From Lance to Rapha, Cycling Moves to the People

As with many dutiful cyclists I tuned in for part 1 of 2 of the Oprah public relations event confession. I’ve struggled with what to write about Lance both as a journalist and as a cyclist because I have a lot of emotions over this. After a night of thought the journalist side of me has completed what I feel is an accurate and complete assessment of the interview: Lance is a sociopath. This Wikipedia entry backs this up both with the Triarchic model and the Cleckley Checklist (The checklist is more fun because there are sixteen check items that you can follow along with.)

But last night I watched Lance at the Cannibal restaurant yesterday at an event (not exactly a party, more of a suggested gathering place) organized by Rapha and I had a simultaneous epiphany as did Byron who was stepping out aside from the Lance story across the country.

Cyclists enjoying themselves pre-interview.

Same people, life force sucked out of them during interview.

Someone asked me why cyclists care about Lance’s confession, why waste time on a “retired” athlete, why do we want to “drag him through the mud” and “hurt cycling.” We all have our reasons why this admission of guilt matters to us and why this is more than a confession from a single doper. This article was going to be the summary of those reasons, but really you know why it matters to you and to cycling. And if it doesn’t matter to you all the better–your’e like the kid who doesn’t believe in Santa but then thinks he hears the clattering of hooves on the roof and finds a room full of toys. You’re better off not having seen daddy scurry out of the room with an empty Target bag.

But what occurred to me last night, while looking at the crestfallen before me, is that Lance has tumbled from his pedestal at a time when his pedestal may no longer matter. Cycling is no longer in the hands of the professional athletes but in the hands of companies like Rapha who have just finished a power transfer that’s been quiet and smooth while the walls of professional cycling come tumbling down.

Just a few years ago—let’s say during the heyday of the Seven Wins—a cycling event of this magnitude (were there such a thing) would likely have been witnessed at a local bike shop or individually by cyclists at home while their rollers hummed. Get more than a dozen riders in a room and just about everyone would have been competing for the best vintage jersey or most-visible-from-afar cycling cap. Lyrcra and spandex would be worn in pride and defiance.

While the location of the Lance-watching party certainly skewed the audience—swanky hipster bar in lower east side—I happened to know the crowd pretty well. Dozens of the people gathered around me ride to my coffee shop on the weekends. They’re Cat 3 and Cat 2 racers, they compete for their college teams, they race for their firms. These people have tri-flow in their veins. While there were certainly a few bikes and guys in riding gear (about three) the vast majority of the attendees were dressed in casual after-work clothing.

That’s not a big deal, except it’s a huge deal. The Cat 2 guys I knew a few years ago who would only be seen around other cyclists in full-on kit were instead in business casual attire and hipster garb.

There’s been a change in the makeup of the most passionate rider.

Rapha, whether you love them or hate them, are the best example of the shift in the rank of the hardcore roadie. (The iconoclastic messenger-style rider will always rebel against the high price tag rider but the affluent roadie is really what makes up the bulk of a bike store’s sale, and really the bellwether of the sport on the consumer front.) Team replica jerseys have faded on group rides and were replaced by clothing with a subtle iconic style.

I’m singling out Rapha here not because they’re the only company making high-end bike clothes but because they seem to have innately grasped the transition in cycling. Their marketing doesn’t include a famous (or infamous) team racer with their kit (at least until they got the deal with Sky) but instead shows the more-than-slightly-above-average rider that we all hope we really are gritting their way up a hill. It’s not Thor and Cav fighting at the sprint line, it’s some guy who probably works in accounts payable all week long but then takes his vacation up the side of the Alps. It’s guys who train all winter so they can place in the parking-lot crit in the spring.

And when Rapha hooked up with a pro team they designed a jersey that looks not like your TV-friendly sponsor-laden atrocity but looks like one of their regular jerseys with some racer touches. In other words, professional cycling didn’t change Rapha, Rapha changed it.

That’s huge.

I remember the first time someone yelled “Hey Lance” at me as I rode my bike. They shouted it as a compliment of sorts, instead of “hey guy riding a nice bike and going up this really steep hill.” At that moment I envisioned myself as Lance, cresting a hill while the choppers flew overhead and Phil and Paul orgasmically celebrated my victory.

Now though I’d much rather picture myself as the guy sweating balls up a hill simply because he’s with his friends and they’re all doing it too. The fact that a cappuccino is waiting at the finish is more of a motivation than a podium or lucrative sponsorship.

Now again, this isn’t saying Rapha is the only company that’s seen this trend or made it happen. They’re just the first ones to try to start with cycling at the casual pro level and ended up being integrated with a pro team.

Maybe the sport isn’t in as much trouble as some predict. Yes, it’s about to be torn down brick by brick and rebuilt. And many journalists think that the rebuilding will make it stronger. But maybe it’s different. Maybe Rapha’s deal to provide Sky with kit says more about making the professional rider look and feel like the local club racer than it does about making Rapha’s gear look more like Aqua e Sapone.

Because when it comes down to it, Lance isn’t cycling. Tyler isn’t cycling. We are cycling, and we’re doing just fine, albeit sad that one of our own could have been so far off the path.