in july 2004, when i still bought my weekly copy of cycling weekly from the newsagent down the road, i came across a photo of a jersey that i'd never seen before from a clothier i'd never heard of. captioned as a classic jersey, it was white, with short sleeves and a black hoop on the left sleeve and was, as it turned out, the first offering from rapha. ego was at stake at this point, for i considered myself remarkably well-informed on such matters; how on earth could this have sneaked by my hebridean radar without my noticing? to make matters worse, such was the styling of the garment, that i gained the impression rapha had been around for years, hiding behind a pink sofa.
eager to find out more, i telephoned the number appended to the feature in the comic and spoke to clare, who passed me onto simon mottram who was happy to spend around forty minutes or more discussing not only his new company, but related aspects of the cycling world. it turned out that my impression as to the previous longevity of rapha was not mine alone. according to mr mottram he had fielded a phone call only a day or two previously from a gentleman who professed to have been a long-time fan of the company, and was delighted to see the range now available in the uk. aside from everything else that has changed in the intervening almost ten years, there is pretty much zero chance of simon mottram answering the phone when i ring up for a chat.
in fact, so much has rapha grown over the last decade, that if simon suggests we might have a word about something on the phone, i have to arrange with his firewall as to when there might be an appropriate gap in his schedule for said conversation. and the company has grown from those initial three folk in one half of a floor in the former piano works in kentish town's perren street. up till that point, quality cyclewear meant either swiss or italian, little if any of which conformed to a classic styling and most certainly meant polyester or lycra. so, in 2004, what did simon mottram hope to achieve in relation to both the available cycling apparel and cycling as an activity?
"I wanted to create cycling clothing that was better quality; clothing that was both stylish and high performance and that didn't force the rider to choose between the two.
"As a rider and a fan I also wanted the sport of road cycling to take more pride and have more confidence. The sport seemed to have talked itself into a bad place, with poor products, generally poor distribution, and too many unimpressive, small-minded people with low expectations. I thought, and still do, that road cycling is the greatest sport in the world. The industry around it needed more confidence, ambition and higher standards. In our own small way we have tried to bring those things about at Rapha."
no matter your personal views of rapha, whether you care for their style offerings, what you think of their pricing or how much you could care less about team sky, it seems well-nigh impossible to think of modern day cycling without them. there are few others about which that can be said. ten years is both a brief moment in time and an eternity in business. had simon expected rapha to be the size it has become in just under a decade?
"It feels like a long time to me! It's been a 24 hour a day obsession for the last twelve years. That's a quarter of my life and half my career.
"I thought Rapha could do quite well and I raised money with a business plan that showed good growth and profitability within three years (it took five). But I didn't imagine that it could be as successful as it has been. We have been helped enormously by the huge boom in road cycling in most markets around the world, a boom that shows no sign of slowing."
as simon mentioned above, this boom in road cycling has not been confined to the british isles, in part, one would imagine due to an internationalisation of the professional end of the sport. previously the province of western europe, and not necessarily including the uk, it has seen greater influence arrive from russia, north america, australasia and most recently, the far east. on my first vist to perren street, there were only four folk in the office; rapha is one heck of a lot larger today. in how many countries do rapha currently have representation, and roughly how many employees across those locations?
"Offices: London 80, Portland 7, Munich 4, Nagano (Japan) 4, Melbourne 3
Cycle clubs: a further 75 staff in total and growing rapidly in London, Sydney, New York, San Francisco, and Osaka."
computer programming often incorporates an 'if this, then that' model to allow for variations of input. i believe this would be regarded as flexibility. however, what has always impressed about rapha's expansion and seeming diversification is that most of what we see happening is the result of carefully laid plans. even aspects that i would have sworn blind were as a result of something else they'd successfully achieved, were more than likely the result of decisions made in previous years. is there still a specific plan for, say, the next five years, and is simon willing to share any of those at present?
"We want to grow by keep doing what we are doing by creating more products (especially for women) that delight customers and make their riding time more fulfilling. To connect more people to the sport of road cycling through content, places and events, to deepen our relationships with Rapha customers and link the community closer together while continuing to grow internationally, especially in Asia and Europe, expanding our localised web sites and communications and opening more cycle clubs.
"And all the while, keeping Rapha special while we grow, never losing sight of who we are and what makes us different (that's perhaps the most important of all)."
though cycling would undoubtedly survive even if rapha had never poked its nose above the parapet, it's a brand that is so intrinsically entwined with cycle clothing that a degree of separation would be almost unthinkable. yet the cycle clubs provide state of the art coffee, rapha has placed both yak leather clad feet squarely in the (cycle-related) travel industry, and its sponsorship of domestic british cycling leading up to the current partnership with team sky points to a considered diversification. simon spoke to me several years ago about rapha perhaps one day becoming ‘rapha the brand’ rather than ‘simply’ a cycle clothing purveyor. is that a direction in which they are still specifically heading, or one that might come into being in a more organic and less forced manner?
"Did I say that?
"I have always thought of Rapha as a brand and not just a clothing supplier. And that is a brand in the best sense of the word: something that amounts to more than the sum of the parts, that means something specific and valuable in the customer's mind. We will never expand beyond road cycling, but we aim to be ever more closely associated with the sport and, hopefully, enhance our customers' lives through great products, experiences and relationships. That sounds like a good kind of brand to me."
earlier this year i had a phone conversation with rapha's travel manager, brad sauber, during which he outlined the minutiae of their future plans, and at that point, i began to see how rapha had now become a more fully realised brand. now it (almost) all made sense. has the expansion of rapha travel as an in-house operation moved the company further along that route?
