Rapha’s return to shoes kicked off again earlier this spring with two all-new variations developed in-house for either Classic road riding, or gravel & adventure Explore off-road riding. Both share the exact same upper design & construction, with or without walkable tread. I have been riding in the Explore gravel shoes since there was still snow on the ground, and have spent the last few warmer months with the Classic road shoes. Have a look at how the new off-road shoes have fared underfoot, and get an up-close look at their unique lacing and fit system…
Rapha carbon-soled Explore off-road gravel bike shoes
There’s no denying that gravel bikes have become one of the hottest segments in cycling in recent years, as more riders begin to appreciate the opportunity for adventure that comes with large volume tires on fast-moving drop bar bikes. But if you would have asked me a couple years ago if gravel-specific shoes were going to become a thing, I would have probably just asked, why?
Well, the latest Rapha Explore gravel shoes are just a further reminder that there is some happy medium to be found between ultra-stiff & efficient road shoes and flexible & walkable mountain bike shoes. The obvious first answer is why not just wear light, carbon soled XC race shoes for the best of both worlds. I have done that, just as I race cyclocross in carbon XC shoes, but specialization can be nice…
What sets the Explore shoes off from a regular XC shoe is their more traditional road look. Sure, Giro made lace-up carbon XC shoes a big thing (and those do make for a great gravel option too.) But these retain a classically modern road look, with a perforated synthetic upper, simple lacing & a reflective velcro toe strap that at once is very-Rapha, and is meant to be reminiscent of the traditional strap of toe clips.
Add onto that some tiny toe & heel reinforcements to minimize scuffing or more serious damage to the upper.
Take a closer look at the lacing, and you see that these do not get the same eyelets most often used. But instead, Rapha folded over the body fabric of the upper, and the laces pull against that folded-over microfiber. The upside is that the laces pull very easily through the large loops unrestricted, making it very easy to get even tension across the entire mid foot.
A downside is maybe that it also means you can’t easily adjust different tension across different parts of the foot. (Of course, you can separately adjust the toe strap.) Another potential downside is that you get a double layer of the synthetic fabric around the middle of the shoe, which can be less breathable in hot weather.
From the bottom, the made-in-China Explore gravel shoes feature a ‘3/4-length’ carbon sole. The stiff, efficient pedaling carbon sole doesn’t quite extend the full length of the shoe, stopping before up front at the full-width groove separating the toe tread, and the same thing in the back at the full-width groove before the last heel tread block. The idea is that a little bit of heel & toe flex makes them easier to go up & down steep hills (and even stairs), with no impact while pedaling.
As for the rest of the carbon sole, it all gets covered in a nice rubbery layer to protect it from gravel, and gets a soft but (so far) long-wearing rubber lugged outsole.
Rapha claims a weight of 300g a piece for the $295 / 260€ Explore shoes. Our size 44 samples weighed in a good bit heavier at 360g.
Riding Impressions with the Rapha Explore shoes
So how do they ride? I started out in cold wet weather, and actually did the first dozen rides wearing VeloToze MTB latex shoe covers to both hide the new shoes (before their March debut) and keep my feet dry. VeloToze have a couple of downsides themselves. They don’t breathe at all, and make readjusting how tight your lace-up shoes are a huge pain.
I was legitimately worried about how tight to lace the Explore shoes, because in most every lace-up shoe I have ridden, invariably on really long rides I end up wanting to retie/readjust one shoe or the other to get the feel perfect. But alas, not with these Rapha shoes. I didn’t need to tie them super tight, but the double looped upper design kept them adjusted comfortably on the first try – time after time.
The lack of VeloToze breathing also wasn’t a big deal either, as the shoes weren’t as hot as I feared. And with a good pair of merino socks (fire-breathing dino & pink lightning bolts care of SockGuy) I have ridden from cold to warm weather comfortably. The Rapha upper itself doesn’t stretch, but it feels soft, pulled snugly across the foot, and enough heat apparently escapes from those perforations to keep from overheating.
I also suspect that the single layer of fabric across the toe & forefoot must have more to do with keeping my feet comfy, less the extra material around the instep. In warmer to hot weather (above 25°C/77°F), I did opt for lighter weight synthetic blend socks, and my feet did feel hot. But at that point I don’t feel like these shoes are much hotter than most other gravel or MTB shoes I wear. If you regularly feel like your feet are hot & live in a properly hot climate, these might not be for you, though.
As for pedaling in dirt, mud, snow melt & over gravel roads, these Rapha Explore shoes have done well to survive for half a year and come out looking good. I have scratched a tiny bit on the toe scuff guards from a number of hike-a-bikes, and while I would probably appreciate a bit thicker reinforcement, they have held up to my abuse.
As for pedaling efficiency, they’ve delivered on the promise of road shoe performance on the bike, without any hot spots or discomfort while riding. Then when I hop off the bike, I can comfortably walk around for a while. Walking on hard surfaces is fine for a while, but they are stiff so it was a bit tiring when I tried to keep them on all day at the office. On the other side, I’ve worn them several full days while walking around in the woods & campsite, without any discomfort at all. The real-world walkability test for me… walking up and down the three floors of slick terrazzo stairs to my apartment with wet shoes, and it has gone off without a hitch.
Rapha ships their shoes with two sets of laces so you can pick the basic solid color that matches the upper, or ones with a little pink flair. The Explore series get a black & pink braid which isn’t too shocking. The laces get a nicely placed elastic loop to keep them tidy (& out of the chainring). And if you have especially low volume feet, you can tuck the excess into that toe strap.
Impressions with the Rapha Classic road shoes
Sharing the exact same upper construction, Rapha also makes the Classic variant of their new shoes as well. Still intended for a bit of all-roading, they are a performance shoe designed to be used with classic road pedals.
The Classic shoes get a full carbon sole (from toe to heel). But even then, they gets a molded rubber covering to protect the carbon everywhere you might touch the ground, left exposed only to mount road cleats.
The Classic shoes also forgo the higher toe & heel scuff guards, but do get a tiny toe bumper that I apparently use to hold doors open (while I push my bike through) and to kick stair risers (while trying not to fall up slick stairs).
The $250 / 215€ Classic shoes again claim a 250g weight, a good bit lighter than our 294g actual samples. Perhaps that comes down to the soft, velvety padded insoles with their adjustable height arch wedges. The insoles offer a nice adjustable fit, which is always a pleasant surprise to me since I usually want to toss stock insoles for a heat moldable alternative.
Out of the road the Classic shoes are noticeably stiffer than the Explore variant. While I never feel flex when riding the Explore shoes, I definitely feel more road buzz making it to my feet in the Classics with their more direct pedal interface. Here again, I have been pleased with the comfort delivered by the double lap upper lacing design, and have been comfortable riding in hot weather.
If I had to pick one of Rapha’s new all-road shoes over the other, I would pick the Explore shoes without question. The Classic shoes never had an issue with putting a food down in the gravel (the rubber sole protection is a nice touch), but the extra stiffness really did transmit more gravel road buzz into my feet. Even my proper road rides have a tendency to get dirty. That wasn’t a problem while riding, but trying to walk back to my apartment or into the office with a pair of road shoes covered with wet Look cleats can be harrowing.