The item on the internet that recently caught my eye was a comment made on the What's New blog. In response to this post, which according to one reader seemed to dwell a bit too much on the aesthetics and beauty of cycling, the reader commented:
"This post was even more Rapha than usual."
Brand as adjective
From the time that Rapha was launched, the company has had almost as many detractors as it's had supporters. As such, the comment that was posted on the What's New blog is itself not all that surprising. On second thought, however, I realized that this was the first time that Rapha— the word—had been used as an adjective, at least to my knowledge. I assume such a thing has happened before, and it probably didn't register with me as I read or heard it. For some reason, however, this comment stuck out in my mind. The tone of a post on a blog, not a jersey, not a photograph....a post, was "Rapha". The person making that comment used the word as shorthand, assuming (correctly I might ad) that those reading it would understand what he meant. Although he used the term in a negative light, its mere use shows the strength of the Rapha brand— a brand that the company has managed to create in an amazingly short period of time. I know the very word, "brand", is nauseating to many (and perhaps rightfully so), but its existence within the world of cycling is in its infancy, and is thus worth looking more closely into.
Say what you will about Rapha and their recent success (most have, and will continue to) but to me, this is an unprecedented moment in cycling and branding. Is this a good thing, a bad thing? Does branding at this level belong in cycling? Honestly, that's not of much interest to me, but the fact that Rapha and its image have become so ubiquitous that such a comment could be made (and understood) is interesting to say the least. After all, how many other brands in cycling would have the same honor (if you can call it that)? How many other brands in cycling can easily become adjectives? Even storied brands, or sizable ones can't make this claim. If you saw a guy on a bike dressed in a certain way, or riding a certain type of bike, could you say he was any of the following?
- That guy was so Pearl Izumi
- The magazine would be right up your alley, it's really Castelli
- I don't know about that dude, he seems a little Santini to me
- I don't like riding with him, he's so Giordana
You get my point. Sure, some other brands paint more of a picture in our minds. Assos, for one, certainly does. This is perhaps due to its pricepoint, and the type of people that can normally afford that clothing (insert joke about dentists, Cervelos and doctors with fancy bikes who ride slow here). But even Assos does not portray a very clear image in our mind. Even bicycle makers who've been around for a significant amount of time haven't managed to encapsulate their brand as successfully as Rapha has. Bianchi, for example, has been around as a bike maker for much longer than any of us have been riding bikes. Sure, the name alone conveys certain imagery. For some, Bianchi is synomymous with Coppi, or perhaps Pantani. This may be true, but if I tell you that I read an article in a magazine, and it struck me as overly Bianchi-like...I have every reason to believe that you wouldn't know what on earth I was talking about. Was it overly Italian? Was the text printed in a weird light green (celeste) color? Was it written in Italy but printed in Taiwan? Who knows.
To many, Bianchi is synonymous with Coppi. To me, Coppi is synonymous with this nude centerfold. Check out his sexy slippers! Hubba, hubba. (As seen here)
So while sizable companies have not managed to create such a strong brand (sorry to keep using that term) other companies have, but only unwillingly. Take Primal Wear, for example. If someone told you that a bike shop was not worth going to because the stuff they stock and its clientele was overly "Primal Wear", would you know what they meant? Sure you would. So oddly enough, Rapha and Primal Wear have a good bit in common. While Rapha has worked hard to craft an image, Primal Wear has created one largely without even meaning to. Funny how things work out sometimes.
A blank canvas
How can it be that a longstanding brand such as Bianchi has not managed to craft such an overt and precise image as a relatively young company like Rapha? While Rapha's products and marketing materials are consistently loaded with brand-correct messages, other companies within cycling offer us their products and little more. Sure, they spend money on advertising too, and they try to let us know about their heritage, but by and large companies in cycling allow us (the customer) to project our feelings about riding on to their products. Their clothing, bikes, helmets or pedals are not as jam-packed with a certain attitude or take on cycling as Rapha is.
