Cold, deep winter riding can present a challenge to finding good quality kit that’ll keep you warm without the bulk, but the Rapha Women’s explore Down Jacket has quickly become a firm favourite of mine in our guide to the best winter cycling jackets.
I trialled the Rapha Explore Down Jacket in a range of winter weather, finding that it excelled on the colder, crisper winter mornings preventing the chill from creeping into your bones. Packable down to 21 x 11 cm and weighing only 255 grams (less than my phone), the Explore Down Jacket has become a staple in my wardrobe both on and off the bike, offering incredible warmth and versatility.
Design and aesthetics
The Rapha women’s explore down jacket is a boxier fit than a lot of other cycling jackets I have tested, which generally suits my preference for a more laid back style of riding. Using Rapha’s size guide, I was surprised to find that my chest/waist/hip ratio was almost spot on the size recommended for small, which almost never happens (I am usually between about three different sizes and have to do some very complex maths to figure out which to go for). Once on though, I realised I actually could have sized it down as it fits rather more generously than I had expected, which did lose a bit of the tailoring in the fit. While not on the bike, this lack of tailoring wasn’t that noticeable – it just looked like a puffy jacket – but as soon as I stuck items such as my phone or keys into the pockets and got on my bike, I found it hung low and heavy across my belly, giving me a strangely misshapen silhouette. The slightly smaller size would probably have mitigated this, but I’d have lost the room for layering beneath it which I wanted to keep for the very depths of winter, and movement would have been slightly more restricted. In the small size I had complete freedom in my upper body to twist and reach.
One thing to consider on the sizing is that it progressed in even 5 cm increments equally across the chest/waist/hip measurements, suggesting that the larger sizes are simply bigger versions of the smaller cut. This is a shame, as it doesn’t reflect the body types of those with a larger chest or curvier frame, who could easily find themselves between sizes with an excess or restriction of fabric around the waist or hips and was disappointing from such a big brand.
For me though, the slight misshapen silhouette on the bike wasn’t that much of a dealbreaker. I liked the fit, finding the arm holes comfy and loose, sleeves a good length, and the cuffs nice and tight on my wrists. The waistband featured an adjustable elastic pulley band that meant I could make the coat more snug if I needed to, but generally found I preferred the ventilation without it. There wasn’t any hint of a drop tail on the back to guard against road and mud spray, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you’ve got a set of the best bike mudguards.
The hood wasn’t really big enough to fit a helmet comfortably under, though I did try, which is a shame because Rapha has done a good job in the shaping and ensuring your peripheral vision isn’t limited. Rapha redeems itself though by making the hood fully removable, saving more on weight if you’re choosing to pack it down. Speaking of packing down, I fully anticipated the constant stuffing and re-stuffing into its little bag would cause it to crease and crumple. It didn’t. A quick shake of the jacket to get its insulation all fluffy again and I was good to go, time after time.
My favourite aspect of the jacket though was how ‘non-cycling specific’ it looked. I know this could be a bit of a negative for some people, but for me, a jacket really comes into its own when it is a good bit of technical kit you can wear in multiple settings on or off the bike. The Rapha explore down Jacket won ample brownie points in this, as it doesn’t look, nor wear, like a bike-specific jacket, but is in fact a very good piece of cycling kit. Very quickly, the jacket replaced all of my other winter jackets for day to day wearing off the bike, commuting to and from work and speaking volumes about its practicality and versatility.
One of the biggest disappointments for me though was the lack of reflective detailing. Admittedly, this flaw made it more wearable off the bike, but as it’s fundamental purpose is a cycling jacket, I’d say this is an oversight. I like to be as visible as possible while riding and would have preferred some accents at the very least, especially considering the only colourway Rapha offers you, navy blue, renders you virtually invisible as the light fades. This meant I only really felt comfortable wearing it in the daytime and certainly missed its warmth when the temperatures plummeted at twilight. Considering the men’s jacket comes in four different colours, I’d love to see something a bit more luminous.
For the weight and packing size (when stuffed into itself) of this jacket, the amount of insulation you get is unbelievable. Rapha has selected goose down to insulate this jacket, typically considered the warmer of the two non-synthetic options used in the industry (duck being the alternative). At a 90/10 down to feather ratio and an 850 fill power, it has maximised the warmth retention and created a jacket seriously geared up for deep winter weather. I felt the most comfortable in it at about -5 degrees celsius up to about 5 degrees celsius on the bike. After the temperature crept above this I started to get uncomfortably warm as soon as I so much as thought about pedalling, though off the bike I could use this anywhere up to about 10 degrees celsius depending on the layering system underneath.
