Rapha made inroads into the cycling shoe segment ten years ago as part of a collaboration with Giro. Fast forward to the release of the Explore model shoe and the British brand has been leading the way - especially in terms of style, comfort and performance. Currently, Rapha boasts four models of shoes split across the best gravel bike shoe and road shoe markets. The lace-up Explore shoes pictured here are joined by the woven gravel stablemate with a twin Boa closure system and a hike in the price tag.
The Rapha Explore range is designed for gravel biking and bikepacking adventures in the elements. It features stylish technical apparel for off-road riding and multi-day trips from jackets and jerseys to gloves and the shoes we have here. Read on to see how they fared during our testing.
Design and aesthetics
The Explore shoe was designed and delivered to market over two years, it is a ground-up design developing the shoe from feedback between its designers and testers. The Explore shares its almost retro appearance with its road sibling, the Classic shoe, but that is where the similarities end. The Explore shoe is a solid and robust off-road shoe designed for the demands of the wilderness.
Its no-nonsense tread resembles a design from the classic Doc Martin boot rather than cycling shoe. It has flecks of color in the black of the natural rubber sole that you will have to get close with a keen eye to notice. The rubber tread block laps over a lightweight and stiff carbon sole plate and the depth of the tread mean the cleat is neatly recessed. This carbon sole plate has been shortened to allow the shoe to flex while you walk. The stiff plate runs from the mid-heel to just shy of the area under the toes. The rubber wraps around the toe and the heel like a bumper offering ample protection.
The upper is constructed from a seamless, one piece of microfiber that is perforated for venting. The laced closure might not sound like the most technically advanced option, but a detailed look at the shoe will reveal a double-wall lacing system that is designed in conjunction with the thin padded tongue to distribute the pressure evenly over your foot. Rapha took inspiration from trail running shoes and claims this design also makes for a lighter and stronger shoe closure. The double notched tongue is also vented and has an elasticated loop to neatly tuck your tied polyester laces out of harm's way.
There are further well-thought-out premium touches, both the grey heel pad and the now-iconic Rapha strap are reflective. The eye-catching iridescent anodized strap loop and the matching cleat fixings on the underside are both made using lightweight titanium.
Moving to the inside of the Explore shoe and you will find a EVA insole base paired with a soft antimicrobial microfiber top layer to keep your shoes feeling and smelling freshers for longer.
The packaging is top-notch and worthy of the price tag. Included in the box is a spare pair of navy and pink laces, the high arch supports to adjust the fit and a cotton drawstring storage bag. You will find that the Explore shoes are available in this black color only and they come in sizes from 36 to 47 with some half sizes thrown in for good measure. For reference the shoes weighed in at 692g a pair without cleats in my size 42.
The first thing I noticed about the Rapha Explore shoes is that they have the premium look and more importantly feel to them that you might expect from the brand. They are beautifully packaged enhancing the consumer's experience and there is certainly more to it than just throwing them in a shoebox, they feel like a special purchase.
The shoe feels light and still substantially sturdy. The stiff synthetic leather upper took a few rides to bed in but after a couple of weeks of shorter rides, I began to notice that they started to soften. Every ride after that they became increasingly more comfortable to wear.
It also took me a couple of rides to get the cleat position just right as before I was having some issues with pedal engagement. I put this down to the thick rubber tread fouling slightly and at first the cleat moved on the gloss carbon plate. Once this was tweaked and tightened correctly the issue was completely resolved.
While I am mentioning the tread, now would be a good time to say just how impressed I am with the levels of grip from the rubber. It is wide enough to offer a solid platform for when you have to take to walking and also remains in near perfect condition thanks to a durable compound. Other soles have scrubbed in or are marked up with a degree of wear after this amount of time in use.
The Rapha Explore is now sublimely comfortable and offers plenty of support for all-day rides and more than ample sole stiffness for when you need to put the hammer down. On the bike the Explore is plenty stiff enough if you are hammering road sections, however, the major perk with this shoe is that they are robust enough to take the punishment of riding off-road and also just the right amount of compliance to make them comfortable even after miles of gravel road vibrations.
It's good to walk in too, which is important for a shoe that's marketed as a bikepacking shoe, as well as a gravel shoe. With plenty of grip in the wet and some flex in the sole to allow the foot to bend more naturally.
The supportively high heel box grabs the ankle and holds the foot securely. The front of the shoe is slightly tapered but the toe box feels roomy to me and once the upper has softened slightly from use, pulling the Velcro strap makes the final adjustments to perfect the fit. I ran the Explores with the medium arch support insoles but kudos to Rapha for including the high arch supports inside the box, too.
I personally prefer the aesthetics and the function of a laced shoe for my gravel rides compared to the more edgy road race-type styles of some other brands. If you don't share the same sentiments then Rapha has you covered with more modern tech that is incorporated within the Explore Powerweave shoe.
It goes without saying that the Rapha Explore shoes performed impressively in the worst of the British winter, fending off water ingress and the continual mud bath. The one-piece synthetic leather is easy to clean with a wipe down so they look like new again. Choosing to use this material is also warmer than the mesh or woven-style shoe of some rivals, although this is worth keeping in mind if you ride in warmer climates.
A shoe that is spot on for British-type gravel conditions and when your adventure takes you beyond the graded stone paths. If you are looking for a premium, tough, grippy-and-durable shoe with classic styling you will struggle to beat these kicks from Rapha.
You will need some patience with this shoe before they feel at their best, the Explore does require a little time to wear in but not to worry -the high-quality use of materials and construction means that these should go the distance and last many years.
Tech Specs: Rapha Explore gravel shoe
- Color: Black
- Retention: Laced, 1-strap
- Uppers: Synthetic leather
- Outsole: Carbon fiber cleat plate, natural rubber
- Weight: 692g a pair Men’s size 42
- Size: EU 36-47
- Price: £220 / $295 / €260