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Excess, agony, and Pantani: An interview with Rapha’s founder

Love it or hate it, Rapha has changed the look of cycling; meet that man that made it so

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BROUGHTON HALL, England (VN) — The grounds spread before us as a wide and saturated Technicolor stream, interrupted only by 17th-century stone buildings and flickering light bulbs stitching the North’s habitually angry sky to its pastoral greens.

A black lab bounds up a hill as its older owner labors behind. How many times has the man walked the hill and with how many dogs? He’s wearing a tweed jacket and belongs to the land as he walks upon it, same as his dog, same as all of us participating in this grand painting.

A man with a lean face and brown plume of hair hands me an Americano minutes later in a paper cup stamped quickly, perfectly, with a logo. I woke up that morning underneath a tall ceiling in Broughton Hall, an estate built in the late 1500s.

The cyclists trickle in slowly as the rain falls, announced by upturned caps and tick-ticking hubs. The present lord of the manor, Roger Tempest, scurries about. He is the 32nd Tempest in a recorded line dating from the 12th century. The Tempests are thought to have come to England from Normandy during William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion of England. They were given the land in the aftermath of the invasion, the story goes, and the Broughton estate itself was initially formed in 1407. I always forget that those things actually happen in life. At least until I come to England.

The modern Tempest is asking how one slept, ate, and generally found the entire brushstroke of the English countryside. “Perfect,” of course, I say. I was attending the Rapha Tempest event, which dovetailed with the Tour de France, and I had a few days to spend in the Yorkshire Dales before the Tour commenced in Leeds.

This is all just so Rapha, isn’t it? An experience that’s as curated as it is lived in. The brand invokes a feeling in the industry and is oddly polarizing; you love it or loathe it. It’s tricky to describe the feeling. “It’s the rainbow hologram that gives this credit card a marketing intrigue,” Don DeLillo wrote in “White Noise.” That’s close.

There is something about it that both pulls and pushes on want and need, belaying off the steadfast commerce of desire. The brand is nice and irrefutably so. The brand is expensive and irrefutably so. The brand is different and unabashed and romantic. The brand is confident and assertive and often those traits are labeled as arrogance. It hopes to lay powder over our ugly struggles on our bikes. As the brand toasted its 10th anniversary, VeloNews caught up with Rapha CEO and founder Simon Mottram in Yorkshire.

Over coffee of course.

VeloNews: How did this all start?
Simon Mottram: It’s a simple story, really. I was just a customer, an active rider, not a racer. I don’t come from racing bikes, I always rode bikes. I was in my early 30s and I would go down to my local bike shop (Condor Cycles) and I would go in wanting to feed my habit, spend my money on something. I wasn’t really interested in metal and I couldn’t buy a bike every couple weeks. But I’d come away not spending any money, stuck with the clothing, accessories, and surroundings of the bike. It was so horrible; the quality was really bad. Which is bad enough, because I got to the point in my life that I wanted good stuff when I ride a bike, I really want stuff that works, that didn’t compromise. So, the quality was bad but it was also pretty horrible to look at. You compromise on performance and quality all at the same time. Back in 2000 or 2001, cycling kit was polyester. It still largely is. But it’s just really cheap polyester. You couldn’t buy a jersey for more than 40 pounds, 60 bucks. That’s what the industry said people would pay, and yet I would regularly go buy a pair of jeans for 200 bucks. I was used to spending money on stuff that I didn’t care about. Yet the thing I cared about the most in the world, my passion, where it is quite hard because you carry all the shit with you and you’re going on the bike for seven or eight hours in different terrain, you need your stuff to work really well, and I was prepared to pay for it. Not only that, but why can’t you have stuff that looks good? So why should I compromise performance and style; why should I make these sacrifices? It didn’t make sense. So it used to really frustrate the hell out of me.

