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Essential Journal

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Talking Shop: Rapha, Old Spitalfields Market

We sit down for a coffee and a chat at Rapha’s East London clubhouse with London Marketing Manager, Jess Morgan, to chat niche origins, office-ready cycling apparel and biking goals for the year ahead

“It used to be all about suffering.” Jess Morgan tells me, as we perch on stools at Rapha’s Old Spitalfields Market clubhouse. What might sound like an intense conversation starter is actually a reference to the brand’s original slogan. Although Rapha still caters to the serious side of cycling, Jess tells me, the aim is now accessibility.

There’s still the expensive lycra, serious accessories and competitive cycling on the clubhouse TV, but there’s also clothes for commuting, cycling awareness events and bikes for hire at each clubhouse. In fact, as Jess reveals more about Rapha, from the cycle travel wing (think a travel agent for cycling trips) to the benefits of cycling club membership (free coffee for a year) it becomes quickly apparent that Rapha is more than just a place for ‘mamils’ (middle-aged men in lycra).

With the company’s first ever brand campaign encouraging anyone and everyone to embrace two wheels and ‘change your scenery’, we sat down to find out how a website selling merino wool cycle gear turned into one of the world’s biggest cycling communities.

Essential Journal: Morning Jess. Where does the Rapha story begin?
Jess Morgan: Rapha was founded in 2004 by our CEO Simon Mottram who is a really keen cyclist. He was working as a consultant, but was also doing these massive trips through Europe. He found that although he could spend a lot of money on high-tech cycling gear, bike parts for instance, when it came to cycling kit, everything was ugly and made of very cheap materials.


And how did the company grow from there?
Originally the company was just online, a very basic website, then we grew a passionate fanbase who really got the brand. They loved the ethos, that it was connected to cycling history, that it wasn’t just kit. All of our kit has hidden story labels on the inside of pockets and parts of clothing, they just tell stories about the sport of cycling and people liked that. We also ran events and rides, something that other brands don’t really do. We are very community-based.


Where was the first Rapha store?
The first store was in Osaka. We had a London pop-up on Clerkenwell Road, but we didn’t have a permanent shop until six years ago. We call them clubhouses because they’re places people come to after they’ve been on a ride or just to hang out.

Since then the number has grown. Now we’ve got 23 around the world and that’s within the last five or six years. We’re in America, Australia, Asia, every city around the world that has a significant cycling community, we’re there and growing it, trying to get more people on bikes. If we were just online, we couldn’t do that.

In terms of brands, you’re unique in the fact you only stock your own Rapha apparel…
We’re direct to consumer. We only sell Rapha and we’re not stocked in any other stores. You wouldn’t be able to go on Wiggle for example, like the other brands. That was a conscious decision. We didn’t want the brand to just be about buying clothes, we wanted the community with it.


How has the range of clothes expanded over recent years?
We started off with the classic collection, which was bike kit. Black merino sports wool, basically everything was black for a couple of years with a white armband. Then it grew. The classic collection was inspired by the kit they used to wear in the golden age of cycling and then to react to people getting more into the serious side, we brought out this pro team kit which was what you would buy if you wanted to look fast.


Was it around this time you began sponsoring Team Sky?
We then got the opportunity to sponsor Team Sky which was huge for us as a business as we were only nine years old. Then we had four years of making kit for Team Sky so they were pushing us to do the best stuff we could. We were doing things that hadn’t been seen before in the pro peloton.


What about the city range? How did the idea of clothes that could be worn off the bike come about?
Following on from that we started making the city range. People aren’t always doing long road rides and again, Simon’s great in this respect. He wanted something he could ride to work in and then wear in the office all day. The city range began with some jeans and a shirt, then we did collaborations with Paul Smith and Christopher Raeburn which was great. It showcased us as not just a cycling company, but off-bike leisurewear too.


Are there any especially popular items?
We do stuff that’s for quite a smart audience, but over the last few years the men’s collection has been getting a little bit cooler, aimed at a more casual younger audience. We do a loopback jacket, that’s nicely cut and looks great, but it’s got these subtle details for being on the bike. On t-shirts there’s reflective strips on sleeves if you want that extra bit of visibility and peace of mind when you’re not wearing head to toe high-vis. We’ve done research and found that it’s not just about being covered head to toe in high-vis or reflectivity. Something like a stripe, can work just as well because it’s about seeing contrast.


What is London’s cycle culture like?
More people are cycling, but the hype surrounding cycling has died down a little. Cycling infrastructure is improving which is really good and more people are riding their bikes. It’s important for us to think about those hardcore cyclists, but also about being more accessible. We started with this intense slogan, ‘suffering is glory’, making suffering the coolest thing about cycling. Whereas actually, if we’re going to make this accessible, we need to make it about having fun and going riding with your friends.We’re trying to break down the stigma of riding your bike in London.

What are the Rapha Cycling Club members like?
Our CC members are brilliant. To join the club, it’s an annual membership. You pay £135 for a year and that gets you free coffee in any clubhouse around the world. The reason we do that is it helps to build a community, so people will come to the clubhouses, hang out, meet other people. We get about a dozen people that come in everyday and they spend time, have meetings here, and they’ve integrated themselves so much with the brand that they’re almost part of the furniture. Earlier there was a whole gaggle of people that came in. You can spot them because they’ll be wearing the grey and pink RCC kit. Members are integral to the clubhouses. Without them we’d just be some shop. People that come regularly, even if they’re not cyclists, coming here they usually become cyclists.


We’ve been told in the past that everyone working in the Rapha office has to have a personal cycling goal and they’re all on display in the office. What is yours?
I’m racing a little bit. There’s this series called the Red Hook Crit that I’m competing in Milan in October and I’d like to get a top 20 finish. I haven’t been training much recently though. My other one is to do Manchester to London, a ride we organize. I’ve organized it for the last four years, but this year I’m not, so I’m riding it. It’s 120 miles from Manchester to London in one day.


What does the future hold for Rapha?
July is a big month for us because it’s the Tour De France. We’re doing lots of rides and lots of parties. We’re going to have a wine tasting here in this space because it’s such a vibrant and cool area. We’re trying to engage other people in the community, people who aren’t hardcore cyclists but who are interested in standard leisure persuits, so we’ll be doing yoga for cyclists, spinning, we want to make a wellness trifecta. You don’t have to be a cyclist to come here, you just have to be open to being fit.

Rapha, 61-63 Brushfield St
London, E1 6AA;

Words by Davey Brett
Image Credits by Thomas Sumner