To visit Rapha at their North London headquarters The Belgian and I stayed in Camden. In central Camden in a hostel of migrant workers that got up and out at 5am. And had a shared bathroom. No amount of chia seed, exotic fruit yoghurt fair trade energy boost shakes can offset the feeling of being woken up that early when you don’t have to by ten pairs of boots walking to the shower in five minute increments then down to the front door half an hour later. So as attractive as the gentrified cafeteria’d liberalism at the top of the road looked the night before, even it wasn’t enough the morning after.
It seemed paradoxical that to visit the higher orders of the cycling world for lunch, we had lived the breakfast routine of the contemporary workers of the land (or more likely railway line here). Still, as we pulled up to Rapha and I explained the architectural coolness of a gentrified old London industrial building to the Belgian, the giveaway it was Rapha was subtle. And a good hue of grey.
Inside and immediately caffeinated the first thing I picked up on and that surprised me a little if I’m honest was the volume of the bicycle commute. I mean you’d naturally assume that I suppose But I’d always felt that perhaps Rapha HQ would be more of a city based player amongst the advertising giants and consultancy mazes in the west end. Architecturally it fitted with my preconception perfectly, I could see it being housed within walls like the Hoover or Michelin buildings in west London suitably tastefully decorated in confidence of understatement and some grey painted brick, so this made sense visually and was why i headed straight to the door able to read the signs of design language over traditional markers like shop sign and nameplate. As we met our guide and coffee provider Kati her southern states American accent drifted conversation sideways across the pond that led as cycling does, to a mutual friend. The sloped ramp into the building to our right with the slogan ‘ride with us’ daubed in a good typeface on the tastefully grey painted concrete had tyre after tyre roll over it, down into the heart of the building and park up in a basement bike park complete with lockers, showers coffee and sofas. I remember thinking this was the kind of office a cyclist would dream up if asked to. And I suppose, the boss upstairs is and had. The fact that so many of the staff, in fact by the volume of taken racks probably the majority, had ridden in to work was what had pleasantly surprised me a little. As we’d all watched as Rapha had grown over the years and gone from being a cameo role in cycling’s travelling opera to a mainstream sponsor of a golden age in a relatively short time and then re-invested that kudos in an intelligent way that could cross platforms and branch out from pure sport origins like a good premiere brand can shift it’s shape, I assumed one would possibly see BMWs of management pulling in to Rapha’s HQ to talk spreadsheet to each other in a bubbled microcosm of a cycling lifestyle company that was and an investment opportunity that could be. But to see a workforce arrive keenly at a cycling A-lister in force by bike was both reassuring and would help form my overall impression of Rapha beyond my previous third party experience of solely products and marketing.
I have met Simon Mottram in passing a few times. A warm and interesting man, every time I think next time I must take him one of the St Raphael bottles stockpiled with all the old puncture repair tins in my local postman’s Saturday morning garden brocante sideline through the next village to mine in southern France. Naturally when we were ushered in and seated there were St Raphael bottles dotted around his office. And that made the runner up prize of my local supermarche’s actually quite good madelenes more appropriate in some ways as a real bit of contemporary France in a bag even if sadly not with the added charm of being from the local postman’s garden bric a brac shop.
As the Belgian spoke to Simon and I observed through a viewfinder and listened without pressure of reportage but the luxury of pure interest, the one thing that came across subtly but clear was that as big and powerful as it had all become and no doubt the implications that come with playing at that table in the big game do bear weight, this ultimately was a cycling company that had always been and still was a cyclist’s baby. That bloodline and heritage has been criticised by some as lifted or absent altogether but that is I think to write this off prematurely as a ‘new money’ exercise of branding and intention and perhaps to miss the point of the people in this building and in particular the one in this room. In some ways this is a simple celebration of cycling and what has always made it visually interesting and culturally relevant and what still should. Subtle colours and designs pointing toward a notion that an aesthetic isn’t an optional extra to functional ability or a timepiece that needs stay in decades past. As a live conversation design keeps moving and shouldn’t stop and stagnate but to not draw on it’s past lives is to miss the point of it’s evolution I think. Perhaps it could be more that some stand out designs of the last hundred years carry with them contemporary or historic reference points, from typefaces to car designs there are usually clues to visual language or nods to contemporaries in there somewhere and with using those visual clues in a small way comes the recognition of their past context somehow.