"Yes. Travel is still quite small for us but it is very important indeed. It sits right at the heart of what I think Rapha is all about: the love of road cycling and road racing. If I could distill what Rapha is all about into one thing, one moment, it would be riding up a legendary col in Europe, in the company of friends, with nothing else to focus on but the challenge of making the top. That's exactly what Rapha Travel offers. We are investing a fair amount in the travel business and are excited about its growth potential."
arguably, perren street has forced something of a route change in the clothing ranges offered by a number of new kids on the block, as well as several longer established cycle clothing purveyors. though the beauty of cycle racing remains at the heart of their purpose in life, rapha currently pay almost as much attention to those who solely or additionally incorporate cycle commuting into their daily lives. the recent release of the spring/summer city riding range has pushed the envelope just a few smidgeons more, added to which a rather delectable collection of european city cycling guides attests to their investment in this perhaps previously mundane aspect of cycling. in our last phone conversation, simon alluded to significant developments in this year's autumn/winter city riding range. does he currently consider that as an area ripe for expansion?
"Yes I do.
"As road cycling becomes a more acceptable and aspirational part of our culture and cycling becomes every more central to many of our lives, I think there is a huge opportunity for the kit and aesthetics of our sport to cross over into popular culture as well. Our customers are bike riders every day, not just when they are riding at 20 miles an hour in lycra. I think they will welcome clothing from Rapha that works for the many hours when they are not racing or training. Our city riding products have done well to date, but we think they can grow much further.
"There is a big trend back towards active sportswear at the moment and 'everyday' cycling needs to be part of that. But the clothing and other products we offer will need to work a lot harder to be credible in an everyday wardrobe. Colours, fabrics, fit all need to be attractive to the customer as much as the performance of the garments. All this applies to women as much as men, of course. It will be interesting to see what people make of the new city ranges for men and women this autumn and next spring.
"As well as the product opportunity, I would also like to see the culture of cycling becoming better understood and better regarded so more people are drawn to the sport."
the announcement at the tail end of 2013 that rapha would no longer sponsor a domestic racing team (rapha condor jlt), but find other ways to support british cycle racing at a grass roots level was certainly a disappointment, not only for those involved in the team. but sponsors move in and out of all kinds of sports, particularly when their marketing changes tack, or they perceive the current setup has effectively run its course. have rapha identified alternative ways in which they might support the domestic racing scene when the team sponsorship finishes at the end of the year?
"Yes we have. We think that road racing in the UK needs more financial support at the grass roots racing level. We have hundreds of sportives, but the entry points to racing and the ladder of progression through racing are difficult to understand. We need more races and existing and budding race organisers need support. British Cycling is working hard to promote racing, but we think we can lend a hand too. We will make an announcement of our plans this summer."
tuesday's april fools spoof announcing rapha's impending shift to one of the cocos islands notwithstanding, this past weekend saw a wholesale shift from their erstwhile home in perren street, to more spacious accommodation in the new imperial works in tileyard road near london's kings cross station. moving is never the best of experiences, particularly when there's ten years of accumulation to deal with. as the sole remaining original rapha employee (albeit, ceo), will simon be sorry to leave the rabbit warren that is the kentish town edition of imperial works? between that and the company's implicit association with perren street, it must seem like the end of one era and the beginning of the next?"
"We moved into Perren Street in April 2005 and have gradually expanded to fill the building. For all its issues (leaking windows, endless stairs, the occasional break-in) it has been a great home and is part of who we are. We have good friends in the neighbourhood too.
"But the new Imperial Works in Kings Cross is a definite step forward. For the first time, we have been able to design an office from scratch and organise it to match the way we work and the way the company operates. It's a stunning space and I am going to be very proud to welcome visitors there. I'm confident we can retain the charm of Perren Street and combine it with the wonderful new space that will actually help us in our work."
of all the cycling i've done over the years (and in light of the sheltered life i lead, that hasn't been as extensive as i'd love to pretend it's been), the days spent in le grand banc during the first rapha retreat, have undoubtedly been the finest. what's the single most memorable or important factor that means the most to simon mottram over the past ten years?
"The whole journey has been amazing. Creating, from scratch, a brand and business that matters to people and enhances their enjoyment of cycling has been a wonderful thing. Ultimately, it is about having an impact and making things better. As an active road rider myself, my enjoyment of riding and the cycling-related things that surround it have been transformed in the last ten years."
i'm far too laissez faire to harbour much in the way of ambition. yes, i'd love to be able to cycle a bit faster, and i wouldn't mind having just one more colnago in the bike shed, but otherwise, subject to any earth-shattering and unforeseen circumstances, thewashingmachinepost is likely to lumber along the way that it's always done. but then, you knew that already. what does the future hold personally for simon mottram?
"First of all, it's about trying to avoid losing too much speed as I get older. I am inspired by those wiry 60 year olds in France, with legs as strong and brown as if they were carved from oak, still riding every day and loving it.
"I am as besotted with road racing now as I was ten years ago. And, although we are now ten years old and have come a long way, there is still so much to do. It pains me whenever I open the newspaper and see all that coverage of football, with rarely a mention of road racing. The sport has a long way to go and Rapha can play an important part in getting more people to discover the joys of road cycling. I'm looking forward to leading the company through the exciting years ahead.
here's to the next ten years.
rapha's new address is now imperial works, 18 tileyard road, london, n7 9ah. the phone numbers remain unchanged.
wednesday 02 april 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................