VN: When I look at the brand that’s what comes to mind for me, a no-compromise type of brand. Is that how you’d characterize it? And how do you reconcile with those who say it’s too much – in terms of price, general aesthetic?
SM: I don’t want it to be for everybody. So, if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. That’s absolutely fine. We aren’t trying to be something for everybody; we’re trying to be a hell of a lot to some people. If you try to be something for everybody you’ll end up with a brand that doesn’t mean very much at all. You’ll be too spread, you’ll be something so generic and simplistic that you’ll just have a very basic relationship. I don’t want to be like that with customers. This is something that I love. This sport I absolutely love. And most of our customers absolutely love this sport, so when we get together, which is what the brand does, it brings us together. It should be full of passion, it should be full of emotion, commitment, and it should be very well done. Because it’s what it deserves. So that’s what I want the brand to be. The people who like us are people like us and that’s great.

VN: Initially you started doing a couple of jerseys, then you partner with Sky, and the brand is in a very good place. Where is Rapha along its trajectory, though I realize that’s hard to know.
SM: We’re in a very good place. We’re 10 years in and we’re taking stock as you do at those kind of landmark moments. And I thought it would be something like this, but nothing this big, if that makes sense. I knew something was happening around the popularity of cycling but I didn’t know it would be quite amazing as it has been, so we’ve pushed around in amazing ways. We just happened to jump on it before other people did with this wave coming. We’ve done all that paddling and made all of our biggest mistakes, so we’re in a very, very good place. The ambition I have — this sounds ridiculously presumptuous and arrogant — but my ambition is road cycling and road racing, it’s not just for Rapha. My ambition is the sport will become the most important, respected, and popular sport. Because I don’t think there’s any other sport that can touch it and I think we’ve done a great job at making Rapha a respected brand and hopefully we can use that position to go further and help make the sport more respected.

When we started out I used to give out little cards that said “Demand more from cycling clothing.” Don’t accept mediocrity, because it should be the most amazing sport, and you’re going to die a thousand deaths out there on that climb. Why don’t you have the best kit for it? Why should your kit be scratchy or falling apart or not looking good? So it was all about demanding more for the products and I want to demand more for the sport. Demand more from road cycling, from racing, from the racers, the media.

MB: Is there a basic psychology that applies to a brand that says if you look good you perform better?
SM: There’s a quote: “To look good is to already go fast” [by Paul Fournel, —Ed.] …That definitely works for us.

VN: The brand romanticizes the past quite a bit. Looking at the present, is the sport as romantic to you as it was in past eras?
SM: I think it is, but I think it’s doing a really good job at hiding that from the world. So, I demand more from the sport and the sport needs to show itself. It needs to be more confident and say “Look what this guy goes through everyday. See what he feels like every day. See what he sees.” Romanticizing is fine, because it is a romantic sport. We need to romance every moment these guys are going through. It’s not about submitting data and looking at graphs overlaid over a sprint, that’s not going to engage riders like me. It’s about getting in the head of the rider and what it’s like to be at the cusp of cracking and succeeding because we’ve all been there, admittedly at 20mph slower, but we all know what that feels like. And that’s what I want to see in the riders.

So, has the sport lost its romance? I think it’s absolutely still there and our job is to tease it out completely, and it’s about connecting the human experience. It’s all about the human experience. When you look at those guys you know who that person is, you can see right into their being. These guys who are trained to not give anything away, so when you get a Wiggins coming up, or ‘Cav, or something, it’s like “Oh a human being.” Imagine if you had 300 of those out of 500 or 600 top-tier athletes, then we’d have an amazing sport.

VN: Sky is a team that is very number driven and science-based, do you think all that science can pull away from the old time feeling of cycling? In some ways are all the numbers bad for it?
SM: Numbers aren’t bad. It should be about having all of it. I often say that if Team Sky weren’t as analytical and logical as the perception is — and the perception is that they are 100 percent left-brained and super analytical — and people like Brailsford, they really care about the sport and they love going for a ride like we did this morning and having a coffee, and chewing the cud, and equally we weren’t quite as romantic and just caring about color and the 1950s as our impression was. We were somewhat closer, but it was really interesting to put the two together. They want someone who was focused on what they wanted, but also something that they didn’t have. And if you’re going to do top-level racing it’s quite interesting to do it with the best team from a technical point of view. So, it’s an enjoyable dance and challenging, to try to marry those two things. I think we’ve done a pretty good so far. We aren’t even halfway through our relationship yet, so it will be interesting to see what we can do in those two years. It’s not a natural place; it’s all about showing the emotion and human experience.

