Change of gear

When Bradley Wiggins rolls down the start ramp at next summer’s Tour de France, it will be a historic moment for British cycling. After decades as under­performing outsiders on the continental racing scene, British riders and a British team will be the ones to beat.

It will also be a historic moment for Rapha, the company whose clothes Wiggins and his Team Sky colleagues will be wearing, thanks to a four-year deal that begins on January 1. Winning the right to take over from Adidas as kit provider to the world’s top team is a major coup for the eight-year-old company. Rapha has a staff of just 65 and sales in 2011 of £13m; in contrast, Adidas has 47,000 employees and sales of around £10.8bn.

Details of the deal are under wraps until next Friday, when the new Team Sky range, including cycling and casual wear, will be unveiled. Cycling forums are already buzzing with speculation about the kit, replicas of which will be snapped up by thousands of fans, and there is also a persistent online rumour that Rapha has brought in designer and cycling enthusiast Paul Smith to create it.

Whether or not Smith is involved, Team Sky riders are certain to stand out from the rest of the peloton. For Rapha has pioneered a new aesthetic, both in its products and the branding surrounding them, abandoning garish fluorescent colours in favour of dark, sober tones designed, in part, to reflect the pain and suffering that are integral to the sport.

“If you went into a bike shop 10 years ago, the clothes were pretty hideous,” says Simon Mottram, 46, Rapha’s founder and chief executive. “It was gaudy, had logos everywhere, the fabrics and the quality were poor – it was as if it had been decided that people who ride bikes wouldn’t be prepared to pay for quality.”

We are talking in his office at Rapha’s headquarters, a Victorian factory building beside railway tracks in north London. Although it’s pouring with rain and close to freezing outside, a sleek carbon bike in Rapha colours sits in the corner, fresh from his morning commute (so keen is Mottram on the sport that he allows his staff to start work at 1pm on Wednesdays, so they can get more riding in).

While taking part in amateur events such as France’s Etape du Tour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he became increasingly aware of a new breed of cyclist – professionals in their thirties and early forties who were discovering a challenging escape from their cosseted office lives.

Jacques Anquetil races for the St Raphael team in the Tour de France during the 1960s

“I thought, ‘Ah, you’re like me, I’m not alone’, and I started to build the idea of Rapha around people like us,” he says. “These were people who were interested in clothes and design, used to going to nice shops but, when it came to cycling, were expected to conform to this hideous DayGlo skinsuit look. It frustrated me that the industry hadn’t noticed people like me coming into the market and it became an obsession.”

A former branding adviser to companies such as Chanel and Aston Martin, and strategy director at consultancy Interbrand, Mottram was well qualified to set about designing a brand to meet the demands of this affluent, rapidly growing demographic. As he talks me through the process that followed, he pauses to pull out old brochures, photographs and documents from filing cabinets and boxes around the office. His eyes light up when he finds a slightly battered hardback book – “Do you have this?” he asks. “You’ve got to get it!”

It soon becomes clear that the book, Le Tour de France intime by Philippe Brunel, is a key source of Rapha’s design DNA. It’s a collection of historic Tour de France photographs, mainly from the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than showing the peloton sweeping past in a blur of colour and shiny kit, it reveals exhausted riders behind the scenes – soaking their feet in a bidet, chewing a glove nervously, staring at photos of their families.

“It really connected with me,” Mottram says. “Because you see them as regular people, it makes what they do on their bikes that much more impressive – these guys are like film stars.”

Rapha’s grand tour shoes, chamois cream and lightweight cap

Rapha’s first collection bore a distinct likeness to the clothes in the pictures, and its promotional shots to the pictures themselves. Mottram shows me a pre-launch brochure for potential investors that features “Glory Through Suffering”, an essay summing up the essence of the brand. It talks in romantic terms about the grim heroism of cycling, spelling out in words the emotions contained in those old photographs.

Production techniques in the 1950s and 1960s made it difficult to show lots of sponsors’ symbols on shirts and Rapha copied this logo-free look. Colours were muted and there was lots of black, leavened by small flashes of pink (in reference to the leader’s jersey of the Giro d’Italia, the sport’s second-biggest race); traditional materials such as leather and merino wool were used instead of cheap synthetics. The Rapha name came from the junior squad of St Raphaël, a historic French team whose stars included Jacques Anquetil and Tom Simpson.

Rapha founder Simon Mottram

Instead of a written logo, a coloured strip on the left arm was adopted as the brand’s signifier. This echoes another shot from Brunel’s book, of British riders wearing black armbands the morning after Simpson’s death from exhaustion during the 1967 Tour de France – though Mottram says he didn’t notice this until after the first collection had been launched.

Just as unique was the marketing. The clothes were unveiled not at a conventional product launch, but as part of an exhibition in London on the history of the Tour called Kings of Pain.

“I realised our range at the time was so small – there were nice things, but it was so insignificant – so I went to Paris with €10,000 in my pocket to buy loads of vintage caps, photographs, old magazines and so on. At the exhibition and online, we surrounded our pathetic range of products with all this vintage stuff and it made it feel bigger, fully formed.”

Instead of display advertising, Rapha continued to fund exhibitions and events, as well as beautifully shot magazines, books and films. Instead of shops, it opened “cycle clubs” (currently in London, San Francisco and Osaka) which, as well as Rapha products, had cafés, collections of cycling memorabilia and big screens to show live races. As a result, it looked like a company devoted to promoting the romance of the sport, rather than one concerned with selling padded shorts.

Rapha’s brevet jersey

The formula was an immediate success. Sales grew rapidly, rising threefold between 2007 and 2009, and tripling again by 2011. The brand’s positioning made it easy to branch out into all aspects of the sport, from skincare products to luggage, coffee cups and – new for 2013 – a range of upmarket cycling holidays.

Some cyclists complained about the prices (shirts cost as much as £175) and derided it as a brand for bankers. But Rapha was unabashed, going to almost laughable lengths to create the ultimate products. So the chamois cream (to prevent saddle sores) is scented with lavender from Mont Ventoux in Provence, the shoes are made with yak leather (softer apparently) and the gloves have padding borrowed from those made for army snipers.

The Sky deal takes Rapha into new territory – from upmarket niche to mainstream. “It’s a classic problem for brands,” says Mottram. “How do you retain purity and authenticity while selling to more and more people?”

One likely solution is a move to soften the branding, perhaps playing down the arm stripe that has become Rapha’s trademark. “It’s very visible but perhaps too visible – you can see them coming a mile off. When Rapha gets to a certain size, like it is in London, you don’t necessarily want something that strong.”

Another approach is to manage supply – the company has stopped doing sample sales in London – and to create separate collections within the brand. It already has a “secret” range, with distinct colours and trims, sold to its best customers by invitation, though Mottram won’t reveal any details.

Such has been Rapha’s success that it has inspired a spoof website mocking its penchant for exhausted-looking models and profound copy. “I love it – it’s brilliant,” Mottram insists through only slightly gritted teeth. “Great brands polarise opinion – they don’t let you sit on the fence.”

The picture caption relating to the image of Jacques Anquetil has been amended; the original was dated incorrectly

Tom Robbins is the FT’s travel editor

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