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Profile: Rapha CEO Simon Mottram

Sam Challis
11 May 2017

Rapha CEO Simon Mottram tells Cyclist about the highs and lows of dealing with Team Sky, and his future plans for the brand

Like everything to do with Rapha, the company’s headquarters in north London are in keeping with the brand aesthetic. The simple brick building is unassuming yet stylish, nestled in the increasingly trendy King’s Cross area.

A ramp leads from the street down to glass doors that slide open automatically, so it’s possible to cycle straight into the bike racking area that takes up part of the ground floor.

Inside, the Rapha office has its own cafe with barista, and beneath the exposed rafters and whitewashed walls are lines of sleek desks adorned with iMacs. 

As a working environment, it blends the functional with the fashionable, the classic with the modern – a bit like the clothing that has turned Rapha into one of the biggest brands in cycling. 

At the head of it all is Simon Mottram, the former corporate branding specialist and lifelong cycling fan who set up Rapha in 2004 at a time when the sport had yet to experience the explosion of interest in Britain.

Rapha’s range now comprises more than 750 products, but initially it was far less comprehensive.

‘When Rapha started we didn’t even have bibshorts,’ Mottram tells Cyclist as we sit in his office, surrounded by cycling memorabilia and nicknacks.

‘For most brands in the market bibshorts probably made up half their sales – that was always the way because it is a piece of equipment a rider can’t live without, and you can charge a lot of money for bibs.

‘We wish it could have been that way for us,’ he admits, ‘but it’s really hard to make bibs that fit well and work well, with the right chamois, so we didn’t do it for almost two years.

‘Even then the first iteration of our bibs, I have to say, was pretty poor. We made a lot of mistakes, as you often do when you go into a new territory. We made a pad that worked for me, but not anyone else… it took us a couple of years to get it right.

‘But then those Classic bibshorts pretty much remained unchanged until this year – we’ve had them for 10 years now. That more than anything tells me that we nailed that product, and now maybe 30-35% of our sales are bibs.

‘I don’t see people wearing Rapha jerseys with Assos shorts any more. That used to piss me off.’

Sky’s not the limit

Rapha’s redeveloped Classic II bibshort is spearheading an entirely reengineered range of lower-half apparel.

While Mottram says he believes Rapha has the best designers in the market, much of the learning that informed the redesign came from the Team Sky partnership, which ended at the close of the 2016 season.

‘Team Sky aren’t, sorry, weren’t shy about telling us about anything that they thought could be improved on. That whole relationship has been really amazing, and it has definitely transformed our brand,’ says Mottram.

‘It wasn’t easy, though. If I could draw it on a graph, it would be a massive crash, followed by a rebuild and then it really progressing in the last two years. It really was a huge learning curve, and we went into it slightly blind.

‘We’d worked with pro teams before Sky, but only at a domestic level, and it was just light years ahead of that. Formula One versus kart racing, really. So we were hit with the full Team Sky hairdryer: “This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.” So we built it from there.’

When Rapha was confirmed as kit supplier to Team Sky in 2013, the size of the task it had taken on soon became apparent.

Each rider required 780 items of kit every year for four years, all of it custom-made and adapted to suit the needs of the individual.

‘Chris Froome is allergic to silicone so we used natural rubber in the grippers of his shorts. It was a level of attention that Sky really appreciated as it fitted naturally into their marginal gains policy,’ says Mottram.

Yet it made life very hard. ‘It made me question what we had got ourselves into, but we clawed out of that and the last two years have been brilliant. I’d say it was an expensive but very worthwhile exercise.

‘Any brand that loves the sport, if you are given the opportunity to be able to associate with one of the top teams you should be wrestling your grandmother to do it.’

That doesn’t sound like the opinion of a man ready to be stepping aside from an involvement with the professional side of the sport. Indeed, according to Mottram, Rapha will always be involved with pro racing. 

‘It’s such a part of our DNA we have to be, but I think now we need to have a few years not involved with a WorldTour team,’ he says, ‘Once you’ve reached a certain level I don’t think you get that exponential reach or advantage from it.’

But that isn’t the only reason Rapha is stepping aside. ‘The hard truth is that the WorldTour model is broken. It’s just not sustainable in its current guise,’ Mottram says.

‘Unreliable funding sources mean teams come and go with confusing frequency and the race calendar is beginning to become incomprehensible.

‘I think it no longer connects with its audience or attracts newcomers, so until there are structural changes in that world it’s not worth our money to be involved.

‘There are other ways of engaging with customers by being involved in the sport again. There are so many interesting things going on around endurance and lightweight touring, brevet riding, grassroots racing, urban cycling – all these areas that we can help and support.

‘So we’ve got other plans at the moment. We’ll always consider getting back involved in the WorldTour, but we want to help change the sport in other ways right now.’

