front of the bag, however, will rise like a well-baked fruit loaf if you allow it. The magic number is 25cm. Stick to this measurement and you’re plain sailing. Or flying, to be precise.

You can’t really blame Castelli for developing a bag that will carry more than you can get away with as cabin baggage, and you can’t blame Castelli if you adopt the “if it fits in, take it,” approach to packing. So be sure to exercise restraint and use a tape measure while loading up. Remember, happiness is a bag that fits the hole.

Summary: The wheelie bag cyclists have been waiting for - a cool brand, solid, dependable, and capable of carrying a bundle of kit - but you won’t get further than the airport check-in desk if you max it out.

£200

4 / 5

Available here 

This article first appeared in The Times on September 30, 2015 

Velobici continental jersey

We all know they’re just trying to be awkward but there’s no getting away from the fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road on the continent. Plays havoc with your co-ordination when you first set off in Majorca.

But one person’s torment is another’s inspiration and Velobici has taken this quirk of European transport infrastructure and turned it into a jersey. The continental jersey is comfortingly similar to the Leicester brand’s other jerseys save for a reverse pocket configuration on the rear. 

Exactly how this benefits riding on the other side of the road we have no idea and we certainly weren’t about to chunnel it over to France to find out, but it is reassuring how similar in manufacture the jersey is in most other ways. 

Velobici has preferred to take the quality over quantity approach to its collection and offers a capsule lineup of garments which are manufactured to a very high standard. So you get the incredible embroidered logo across the back in gold, no less, as well as an embroidered VB on the chest stitched onto Velobici’s tried and tested VB/Pro-VR1 fabric which offers a fair amount of water repellency and windproofing. 

This jersey is more for spring temperatures than the single-digit levels we’ve been riding in the UK recently, although if you layer up it is perfectly adequate. 

Once the spring arrives you’ll appreciate the level of comfort the continental jersey offers, as well as natty little details such as thumb loops and that five-pocket configuration (two of which are zipped and waterproof), which as well as swooping down across the back also curls around to the kidney, offering up easy access to a pocket that you could maybe stick a gel in. You wouldn’t necessarily want to pack this pocket out too much because it begins to give you the sensation that the jersey has twisted around your torso. 

As with similar Velobici jerseys such as the guilder, the reverse of the fabric has a “thermal loop” which helps to retain warmth and the jersey is fitted with a silicone gripper around the hem to keep it in place. There’s plenty of stretch in the fabric too, allowing for a race fit without you feeling as if you’ve been squeezed into a pig’s bladder. 

Velobici still proudly bases its manufacturing operation in the UK - from design and fabric development to final production. This, along with the obsessive attention to detail, does put the brand in a higher price bracket. 

But then these are garments to covet, to fawn over and then to wear again and again and again. You can wear this stuff for years and it will still look as good as the day you bought it. 

Another bonus, although perhaps not so much to Velobici themselves, is that this is a brand that has managed to remain relatively under the radar. It has become the little style secret of the cultured cyclist and essential for those who seek to retain a degree of individuality among their riding group. 

Summary: Essentially a re-issue of previous styles but without a doubt the best colourway to date. Exceptional comfort thanks to high stretch technical fabric which keeps out the worst of the wind and rain, however for really chilly weather you should enlist the services of an additional top layer. Jaw-dropping attention to detail of the sort you would expect from UK manufacturing at its best.

5 / 5

£160

Available here

Ashmei men's cycle bib shorts

Only the other day I discovered that one of my pals has for years been riding with underpants under his bib shorts. While many of you will guffaw heartily at this blunder, it might not surprise you to learn that he isn’t the first person to admit to it.

The other time was years ago when during a ride near South Woodham Ferrers in Essex, another riding buddy complained about his discomfort. “Ouch, these keks are riding right up,” he said, or words to that effect. When we informed him of his error he swung into someone’s driveway and liberated himself of his Calvins behind their hedge. How he didn’t get arrested I’ll never know.

The reason for the most recent use of pants under bibs was in order to “not wear them out.” That’s the bibs. He hadn’t even considered that cycling bib shorts are designed to be ridden with nowt beneath, commando, so they say, and have been developed specifically for this purpose. That includes the use of antibacterial treatments.

That said, and assuming you are already wearing your shorts as the manufacturer intended, comfort can be something of a lottery, although a lot of the time, you gets what you pays for.

Even some of the more highly respected brands leave a little to be desired when it comes to bibs. We have tested garments that threaten to cut off the circulation at the thigh, or swim around like an oversized nappy. One pair of bibs was so tight in one area that it felt as if our bowels were being squeezed out of our belly button.

These are thankfully few and far between but it does make you appreciate the better designs that much more.

Ashmei have been quite vocal about their bibs. This is a UK company which launched last year with a capsule collection catering towards three segueing sports: running, triathlon and cycling. The cycling collection consisted bib shorts, a softshell jacket, merino jersey, socks, hat and beanie.