For example, what imagery (if any) do Shimano M520 SPD pedals bring to mind? Any at all? Perhaps you think you could use them for your mountain bike, or your commuter bike...but that's about it. No imagery of "epic" rides, the Alps or spring classics are conveyed by the mere mention of the pedals. Even their name is utilitarian and a bit archaic. The pedals do not have a meaning or message beyond themselves. They are pedals, and they are largely a self-contained unit. Done. Compare that sentiment to any of Rapha's offerings, whose descriptions alone tell you everything you'll ever need to know about the inspiration that brought about the product. In doing so, Rapha has created an image for you, unlike the Shimano pedals, which comparatively feel mass produced and uninspired. Sure, they are just pedals. But a jersey can also be just a jersey. In Rapha's case, however, nothing is left to chance. Even their corporate color (pink) is very telling. Yes, pink holds a meaning within the sport (the Giro), but more importantly it's not yellow...that other color within cycling. Yellow is the color of the Tour. It's the color of the race that your co-workers have heard of. It's the color of Livestrong. Pink is Rapha. This is not to say that the Giro is some underground event that no one has heard of...but the subtle difference between the races is enough to make a clear distinction. See what I mean?
In the end, I believe that it's this type of difference that makes people fall on either side of the fence when it comes to Rapha (although for some, pricing is involved also). Up until now, most cycling products were blank canvases, clean slates on which we could (if we even cared to) project our views on cycling. We used these products in the way that suited our needs, and thus wrote our own story as we went along. The handlebars that were scratched during a bad fall. The frame that was with us during that awfully long ride in the rain. Cycling products have always been, comparatively speaking, largely utilitarian. Sure, 1980s jerseys and the colors of some frames back then reflected general trends of the time, but only in a half-assed manner that makes today's cycling companies seem downright design-obsessed.
Today, newer and younger companies in cycling spend a significant amount of time telling us what they are all about. They tell us who their products are for. Their messages speak of singularity, not of plurality. Their messages are specific. Rather than the blank canvas I mentioned above, these companies offer us a paint-by-number option (at best) through which we can merely admire their take on the sport. This is not something that makes Rapha evil. It's merely a matter of how marketing, design and business savvy has trickled down to small companies in nearly every niche market.
Depending on how you feel about that aspect of business coming into your neighborhood (that "neighborhood" being cycling), your take on those companies will vary. Perhaps you feel that cycling was always a bit of a refuge from the world of marketing, at least in the levels that are common in other sectors. Yes, I know that bike manufacturers have long created their own idiotic terminology for the numerous kinds of pseudo-technology that are on their frames. But compared to what goes on outside of the cycling world, these attempts seem largely clumsy and uninformed.
So while cycling has had aspects of marketing within itself for some time, it's not until recently that these objectives began to be executed in the direct approach that we see today. This, I believe, was the undoing of Rock Racing within the cycling arena. Like the Rapha/Primal Wear connection, that of Rock Racing and Rapha may seem unusual at first. But look closer. While most teams in cycling are merely a collection of riders along with a sponsor, Rock Racing was a good bit more. Traditional teams are commonly made up of cyclists who wear a certain jersey. These individuals hope to eventually portray an image based on their performances (Quick Step in the classics for example, or US Postal at the Tour). Through their wins or losses, the manner in which they behave at races, the public will decide how they will view them.
Rock Racing, on the other hand, came out of the gate with an image, a forceful one. How could they have an image (such an overt one) already? While such a brand launch is common in the fashion business, it certainly seemed at odds within the world of cycling. I'm certainly not proposing that Rock Racing and Rapha have multiple commonalities, but I think both brands show how some within cycling prefer the brands they support to be a bit more nebulous, and thus open for interpretation. While Michael Ball often said that he wanted to bring aspects of his world (fashion, design etc) into cycling, those who opposed Rock Racing often sited those very things as the reasons they they disliked them. There were others, surely, but the brand's overtness sure seemed to rub many the wrong way. In the end, I would venture to say that the image that Ball crafted (along with many decisions that went with that image) became the team's undoing. Although we'll probably never fully know what happened with the team's applications for licenses (money, rider signings etc), it's clear that the UCI views the sport in a certain light. Those who choose to portray a different image, and make choices accordingly, may not be allowed to play ball (no pun intended.) I'm getting sidetracked though, so allow me to get back on track. But first let me tell you about frame makers, and how they fit into branding.
