Rapha and I

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Last week the Guardian published an article in which one Dave Nash (“a contributing editor to wheelsuckers.co.uk”) pondered the passionate loathing so many cyclists reserve for notoriously up-market kit brand Rapha.  His reflections are not a complete success.  For example, Nash writes “it’s not just the brand itself that seems to raise their shackles. Anyone who wears their kit is deemed guilty by association.”  Clearly, Mr Nash understands branding - of which “association” is the whole point - about as well as he grasps the difference between “shackles” and “hackles”.  Secondly, Nash is impressed by Rapha’s “commitment” to cycling, noting that their “website regularly posts inspirational essays, videos and photography; Rapha sponsors events, invests in grassroots and women’s cycling and its Super Cross series continues to grow in popularity”; he suggests this helps “promote the brand” only coincidentally, as a sort of by-product of Rapha’s “heart” being “in the right place”.  In short: he doesn’t get content marketing either.  And finally, when Mr Nash blithely pooh-poohs objections to the laugh-out-loud price tag on Rapha’s latest outfit, one is irresistibly reminded of Mrs Merton’s immortal question to Debbie McGee: “what was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”  So, cyclists: just what is it that you object to about Rapha’s new £480 “Shadow” jersey & shorts combo?

Unsurprisingly, then, by the end of the article Nash remains, by his own admission, “puzzled why the high-end brand, and those who wear it, are the focus of such ire”.  However, help is at hand.  Nash enlists the assistance of two characters whose profiles and opinions are neatly illustrative of the differences between “new” and “old” cyclists (I wonder where he could possibly have got that idea).  These two, predictably, fall on the pro and anti sides, respectively, of the Rapha watershed.  Representing the new world is Nigel, sorry, Mark Bourgeois, “executive director of a London-based listed property company” who “only started road cycling two years ago” and who “trains with Rapha CC”.  The second, Henrie “Clifford” Westlake, “has been road cycling all his adult life, but would never contemplate wearing Rapha’s clothing” because it “has become the uniform of a certain sector of ‘new’ cyclists . . . and by that I refer to the stereotypical cliché of ‘all the gear, no idea’.”  Reflecting Nash’s suggestion that cyclists dislike Rapha because it is “all about style”, Westlake insists that “the best way to look good on a bike is to drop everyone on a climb.”   

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This is, of course, total and utter hogwash.  “Serious” cyclists are obsessed with style & appearance: put a newcomer in their midst and they come on like the cast of Clueless.  For example: you know that little smudge of grease you sometimes get on your inner calf?  That is your “fourth cat tattoo” -  because fourth is the lowest category of racer, and having some oil on your leg shows everyone you are so indelibly clueless a novice that you don’t even sit up every night cleaning your chain.  Tee-not-very-hee. 

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Mercifully, Bourgeois has a much better explanation of why lifers like Henrie avoid Rapha: “It’s possible they feel a certain resentment that Rapha has sort of stolen their sport and made it their own,” he suggests.  

This single sentence redeems Mr Nash’s otherwise dispensable article, since it alone provides the true reason why “real” cyclists hate Rapha. To wit: they sort of stole our sport.  Let’s just reflect on that for a moment.

Advertisements for Fat Face, White Stuff and Weird Fish routinely show pictures of fit young people wearing each brand’s stylishly casual designs whilst surfing and snowboarding.  Admiral, best-known for kitting out various terrible English football clubs in the 1970s and 1980s, has been resurrected by new owners, and now offers a range of leisurewear and retro replica team jerseys.  These brands aim to (and successfully do) sell their clothes mostly to overweight middle-aged men who never go within a hundred yards of a football, never mind a surfboard.  In sum: they cleverly associate (see?) their brands with an active lifestyle in order to pander to the forlorn sporting fantasies of a wealthy demographic - exactly as Rapha does with its notorious “art-of-suffering” monochrome images of emaciated hipsters grimly contemplating the Alp they are supposedly about to grind up.  Now - do surfers or football fans complain that Fat Face and Admiral have “sort of stolen their sport”?  The question is, of course, completely and utterly ridiculous.  So why are Rapha and cycling different?  

You can only think someone has stolen something from you if you think it was yours in the first place.  And this is exactly the attitude of many “old” cyclists.  In their minds, they are not merely aficionados, or enthusiasts, or fans, or lovers of cycling.  Cycling is more than a “passion” or - horrors! - a hobby.  They have devoted their leisure time to training.  They have sacrificed their diet to the higher goal of an optimum power-to-weight ratio.  They have meditated on the many commandments of the road.  They have mastered the mystical complexities of heart rates and lactate thresholds.  They have mortified their flesh with embrocation.  They have put away worldly things, and adopted the austere, skin-tight vestments of their calling.  They have been initiated into the arcane secrets of riding with the group.  They have arrived, through suffering, at a sufficiently transcendent state of cardiovascular fitness to keep up with senior devotees on club runs.  And when a fat banker in his bulging £480 Rapha outfit waddles up and says “Hey! You’re a cyclist? Me too!”, their faces freeze with the special sort of horror reserved by the holy for the heretic.  