A year later and the collection still consists of those pieces although the next stage of Ashmei’s plan is beginning to crank into operation. This will involve more garments and some collaborations.

Founder Stuart Brooke was from the outset very insistent that Ashmei would always be about the quality of the garment over and above everything else, and that includes cost. He basically wanted to produce the best kit money could buy and to hell with the affordability. The bib shorts we tested retail at £235 - that’s almost double the price of a pair from Assos - which by Stuart’s measure should make them second to none.

For your money you do get something quite unique. This is a pair of bibs fashioned from a highly water and wind resistant, lightweight woven fabric that has been ultrasonically welded together in order to eliminate any possible areas of friction. The shoulder straps are made from merino and ooze comfort and there is nothing in the way of grippers on the legs - nothing at all - which leaves you wondering how they are not riding up like a pair of hotpants, but they don’t, somehow.

This is apparently to do with the tightness of the weave, which allows for a “far greater elastic recovery” to traditional knitted spandex. Therefore, the material actually hugs you. Another bonus from this weave is the water resistance. It just bobbles on the surface, nowhere for the molecules to go, and this remains the case even when you give it a good dunk. It’s no wonder they made the tri suits out of the same stuff.

But we all know what matters the most when it comes to shorts, especially seeing as there is nothing else between you and the saddle. And this is where the padding comes in. Ashmei has developed a chamois that offers padding only where it is required and it is made of a foam rather than a sponge. Ashmei says this eliminates the “cold nappy” water retention of other pads which is something we haven’t actually experienced and we’ve tried them all pretty much.

This doesn’t alter the fact that this padding is supremely comfortable, to the point where you forget you’re wearing it.

That’s where I begin to wonder if my pants-wearing pals might have been onto something after all.

Summary: The most expensive shorts on the market for very good reason. All the cost here has gone into design and manufacture and there are ground breaking technologies at work, which is what you should really be thinking about for your backside. Also, don’t worry about wearing them out - they look like they will last for years. Believe the hype. These are worth the money.

5 / 5

£225

Available here

Rapha Shadow jersey and bibs

Rain jerseys are a bit like iPads. Until someone invented them, no one realised they needed one. Now it seems obvious. Why wouldn’t you want a jersey that repelled everything that the weather could throw at you but at the same time kept you pleasantly and reassuringly comfortable? 

Rapha has now thrown its hat into the rain jersey ring and in doing so it has raised the bar. When it comes to a company such as Rapha this is to be expected - they weren’t the first to think of it so they could hardly pedal out a generic copy of what was already available. 

So for Shadow they started from scratch. That meant inventing a fabric. 

They developed a woven jersey fabric using a nylon yarn, which was given a DWR (durable water repellant), then shrunk 50 per cent, and treated again. This ridiculously tight weave, along with the DWR treatment, makes the fabric ‘hydrophobic,’ meaning that water simply falls off. When it rains hard it bounces off with a resounding splat.  

This also means that the fabric itself is waterproof and therefore it doesn’t require any three-layer lamination of the like that you would usually encounter on waterproof jackets and which while breathable to a point is not really breathable enough to allow the sweat to get through when you really start kicking it out. Rapha point out that due to a lack of membrane, water will eventually get through, but by that time it will keep you warm, in a similar manner to a wetsuit. That said, we didn’t experience any water breech during testing. 

A side bonus of such a densely-woven material is the colour, or lack of it. Shadow kit is black. Hence the name, but we are talking really black, the sort of black you would expect a black hole to be, the kind of black that seems to suck in the light. Which in a way makes it more visible, oddly. 

You might not think any of this really means a lot, and then you’ll start riding your bike. The really noticeable thing about the Shadow jersey is the lack of excess perspiration you experience when wearing it. The fabric keeps the core at a comfortable temperature even when you’re gunning it and it’s very easy to forget you’re actually wearing something that is so water resistant. The fact Rapha has brushed the inside of the fabric makes the jersey comfortable to wear next to the skin which means you could feasibly be riding this right through the spring rains and even on a damp summer’s morning without overheating. 

Our initial outing in full Shadow mode was done in a temperature of 5 degrees, with a merino base layer, arm and leg warmers. It should be noted that at present there are no shadow arm or leg warmers so unless you find something equally water resistant you’re going to find your extremities at more risk of getting wet. 

Considering the weather we remained remarkably comfortable throughout the 45 mile ride. The wind is effectively blocked and the rain is no issue whatsoever. We did however wish we were wearing a gilet - that temperature was as low as we would want to go without one and on subsequent, colder, outings the pro team rain gilet has been added.

The fit is pro team, which means a very close race fit. If you’re carrying a bit of timber or prefer slightly more room, consider sizing up. It’s also worth noting that the fabric, while possessing of considerable stretch, is quite hefty and not as malleable as, say, a standard pro team jersey. This is after all essentially an advanced softshell and has a comparable thickness. 

These jerseys were tested continuously by Team Sky through the 2015 spring classics, which are the kind of conditions Shadow kit excels in. More than likely wet and at the upper end of the single figures is more or less spot-on temperature wise. 