Frame Builders/Makers and Branding
Another segment within cycling products that is fond of telling you exactly who they are, rather than building a brand over time, is that of frame makers. This should come as no surprise, since the idea of a frame maker can be easily loaded with messages without much thought. The rebellious artisan, the bearded recluse who works in a far-off workshop, the mathematical stickler whose obsessive compulsive disorder can be channeled for your benefit...these are all images that are often created and fueled over relatively short periods of time, and yet they tell us about the person and their products, without us having ever touched or (more importantly) ridden one of their frames. Thus, the word "brand" has suddenly gone from being a term used almost exclusively by designers within the realm of corporate identity, to something that your next door neighbor and your aunt Sally know about...and will gladly advice you on.
Cycling is a personal affair
So why do so many (or perhaps such a vociferous few) dislike Rapha? Again, the answer can be as simple as pricing, but I think it all goes back to the blank canvas I mentioned above. For some, having a perspective or view of cycling presented to them by a company is not a comfortable exchange. Many believe that no overt messages should be conveyed with these products at all. Within that school of thought, the "brand", if there has to be one, should simply be built on the history and reputation of the company's products. This is how things were, but boy has the world changed. Just as technological aspects of other industries find their way into our frames and components, so too have marketing, branding and design. In the end, I see why some object, and it's largely because of the very personal relationship they have with cycling.
Cycling is, after all, a very personal undertaking. At the risk of sounding too "Rapha"-like, many of us spend hours riding alone, in silence. Even when riding with others, large portions of time are spent silently turning the pedals. Depending on the type of work that you do, or the type of home life that you have, these hours are precious ones because of the silence that is inherent in riding. In my case, at least, I often manage to block out everything else that could possibly go through my mind while I ride. I really only think about riding, which is a significant achievement for an overactive mind like mine (just look at the "epic" length of this post for proof of that).
The moments we spend riding are some of the few quiet ones that we have in our day. Riding is sometimes very difficult, and yet we often struggle alone. This is my take on cycling, and I may be way off. I'm also open to the suggestion that my interpretation may be incorrect because I'm relatively new to actually riding a bike. Still, all these descriptions (whether you find them to be cheesy or perfectly accurate at all) speak of a very personal activity. As such, I suspect that having someone else's take on what riding means, will make some feel uneasy.
I for one, don't care much either way. I'm normally a proponent of design (though not necessarily branding), and admire the work of anyone who manages to get a company off the ground. I prefer objects that are designed to look and function as simply as possible (even if arriving at those solutions is a difficult and complicated endeavor), so I can't completely fault many of their offerings based on aesthetics alone. Most cycling attire is insanely ugly these days and Rapha (though some of you may disagree) has come up with a better solution. A far better solution actually. Additionally, I must tip my helmet (if you will) to any company that supports cycling, one that makes the sport grow, and one that offers a different take on a long-standing activity like riding a bike.
Sadly, I think that many will disagree with me. After all, the typical roadie views the hipster on a fixed gear bike with disdain, he mocks the guy on a cheap road bike for wearing tennis shoes. You simply can't win. There are so many rules, so many ways of enforcing them, so many schools of thought and so much petty anger within cycling. I say this as a person with a significant past in the world of punk rock and hardcore...which (in case you don't know) is filled with nothing but rules, petty anger, and conflicting schools of thought. I'm telling you, if someone who was around to see the straightedge movement take on Hare Krishna beliefs as well as veganism, socialism and pseudo-anarchist thought is telling you that cycling has way too many rules (and way too many idiots preoccupied with them) as well as diverging schools of thought...you should listen. If, by the way, you don't know what I'm talking about...don't worry. You're not missing anything.
As I see it, this all gets back to cyclists wanting cycling to stay small, and not spread or grow in any way...although they would never admit it, and often profess the opposite. In reality, they want to remain special, and unusual within their surroundings...while at the same time wanting to limit and control the way that cycling is portrayed. As I wisely wrote in one of my earliest posts:
It all gets back to cyclists wanting to be part of a secret society, like the Masons. You see, like the Masons, cyclists seem to want secret symbols, and would like their favorite sport to remain virtually unknown...while at the same time crying that there's not enough cycling coverage on TV. Oh, they'll tell you that more people should ride bikes, but god forbid if a guy with a triple crank or 105 shifters gets close to them. Cyclists complain about the lack of safety on the roads, but still want to be seen like oddballs, and enjoy being "weird" because they shave their legs. Well, you can't have it both ways...I'm sorry.