Other sports do not suffer from this delusion of proprietorship-by-piety.  Until Nike’s Bill Bowerman published his book Jogging in 1966, running was a sport solely for anti-social masochists: now, every year, in the US alone, over half a million people complete a marathon, most of them very slowly (and some dressed as, say, a pair of enormous comedy testicles.  There is no Rapha for runners).   

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The very first Ironman triathlon took place as recently as 1978: now, around 110,000 people every year take part in an Ironman race (and this number excludes participants in events of the same distance run under other brands beside “Ironman”).  Ironman training takes over a participant’s life to an even greater extent than cycling, but no one in that amazingly supportive community sneers at anyone else just for having a go, nor for what they wear while doing so (though sometimes they probably should - for example, when Faris al-Sultan tackles a 180km TT wearing nothing but an aero helmet, a boob tube and a pair of Speedos.  Before you ask: yes, he is German).    

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So where are the hundreds of thousands of cycling enthusiasts, the army of amateur fitness freaks who are going to do the same for cycling?  Of course, there is the Rapha crowd and their immensely popular sportives, also much derided by cycling's old guard.  But there is a whole other constituency you probably haven't even thought of.

Observe a spinning class at your local gym and you will notice a remarkable thing: it exists.  That’s right - a room full of ordinary people, often mostly women, pedalling away like crazy for up to an hour at a time.  Finished sniggering yet?  OK, now consider this: super-premium, celebrity-pleasing US spinning business SoulCycle, which charges a hilarious $34 for one of its 45-minute "joyful, inspirational" classes, is currently running an IPO process which The Wall Street Journal says could value its chain of 56 gyms at $900m.  Nine hundred million dollars.  Who’s laughing now?.         

But this isn't just about money.  The financial stakes are just an index of the potential engagement that our sport and industry is missing out on.  Like it or not, those people are cycling.  And they absolutely love it.  They especially love the focus on motivation, encouragement and supportive socialising which all spinning classes offer, and which SoulCycle has perfected and monetised so ruthlessly.  Of course, not all of these people would be interested in riding an actual bicycle on the actual road.  But it is a fair guess that some would, if it could be done in a way that offers some of the same attractions - whereupon they would discover the additional attractions of being out on the road, in the fresh air, actually cycling.  (And don't forget - if they did come into our sport, they would undoubtedly bring their money with them.)  

But we can only guess how many of them might be interested - because no one in the world of cycling is making any effort to suggest it to them.  They are too busy making weak jokes about grease stains on people’s legs and sneering at middle-aged men in Rapha kit.  

Of course, Rapha aren’t appealing to the SoulCycle set either.  Rapha’s enthusiastic followers are ridiculed and overtly rejected by “old” cycling, rather than ignored altogether like the spinners.  But cycling’s treatment of both groups is symptomatic of an attitude that keeps the sport small, “special”, and largely closed to casual outsiders - in spite of the obvious, enormous and potentially hugely lucrative appetite those outsiders have for it.       

This is far from all there is to say about the Rapha phenomenon, and what it tells us about the state of cycling.  In particular, the secret of Rapha’s success may not be what you think it is: and, if we are right, there is a profoundly important lesson to be learned by everyone in the sport and the industry.  We explore this topic in our next Polemic, which you can find here.  

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2 comments

  • There is a Rapha for runners – https://www.tracksmith.com/

    • Johnny
  • I’m olde and a Rapha fan. The background culture is great and the products of undeniable quality but only bought when the price is right.

    3 markets

    The like self, who are more objective in buying.
    The Nigel’s
    The Lados ? ( Italian slang ) around the rest of the country who think that they should have the £1000 carbon bike in gloss black/red and white to get some weight off.

    Corporate marketers have hi-jacked the bike industry with ridiculous promotions – 2 page £1500 ? add spreads in up to 20 monthly titles by as many as 15 retailers in just UK alone. Add this to web site upkeep of £50 K a year all to make 25% on sale price.

    UK distributors take another 20-40%.

    Design/Manufacturing/Branding/
    Sponsorship of new products
    will be another 50-100%.

    I guess the above have to have this margin for new products to keep sales high as they are without the lower cost luxury and skill of changing words and pictures in to regular and compelling reading.

    So we have a supply industry and gravy train from the Far East/Europe /US where carbon frames ex works cost from £20 and some have a retail ticket of£6500 -£7000 being sold in high street central London and opening jolly with a Masa or Cayenne parked outside.

    On the other hand we have the black v white on paper value, with internet for us to all save money.
    God bless the IBS.

    • dernylez