His Bright Materials

His Bright Materials

We spoke to Graeme Raeburn, Rapha’s Chief Product Designer and no stranger to riding after dark, about the design and science behind Rapha’s highly visible products and details.

In winter, light is a precious commodity. Not only do road riders have to cope with the cold and wet but, on murky mornings, the main challenge is not headwinds or hills but merely dragging yourself out of a warm bed. Feeling comfortable on the bike is half the battle. And while keeping well insulated is important, in the darker months it’s also vital to feel safe on the road. And that means riding apparel and accessories that maximise your visibility.

You’ve done your fair share of riding at night. What did it teach you about the importance of visibility? Night riding gives you plenty of time to observe the environment you’re in. I rode the UK national 24-hour time trial a few years ago; I’ve also ridden from London to Glastonbury through the night; and I often used to ride from London to Brighton and back again during the week. Riding on small roads by yourself in the dark is pretty dangerous, even with lights and hi-vis clothing. That said, it tells you a lot about how drivers’ eyes work and seeing the way car headlights work on road signs is also useful.

‘Visibility’ features very strongly across the new Autumn Winter range but it’s not a new concept for Rapha. Rapha products have always had reflective elements positioned at key points. The original Classic Softshell Jacket, for example, had reflective details and a large reflective logo, although that could only be seen when the jacket’s ‘storm tail’ was pulled down. We’ve always tried to incorporate subtle ways of making garments more visible, not least because Rapha was initially known for using monochrome and dark materials. Inevitably, as the product line has expanded and the need for brighter colours has developed, we’ve experimented more and more with a variety of pantones and technologies. My philosophy is, if we can give it a visibility boost, we should.

Presumably there are different ways of making riders more visible? The most simple way of improving visibility is the choice of colour, opting for what we call ‘brights’. Perhaps the most obvious one that has worked from both a function and form perspective is the chartreuse colour that has now become part of the Rapha palette. It has a nice story to it, chartreuse takes its name from a green-coloured liqueur, originally made by Carthusian monks in the mountainous region of Grenoble, in France. Herb-infused potions aside, the colour ‘chartreuse’ is, on the spectrum visible to the human eye, one of the brightest colours in low light, which is why it’s used on emergency vehicles around the world. We use it across the training and racing range, either as a colour accent or as an entire colourway for maximum visibility. It’s proved popular from a style and safety standpoint. So I guess we’ve got a lot to thank the monks for.

Where did the move from visible details to fully visible apparel begin? Working on the Brevet Jersey, originally developed for Paris-Brest-Paris and which had to meet the race’s extremely high standards of visibility, taught us a lot about how to give a product optimum visual distinction without it looking ugly. The jersey has reflective stripes and a complimentary gilet that are hi-vis but also very stylish. Historically, in cycling apparel, the two haven’t always been compatible.

Are hi-vis fabrics different from those that are simply bright?
Yes. Chartreuse, for example, is very bright but it isn’t technically hi-vis. Fabrics that are truly hi-vis use a dyestuff containing an ‘optical brightener’. It’s a treatment which captures light outside the visible spectrum, then reflects it back as visible light, which in turn makes the colour appear artificially bright. Optical brighteners are often included in washing powders, which is how white clothing can appear ‘whiter than white’ after it’s been washed.

In a hi-vis context, optical brighteners make colours really pop out from their surroundings, even at a distance and even on a sunny day. This is because, compared to other bright colours, the light is effectively being amplified. The process required to achieve a hi-vis fabric that has a suitable level of durability and colourfastness is very technical, even more so when the fabrics need to be highly functional, when they need to be insulating and breathable, for example.

What are the best examples from the latest Autumn Winter range?
The Long Sleeve Pro Team Jersey in hi-vis pink would be my choice. The fabric is extremely technical and its hi-vis properties are a combination of factors, the choice of dyestuff, the characteristics of the yarn, and the skill of the factory we use to dye it. In making the jersey hi-vis pink we took a bit of a chance. I think some riders will adopt it straight away and others may take a while but it’s a great piece for winter training and racing. I imagine a whole team turning up on the start line in those things would be pretty intimidating.

There are plenty of other examples in the new range; the Hi-Vis Backpack is a good one, even the new Essentials Case, which is finished with a hi-vis tape.

Rapha products have a reputation for high performance. How do you ensure visibility details are as effective as possible? By sourcing the finest components. For example, the reflective material we use is ‘retroreflective’. Put simply, this means it reflects light directly back to the source, rather than dissipating it into the environment, which is the way a mirror reflects. We check its reflective properties using a retroreflective ‘verifier’, a device designed for checking security passes but which, for our purposes, works in the same way as a car headlight. There are countless retroreflective fabrics on the market and some are obviously more effective than others. At Rapha, we only choose the highest grade retroreflective material – usually 3M or similar – not only for its effectiveness but also for its durability.

And Rapha’s approach to visibility extends to all its collections, not just those for training and racing.
Very much so. We’re always looking at ways to incorporate visibility elements into less obvious products, those pieces that you don’t want to scream ‘LOOK OUT’, but which still need to be seen in low light. In Rapha’s City apparel, for instance, where there is a strong emphasis on contemporary style, it’s about giving the rider the choice to be seen. That means ‘transformable’ details, such as button-on tabs, drop tails, reversible cuffs, and reflective turn-ups on trousers.

In the course of developing hi-vis products for Rapha, is there anything that has surprised you? We’ve learnt that the most visible part of the body isn’t always what you think. Traffic comes from all angles and it’s often about identifying the various parts of the body that move the most. That’s why bright coloured oversocks work really well, and why reflective elements on the legs and heels are equally useful.