This Team Sky testing led to some of the finer details, such as a chunky zip pull for easier grabability and sleeves which finish just above the elbow. 

There are however one or two points that need mentioning. Firstly, the fabric is so ridiculously good at keeping the water out that you will find it runs into your rear pockets. Rapha have added drainage holes to these for that very reason, but the water has to travel past / over / through whatever is in those pockets in order to drain out. So it’s worth packing whatever is in them in a plastic bag. 

And let’s talk about the bibs. It’s not that they are uncomfortable to the point of distraction, it’s just that they are a little unforgiving at points of friction, namely your backside. This is odd because the seat padding doesn’t appear to be any different to other Rapha bibshorts. This issue appears to be resolved with a liberal application of chamois cream. You’ll only forget to apply it once. The shorts can also on occasion pull up into your crown jewels, requiring some on-the-fly readjustment. 

But these are small qualms when you consider the fact that Rapha has discovered the Holy Grail in cycle kit - something waterproof up to deluge levels that doesn’t boil you from the inside out. There are of course numerous softshell jersey options that offer a similar level of protection and Rapha hasn’t been the first to think of this type of kit. But they have gone out there and created their own niche within a niche, and for that you’ve got to hand it to them. 

Summary: A second-skin kit that keeps you bone dry up to all but the wettest conditions, good for temperatures down to 5 degrees, any lower than that wear a gilet. So good at waterproofing that you need to put your pocket contents in plastic bags and the bibs can be a little punishing. 

4 / 5

Jersey: £220
Bibshorts: £260

Available here 

Rapha insulated brevet gilet

Sometimes a piece of kit comes along that you think will never work. They’ve actually lost it, you say. Out of their minds. In what reality? Etcetera, etcetera. 

Then it arrives and it makes perfect sense, and you struggle to take it off. You actually don’t want to take it off because it is so exactly suited to your needs and the time of year. 

Which given the freezing temperatures of late essentially means it is warm.

Cycling gilets can be many things, but insulated does not spring to mind as one of them. An insulated gilet evokes thoughts of Marty McFly, or chavs. That’s about as far from a cycling gilet as you can get. Although Rapha have actually released one before along these lines, the transfer gilet, intended for post-race use. It did the job very well.

On the bike you tend to need something thinner, lighter weight and versatile. Just enough to take the chill out of an early morning ride, to stuff in a pocket once the blood starts flowing. 

Rapha didn’t enter into insulated gilet territory on a whim. This garment has been in development for months upon months. A prototype accompanied Rapha employee Ultan Coyle on the 4,200km Transcontinental race last summer, and it has been tested over numerous miles on the road in a variety of conditions.  

The gilet comes under Rapha’s brevet collection because it was designed as a stowable warm layer for super-long audax type rides, when the sun goes down and a chill stings the air. On this basis it features some clever details which could easily be rolled out across other stowable garments, such as an elasticated loop tag which holds the thing rolled up tightly. The two-way zip is also handy, allowing access to your jersey pockets without the usual faff of trying to hoik the gilet over them. At this juncture we should mention the gilet doesn’t have pockets because, well, why would it? What sort of complications would that cause when not only do you have to take your gilet off if you get warm but you also have to transfer the contents of its pockets to your jersey.

You get a windproof and DWR-treated (water resistant) fabric but the essential element that makes it insulated is found in the Polartec Alpha panels. This is Polartec’s lightest insulation and is usually found in special forces kit. As well as being lightweight and insulating it has an ‘adaptive’ breathability which helps regulate body temperature. In short, the hotter you get, the more it breathes. 

This might sound like marketing schpiel until you start warming up, and then get a bit warmer and then you realise that you’re actually not that uncomfortable and you’re not getting too warm even if you are actually quite toasty.

Other than these Polartec panels the gilet has stretchy mesh on the sides which allow for a high degree of movement as well as catering for a variety of body shapes. Even though there is not a specific women’s cut in the insulated gilet the flexibility of the garment allows for unisex appeal.
The greatest thing about this gilet is its packability, which Rapha have gone to great lengths to facilitate, because while it is perfect for riding in near-freezing temperatures and a nice snug addition when the sun goes down on some endless audax, there are going to be times when you’re going to want to take it off. That elastic loop is actually an inspired addition, and the 130g weight means you won’t even notice it in your pocket.

When you do put it on in the dark you’ll be reassured to know that Rapha have incorporated two stonking great horizontal reflective stripes in keeping with the rest of their brevet range.

Summary: What might appear to be a fairly frivolous garment is actually a highly versatile piece of kit, in particular for the colder months. A two-way zip, waterproof coating and reflective stripes all add to the functionality but it is the simple addition of an elasticated loop to keep it rolled up that will have you nodding in appreciation. The real star of the show is the Polartec insulation and you will be amazed by how well it actually works. This is an essential piece of kit. 

5 / 5

£130

Available here