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The good cult: Behind the scenes at Rapha

Emma Cole
23 Nov 2021

With CEO Simon Mottram set to step down, things are changing at Rapha, with the new watchwords being diversity and sustainability

Words Emma Cole Photography Rob Milton

'Rapha is a cult, but a good one,' says Rapha's CEO and founder Simon Mottram. 'People aren't buying Rapha because they want a badge that says they're a cyclist, or a certain kind of cyclist.

'It is much richer and deeper than that. It’s about how much they like cycling and about who they are as a person.'

Mottram will step down as Rapha CEO at the end of the year, though he will remain on the company's board of directors. Under his tenure, Rapha's popularity has become undeniable. In fact, the British clothing brand grew 30% last year and is on track for the same growth this year. And it has longevity on its side too.

Rapha's Classic jersey is still one of its top ten most popular products, more than 17 years since the company launched in 2004.

 

'The boom in cycling over the pandemic exposed us to lots of tailwind,' says Mottram. 'We're one of those lucky brands who were in the right place with the right proposition.'

Communicating that proposition, however, has been more challenging of late. Rapha's base is near King's Cross in London, yet like the rest of the world it has had to adapt to new ways of working, now operating semi-virtually with a reshuffled office and a hot-desking policy, meaning empty chairs for much of the time.

 

'My biggest challenge is to get everyone to understand what matters in the company as it gets bigger.

'It used to be really easy when we were smaller and people knew what my instincts were, but now that we are much bigger and semi-virtual, it’s a lot harder. I used to know everyone's names but now I often see groups of people I don't know.'

Before the pandemic, new starters would have a one-on-one chat with Mottram where he would 'just talk at them', but since the pandemic they watch a few films and chat with him later.

The company is recruiting all the time and makes a conscious effort to achieve gender parity. Rapha's workforce is now 46% women, although this figure dwindles considerably at senior levels, with only one woman in the leadership team compared to five men.

 

Bringing in balance

Attempts to diversify the Rapha workforce have also translated into expanding the brand's audience and offering. For example, Rapha's women’s range has been the fastest growing part of the business this year. 'We're getting some momentum in women's cycling as there are more women riding,' says Mottram. 'We want to get even more women riding and for Rapha to be the brand of choice for them.'

Rapha has also tried to reach a more diverse audience by investing in grassroots cycling. The company's charitable arm, the Rapha Foundation, recently funded a British Cycling City Academy Hub pilot scheme in Hackney. Its purpose is to increase cycling participation in under-represented groups, essentially by putting bikes and coaches where kids can see them and encouraging them to try it out.

'Women and ethnic minorities are two of the most significant audiences that will transform cycling,' says Mottram. 'We can't make this the most popular sport if over half of the world's population is excluded.

 

'There's a lot to be done to make cycling more accessible. When I was a kid we all used to learn how to ride a bike, you got a little badge for it and it was a great thing,' he adds, clearly fond of these memories. 'We should reintroduce cycling proficiency lessons in schools.'

Rapha has also recently expanded its off-road range considerably, which according to Mottram had always been in the pipeline but had been put into 'turbo boost' mode thanks to the pandemic.

'We did some research on our customer base and most of them own more than one type of bike and more than half have a mountain bike,' he says. 'I think people who live in big cities are looking to change things and get away from the traffic, so off-road is growing massively, whether that be cyclocross, bikepacking or gravel. Right now we're all enjoying taking adventures off-road as much as on-road and the brand needs to comfortably live in both spheres.'

 

Sustainable integrity

This wide-lensed approach filters through to Rapha's increased focus on environmental sustainability. 'Our understanding of the issue has grown from a small concept of who we are in this small corner of London to having a planetary perspective,' says Duncan Money, Rapha's head of social and environmental impact, who has been working full-time on sustainability since 2019.

The brand published its sustainability commitments in March 2021, which include becoming carbon-neutral by 2025 and scaling the use of 'environmentally preferred' materials (recycled, certified organic or animal welfare versions). Rapha currently produces 90% virgin materials and 10% environmentally preferred materials by volume but has pledged to flip this on its head by 2025.

'Some people might be not impressed with 10%, but it’s all about what we’re trying to get to,' says Money. 'It's a journey, and we’ll be doubling that figure nearly every year to get there.'

