nothing's much of a surprise anymore, at least not in reference to that which transpires in professional cycle racing. after only one season, mark cavendish decides that a green jersey is all but unattainable from within team sky, and not only transfers to quickstep, but does so free of charge despite having more of his contract yet to run (at least, so we've been told). who would ever have thought you'd watch not only the first british winner of the tour de france, but the selfsame yellow clad rider leading out the world champion to win on the champs elysees?
i'd be hesitant to contend that the upper echelons of pro cycling constitute something of a clique, but there's little doubt that this is at least partially true. it's inevitable that people get to know other people, and such is the nature of social etiquette, it's unavoidable that such connections, to all intents and purposes, bring the formation of 'clubs'. i have little doubt that many conjoined in such a way are all but oblivious to such happenstances, but that's the way of the world. and it's not solely confined to the world of cycling.
on the outside, looking in.
there's a dependency of sorts that generally brings out the best in people and, on occasion, what others might perceive to be the worst. but without these cogs within cogs the path of professional cycling would be less well oiled.
according to a press release issued at the beginning of 2013, rapha's ceo simon mottram stated "I have known Team Sky's principal, Dave Brailsford, since he first began to establish the team he presides over today. His progressive philosophy and drive within the sport resonated with me then and continues to serve as an inspiration. For Dave and his team to have chosen Rapha as their clothing partner is the best possible endorsement of the quality and performance of our products."
do we believe him? is it not simply commerce speak, common within many industries, to aver that one's product has 'been chosen' by the higher profile partner? brailsford has guided wiggins, froome and the remainder of the sky tdf team to two tour podium positions in less time than he (seemingly rashly at the time) committed to at the team's formation. in similar fashion to the rider who wins the world or national championship; his worth in every sense of the word is subsequently raised to an all but unquantifiable status. so would you not think it well within his (sir brailsford's) power to make whatever choices he deemed fit, including that of whose name is on his team's apparel?
it is a remarkably poorly kept secret that team bicycle suppliers suffer in negative terms. rather than any team requiring to pay for their bicycles in the way that you and i must do, it is incumbent on those intent on playing within the professional milieu to not only supply a requisite number of race, time-trial and training frames but at the same time, pay for the privilege of so doing. so, a bit like the dishonest riders who taint opinion against those riding clean, any suspicions of vast sums of money changing hands in order to field a logo on a jersey are not entirely unexpected. and i did ask the question.
rapha, however, are a mere eight years old, going on nine. and though they now occupy an entire floor of the former piano premises at imperial works in kentish town's perren street, they're still a very small business in the face of corporations the size of sky broadcasting. mottram's friendship with dave brailsford had apparently previously raised the subject of rapha supplying kit to team sky, but the scope of such a venture was thought to be outwith their capabilities at the time.
however, good things will generally come to those who wait, and brailsford apparently never lost the notion of the partnership eventually bearing fruit. when the subject came up yet again in 2011, particularly in the light of the team's present clothing contract coming up for renewal at the end of 2012, the answer morphed to a more optimistic 'maybe'. as evidenced by recent events and press releases, that has become a definite yes.
it seems that team sky genuinely chose rapha.
i have had many conversations with simon mottram in the past eight years, over which time it has become very apparent that perren street does nothing that was not a bullet point on a three or five year plan. even notions and events that seem could only have resulted from an earlier happenstance have been likely written in stone some several months earlier. so was the likelihood of providing apparel for the world's top road-racing team included in any of those plans?
"I used to think that sponsoring a team was a pretty crude way of building a clothing brand. 'Buy this jersey because it's the same as the one Lance/Mig/Greg/Marco uses' looked expensive and crude and didn't seem likely to work with the more knowledgable and mature riders we were targeting. I still think that is true. If we were merely looking for ways to build awareness, we wouldn't be looking to sponsor a World Tour team and hoping for the benefit of 'your logo here'."
rapha has always been about more than just offering a wide range of cycle clothing, in some cases emulating apple by offering items that we didn't know we needed/wanted until set before us. were the converse to be the case, why oh why would there be so many expensive-to-make films listed on rapha.cc? why would some of the world's finest photographers be displaying their black and whites throughout beautifully printed catalogues and web pages? why would there be a veritable plethora of stories featured across all levels of those black white and pink pixels?
i recently spoke to rapha's uk marketing manager, laura bower, about the team sky partnership and throughout the entire, lengthy conversation, there was a complete absence of marketing speak. everything, and it seems to matter little to whom you speak at rapha, revolves around bringing to the attention of the world, the fact that cycling is indeed the king of sports. there is an inherent need to tell stories about the activity we all know and love; the exploration of different avenues it seems, is an endless quest. of course, those stories also help to sell sportwool.