Strangely the visual language of this room and it’s angle poise lamp, 30s window glazing and plan chest desk all spoke clearly to my architectural London upbringing, but the display of cyclist lead miniatures, sew on patches of old and a graphic design desk expo of small posters and trading cards all took me back to my French postman’s home brocante immediately. If he should get sick of the clothing industry one day and need a change I am sure Simon could become a successful broncanteur and revenue aside perhaps as it’s a slow business I imagine, probably enjoy finding old puncture repair tins in car boot sales and house clearancescleaning them up and forming dioramas for passing cyclists on their way back home from the bakery after their daily turning of pedals.
In a way it felt like more of a visit to a cycling clubhouse to me than an international brand HQ I appreciate I wasn’t here involved in meetings or mission statements but sitting in Simon’s office and dunking madeleines in fresh coffee talk steered away from cycling as I find it sometimes does in situations like this, often to four wheels, but this time found itself instead in the southern French lifestyle of this Londoner turned mediterranee. Both with a common theme in our lives of the search for an ideal Southern French cycling patch to call home a from home, I found our conversation shifting between cols, those brocantes and the neighbours in my village of 30 considering it a metropolis compared to the next one into the valley a few kilometres away with 11 permanent residents. Perhaps a gathering more than a community but as usual one outnumbered by felines.
Frenchness put to one side, I was given a guided tour of the house of Rapha. Open plan with beamed ceilings and bright roof lights, long drawing tables with groups of Raphetes at laptops or unrolling plans on paper it felt familiar in many ways to an open plan design studio. Not territory segregated by cubicles like so often is the template of the office, more fluid a layout than that. All adding a feeling of openness and a youthful energy that I had imagined would likely be too free range for such a big hitter now.
The Belgian got kitted up with Simon ready for a morning constitutional round Regents Park in a conveyor belt of office workers on wheels free’d for an hour amongst the trees and relatively traffic free roads of one of the royal parks that act as location marker to air traveller and google mapper alike. Watching the two leave the city parked round the corner and pedal into the greenery it was interesting to see Simon and fellow cyclists wave and say hi, most with little knowledge of the cycling gravitas of their nod recipient.
Post ride but pre lunch we packed up ready to depart Camden and head into Soho to show the Belgian the RCC base in Wardour Street. When we made a wrong turn and entered the congestion charge zone in a big branded Belgian van I decided to bin our idea of parking and going on the tub and drive the Belgian straight into the heart of the beast instead to give him an education. This was relatively straight forward. Nothing seemed to have changed much since my teenage visits here decades before. Even the excellent magazine shops I used to buy unheard of American bike magazines in were still flourishing but still hadn’t cleaned the windows since. The price of parking round the corner in Berwick street perhaps hadn’t quite frozen in time in the same way. This shocked the Belgian underwriting his first experience of the Rapha cafe somewhat, but what felt interesting about it to me was it had the same feeling as the first time I walked in years before. A lovely cafe of course, with lovely bikes and clothes dotted about yes, but a feeling of being surrounded by your people. A micro community stopped for an hour in a genuine global metropolis where outside the door anonymity bustled to and fro again hooting horns but not conversing. I imagined the next RCC outpost being my hamlet in France and then remembered cats aren’t really affluent enough punters for the cycle trade.
Coming back from the bathroom with the quote scrawled mirror I photographed myself in nearly a decade earlier, I found the Belgian having a conversation with a table of motorcycle cops baffled by why their BMW bike wouldn’t start and amazed at their luck of having a Belgian motorcycle journalist ask them the time. Another cup of tea’s police motorbike interview became a lie in a Soho gutter looking at a BMW engine’s business end, and in two minutes the Belgian had the Police mobile again with advice on what to get fixed on their particular model. It felt fitting somehow that in this big grey city with it’s millions of humans we’d forged a simple path through a day and made friends and helped strangers in need in a way that would seem unlikely in a capital city but natural in a small French hamlet run by cats.
As we headed up the M40 to the next chapter in our road trip of this island I once called home talk drifted to motorbikes and the Belgian’s deep knowledge of a whole other world on wheels. That drive was an education to me as much as the lack of a greeting at our next b&b was an embarassment for my foreigner. He did close this page with a private shower in his room this time though and I a broader understanding of the south Yorskshire dialect Rapha. And of course the knowledge of why a BMW GS won’t start parked at a particular angle.