If cycling DID become way more popular, it it grew to be widely accepted (let's just pretend) would some cyclists lose interest? Is the relative oddball nature of cycling its appeal to some? If cycling became as popular as the NFL (or soccer/football in other countries), and your pick-up truck driving neighbor gave up his Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and traded it in for some Rapha gear...if he even got himself a Colnago...how would you feel? Less special? Would your secret club feel less secret? Would you mock him because he wouldn't be worthy of his bike? Is owning a Colnago a secret club? Are you special because you own one? Nonsense. I for one, would be thrilled to live in such a world. I would love to see random people buy bikes for whatever reason. Is the ownership of certain goods limited to those with certain credentials? Should your commitment to cycling be at a certain level before you are allowed to buy certain goods? Should we legislate this by instilling further Category systems for retail? I understand that some may try to "buy" their way into cycling. That may be silly, but is it that bad? Is another person on a bike (even if they ride it very little) such a horrible thing? Who cares.
Branding and design within cycling
The strength of Rapha's brand (whether you see it as a good or a bad thing), should come as no surprise. The company was founded by two individuals with slightly unusual backgrounds within the world of cycling apparel, as was pointed out in this article:
From the beginning, design was going to important to Rapha. Its founders come from the marketing and design sector – creative director Scheybeler had worked as an interaction designer at dot com consultancy Sapient and at brand and digital media consultancy Rufus Leonard. He was involved in some of the high profile internet ventures of the early 21st century including the first internet ventures of major high street banks and travel companies. MD Simon Mottram had left his early accountancy training behind to become a specialist brand consultant, working for, among others, PricewaterhouseCoopers, branding giant Interbrand and Sapient, where he and Scheybeler met.
So as you can see, Rapha's corporate DNA (if you'll excuse my use of such a terrible term) is vastly different from that of other cycling companies. This, I would argue, is a sign of the times. While some prefer the idea of the products they buy (bikes, clothing or whatever) to have been designed and perhaps even produced by a reclusive genius in a dusty workshop, Rapha was a different animal from the beginning. With backgrounds in companies like Sapient and Interbrand, Rapha's founders came to the table with a significant amount branding savvy, particularly for an industry like cycling. In a sense, they came with bazookas to a fistfight. I say this because, much in the same way that bicycles function as they did at their inception (more or less), so too does the marketing and branding that surrounds those products.
Rapha, I believe, is not an anomaly in their industry. Instead, they are probably the first of many such companies in the marketplace. This may upset some detractors of their marketing, styling or pricing. If you are one of those people, I urge you to consider the following: Why do you care? Riding is a personal affair. Why get worked up about the manner in which a company chooses to portray your activity of choice? I say this because it has always struck me as funny that cyclists can ride through crowded cities (as drivers and pedestrians mock them) wearing little more than a wrestling singlet and not care about how the world views them—but the moment that anyone portrays cycling in a different way than how they see the sport—they feel as though they are under attack.
Yes, I know that I've made jokes and references about Rapha in the past, but I assure you that I don't spend a minute thinking about such things. I guess they offer products that people like. They offer a different take on cycling, one that resonates with many. Rock Racing kinda' did too. Rapha supports a team, and they host events that allow people to have fun on their bikes. It may not be your cup of epic-tea, it may clash with your views...I understand. As I see it, riding bikes is good, and people having fun on their bikes is great. Yes, it's the personal aspect of riding that makes the activity so great for me. But it's for that reason that the manner in which others view cycling (or choose to portray it) matters little to me. Your riding experience really has nothing to do with mine, and that's okay. It's for this reason that I urge some people to not think too hard about other people's bike (because it's "too good" for them, or because its from Wal Mart), their components, their jerseys or whether they are worthy of the expensive wheels they may have.
Don't do a mental audit of other people's belongings. Don't tally up the cost of someone's stuff. Don't add up how much others spend, don't count their money and how they spend it. I say this not because it's a futile and tacky thing to do...but because it will take precious moments away from the one thing we all love to do: ride our bike.