 

Rapha says integrity is a key tenet of its approach. The brand won't market a product as environmentally preferred until this accounts for more than 50% of the product by weight.

'I'm not going to put a tiny recycled patch on the back of a T-shirt and then sell it as recycled,' says Money. 'Our core lightweight jersey has a back panel made from recycled materials this season but we haven't told anyone because it's only 30% of the garment. Once we get that over 50% we will start telling everyone. We set ourselves internal thresholds so we always stand behind something that we can believe in.

'It's an integrated approach across the business and every one of Rapha's core values applies to the work we're doing on sustainability,' he adds. 'We are also driven by consumers asking more questions. I really encourage and depend on this because it keeps us honest.'

 

However, he is frustrated with cycling's paradoxical nature. 'Wouldn't it be great if the way in which we enjoyed the sport was in alignment with how sustainable the activity is?' Money says, adding that those not working on sustainability will get their 'comeuppance'.

Mottram agrees: 'For years we told ourselves that we're in cycling, so we must be good, but the ultimate output for the industry itself is not, and it's shocking. We have to correct this.'

But Mottram is also clear that cycling comes first at Rapha: 'The number one thing for the business is passion for cycling. Everything else is secondary. If we were to be fully sustainable but cycling goes nowhere, that would be failure in my book.'

 

Broken shop window

This unequivocal passion for cycling has propelled Rapha to its current heady heights, and produced a cult-like following along the way, but Mottram himself is not content with the current state of the sport.

'I'm obsessed with the shop window of the sport and it's not great,' he says. 'The fact that the men's winner of Paris-Roubaix got £30,000 and Lizzie Deignan didn't get £30,000 until Trek topped it up is madness. Add in Emma Raducanu winning $2.5 million for the US Open tennis and it gets even more insane.

'Is the US Open bigger than Paris-Roubaix? Millions will have watched both but there are millions more people who cycle than play tennis. It makes me so angry. We’ve got to sort that out.'

 

Mottram is visibly frustrated but doesn't believe there is the passion for change within cycling. 'Someone needs to come in with £100 million and fix it but that won't happen,' he says. 'There are lots of entrenched interests and it's an old sport with lots of old men running it.'

Despite his disappointment with the industry itself, Mottram is clear in his own mind about the sport's future.

'It might be another 20 years or so before we realise that there are millions of miles of road for which the bike is the perfect vehicle and cars are not, but I firmly believe the future of cycling is on the road.' Perhaps for Rapha too.

Duncan Money on…

Rapha's head of social and environmental impact on reading and riding

…Books

'I'm reading about five at the moment. I'm reading A Field Guide To Climate Anxiety, which I highly recommend. I'm also reading The Green Grocer, which is about the director of Iceland and the work he's done to improve the organisation. I'm reading Bill Gates' How To Avoid A Climate Disaster, which is another good one. Oh, and on a lighter note I've also just bought some Hemingway.'

…Greenwashing

'I think there's a difference between marketing something and making something sound more important than it is. If we know that what we need to do is to get everybody onto renewables, and a company says that's what it's going to do, then that should be celebrated. It's them standing by their commitment publicly.'

…Cycling

'I used to ride ultra-endurance multi-day bikepacking events. I did the Race Across France in 2018 and came seventh. I actually signed up to do the Transibérica in 2019 but ended up at a sustainability conference instead. Now it's just laps around Regent's Park.'

Simon Mottram on….

Rapha's CEO on riding, travelling and driving a cab

…Off-road riding

'I ride it all the time. I can do a loop from my house in North London without really hitting many roads, just using parks, bridleways and footpaths. It’s a full-body workout because it’s chaos. You don't go very fast, but you're exhausted by the end.'

…His favourite bike

'It’s an Explorateur. A friend makes a proper racing travel bike that comes apart at the seatpost, frame and bottom bracket. It folds into two triangles that fit into a small bag. It has been all around the world with me.'

…Life after Rapha

'My wife says I would be a minicab driver because my nickname is Maps. I really enjoy map reading. But I would be a cycle tour guide as that is my favourite thing in the world. I would lead rides in Mallorca or the South of France and take groups of friends and show them a route they’ve never been down. It’s so fun and you get to see everyone's delight at the end. That fulfilment every day would be amazing.'

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