simon mottram continued: "Partnering with Team Sky makes sense for two reasons that are more ambitious and much more important to us (than simply displaying the company logo on the collar):
"Firstly, the opportunity to use access to the world's best team to tell better stories and connect more people to the sport of road racing. Celebrating the sport has always been a core part of what Rapha is all about. We have spent the first eight years exploring the places and events of the sport with stories and products. Although we have had some access to individual riders in the past and still count a number of them as friends, as Rapha has become better known, those professionals' official clothing sponsors have tightened up access and the potential to work with them on features and events. It is increasingly hard for us to celebrate the sport and engage people if we are effectively 'shut out' of the highest level of racing. Working with the Rapha Condor (now Rapha Condor JLT) and Rapha Focus teams continues to have a great deal of value, but that's clearly not the same as having access to the World's top races, through the eyes of the best riders. Team Sky is a wonderful platform for creating insightful and inspiring content."
rapha, however, is no longer simply one that offers apparel to the uk and european markets, the traditional stomping ground for teams such as sky. there may be one or two ventures to other continents in the light of the uci's globalisation of the sport, but the bulk of racing tradition is still firmly rooted in mainland europe. my own perception of north america's appreciation of the professional metier was one that had substantially diminished over the course of lance armstrong's two high profile retirements. in which case, would the partnership between black, pink and blue have as much impact commercially across the pond as is presumably hoped to be the case over here? would the stories that could subsequently be told hold the same relevance in places such as portland, chicago, new york and los angeles?
i asked rapha's general manager in north america, slate olson, a man who has logged a considerable number of air miles in the pursuit of the thin blue line this past year. "I don't know that professional cycling took a step back when Lance hung it up. One way or another, Lance has kept himself and the sport in front of a wider audience. Sadly in 2012 it was for many of the wrong reasons, but still Lance and cycling were taking bold ink. If you ask many outside of the US, I'd suspect that they all felt the sport could once again thrive when the era of Armstrong's dominance ended and he retired (the first time).
"Cycling in the US continues to grow, the success of Colorado's Pro Tour Challenge is a great sign that professional cycling still has a growing and excitable audience here in the States and while there isn't a "new Lance" for the broader US to follow, there are some incredible Americans in the peloton. Team Sky has the likes of the quiet, hard-working Coloradan Danny Pate, and the two new kids- Ian Boswell and Joe Dombrowski- are going to be capturing the imaginations this year and for some time to come. Getting to know the team the little that I have already, it is abundantly clear that this team has brought a completely new approach to building up and bringing out the most from their riders. They have brought a holistic approach to health, fitness and performance- far different than anything the sport has known in the past. I'm excited to see what Ian and Joe do as part of Team Sky this year."
in which case, the tie up between sky and rapha would appear not only to be a win/win situation but one that is perhaps more astute than it would first appear. additionally, there always exists more lateral markets, some of which take their lead from the land of the football supporter. with the ink on the contract probably still drying, initial offerings from imperial works consist predominantly of replica kit and perhaps the odd peripheral garment, but rapha will also offer supporters of sir bradley, chris and associates, the very garments that will allow them to stake their own corners of the pub, come the next four julys.
according to laura bower "we'll be producing a replica team jersey that offers a more 'relaxed' fit, one that could be worn to the pub or supermarket by those fans who'd like to show their support." simon mottram concurs "The second reason this all makes sense is the opportunity to create even better products and connect the team to their fans by offering a much broader range of products for sale. We are getting under the skin of the entire team, from the riders and soigneurs to mechanics and coaches, looking for ways to add more performance and style. We don't think that any other company has looked far from the basic racing kit to add value. We can do that. And we can make much more of it available for people to purchase and try for themselves."
it's easy, from our point of view, to look upon the goodies that will be heading in our direction via the rapha website, but in order for that all to make sense, the team apparel itself has to reach the parts that other team kit failed to reach. with no disrespect to rapha, they are not the first cycle clothiers that spring to mind when discussing state of the art performance fabrics, and i confess that i've never seen rapha and wind-tunnel testing in the same thought bubble. however, they are able to hit the ground running, so to speak, having developed their pro team kit over the past couple of seasons with their own race team. in this, they have an excellent product and one that already has experienced racing success, albeit at continental level as opposed to that of the world tour series. known predominantly for being at the vanguard of the merino and sportwool resurgence, how will they deal with hi-tec areas such as those pertaining to the time-trial?
rapha designer, graeme raeburn; "Team Sky were active in development, testing, and improving of fabrics and designs when it came to aero-crucial products. We have very good relationships with the best fabric suppliers and garment makers, who have been very happy to work with us (not just in the advent of the Team Sky news) and provide us with the most suitable solutions for specialist products based on their experience." for those with a rapha fetish, the possible availability of stylish and performance-based cutting-edge is an encouraging thought.
