Rapha’s prescription for the ailing sport of road cycling is a dash of excitement, a sprinkle of authenticity and a commitment to an ‘alternative calendar’ of racing that will re-engage public interest.
Simon Mottram, founder and chief executive of Rapha, was on hand at the launch of Education First to unveil both the new kit and the philosophy that underpins Rapha’s return to the men’s WorldTour.
‘Racing is why I started the company,’ said Mottram. ‘I’ve done two races in my life, both cyclocross and I’m not very good. I’m not a racer, but I’m inspired by racing. That’s what got me into it and we’ve always been involved.
‘We had the Rapha-Condor team for many years and they wore all black. It was a transformational thing for the scene in the UK and everyone went “oh look, cycling looks cool again”.’
A four-year stint as the Team Sky kit supplier ended at the close of the 2016 season, but the partnership with Education First shapes as a very different venture to the traditional relationship a kit manufacturer has with the team and its fans.
‘We wanted to work with a team who were prepared to do things a bit fun and a bit differently and let the riders come to the front,’ said Mottram.
‘Have more access, show who they are as human beings and inspire them to do amazing things that aren’t regular races. It puts them out of their comfort zones and creates stories.
‘We’ll be stimulating that with our own media, as we’re the media part of the team along with being the kit provider.’
The desire to put cycling front and centre in the consciousness of the general population is again the goal of the partnership with Education First, with Mottram excited not only by the flamboyant kit that the team’s riders will sport in 2019.
‘The sport is plateauing in terms of participation, fans are getting older, there are no new fans getting into the sport and the value of the sport is ridiculously low compared to the big sports in the world,’ said Mottram. ‘That pisses me off because I love the sport of road racing.
‘So we wrote this report – if we got back in how would we do it? The thing that was going to make a difference was to make it more exciting, make it more interesting, more human because it’s become this alien thing.’
Rapha found kindred spirits in Education First – sponsors who are also part team-owners of the WorldTour squad – with the education company keen to see Rapha’s vision for the team play out in 2019.
Key to that vision is the ‘alternative calendar’ of racing that will encompass races like the Three Peaks challenge, the Garmin Dirty Kanza 200, Leadville Trail MTB 100 and the Taiwan KOM challenge.
‘They’ll be doing Three Peaks in the UK, which is basically a running race,’ said Mottram. ‘I’d love to see Woodsy (former middle-distance runner Michael Woods) do that, but he may not want to ride a cross-bike.
‘You get more interest from me and I think a lot of cycling fans doing a race like that than just doing a Tour of Poland or Binckbank Tour.’
With a slight disdain for the anonymous races that can at times clog the racing season, Mottram prefers the focus on the experience of the team, rather than necessarily the number of race wins they can take during the year.
The measure of whether the experiment is a success will necessarily be calculated with a different rubric.
‘We won’t just count the race victories, although for the team they’re all racers they want to win stuff. We’d love them to win stuff, but it’s not going to be all about how many UCI points you have.
‘It’s not about race victories and points, it’s all about number of fans and fan engagement. That’s what it is about for me.’
The move into supporting a men’s WorldTour team seems, on the surface, to be a shift away from Rapha’s core brand, which prioritises grassroots riding, with the formation of the Rapha Cycle Club culture on a local level.
Will the average bunch rider or keen coffee shop roller have the same service and dedication maintained for them, with money, energy and creative thought being poured into Education First?
‘That’s still absolutely front and centre for us,’ said Mottram. ‘When I wake up in the morning what I think about is our Rapha Cycling Club and how that community is feeling and how engaged they are. That’s the number one objective.
‘But having a pro team, a WorldTour team, which we’ve found with Canyon-Sram is incredibly important to that community as well.
‘It’s in two ways: One is it connects to the sport and what they all aspire to is important. They’re all fans too. To actually have a direct link-in and have access to the team – we’re going to have a lot more access than we did with Team Sky for example – for our community it’s an amazing thing.
‘They can go and talk to the riders at special events and ride with them from time to time.
‘The other thing – which we realised when we came out of the [men’s] WorldTour – is that product is really important and a team that will help push product forward will matter a huge amount to the members.
‘We’re not talking about a coffee club or a fan club, it’s a community of people who ride together and want the best kit. You get a lot of those innovations through working with the best athletes.’
It’s yet to be seen just how the new Rapha initiatives will affect interest in the American team, and whether the kit brand can really make the road racing scene cool again.
Showcasing the riders as versatile athletes and real humans – at least the type of human that wears hot pink on a regular basis – at least promises a very different narrative for the public to follow for the 2019 season.