Autumn can be a difficult season to dress for – especially when we’re existing in the bizarrely changeable conditions of the British shoulder seasons. Rain and sunshine can appear in equal parts on your average ride and that makes kit choice pretty paramount.
Thermal bib shorts have been dotted about the market for male riders for quite some time. They’re the ideal mid-weight solution – using snuggly warm fabrics on a short legged platform that keeps your bum warm and your legs breathing.
As the weather begins to descend into the depths of misery around Christmas and New Year, you can start to pair thermal bibs with knee and then leg warmers – ensuring longevity that justifies the purchase.
Being appropriate for mixed conditions makes thermal bibs a particularly useful addition for cyclocross riders, who are racing at high intensity in some of the bitterest conditions of the year.
For autumn/winter 2016-2017 there's one more version on the market for female riders – with Rapha coming to the party to offer their popular thermal bibs in a women’s fit.
We know you guys like Rapha, because you - our readers - voted them as 'Best Road Cycling Brand' in the Total Women's Cycling Awards' of 2016. But how do their new thermal bibs stack up?
Rapha Souplesse Thermal Bib Shorts: The Features
The Souplesse collection makes up Rapha’s raciest, most form fitting gear and the fact they’ve gone for bibs over waist shorts implies they’re going for the higher end of the market.
The key fabric is a Super Roubaix Endurance fabric – it’s incredibly soft and light against the skin, has a slight fleecey quality on the inside and a more resilient outer that feels durable to the touch. The outer is slightly water resistant, and the drip test saw water droplets bead on the surface - just what you want if showers are on the cards.
Not just a pretty face, this material is made from hollow fibres that trap a warm layer of air between the skin and fabric surface. The legs are all about providing warmth and compression, and are finished off with a pair of fairly sturdy leg grippers with silicone dots to keep them in place.
Your pins are likely to be exposed, whilst the rider’s top half is no doubt dressed up in base layer, a jersey and/or jacket. Therefore, the upper is made from a light mesh that aims to keep breathability to a maximum. The back section has one more sturdy strip down the middle, that’s made from a ribbon like fabric, whilst the straps themselves are fairly narrow and stretchy.
The front of the body sits notably high – almost in the way a yoga band style might be used on waist shorts. This creates a comfortable support structure, and also keeps the rider’s core section warm on those really chilly, windswept days.
Rapha Souplesse Thermal Bib Shorts: Put to the test
I’ve always felt that thermal bib shorts serve their ultimate purpose in cyclocross. Of course, they’re great on the road too but come winter roadies are often logging long endurance rides where full tights seem like the best option whilst on a ‘cross bike it’s hard to keep the intensity down (maybe I’m just really bad at it!) Anyway, I carried out most of my testing on the cyclocross bike, with a couple of road rides to make sure they were fit for purpose.
In terms of warmth and comfort – I really felt these were spot on. Wearing them on autumn days, the thermal Roubaix provided just the right level of protection from the October wind chill and I never felt I was overheating. Come the colder months, I’d merrily pair them with warmers and head out safe in the knowledge my derriere would by kept cosy.
Rapha chamois’ are renowned for being impeccably comfortable – and I’d say that was certainly the case here. There was no bunching or shifting of fabric. The high waist felt particularly supportive, and was notably different to other options in my riding armoury. Overall, I felt pretty awesome on the bike wearing these.
I tested a small, and found some discrepancy between the fit on the body vs the leg grippers. There was a little excess fabric around the lower back and hips - enough to create wrinkles that suggested they were too big, whilst the leg grippers were a little on the tight side.
The legs were also fairly long on me. This is of course a style preference, some riders prefer a close-to-knee fit and this might be advantageous in winter weather. Personally I’d have made them finish an inch shorter in an ideal world, but this isn’t a deal breaker.
There is of course also the matter of the price tag – at £190 they’re not a cheap pair of bibs for a fairly niche purpose. At this level of investment you also usually see some sort of ‘pee enabler’ such as a zip, clasp or helterneck system. However, I am very much of the option that though these are absolutely a ‘nice to have’ and make leaving for a ride much easier, they're not essential. You’re going to have to find a large bush, anyway and you spend more time riding than peeing, so comfort on the bike is paramount over ease of urination, IMO.
Now I’ve finished picking out the minor faults – it’s time to give my overall impression. Despite the tiny niggles, I’m confident that with the right leg warmers these snuggly warm but breathable bib shorts could keep you pedalling with a smile on your face well into the winter, then answering your prayers come the long months of spring. A worthwhile investment, if you plan on getting too hot and bothered over winter for full tights, but want an extra layer of warmth to keep your posterior at the perfect temperature.
See them here for £190, Sizes XXS to XL