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Rapha Explore Collection Review: Big Money, Big Performance Gravel Gear

Years in the making, Rapha’s gravel and adventure line is now complete, including a foul-weather GORE-TEX shell, lightweight down jacket, and durable riding pants.

Gravel riders in Rapha Explore Collection gear
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Founded in 2004, Rapha found a niche in stylish — and notoriously expensive — cycling apparel. Seeing a need for highly functional yet fashionable garb, the UK-based brand grew quickly. Twenty years on, Rapha is one of the preeminent players in the sport, sponsoring top riders around the globe.

Rapha stuck to road cycling until 2018 when it released its first Explore pieces. However, the collection wasn’t head-to-toe complete until this spring, when the brand launched its Explore GORE-TEX Jacket and Pants.

According to Rapha, instead of serving midweek group rides, the Explore Collection is intended for your next true epic. Rapha designed the kit for the longest and most grueling outings, with wind, rain, mud, and big temperature swings in mind — the type of adventures measured in days, not miles. While it can be used on any surface, it is intended for off-road use and is best when worn as a full collection.

In short: For big adventures, it’s nearly perfect. A cohesive system that’s simple, durable, and crafted for the long haul. But it comes with a hefty price tag.

Rapha Explore Collection: Six Integrated Pieces

Ride a little, then ride some more. Go until you’re lost, until life looks less familiar,” is how Rapha describes the Explore Collection. And after a solid month with the kit, we’re inclined to agree. I tested each of the six main pieces — cargo bibs, shorts, pants, technical T-shirt, down jacket, and GORE-TEX shell — independently and as a cohesive whole. I didn’t, however, get a chance to test ancillary pieces of the collection like the Explore vest, lightweight jacket, or Explore shoes.

All six items of the Rapha Explore Collection have unique features detailed below, but there are some overarching commonalities among them. First and foremost, all six were remarkably durable pieces of apparel. Spring riding right after snow melt was ugly and rough. A couple of falls, a few hike-a-bikes, and overgrown trails were great ways to test toughness. The Explore Collection passed easily — I have yet to tear or rip any of it.

The outer layers were remarkably packable, too, which made it easy to stow them in a frame bag on steamy climbs or warm afternoons.

Like most Rapha products, the entire kit is made from a mix of high-end fabrics that are breathable, comfortable, and waterproof, which kept me dry on the wettest of days. Best of all, the pieces worked together fluidly as a layering system that was easy to put on and take off, ergonomic for long hours in the saddle, and with little touches that worked well in tandem.

Explore GORE-TEX Lightweight Jacket – $375

Rapha Explore GORE-TEX Lightweight Jacket

One of the two new additions, this modern three-layer waterproof jacket has a tough outer nylon material, breathable membrane, and stretchy C-Knit inner face fabric, which made it easy to pull over insulating layers. It’s the same GORE-TEX material (Paclite Plus) that Rapha uses in its Trail Jacket, with specific tweaks to fit over the Explore Down Jacket.

A two-way zipper allowed the bottom to open and breathe, a slim-cut hood fit under a helmet, and a big drop tail and elastic cuffs kept splashes, mud, and dirt from coming in. What impressed me the most was how light the jacket is. But this also leads to our biggest concern — how the waterproofing will hold up in years to come.

Rapha Explore Pant – $180

Rapha Explore pant

Also released this spring, the Explore Pant is a great example of less being more.

While not as burly as Rapha’s popular Trail Pants, they were still durable enough for multiday trips while being a lot easier to stow away. The Explore Pant shed light rain thanks to a DWR coating. Although they wet out in heavy storms, they were quick drying.

Incredibly light, they excelled on bikepacking trips when every ounce counted. Made from a stretchy four-way fabric that was comfortable and ergonomically cut for pedaling, the pants have an adjustable waist belt and cinch cuffs at the ankles to keep them out of your chain. With four pockets, two traditional ones and two zippered side pockets, there was plenty of room to store snacks and essentials.

My only knock was wishing the knees were slightly more reinforced.

Explore Technical T-Shirt – $90

Rapha Explore Technical T-shirt

Let’s address the elephant in the room — even the best tee shouldn’t be this expensive.

That said, it was hard not to love the tech T-shirt while testing. It’s lightweight and breathable, with a knit weave that wicked well, collectively making it best for hot and humid conditions. And with the right layers, it could be fine in any conditions.

The shirt employs multiple fabrics placed in specific areas to increase stretch while reducing wear and tear. It became my go-to riding top once I got over the price tag.

Rapha Explore Shorts – $150

Rapha Explore Shorts

Perhaps our favorite piece in the collection, the Explore Shorts, is designed for both versatility and comfort on long off-road days. They are made from a lightweight fabric with built-in stretch that let me move freely. Rapha treats it with a DWR coating that beaded light rain (like the pants).

As temps dropped, it was easy to ditch the shorts on the fly, packing them down using a conveniently integrated loop to store them in a frame bag.

Four good-size pockets carried snacks easily. I found them best in warmer conditions, with great airflow and a breathable membrane that didn’t get overly hot.

Explore Cargo Bib Shorts – $300

Rapha Explore Cargo Bib Shorts

The most integral part of the collection is the bib shorts, which held everything I normally carry in a jersey. Using four large mesh pockets on the lower back and legs, you have a similar, if not slightly greater, capacity than most jerseys.

And it felt so natural that I almost forgot that my tools and snacks were there. The sheer volume the bibs could carry allows the Explore shirt to be lighter and the outer shells to be streamlined, too.

After a few weeks of testing, I started wondering why it doesn’t exist on all bibs. The uppers employ a lighter mesh that helped them breathe, and a dual chamois pad offered comfort for huge days but still managed to dry quickly overnight. A lower yoke makes toilet breaks easier than most bibs, although you’ll still have to undress.

Explore Lightweight Down Jacket – $305

Rapha Explore Lightweight Down Jacket

The one piece in the Explore I was most excited to test was the down jacket, especially for colder days and quick overnights.

Made from 750 FP goose down, it’s incredibly light and packable, and it provided noticeable warmth. It has an integrated stuff sack for quick stowage, plus two zipped hand pockets and two larger internal pockets. The puffy is on the lighter end, so if you’re going to camp overnight, you’ll probably want a warmer jacket.

And although the outer membrane is ripstop, it is not waterproof and should not be worn by itself when it rains. I loved the fit and articulated design, which allowed for easy movement. A simple hood (noninsulated) fit under a helmet. Just like the GORE-TEX Explore shell, it has a two-way zipper that helped ventilation, and the medium weighs only 265 g.

The Verdict on the Rapha Explore Collection: Well Made, Not Cheap

Rapha stays true to its brand with the Explore Collection, making a suite of off-road cycling products that are well-designed and well-thought-out. The kit has many small features that make them perfect for long, wet, muddy, and hard days in the saddle. But they certainly aren’t cheap.

If you have the money to spend and are looking for a solid upgrade, I recommend this kit.

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