The Souplesse range from Rapha is based around Rapha's Pro Team Kit, as ridden and tested by Team Sky, no less. The focus is on performance fabrics, breathability and a form-fitting cut.
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In typical Rapha style, while the kit might be inspired by the pro peloton, it eschews the often garish colours and branding for a more subtle, understated look. If you're the kind of rider who likes their performance kit in plain, bold colours rather than loud prints, then this is worth a closer look.
Rapha is also a brand that has demonstrated an interest in and commitment to women's cycling. As well as producing and retailing one of the most extensive ranges of women's road kit on the market, it's also sponsored the Canyon//SRAM team, one of the top UCI rated women's teams in the world – and incidentally created some of the most eye-catching kit on the pro circuit in the process.
The sizing question
When I've asked women cyclists before why, if they own Rapha kit, they like it, one of the most common responses is the quality of the fit. Rapha cuts cycling kit exceptionally well. Furthermore, its approach to sizing is fairly in keeping with British and American sizing – meaning if you normally wear a size medium on the high street, chances are you'll be a size medium in Rapha kit too – and is refreshingly at odds with the that shopping for women's cycle kit can often be. That said, previous iterations of the Souplesse jersey did size up smaller than other Rapha items, but the cut has been updated and the fit now works across the brand.
I tried the size medium jersey and shorts, and as a curvy UK12/US8, they fitted well. The jersey, with its race cut, does sit high on the stomach when standing but lies smoothly in position when riding. The bibs are pleasingly long, sitting just above the knee (I'm 5ft 8in), which is good news for taller women. If that's not you though, Rapha also offers a shorter length version.
Short-sleeve Souplesse Jersey £120 / $175 / AU$210
At first sight, the Souplesse jersey might seem a little plain, even if it has some nice little colour details such as the vertical stripes at the front and back. Once you get your mitts on it though, you'll quickly find there's more to it than meets the eye.
The fabric itself is strikingly soft to touch. While it's made from a stretch Lycra that holds its shape well, without unduly accentuating any lumps and bumps, it has a matt, almost natural fabric look. Designed for hot-weather riding, it certainly helps moderate your temperature with exceptional breathability, as I experienced on several rides on hot, humid days.
The cut is excellent: comfortable, flattering, and fitted. This is performance wear and designed to be snug: if you are large in the chest region you may want to go up a size – though I'm a 34D and the medium fitted fine. Length-wise the jersey came to the top of my hips. If you're taller than that you might find the jersey a little on the short side.
The full-length zipper sits comfortably in a soft zip garage when fully done up, and the collar sits close to the neck without being constrictive or chaffing. Pockets on the Souplesse jersey are sturdily constructed: two main pockets either side of a narrow central one that's designed to take a pump, plus a small zip-secured compartment at the back of the right hip.
I did find the zip for the secure pocket a little fiddly to use one handed, however, and while it's possible to fit a fair amount into the two main pockets, some riders may prefer more storage space. I did though like the reinforced lining on the zipped pocket – which helps protect the contents from sweat – and the little story printed on the patch inside.
The rear hem of the jersey is reinforced with elastic with a silicone band to help keep the garment in place, particularly while the pockets are loaded.
Rapha Souplesse bib shorts £170/$260/AU$315
They may feel snug when you pull them on, but once these shorts are in place, they sit like a second skin, hugging the legs and hips without squeezing or constraining them. The Souplesse bib shorts feature two straps at the front that sit either side of the breasts, and a single rear strap that sits comfortably between the shoulder blades. The front straps didn't pull or chafe at all, though the reinforced edging on the breathable mesh they are constructed from did rub a little at the waist.
A wide micro-elastic band with minute silicone gripper dots make up the leg hems, which sit securely in place just above the knees without riding up or chafing. The wide band also doesn't squeeze too much, so no sausage legs here.
The panelled construction is designed to sit close to the body when riding, and once the bibs are on you'll barely notice you're wearing them. The Lycra itself is treated with 'coldblack', which Rapha describes as a 'technical dye that reflects the sun's rays to keep the fabric cool against the skin'. In action, it works. As a fair-skinned woman, I really feel the heat as soon as the sun puts in an appearance, but the Souplesse bib shorts kept cool, even when in full sunshine. The Lycra is also effectively breathable.
The chamois – a very important part of the equation – is of medium thickness with different densities in different zones across its surface for targeted support when needed. Personally, I found it sat slightly far back for me but was otherwise supremely comfortable.