Some filler while I’m in Amsterdam, land of 10 million bicycles, 99% of which are squeaky, creaky pieces of shit. Understandable, because the local residents use them strictly as transportation and lock them outdoors 24/7. They don’t have the kind of attachment we do to our finely tuned road machines, at least not to the bikes they use for riding around town. This is my first time here in 6 or 7 years; in fact, the last time I was here it was before I really paid attention to bicycles, so it is shocking to see bicycle traffic jams.
I am happy in my corner of the Catskills, and I was also happy in New York City, but Amsterdam is one of the few other places in the world in which I could happily live, and not just because of the bicycles. It is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. The Dutch are awesome, and—I don’t know quite how to put this—they seem happier and better adjusted than the people in other major cities I’ve visited worldwide.
If I moved here, though, I’d have to start a campaign to encourage them to oil their goddamned chains.
Before I begin, some perspective on my reviews: I’m an average athlete, and I am not an expert in anything bicycle related. However, since I started the blog I have received many e-mails asking for “expert” advice on bicycle-related topics. My favorite was a guy asking for advice on nutrition: as the people I ride with will tell you, I sometimes forget to eat until I’m shaking and almost falling off the bike.
My reviews might be useful for the average cyclist who rides longer distances, or one who wants to. Those of you have been reading along know that I like to ride long. I’m not necessarily fast, but 12-, 14-, and even 18-hour days (or more) in the saddle are an at least weekly event for me. Even during the week my rides average 2 to 3 hours. I don’t have to sell ads, so I won’t give you any Bicycling-style bullshit. Please remember, however, that there is an inherent bias in my reviews, in that I will take the time to write a review only if I really like something.
Now, the review:
There is a lot that can go wrong at the interface between the body and the bicycle on a 200+ mile ride. A rough seam combined with a poor fit on a bib short can saw a bleeding gash in your thigh. A pair of sunglasses that clamp too tightly can cause intolerable headaches. A pair of shoes that is acceptable for 6 hours can cause long-lasting nerve damage after 18 hours in the saddle. All issues that need to be avoided, particularly if you don’t want to take a week to recover between rides.
That brings me to Rapha, which is often the subject of considerable derision among experienced cyclists. However, I’m a fan. I love almost everything I’ve ever purchased from them. Not only does it fit well, but it lasts under extreme conditions. I still have jerseys from when Rapha had, if I recall correctly, 4 or 5 products on their website (maybe that was 2008?). They’ve been washed hundreds of times, and still look good and fit well.
I’ve also heard complaints about Rapha’s clothing being sized for, um, bigger gents—you know, recreational cyclists who aren’t serious. I don’t know how the people doing the complaining are built, but I am 6 feet tall and 145 pounds on a (very) fat day, and a standard Rapha medium fits relatively closely. It is not an aero race jersey, and it isn’t meant to be.
I’ve used Sidi shoes almost exclusively since early 2008. I’ve also had brief, tragic experiences with Shimano and Specialized shoes. The Sidis are great shoes, but they caused numbness after 6 or 7 hours of riding. I could never get the ratcheted strap to a tension that retained my foot properly but didn’t cut off circulation. They provided excellent power transfer and I had no issues riding short distances, but it was always a relief to take them off at the end of a ride.
I was looking for something better. I flirted with getting some custom-made shoes, but the molding process put me off—it would be fine if there was someone local to do it for me, but doing it myself seemed like a recipe for an expensive disaster.
Ultimately, I decided to try the Rapha Grand Tour shoe. Here’s what the Rapha website has to say about them:
Rapha en Giro presenteren de beste wegschoen ter wereld, die ongeëvenaarde comfort, duurzaamheid, kracht en stijl biedt. De handgesneden bovenlaag is gemaakt van exclusief jakleer en is gecombineerd met de beste pasvorm en onderdelen – allemaal ontwikkeld en getest door Giro in Californië.
No, I don’t know what that means either. But if they are “de beste wegschoen ter wereld” they have to be good, right? Anyway, I frequently fail to understand even the English-language version of the Rapha website.
I wanted black, but they flew off the shelves so fast that they only had white pairs left in my size. When they showed up, I opened the extensive (and wasteful) packaging, unveiling something that resembled a rather dumb-looking golf shoe. Yeah, I knew what I was getting myself into, and anyway cycling is the new golf, you know.
I purchased them in my size (according to Rapha’s sizing guide) and they were WAY TOO TIGHT. They felt like they were at least half a size too small, maybe a full size too small. So I returned them and sized up half a size—still quite tight, but acceptable. At that point, I was riding 300 miles a week and didn’t feel that it was the time to try something new, so I put them in the closet for a few months to age like a fine tubular tire, only breaking them out when I had worn out the cleats on my Sidis.
When I tried them on the second time, again my impression was that they were quite tight. I wouldn’t say that my first rides with them were a revelation. They provided adequate power transfer, but I still ended up with numb toes after about the 6- or 7-hour mark. No worse than the Sidis. No better, either.
Did I just purchase really expensive golf shoes?
As it turns out, after 20 or 30 rides, including many in the rain, they began to stretch. The stretch was easily quantifiable because of the ratcheting mechanism on the buckle—every week or so, I had to tighten them a few notches. Eventually, they stretched to the point where I bottomed out the strap. No more clicks. I was annoyed, but I came up with a solution: aftermarket footbeds have considerably more volume than the supplied footbeds. So, I put in SuperFeet, and the shoes fit well again.
In fact, they are now among the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned, including regular street shoes. Am I perfectly comfortable after 16 hours? No, but I have yet to experience any numbness, and there is a little room to ease off on the straps to accommodate my feet as they swell. I think that’s all you can ask from a shoe, right? The stretching has stopped; with the aftermarket footbeds I have 2-3 more clicks left on the ratcheting mechanism.
In summary, I really like these shoes, and—apart from getting customs—I do not see much room for improvement. The looks do take some getting used to. If you decide to try them, I’d suggest you either 1) buy according to the Rapha size chart, and accept that they will be extremely tight for a dozen rides or 2) size up half a size so that they are more comfortable initially, and then after 20 rides put in some aftermarket footbeds. If you need orthotics or aftermarket footbeds, definitely size up. I’d also purchase them in the late fall or early spring, so you can break them in as your mileage increases. You don’t want to try breaking them in mid-season!
Update December 2013: Still great!