New success cycle? Why cycling firm Rapha split from Team Sky

Oliver Gill
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Le Tour de France 2015 - Stage Eleven
Rapha won the kit contract to develop and supply the Team Sky kit worn by three-times Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Source: Getty)

Four years ago niche cycling sportswear firm Rapha beat German behemoth Adidas to supply the kit to the world’s best known cycling club, Team Sky.

At the time, Simon Mottram, its chief executive and co-founder, felt this was the just the platform the retailer needed to take things up a gear.

“We sold a lot of stuff, which made Team Sky some royalties and it was good for us,” Mottram tells City A.M.

However, last year Rapha parted company with the four times Tour de France champions.

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Mottram says: “The connection with cyclists and engagement and getting fans more connected with the sport never worked quite as well as we wanted.

“That was, not a black mark, but disappointing.”

These days Mottram sees his company doing well in what is often seen as a broken sport.

Mottram regularly fits in 10 hours of riding a week into his busy work schedule (Source: Rapha)

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Rapha’s story dates back to 2004. Mottram, who originally trained at PwC before a 15-year career in marketing, went at full pelt to get Rapha off the ground and attract investment.

But with capital secured, the brand was launched.

In its first year Rapha generated £300,000 of sales and quickly established a loyal and growing customer base. The firm now turns over £63m.

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After initially peddling its wares online, Rapha has expanded into a multi-channel organisation.

Aside from clothing, the firm creates other lifestyle brands, travel holidays and boasts a 10,000 membership of its £135-a-year subscription model.

And the cycling company has gone beyond e-commerce.

Mottram says: “I hesitate to say it but we’ve gone from clicks to bricks, which is a horrible expression.”

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With 15 stores open already, rising to 20 by the end of 2017, the firm is growing in a different way to traditional retailers. He says:

It’s much easier to start from the internet side because you don’t have hundreds of legacy leases that you have to get rid or make them work.

This week, Mottram will preach his cycling company’s philosophy to over 1,400 of the great and the good from the global retail industry at the World Retail Congress in Dubai.

Rapha’s slightly queasy mantra is about “putting the customer at the centre of everything we do”.

Mottram explains how this works for him: “For us it’s about building relationships over time.

“Encouraging that person to come back. Helping them to fall in love with the product through contact, before they place the transaction,” he adds.

“A jersey isn’t just a piece of cloth, a piece of fabric sewn together with some zips; it represents a massive day on the bike.”

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Rapha’s high end products come at a price though.

Its lower end shorts and jerseys start at £75, with its more professional shorts setting you back £265. Mottram says:

Somebody said to me the other day: ‘You’ve either got to be very cheap or very good’. And we’re not going to be very cheap.

Rapha ousted Adidas as Team Sky's kit manufacturer (Source: Rapha)

Cycling and the sport’s history are front and centre as we take a tour round Rapha’s warehouse headquarters.

For example, the entire downstairs is home to a mammoth bike park with a full-time mechanic on hand.

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Staff training programmes having racing references; the firm’s emerging leader initiative is called the White Jersey programme, after the Tour de France jersey for the fastest young rider.

“It’s like drip, drip indoctrination. Everybody has a race number as their employee number,” says Mottram. “I’m number one. And when somebody leaves their number goes with them.

“Staff have to come to be prepared to get involved. To get seduced. To fall in love with it. Otherwise, why be here? If you’re never going to be a cyclist I honestly don’t want you to work for me.”

From allegations of doping to concerns over athlete welfare, cycling has been plagued by a stream of bad headlines ever since Rapha launched.

It’s been crisis after crisis after crisis. And yet we’ve seen our sales grow dramatically. And through recessions as well. We’re doing incredibly well with a broken sport. Sort out the sport and we can do even better.

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Among experienced cycling aficionados some scoff at those new to the sport who deck themselves out in full pro team outfits; the kind of kit Rapha was making until last year for Team Sky.

Mottram is not a scoffer though and counters: “The proportion of team kit wearers is less and less.”

Perhaps this explains why Rapha decided to end its relationship with Team Sky: the pro-riders on the stylish flatscreens around Rapha’s office are no longer who its customers want to admire.

“It’s another sign that pro racing is a little bit broken. We don’t even want to wear the team kit. That’s not good is it?”

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