VN: How would the brand define success in the next phase?
SM: A few different things. One, we definitely want to grow. We want to grow internationally. The U.K., we’re doing pretty well. The U.K. market is on fire. It’s something like one-third or one-fourth of the market, not like a tenth of what we thought it would be. So of course in the U.K. growth will always be a little bit slower. In the U.S. we’re still pretty small but we’ve gotten somewhere. We’re doing incredibly well at a small level in Asia, and we need to expand those European markets, but you don’t just have to do things in the 1970s way. So international growth is really important, but staying special while we grow is my number one brand challenge.

VN: From a style perspective, who’s the guy you look to either past or present on the bike?
SM: Style is an interesting thing. My heroes in cycling are probably not from a style point of view, they’re more from an experience point of view, so Pantani, so he’s my number one hero. From a style point of view, Anquetil is the number one, both from the clothes he wore and how he wore them and his whole look … And also the way he rode, that position on the bike, oh my god. I could look at that all day, and never get anywhere near it. They just look like the film stars; there aren’t many professional riders who look like film stars. I mean, Kittel is obviously a poster boy look, but these guys weren’t poster boys. They were fully-grown men. Anquetil was the one who always touched something.

VN: Pantani of course came during the dark era of performance. Why look at a rider like Pantani and hold him up as opposed to a rider like Armstrong?
SM: That’s a very good question and that’s a question that an American audience would probably find difficult to understand. It comes back to what I was saying earlier about the sport at its heart and the appeal of road cycling to me – it’s all about human experience. It’s all about what it is to be human, and it all sounds ridiculously overblown and like bollocks, but I honestly believe it. The human existence is all about suffering and how you cope with challenges and how you overcome them. And that’s what a bike ride is, in a very simplistic way. The little bit of glory that comes from a lot of suffering. That’s what life is, and that’s the battle. And so I think the people who do that in cycling and the people who show that and the people I connect with as a human being are the people who show that in the most graphic way, as a rider, and a winner, which was Pantani. And he’s a guy who didn’t wear a helmet because you didn’t wear helmets then, but he basically, just everything about him, the way he shaved his head, the way he rode, the way he’d put his arms back like a crucifix when he finished, not because he was being some sort of religious guy.

So for me, it’s obvious why he would be the ultimate. Armstrong had a lot of those characteristics, which I really liked and admired, but he was a bully. He was an alpha-male bully. And Pantani had the fragility that comes with being a human. And Armstrong went from being human and the whole dramatic story of recovery from cancer, I didn’t like him before he had cancer because he was just a Texan bully boy rider who didn’t quite fit, and then the journey back from cancer was kind of great. It was a human story and “wow what courage and fragility.” It’s such a human story, then he just reverted back to being a bully again and lost patience, and that’s not something I’m interested in. Domination isn’t something that’s very appealing.

VN: The thing you seem to like about cycling is the human experience, the whole spectrum of emotion and feeling in one given ride and life – laying yourself bare. I think sometimes the clothing is so nice that it seems like it brings the rider away from the raw experience. Maybe people look at a guy in Rapha and say “he’s untouchable, he’s inaccessible because he’s a certain type of rider, or has a certain kind of financial background.” Could you see that at all?
SM: Yeah, I can see why people would say that. To be honest, it’s not about the image. It’s more about what that person wearing Rapha is feeling and whether they’re buying into it, whether they’re making a connection, and whether they’re seeing the human experience reflected in how we’re talking about it, and the brand and the clothing they’re wearing — does it fit with their human experience? What the person who sees that person thinks is up to that person. So, I think it does depend. It’s more about the customer than the person looking. I don’t think if it’s all about suffering it means let’s make stuff that looks like suffering. I don’t want to make stuff that looks like we’re on death row. Or, that makes me look like Pantani in his room in Rimini before he killed himself … that’s not really the idea. But if the stories you tell around it, and the stories inside the product, and there are just a couple of nods and there’s a really beautiful product that really works, that’s what it really is. It’s just clothing at the end of the day. It’s not advertising. It’s clothing. It shouldn’t be advertising. It should be beautiful and reinforce your own sense of who you are.

Editor’s note: Rapha covered travel expenses, including a flight and accommodations, for Matthew Beaudin’s visit.

An American in France

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