I couldn’t find anywhere on Rapha’s website that talked about whether the ‘strategic insulation mapping’ applied on the men’s version was also applied to the women’s. Due to differences in fat deposits, women do need a slightly different insulation strategy, and while I could tell through feel that there was less fill applied in the upper chest and more along the hips, I couldn’t be sure if that was purposeful, or if it was any different to the men’s. I didn’t, however, find that there were any cold spots, and the thinner material on the upper chest allowed the heat I generated to escape, keeping me sweat free.
It isn’t the coat you’d pick in a downpour, however. It can easily and happily shrug off a quick shower but any extended period of rain and you’ll be soaked through as there are no taped seams and the material itself isn’t waterproof, so reserve this for your dry, cold days, or for evenings at camp on bikepacking trips when you need something warm before bed. Rapha suggests using it as a mid layer beneath a rain coat on wet days, which I tried only once. I didn’t like the effect though, finding that the raincoat trapped huge amounts of heat in and prevented the jacket from ventilating as naturally as it should. As it packs down so small, I kept the jacket in my bar bag for days with changeable weather as an emergency layer.
In terms of breathability, I was concerned that the outer layer, made of a lightweight woven nylon and feeling slightly like a bin bag, would leave me in a hot sticky mess the second I exerted any effort. It didn’t, on the whole, though that bin-bag style outer also extends to the inner, without any fleece to protect you. There is, however, a caveat to this. Rapha claims that this jacket works perfectly well with a T-shirt or short sleeved jersey, which I vehemently disagree with, unless you like the feeling of being shrink wrapped in cling film as soon as you begin sweating. However, with a long sleeved layer, even the thinnest of layers you own, this jacket begins to work impeccably, remaining surprisingly breathable even on tougher climbs. In saying that, I wouldn’t want to smash out any hardcore sessions on the bike in this jacket, as I’d get far too hot. Instead, this is the deep winter jacket I choose when I’m off-road, on gravel or going for slower, longer distances and know I might not be pedalling quick enough to keep myself warm.
The lightweight woven nylon fabric also concerned me from a durability perspective, envisaging the slightest snag of a hedgerow thorn would have ripped right through and concealed me in a cloud of goose down. This, of course, didn’t happen. It’s incredibly durable and not at all like a bin bag, resisting most of the aggressive foliage that attempted to thwart me on my off-road exploits, though I wouldn’t go out of my way to pick a line through a holly bush.
There are only two pockets on this jacket, on the front, and one inner one that stores the little bag you fold the coat into. They are pretty deep pockets able to fit a sandwich, phone, purse and keys in it, and zip up nice and tightly. The pockets aren’t lined, so I did find that an extended period with my hands in them would lead to a bit of sweat-fest, so learned to wear gloves instead and keep the pockets for utility purposes only.
I am extremely sensitive to chin guards on winter jackets finding that they either sit too high up and make breathing a challenge, or sit just on my chin and causing chafe. In the Explore jacket it did neither, sitting just beneath my collar bone, and allowing me to zip the coat up to the top without the zip ever touching my skin. The neckline had enough room for me to add a buff too, which was a great addition to my layering system.
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Sure, it’s not going to land in any ‘best budget’ guides, but for just over £200 you get an extremely warm down jacket that works well if you’re riding in near-freezing conditions, camping, or just walking around town on a cold day. Versatility makes it far more of a value proposition than similarly priced, cycling-only garments, in much the same way as the Albion Zoa Rain Shell.
This is not a cheap cycling jacket at £210, and you would be forgiven for hesitating before clicking the ‘add to cart’ on Rapha’s website. However, for me, the versatility of this jacket both on and off the bike, and just how light and packable it is for longer adventures really tipped this into an ‘investment piece’. I could see this easily becoming a staple of my winter kit, and its durability meaning I could use it for many more seasons in the cold.
|Very generous sizing, lots of room to layer up.
|Superb insulation. Isn’t waterproof, but is fine in short showers.
|Not too many flashy features, the jacket is fairly simple. The packability, however, is incredible.
|Does a good enough job. Not the most breathable.
|Worth every penny, a definite investment piece both on and off the bike.
|Row 5 – Cell 1