"Rider feedback is very important as well. `Psychologically a rider might prefer a 'faster looking' fabric, or a simply a more comfortable option to wear next to the skin. We look at all these factors, and make the most appropriate selection, and with an open mind that we can evolve the design over time."
it's a not inconsiderable undertaking to kit out an entire team with both race kit as well as leisure apparel, and even if no money has ever to change hands, that's going to be expensive. currently, in conjunction with condor cycles and new sponsors, the jardine, lloyd, thompson group as well as focus bicycles in the usa, rapha support two race teams, ones that may conceivably place fewer demands on the company's wherewithal, but two concerns that might now be perceived as occupying unnecessary space. not so, according to simon mottram "The success and enjoyment we've had working with the Rapha Condor and Rapha-FOCUS teams in recent years has set us up for this next step. We remain committed to continuing those relationships, just as we look forward to forging more through this exciting new partnership."
though the joys of the american cyclocross experience have been brought to the uk via two years' of ian cleverly's successful rapha supercross, and jeremy powers' victory in the usa cyclocross nationals in early 2012 have brought the rapha name to sporting prominence in north america, one does have to wonder how the european race experience will translate to the 52 states. slate olson has little worry on that score. "I don't think anything will match the UK's energy and support for Team Sky, but I do think we have a chance elevate the sport- the stories and the riders- and to grow the following of Team Sky from America. We have always had fans of Rapha Condor JLT in the US, and that was for a team that really people could mainly follow through online race reports."
it is undeniable that rapha usa's pursuit of the 'rapha continental' franchise has crossed the atlantic with little effort. telling illustrated stories of the road less travelled while riding hand-crafted bicycle frames is something that we can all easily identify with, even if we ourselves are only moderately tempted to follow suit. can the sky affiliation work in just such a way in north america?
"I have to think that being able to watch Team Sky at the highest level in the biggest races, will have a positive impact. I don't think it will have the same personal impact that the Rapha Continental has had by the very nature of how personal and approachable the Continental is vs. professional racing. What is great about the Continental is the inherent journey and call of the open road, something that is open to every single one of us, we almost instinctively get 'it'. Racing is something most of us really can only be in awe of, especially at this level. I've never had any misgivings about being able to compete at the highest level in anything, but that doesn't mean I'm not inspired by the heroics and efforts that I watch play out on TV, and occasionally bring those visions into my own rides."
there are, of course, greater implications brought via the apparently simple notion of becoming the jersey sponsor of team sky. this seemingly innocent move places rapha in an entirely different perspective than has been hitherto the case. for now rapha have potentially added the ability to offer custom clothing, something that many have clamoured for over the years. of course, there have been isolated examples along the way, but nothing that would have led to constituting the arrangement on a more formal basis. the guys that comprise the rapha new york riders have jerseys that reflect this association, and i have, in a jersey drawer upstairs, a rapha pdx jersey featuring a sponsor logo for river city bicycles.
as a result, it seemed a not unnatural question to ask laura bower as to whether all and sundry will now be able to ride rapha clothing emblazoned with their own team colours. "It's something that's been requested for a long time, but until now, we weren't really set up to oblige. However, though I can't put a specific time on it, it's likely we'll be able to offer a custom service towards the end of 2013." and while it's perhaps a bit early to have tabled such considerations, are rapha likely to bid as supplier to other world tour teams in the future?
whatever you think of the conjoining of sky and rapha, and irrespective of how much or how little you wish to support sir brad and his knights at the round table, it would be very hard to deny that, while it may not be the greatest step forward for the brailsford empire, it's a move that spells interesting times ahead for perren street. former mountain biker, david hemmings has been engaged as the rapha/team sky commercial manager, several current employees at imperial works will have their job titles and responsibilities subtly or considerably altered, while a few more will join the rabbit warren that is rapha's nerve centre adjacent to kentish town's railway line. in a mere eight years, rapha have gone from offering a black or white sportwool classic jersey to becoming a major player in the world of top level professional cycle racing. i asked simon mottram if it would be true to say that this is a landmark in the company's short history?
"Absolutely. This could be the most significant thing we have done in the short life of our company. Only a few years ago, I was a fan peering over the fence at races, trying to catch a glimpse of my heroes. And here we are today, close partners with the greatest team in the World, the yellow jersey winner and the World's best coach from any sport, talking to them about products, finding out what makes them tick, looking forward to sharing their highs and lows through the season. It's quite amazing really."
if i personally experience any disappointment about the partnership, it's that poor old sportwool, the very fabric that rapha single-handedly brought to the fore after years of wall to wall polyester, seems to play little or no part in all of this. granted, sportwool has to be screenprinted (rather than the more ubiquitous dye-sublimation) constraining a fast turnaround when logos need to be added or removed for a specific event. but i for one would have liked to have seen the fabric adorned with bits of blue amongst its black during those three weeks in july. that is, however, something of a trivial concern. that the british-based and currently 'best team in the world' have partnered with a british-based clothing supplier is, i think, cause for celebration. we may no longer rule the waves, but a few cobbles, mountains and another yellow jersey would go some way to redressing the balance.
sunday 6th january 2013..........................................................................................................................................................................................................