Riding an audax or endurance race poses a challenge unlike any other found in cycling. After a point, the demands of an event spanning hundreds of miles over countless hours mutate beyond simply pain and exhaustion. A race through the day, then night, then day again will deplete a person’s body, calling for more mental strength than muscle.
Beginning as a curious interest in these romantic challenges, endurance races and touring have provided inspiration for numerous Rapha products, and lead to countless adventures and successes. In preparation for riding the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011, a trio of riders from Rapha took part in a number of other long distance rides, including the Bryan Chapman Memorial – a 600km ride from the south-east to north-west corners of Wales and back. As well as themselves, the riders were also putting prototype long distance products to the test.
Inspired by the demands of a ride such as Paris-Brest-Paris, where participants must cover the course in less than 90 hours, the riders wore versions of the Brevet Jersey and Gilet, which introduced a number of new developments to help both rider and garment overcome great distances.
“I can’t believe that there’s a tougher or more demanding sport on fabrics than cycling,” says Graeme Raeburn, lead designer at Rapha. “They have to be abrasive resistant, durable, lightweight, flexible, comfortable, and colourfast against sweat. It’s a tough ask, and obviously our fabrics undergo rigorous lab testing, but nothing beats getting someone out there to ride it.
“I was involved in the development of the Brevet products, and some of our key concerns were to ensure they would be versatile enough for not only different weather and temperatures, but for different light levels, including riding through the night. We might have quantifiable data that means the fabric is perfect on paper, but someone has to wear it, and be comfortable doing so.”
Ultan Coyle, a member of the design team at Rapha, and previous British 24-hour time trial champion, is no stranger to tests of endurance. He has recently completed the third edition of the Transcontinental, wearing a number of prototype garments in development. An unsupported one-stage race across Europe from Flanders to Istanbul, covering more than 4,000km, the Transcontinental is surely one of the toughest proving grounds for any long distance product.
“The funny thing is, you ultimately want something to feel invisible,” continues Graeme. “That’s the mark of a product working well, particularly on a long event like the Transcontinental. If your bar tape is a bit too sticky, or there’s an annoying creak or tick on your bike, hundreds or thousands of repetitions will soon start to grate on you, and affect your state of mind. It’s the same with a jersey. The pockets have to be in the right place, and nothing should rub or chafe. Even the blend of merino could affect your performance over a certain distance, demanding fewer wash stops and less drying time. There is a lot to be said for feeling good psychologically about what you’re wearing.”
At the time of writing, Ultan had just reached the final waypoint of the race, finishing fourth in a field of 175 starters. His adventure will have tested not only his body and mind to the limit, but his clothing, too. When he returns, the prototype garments will doubtless inform the development of new products in the future.
Photos courtesy of Camille Mcmillan