Review: Exploring the highs and lows of the Rapha Explore gravel shoe

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Rapha’s not new to cycling shoes, having entered the market way back in 2012 with the luxurious Grand Tour road shoe, followed a few years later by the Climbers Shoe and Cross Shoe. The common thread running through those three models was that they were made in collaboration with Giro, featuring the Californian brand’s fit, outsole, adjustable insole and manufacturing expertise. So when Rapha re-entered the footwear market in 2019, it was familiar territory in one sense, but with a slight twist: this time, the British brand was going it alone.

Rapha’s 2019 offering constituted two lace-up models: the three-bolt, road-oriented Classic, and the two-bolt, gravel-ready Explore, both of which feature virtually identical uppers paired to different soles.

Having put a couple of thousand kilometres on the Explores – I’ve had a pair in the rotation since April 2019 – I’ve walked away with more than a few insights into their weaknesses and strengths. Spoiler: there are plenty of both.


The Explore’s place in the space

‘Gravel’ shoes are an almost mandatory feature in the range of any cycling shoe manufacturer in 2020, but this wasn’t always the case: the category has risen in parallel with the boom in gravel bikes. Laced closures are an increasingly common sight, too, having first re-emerged with Giro’s Empire road shoes, quickly adapted for off-road use with the Empire VR90 SPD shoe, and soon after becoming the fastening du jour for the gravel movement.

From Giro’s reintroduction of laced closures, many major shoe brands have followed suit, particularly for shoes of an adventurous bent. Shimano, Specialized, Bontrager, Louis Garneau, Scott and Quoc have all dabbled in laces, and it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Rapha doing likewise with its 2019 releases. Since they first came out, the Explores have been made available in five colours with an RRP of US$295 / AU$385 / £220 / €260 (heads up, bargain hunters: certain options are currently heavily discounted).

Rapha’s Explore shoes come with a spare set of laces in – what else? – pink.

Laces have their pros and cons. They’re a bit slower to fasten than a Boa or Velcro closure, and can be more prone to retaining moisture, but they’re light and can offer unmatched levels of adjustability for finicky feet. They also tend to offer a less conspicuously sporty appearance, which is a plus for shoes like these that you may be spending time in both on and off the bike on bikepacking adventures.

The way that you fasten a shoe to your foot is just one part of the journey, however, and doesn’t automatically guarantee comfort (although in my experience, laces generally help). After all, shoes are the source of one of the great idioms …

If the shoe fits

Shoes are one of the more personal choices you can make with your riding gear, right up there with saddles. What will work wonders for one person may be torture for another; sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit.

That probably sounds like a lengthy run-up to say that I hate the fit of the Explores, but that’s not really the case – I’ve been mostly happy with my time in them, but they certainly have more than a few quirks worth commenting on.

Over my time riding the Rapha Explores – as part of my SPD shoe rotation along with Giro’s Empire VR90s, Quoc’s Gran Tourers, and Giro’s Privateers – there’s one word I keep returning to in describing their fit: ‘weird’. (For what it’s worth, I’m not alone in that finding, with my colleague James Huang’s notes from his parallel testing uncovering most of the same issues in the same areas.)

The Explore is a deep, high-volume shoe that feels a bit sloppy, almost to the point that the initial impression is that they’re too big for their given size. There was enough ambiguity in their fit for me to head into the local Rapha store to swap my 43s for a 42.5, only to find the smaller size too small after all and walking right back out with the same size I came in with.

Despite the apparent feeling of space, and a generous midfoot, the toebox tapers more sharply than my foot from the big toe. At the back, the heel is held quite firmly in place by a fairly high, stiff and narrow heel cup.

The heel cup is high, tight and snug in its hold.

Rapha claims that there’s a “low-cut upper that avoids rubbing your ankles”, which is, to me, an utterly perplexing assertion — the shoe’s certainly deeper than any other cycling shoe I’ve ridden in, and the sides of the shoe nearly overlap the base protrusions of my tibias and fibulas – a fact also remarked on by my colleague Neal Rogers.

The laced closure on the Explores is a bit different from Rapha’s rivals’: the laces don’t run through eyelets, but through the fabric of the upper itself, which doubles back on itself to form a thick band through the arch and outside of the foot – something, Rapha says, reduces weight, hot-spots, and stitching.

