Glory and suffering
Simon Mottram, founder and CEO of Rapha, has a goal — to make road cycling the most popular sport in the world.
“I set up the company because the sport wasn’t being celebrated, and even if I went into a bike shop (which is all about cycling) the products were terrible. They weren’t talking about the sport or showing any pictures of it, if there was a race on they weren’t showing it, and they weren’t talking about it. They weren’t asking about my riding; there were just badly designed products. The idea for the company came from that really and the catalyst was that I couldn’t find anything to buy.
You have to use the world’s best fabrics to make the products elegant, simple, beautiful and attractive to connect on a aesthetic level because the sport is beautiful in aesthetic, it has an amazing look and feel that I think is really attractive and that the rest of the world should recognise.
“The first Rapha collection was launched in July 2004, at a month-long Rapha exhibition of cycling memorabilia and events called 'Kings of Pain'. Since then, the Rapha product range has grown dramatically and the brand has become synonymous with the highest levels of quality, style and performance.
“I was desperately keen to find a role model — a business that was going to go direct to consumer, have direct relationships with customers, with a focus on a niche passion, but after looking long and hard I couldn’t find any direct role model. Patagonia was close as it was focused on Yves Chouinard’s view and his sport. But, while it did go direct it wasn’t quite the same. We have a narrow perspective on the sport of road cycling. Not track, just road. But we do have a very broad range of products (probably into broader categories than Patagonia), stretching from travel to writing books, running cafes and making clothing. In the context of road cycling they all makes sense. I think the reason there aren’t many directly comparable brands, is because it’s really hard to develop a business across multiple categories of product and service categories. Every business in there has its own challenges. It only makes sense to do this if the idea the business is pursuing is so sharp that it is a powerful drive for everything that you do.
“In order to get investment at the beginning, I made a film using very emotional footage of racers in the 1960s — it was cheap and simple — and I put a Pavarotti aria as the sound track. I used this with potential investors, and talked a lot about potential Rapha customers, their lives, and why they like the sport, guys in their 30s, 40s, 50s sitting behind desks, yearning for a more active physical human experience that wasn’t about conference calls, interviews and spread sheets. I did a lot of analysis of lots of numbers, but it was difficult to convince people about the potential of road cycling at the time and it took over 200 meetings to get enough investment to start.
“There hasn’t really been a single ‘breakthrough moment’ in the development of Rapha but rather a series of little steps. We started out with a clear plan and there is nothing we are doing now that doesn’t make total sense from the original business plan. The vision is what has been driving me, that’s why there haven’t been leaps. It has also been important to have been the first to see the market. I think we caught the wave before people knew it was happening — 7 or 8 years ago people started talking about road cycling, The Times and The FT first started writing about it and talking about cycling being ‘the new golf’ and that felt like the massive breakthrough.”
Rapha’s style divides the road cycling community somewhat, as Simon explains. “We do annoy people, some people get quite upset about our attitude and we’re quite ‘out there’. Rapha is not positioned as your best mate, we’re not warm and cuddly. We think like the customer when we are developing products but we don’t position ourselves as the customer. We like to lead the customer, show, reveal and introduce people to things and take them on a wonderful journey. That adds a degree of tension, we always like to be one step ahead. We have a leader’s attitude and we are pretty uncompromising. There is also a certain darkness about Rapha, that goes right back to what cycling is all about. The real appeal of road cycling for those who participate in it is actually the suffering, not the pleasure. Yes, the bikes are great and you get the thrill, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you’ve suffered to get there, physically and mentally. Cycling can be so tough it’s awful; I was standing on the side of the road, watching a race in Italy the other week, and the racers looked at me much as soldiers would if you watched them marching to war. They were covered in grime, they were at their limit; it was painful and not beautiful. I thought I shouldn’t be here witnessing this; that I was intruding on their own private pain. We often use black and white photography and talk about the psychological aspects of the sport and hint at this relationship between suffering and glory. Because cycling is so hard, our attitude has always been that there should be no reason to compromise between the form and performance and style of the products and the experience. We make no apology for wanting cyclists to look great, the sport’s tough but it’s amazing and I want to look great when I am doing it. When we do things well, we do them with humility, creativity and with quality. Some people recognise that what we are doing is valuable, and do like it. We are very polarising and I am happy that we are.”
There is an intensity in the attention to detail when Rapha presents itself — whether through its products, or its stories and films representing the sport.
“We’re often seen as quite a romantic brand, we don’t lead with the technology, we lead with the emotion of an amazing photograph, the moment, the experience, and we’re very happy to be quite romantic about it, because it is a romantic sport and the experience that you sometimes have on your best days on a racing bike is romantic too. Often, we’re criticised for being overly romantic and not being backed up by real performance and real technology. But the people who think that are not Rapha customers; our customers get it. The performance and technology are there in spades, but they are not the primary connection we make with customers and the sport. It is an interesting balance; emotional films and photography with a rational underpinning.”
As one of the sport’s magazines, Cycle & Style, reports: ‘... the clothing is favoured for its high performance, comfort and attention to detail. It may be a joke that some people have engraved on their identity wrist band, “Don’t cut my shorts — they’re Rapha!”
As well as the technology inherent in Rapha products, there are also hidden details such as the labelling of Rapha’s clothing — each product contains a story on the label, a narrative inspired by the legends and characters of the sport. For the launch of Rapha, Simon even got his mother to make him a shirt out of some of these labels — slightly uncomfortable to wear but very on-brand and stylish. It seems that this attention to detail, telling the story of the sport — communicating the glory and suffering — has paid off. From January 2013, Rapha is the official clothing provider to the Sky Pro Cycling team. They will provide a complete range of clothing and accessories to dress Team Sky — the world’s highest ranked team — both on and off the bike. Dave Brailsford, Team Principal of Sky Pro Cycling, had this to say: “Team Sky has achieved this year’s level of success because of a strong and steady vision to find improvement at every level to help our riders win. I see Rapha joining us next year as another step in that direction. They share our ambition and vision for cycling.”
Now that’s a good story, and a happy ending.