There are a lot of people in London who have, by any standards except their own, a lot of money. According to the City of London Corporation, across Greater London, well over 350,000 people work in financial services. According to thisismoney.co.uk the average wage of Britain’s “Financial institution managers and directors” is about £78,000. According to the present author, who worked for five different investment banks during a City career lasting over 17 years, these are laughable underestimates of how many people’s livelihoods depend on the City, and how much is being earned by the people who work there. Having interviewed candidates for entry into more than one major institution, I can confirm that £78,000 is roughly what an MBA graduate would make in his first year of employment at an investment bank. Anyone with those skills in that sort of role with more than a couple of years’ experience is making six figures, and it goes up from there. Trust me: these people are earning more than you think, and there are lots of them.
However, there is a downside. The banks don’t just hand the money over: you have to turn up every day and work. A lot. Many workers average over 70 hours a week, and for the first few years of their careers it can be significantly more than that. It is not unusual to get home at midnight, and if a deal is at a crucial stage they often won’t come home at all for days at a time. So, just as these people are earning more than you think, they are often routinely working longer hours than you might imagine.
I know, I know: boo-hoo. But this is not a plea for sympathy. It’s just stating some basic facts of life for a lot of Londoners, and not just financial professionals: they work a lot (and put up with a lot of stress), and they get paid a lot. For those who live this way, there is only very limited time for hobbies and interests - or, as we call them nowadays, “passions”. What’s more, once such people have a family - and most do, sooner or later - almost their entire day is dedicated to serving other people.
Board a bus, train or tube during London’s rush hour and you will be struck by just how occupied everyone is. Some people are working; some are listening to radio, music or podcasts; some reading books; some watching movies; some even studying (during one memorable ride on the underground I learned all about the Antwerp diamond market by looking over the shoulder of an unsuspecting fellow traveller who was clearly on his way to an examination). While many Londoners will publicly moan about their commute, secretly it is often their favourite part of the day - just because it is theirs. Why do you think so many of them move out to Surrey or Hertfordshire as soon as they can afford it? For a lot of them it’s because joining the train early means they get a seat and 60 minutes of peace at the start of the day, and a similar gap at the end of the day where they can shed the stresses of the office and indulge their own “passions” before facing the domestic reality of housework and homework.
Equally importantly, living the London lifestyle doesn’t only limit the time people have to themselves. It also limits the type of passion they can have, simply because it has to be something that can actually fit into their day. This is one of the reasons why so many people have become “passionate” about food and drink (especially wine). Yes, of course, it is partly because of all the cooking shows on TV, and partly because now almost everyone has been abroad and discovered that in other countries they have genuine food, rather than whatever it was we used to eat here. But it is also partly because people are looking for “passions” they can actually pursue in their limited spare time. Well - everyone has to eat and drink. So, such a person might think, if I’m cooking or going out to eat anyway, I might as well make the effort to find out how to do it properly. And when a person with plenty of money thinks that way, it is remarkable how much they will spend, especially on relatively small things. A £30 bottle of wine is an extravagance: but it’s still only £30. A £200 dinner is a bigger extravagance: but it’s Saturday night, I’ve done 80 hours and a day trip to Frankfurt this week, and I’ve earned it, dammit. Besides, food and drink is my passion! Waiter!
Imagine the potential, then, of a “passion” which you can not only fit into your day, but which you can actively pursue during your commute; one which keeps you thin and fit; and one which you can present to your spouse as a way of saving money (an annual season ticket from, say, Richmond to London Waterloo, a distance of about 10 miles, costs over £1,200 pounds: buying a Travelcard for zones 1 & 2 to get you from Waterloo to the office costs about as much again).
Enter cycling! Except, for a long time, it didn’t. For one thing, cycling in London has always been, and largely remains, horrible: the road surfaces are abysmal, the traffic is terrifying (according to the Near Miss Project the average London cyclist suffers one "very scary" incident a week) and the layout and design of the road system is a disaster for cyclists (Rule #3 of road use in London: you will have a cycle lane right up to, but not including, the moment when you actually need one). But, just as importantly, for a very long time cycling was seen as, at best, a form of provincial working-class eccentricity, and at worst, an admission of being either penniless or a cheapskate (or a student, i.e., both).
What is more, in general, a typical urban cyclist's equipment and kit were generally consistent with any one of these unhappy hypotheses. The average two-wheeled commuter, trying to deal with the twin threats of weather and other road-users via multiple ill-matched layers and a hi-viz vest, resembled nothing so much as a poorly mummified scarecrow who has recently taken a job with the council. Cycling was therefore about as attractive a lifestyle choice as heroin addiction, with a similar life expectancy.
This has changed, for various reasons. Cycle lanes and other road infrastructure, while still inadequate, have improved. The government has introduced schemes to subsidise cycle-commuting through the income tax system. Large employers, especially those of pampered bankers and lawyers, are far likelier to offer showers and secure bike parking facilities for cyclists. The Olympics of 2012, The Wiggo Effect and the success of British Cycling have all played a role.
But two factors stand out. Firstly, there were the terrorist attacks of 7/7. Once the dangers on the underground and even the buses seemed even more awful than those on the surface and in the saddle, it was a short step for some people to take to their bicycles. And then, yes, there was Rapha, who finally offered our cash-rich, time-poor walking clichés the potential for treating themselves to bits and pieces of stylish clothing and equipment.