Same but different

Wherever Mottram places his focus, he says it’s always with the ultimate aim of making cycling the biggest sport in the world. For that reason Mottram thinks Rapha, despite its evolution, hasn’t deviated from its initial and core purpose. 

‘It was always about absolute passion for the sport,’ he says, ‘about making cycling brilliant because it’s the greatest sport in the world. But I think the way we get there has moved on a little bit because there are different challenges now.’

At the very beginning Rapha was solely focused on apparel because Mottram thought cyclists should be able to buy high-performance products that looked stylish, a niche that was fairly lacking in the market as recently as 2004.

‘The only things that were simple in terms of design were in such horrible colours and crap quality at the time when I was buying cycling clothes,’ he says.

‘We were the first to change that, so we had seven to eight years of being the only ones doing pared-down, elegant stuff that everyone wanted to wear.

‘Cycling time is your best time, so it’s got to work well, and you only feel as good as the momens so you must look as good as the moment. That sounds cheesy but it’s true.’

Rapha’s success wasn’t lost on other kit manufacturers, and soon there were a large number of brands producing decent-quality, understated (and pricey) apparel, so Mottram felt that Rapha had to innovate again. Team Sky proved a useful canvas from which to display a change in direction.

‘Data Print was our first real exploration into overt design. The chevrons and patterns were derived from riders’ power data. It was chosen for Team Sky because, obviously, they’re all about data.

‘Any time we’ve done something that’s a bit overstated, it’s because the story that we’ve represented dictates that design.’

Whether Rapha stoked this change is uncertain, but it’s certain that cycling fashion has changed markedly in the past few years to something bolder and brighter.

‘I’m going to Australia soon and I’m slightly terrified about the visual cacophony I’m going to see out on the road,’ Mottram says.

While he isn’t against the change in style he feels it hasn’t necessarily been for the better. ‘You get brands that are open about focusing on fashion rather than performance, but others now hide behind bold design,’ he says.

‘There will be a massive correction in a few years time. There has to be. Everyone will revert back to plainer design.’

Rapha’s focus on elegance and quality is not just about making jerseys – it’s part of the whole Rapha ‘experience’ that underpins everything about the brand and lends itself to other business opportunities.

Beyond being a clothing retailer, it also sells luggage, books, crockery, grooming products and headphones. It also has a global cycle club, cafes, sponsored race events and travel packages. Mottram hints that there is more to come.

‘Our mission now is to reach more people, help them get started on their cycling journey. Obviously we will continue to expand our focus on equipment with this in mind – our Core collection is a step towards that – but our RCC, having a club that members join, that’s a revenue stream that’s very interesting and works towards what our goals are now.

‘As riders ourselves there are a lot of things that Rapha tries to do to make our riding lives better. Sometimes it’s creating innovative products, but increasingly some of those things are experiences or helpful services.

‘So it means anything is fair game for us going forward, with the caveat of: if we can work out how to do it right.’

Bigger than big

For many brands there’s a sense that the boom in the UK road cycling market is dying down, and that new growth is hard to come by, yet Mottram has confidence in the future of his brand, which he puts down to a willingness to try new things.

‘Whether it’s new styles of riding, or new categories of products, we have the confidence to give it a go. I always have faith in our new ideas because I know the calibre of our designers, our product people.

‘We know who our customer is. For example, taking our focus on super-lightweight race kit and brevet riding – nobody else was looking at those as categories that needed their own products, that are disciplines in their own right. But we thought it would work so had the courage to do it.’

Boldness aside, Rapha is seeing much of its growth coming from abroad. Around 75% of Rapha’s sales are now outside the UK and it has more than 300 brand ambassadors around the world.

Their job is to join Rapha Cycle Club rides and integrate with the riders. Mottram thinks the insight they provide is invaluable.

‘They’re out there riding with the customers, questioning and looking and researching and feeding that information back to us, so we have a perspective that I think most brands don’t have.

‘Most brands talk to their wholesalers, who talk to their distributors and they talk to the customer. We’re out riding with the customer all the time, so I think it gives us an insight that is different and so useful.

‘It’s the reason people will see us do things and go: “Oh, why have they done that?” Sometimes it won’t work but other times it does and that’s how the brand moves forward.’

Having talked about progression, Mottram is quick to be cautious about Rapha overextending its reach, noting it’s always possible for a brand to collapse under its own weight. 

‘I’d say we are reaching the limit of what we’d really like to cope with. The return for the long tail end of our products and services currently isn’t very high so we have to be careful.

‘Then again, you can have one jersey or one pair of bibshorts that does it all, but that’s like having a Swiss Army knife, and wouldn’t you rather have a shed full of tools than a Swiss Army knife?’

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