Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.
Rapha’s new Pro Team road shoes debuted less than a year after the company’s gravel-specific Explore model, yet despite supposedly falling from the same tree, the two apples could hardly be more different in terms of fit, feel, and refinement. As you’d expect from Rapha, the Pro Team shoes are also elegantly stylish — and expensive. However, they’re far from just a pricey fashion statement; they’re legitimately excellent shoes that can finally go toe-to-toe with top-shelf models from major brands.
Bidding adieu to the past in favor of a brighter future
Rapha’s trajectory in footwear development has followed a somewhat perplexing arc.
The brand’s original road shoes — the Grand Tour — were basically a fancier version of the Giro Factor of the time. Built and developed in partnership with Giro, the Grand Tours used the same carbon plate, last, and basic upper design as the Factor, but with a Rapha-exclusive natural yak leather upper instead of the synthetic leather and mesh of the standard version, as well as a snazzy aluminum buckle in place of the normal plastic one used back then.
They were nice (and certainly a refreshing visual change from what was available at the time), luxurious-feeling, but not all that special from a tech standpoint. That collaboration with Giro would continue on for two more models — the Climber and the Cross — with similar storylines: distinctive styling and different materials, but little else to note in terms of substance.
Rapha parted ways with Giro for the more recent Explore gravel shoes and Classic road shoes – two models designed for different surfaces that nonetheless both featured the same upper and last. Those were certainly more distinctive than anything Rapha had offered to date, with bespoke components throughout, a complete change in fit, and a general sense that you were finally getting something that was sufficiently different to help justify the cost.
It’s a similar story with these new Pro Team road shoes.
A far cry from the yak leather of old, the Pro Team is built with a woven synthetic upper that Rapha dubs PowerWeave. As with knit textiles that are currently also en vogue in cycling footwear, Rapha says the woven material, “allows the upper to hug the foot perfectly, for improved comfort and reduced friction, while being stronger and possessing less stretch than materials such as microfiber or knit, thus aiding power transfer.”
Not surprisingly, PowerWeave is also said to breathe better than conventional synthetic leathers, and there’s also a durable water repellent coating that is intended to not only keep your feet reasonably dry in inclement weather, but also to help keep the shoes clean.
The upper itself is pretty straightforward in terms of design with a conventional straight opening and a lightly padded tongue in place of the sort of wraparound design currently preferred by Shimano and others. The dual-Boa layout features the company’s premium IP1 dials with dual micro-adjustability and instant pull-to-release functions, while out back is an external plastic heel counter to help lock things in place.
Down below is a custom carbon fiber plate that’s slightly thicker than the Easton EC90 SLX Rapha once used, built with a “trapezoidal cross-section inspired by box-girder bridges” for “extremely efficient power transfer.” The cleat holes are fixed in place, but appropriately placed to accommodate a wide range of placement preferences, and made of stainless steel for durability.
Unlike most road shoes designed for high performance, though, Rapha has wisely paid extra attention to how the Pro Team shoes will be when on foot at your requisite cafe stop. There’s a generous amount of grippy thermoplastic polyurethane at either end, and the heel portion is not only replaceable, but also raised slightly for a more natural-feeling gait.
Inside the Pro Team, Rapha hasn’t entirely left its Giro roots behind. The foam footbeds feature interchangeable foam inserts that allow for tunable arch support — not at all unlike Giro’s Supernatural concept, and the same as what Rapha uses on the Explore and Classic. To help keep the funk at bay, the top is covered with an antimicrobial material.
Rapha offers the Pro Team in sizes 36-47, with half-sizes from 40-46, each in a choice of three colors: black, off-white, and purple. Retail price is US$355 / AU$450 / £260 / €310. Actual weight for my pair of size 43 shoes is 542 grams, with insoles.
Hitting their stride
I’ll be perfectly blunt here: I wasn’t a fan of Rapha shoes in the past. Those original Grand Tours were beautiful to look at, for example, but they were also heavy and hot. Likewise, the more recent Explore gravel shoes are lusciously styled and fitted with one of the best outsoles in the business, but the revised fit felt more goofy to me instead of refined. I wasn’t alone in that regard; CyclingTips senior editor Iain Treloar also found the Explores to have their share of foibles.
But these Pro Teams? Despite seemingly coming out of the same development cycle as the Explores, these come across as vastly more mature.
One of the things I did like about those old Grand Tour shoes was how luxurious they felt. The yak leather was soft yet robust, and there was a general sense of substance to the whole thing, despite their more pedestrian roots.
Likewise, these new Pro Team shoes feel distinctly upscale. The PowerWeave upper obviously comes out of a lab instead of something that once had four legs, but it nevertheless feels rich on your feet. It’s thick yet pliable, soft yet supportive, and while there’s an obvious texture to the weave, it’s still fine enough that it never seems unnecessarily coarse when wearing very thin socks. The heel cup is nicely finished and well padded, and there’s nary a rough edge or errant thread to be found anywhere in the interior that might irritate over the course of a long ride.