Today, if you stand on one of London’s bridges at around 8am on a weekday, you will be passed by what seems like thousands of cyclists (and their numbers are increasing: Transport for London expects that soon cyclists will outnumber drivers on the capital's roads). Between them they will be wearing a huge variety of kit: from full-team-replica outfits to donkey jackets and jeans. The Guardian article discussed in our previous Polemic referred to “packs of Mamils riding in head-to-toe Rapha . . . around London”. If these “packs” exist, the present author has never seen them (though the occasional individual certainly does fit the description). But what one does see is very many regular cyclists wearing one (and sometimes more than one) really nice item - maybe something as simple as a base layer, or a pair of shorts, but at least one special garment that they treated themselves to, because cycling is their thing, and they work like stink, and they have the money, and it’s made of a fabric that’s soft & comfortable enough to die for, and they don’t think that much before spending £200 on a shirt the rest of the time, and it’s only the cost of a Saturday night out anyway, and they deserve it, dammit. And almost all of those really nice items are, of course, made by Rapha.
So this is the first part of Rapha’s secret - which isn't much of a secret, as in numerous interviews (such as this one), Rapha founder Simon Mottram has claimed that Rapha’s success simply comes down to their offering a stylish alternative to the hideous cycling kit that was previously available. But there is another, subtler, cleverer thing, which is related to the subject of our last Polemic.
It is an appalling cliché to say that “cycling is the new golf”. But in one important sense at least, cycling is nothing like golf. Anyone who takes up golf even remotely seriously will very quickly join a club, and for the majority of golfers the social element is far more important than the sport. After a few early lessons most golfers don’t improve much, and don’t care; they play for exercise, relaxation and to socialize.
Cycling clubs, by contrast, are assuredly not for the casual enthusiast. To some extent this reflects the nature of the sport: "serious" training, focus and improvement are all relevant to cycling in a way they are not to golf. But even people who get into sports for fitness don’t do it only for that reason. They do it for fun, for friends, or just because they have seen it on TV and like the style, romance and glamour of it. Most sports offer a grass-roots structure for potential enthusiasts to get involved: beginners, and their money, are not just welcome but urgently sought after. But what if you want to get into cycling? Even if you had time, you’re not going to train for four hours a day just so you can sit in a scout hut talking to a load of old blokes about gear ratios and then get dropped within ten minutes of starting a ride. So, you pick up a magazine, download a podcast or two, buy a bike and start riding around on your own. And then . . . you keep riding around on your own. Even if you wanted to - and you probably don't - you’re never going to breach the immense chasm between, on the one hand, the daily commute plus an hour on Sunday morning when the rest of the family is in bed, and on the other, joining a serious club, lathering up your legs for a shave twice a week and being routinely forced into a ditch by the dagger-sharp elbows of a bunch of cadaverous obsessives. But remember: you have plenty of money. You deserve to spend some of it on yourself and your passion. So where do you go from here? How do you follow that passion?
Rapha’s clever trick is to appeal to exactly these people, by filling exactly this gap. In a nutshell, Rapha doesn’t just finally give aspiring cyclists something nice to buy. It gives them something to buy into. Take a look at their website, which is (roughly) half kit-shop, and half other stuff entirely - ride-outs, features, holiday offers, details of film nights, and exhibitions and other events at Rapha’s cafés, or rather "Rapha Cycle Clubs". These latter are not to be confused with the (hugely popular) “Rapha Cycling Club”, offering members “the chance to participate in club rides, races and specially designed events . . . [plus, a] dedicated RCC smartphone app and a members’ forum [which] will connect you directly with your fellow club members, locally and all over the world, and our printed magazine, Mondial . . . sent to you twice a year”. In other words, far from "stealing the sport" (as suggested in the Guardian article mentioned above), they have created a completely new world for the casual “new” cyclist to explore - one which is based on, but wholly separate from, cycling’s “old” world.
Conquista carries no torch for Rapha. For all its “investment in cycling”, Rapha is fearsomely commercially-minded, and sometimes genuinely cynical. Founder Simon Mottram is undoubtedly a cycling enthusiast. However, he is also a professional "luxury brand consultant", who bought the "Rapha" name from a defunct French team and hired an army of designers and marketers quite consciously to exploit the (mostly juvenile) fantasies of his (mostly male) customers. Unsurprisingly, then, its prices are preposterous, some of its products more so, and its monochrome “art-of-suffering” advertisements are perhaps silliest of all. And its designs are not always as stylish as their reputation: Canyon-SRAM’s 2016 team kit appears to have been inspired by the 1992 Aston Villa goalkeeper’s jersey. It is no secret that, in every respect, Conquista prefers the timelessly elegant (and less inflammatory) Isadore Apparel, founded and run by the WorldTour's Velits twins.
But in the year to February 2015 Rapha turned over an impressive £38m, 30% up on the year before, and with no end in sight to the growth. Further, last year, tiny-by-comparison competitor Vulpine completed a wildly successful crowdfunded capital-raising, which valued their business at an amazing six times its ca. £1m p.a. turnover. Apply the same multiple to Rapha and you get an enterprise value of £228m (arguably it should be higher, since Rapha, unlike Vulpine, is solidly profitable). That value could be in our sport, rather than stuffed inside Simon Mottram’s £200 "leather musette".
The whole of cycling, from local shops to pro teams, likes to complain about the economics of the sport and industry. The likes of SoulCycle (discussed last time) and Rapha amply demonstrate that there is plenty of money out there for cycling to go and get. But once again, it isn’t just about money: it’s about the health of the sport that we all love that matters, and that depends on getting new people engaged and enthusiastic about it. Perhaps we could start by recognising the potential especially among casual enthusiasts and commuters, figuring out what it is people want from cycling, and then coming up with alternative ways of giving it to them - rather than sneering at them for taking what Rapha will sell them.