It does lend a feeling of support through the mid-foot, but I’m told by a podiatrist reader (thanks Nick!) that this is “proprioceptive medial arch feedback” rather than true arch support – that is, it makes you perceive your insole as having support, without actually physically doing all that much. The heavy lifting in that regard is done by a luxe-feeling suede-effect insole that offers interchangeable arch supports in both ‘medium’ and ‘high’ fits, similar to those used by Giro (although without a ‘low’ option – Rapha says a ‘neutral’ fit can be achieved without fitting an arch support insert).

The arch support is fairly non-interventionist, even in the highest level of support – certainly less than aftermarket options from brands like G8, and perceptibly less than Giro’s insoles, which also include a metatarsal button.

Closing out the closure (ha!) is a reflective Velcro strap across the forefoot. Because of the high volume of the shoe, this feels largely ornamental – even if you’re cranking down on it, it doesn’t really have anywhere to move – although it’s a nice nod to visibility, at least. There’s a lightly reflective tab on the heel, too.

The good meets the bad

Besides the fact that I found the sizing fairly bamboozling and suffered hotspots in my early rides whilst I was getting the arch, lacing, and cleat positioning dialled, I eventually found the Explores to have their charms.

The outsole, for instance, is superb. Constructed from a tacky natural rubber compound that runs the length of the sole, the shoes are extremely grippy on a range of surfaces; importantly, they’re also very, very durable and look almost new even after 10 months of consistent use. Compared to Giro’s Vibram outsoles, which I’ve found to get shredded pretty quickly, Rapha’s got a clear edge here. The downside is that they feel fairly clompy off the bike, with James likening their feel to a pair of Doc Martens.

Beneath that outsole is a carbon-fibre plate that runs about three-quarters the length of the shoe, starting around mid-heel and stopping just short of the toe. This is – at least theoretically – in a bid to improve walkability, although the shoes are perceptibly stiffer both on the bike and off than the Quoc Gran Tourers I reviewed recently. And unlike the Gran Tourers, which I can quite comfortably spend an entire day in off the bike, the Explores gave me substantial blisters on the heel within about 30 minutes of walking. Perhaps I’m unlucky or have a weird foot, but regardless, I think it’s safe to describe that as a suboptimal outcome.

The weight of the Explores is a wholly respectable 340g (measured weight in a size 43), which puts them on par with the Empire VR90s and about 20g lighter than Quoc’s offering. Rapha’s made some interesting decisions to get to that weight, such as the use of flashy rainbow-anodised titanium hardware for the strap loop and the cleat nuts. These had a touch of the exotic about them, and worked fine – until they didn’t, when one of the cleat nuts’ thread stripped. Steel’s tougher than titanium in this application, so there’s something to be said for sacrificing a few grams in favour of durability. That’s certainly what I found myself wishing Rapha had done here.

Over time, my review samples also began to suffer an intermittent creak under load, replicated across three different sets of pedals and with a change of cleats. Again: suboptimal. But on the upside, the Explores feel close to road-shoe-sharp under acceleration, and make me feel like I’m getting more return than any of the other SPD shoes I’ve got in my rotation – certainly more so than the Quocs (at the expense of absolute comfort) but with a slight edge over the Empire VR90s too.

Conclusion

So where does that leave us? To be honest, I’ve spent 10 months in the Rapha Explores trying to figure out the answer to that question. Two out of three CyclingTips staff who’ve worn these shoes find the fit to be perplexing, and even Neal, who quite likes the fit, found the heel to be cut too deep.

On my sample, the hardware stripped. They sometimes creaked. They gave me blisters. The lighter coloured uppers get pretty grubby over time. They’re a bit stifling in hot weather. But even then, I still reach for them regularly, and have learned to adapt to their foibles, even if I can’t hand-on-heart say that I excuse them.

As my testing went on with the Explores, I began to see the shoes as being locked in a bit of an internal struggle. That matched my feelings for them, too. I got increasingly accustomed to the fit, without ever finding it spot-on. I learnt how to tie them so that they would stay comfortable, without ever finding the laces to stay in place as well as Giro’s, and without finding the laced closure to be as clever as Quoc’s multi-phase tightening. I was seduced by the pretty titanium hardware, and then I wasn’t.

It’s been like a months-long game of shoe-based snakes and ladders. Almost a year since I first slipped these shoes on, I just still don’t know for sure whether I’ll finish each ride up or down.

At the very least, I guess that lends them a frisson of exciting unpredictability.

Gallery

These shoes at times felt decidedly unfamiliar.

They come with spare laces, adjustable insoles and a drawstring bag …
… complete with this handy infographic explaining how to make some DIY thongs/jandals/flipflops [select phrase as regionally appropriate].
Shiny.
1 x enigmatic pair of cycling shoes.

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