The material also offers excellent breathability throughout (well, aside from the hard plastic heel counter, of course) — not so much that it feels cold even in springtime temperatures like Fizik’s ultra-airy Vento Powerstrap R2 Aeroweave shoe, but certainly a step above most conventional synthetic leathers. Clammy feet just aren’t an issue here.
The PowerWeave material also has some intriguing properties. In general, the stuff doesn’t seem to stretch at all, and provides a super secure hold when you crank the Boa dials down tight. However, it does have some give on a more localized scale, gently accommodating things like Tailor’s bunions and other mild anatomical anomalies. I sometimes have to resort to a spot stretcher for some test shoes to alleviate pressure on my poor, overly abused feet, but I never felt the need here.
In general, Rapha has done a good job refining the fit on the Pro Team shoes. Although the company insists that the last is the same as what’s used on the Explore, Iain and I both found that the two models could hardly feel more different (which perhaps has more to do with how the PowerWeave material forms during manufacturing). The heel cup on the Pro Team is less awkwardly tall than the Explore, and the overall volume is lower and less sloppy. As for Iain’s assessment: “for me at least, the Explores never really disappear on the foot. The Pro Teams mostly do. If you’d told me that the two feature the same last, I wouldn’t have believed you – and yet, here we are.”
Overall, the fit is actually a lot like Specialized’s latest S-Works 7, with a pleasantly snug fit from the midfoot area back.
There are some key differences, of course.
The heel hold isn’t quite as rock-solid — although some riders prefer it that way — and the toe box has a bit more of an inward taper on the medial side than what Specialized uses. Iain had more of an issue there than I did, however, and although the Pro Team isn’t quite as accommodating in that respect as the S-Works 7 (or the ultra-stretchy Specialized S-Works Exos, for that matter), the impressively vertical sides still leave a decent amount of space for your little piggies to wiggle about provided your big toes aren’t too, well, big.
One area where Rapha could definitely stand to do some more homework (at least in my opinion) is arch support. No matter which insert you choose, the majority of support comes from squishy foam instead of a more rigid support like what you’d find in a Specialized or Bont shoe, where the arch shaping is engineered directly into the carbon plate itself.
On days when I was going particularly hard and had my shoes cranked down especially tight, it wasn’t the tops of my feet that eventually complained, but rather the bottoms. Switching to my semi-rigid, heat-moldable Specialized/Retul footbeds eliminated the issue completely, and given that the arch support in those isn’t particularly aggressive, the only conclusion I can draw is that the problem lies not in the shape of Rapha’s footbeds themselves, but rather the fact that they’re just too soft. That said — and as always with something as personal as footwear — your mileage may vary.
The carbon plate to which the upper is attached is nothing special in terms of stack height, but, as promised, it’s easily on par with other flagship competitors in terms of bending and torsional rigidity. The cleat mounting holes are just where they should be, too — not too far forward, not too far back — and unlike the flimsy threaded titanium inserts used on the Explore, which stripped on Iain’s test sample, the ones on the Pro Team shoes have withstood ample amounts of torque and several cleat exchanges so far.
Even in terms of aesthetics, I have to give Rapha high marks for the Pro Team’s understated elegance, and the subtle graphic pattern on the PowerWeave upper. And if you loathe logos, you’ll be happy to note that there are only two per shoe, and they’re both color-matched so as to be essentially invisible to the casual onlooker. That said, Rapha has done a stellar job of sticking to its visual brand identity, so much so that the single stripe on the forefoot area is all anyone will need to see.
Choose your color carefully
That said, aesthetics is also where I found the Pro Team’s biggest weakness, at least in the case of my off-white samples. That water repellent coating may help some in terms of big splashes of water, but it does nothing to ward off general grime, tire scuffs from toe overlap, or — heaven forbid — a foot carelessly placed in the muck. These shoes looked absolutely lovely when I first pulled them out of the box, but it took all of one or two rides before they started to lose that new-shoe sparkle.
Quite tellingly, Rapha includes a 12-step pamphlet that details the best way to clean your fancy-looking new Pro Team shoes. However, despite my best efforts, my test shoes still aren’t quite “back to their best” as the pamphlet optimistically suggests, nor do I expect they ever will be again.
It’s also worth noting that even Rapha’s own literature points out that this process is also likely to wear the DWR coating that is designed to help keep the Pro Team shoes clean in the first place, so in reality, it’s more like a thirteen-step procedure in that you should reapply a similar spray coating once the shoes are finally dry.
Is it all worth it? White cycling shoes are hard enough to keep clean when the uppers are made of a material that can be wiped off with soap or mild solvents, but white shoes with woven uppers are about as easy to keep clean as a matte white bicycle frame. White may arguably be the shoe color of choice for pro riders — who are notoriously obsessive about having clean shoes — but it’s no wonder everyone I saw on the Rapha-sponsored EF team who was wearing the new Pro Team shoes at the Tour Down Under this past January went with black or purple.
These shoes are superb, but do yourself a favor and choose any color other than white. You’ll thank me later.