Issue 01: The Rebirth of the High End Cyclist

By David Schloss

There’s a new road ethic defined by companies like Rapha.

The high-end enthusiast cyclist is dead. He died when Lance turned a beautiful story of triumph in the face of adversity into a tale of lies and muddled confessions. She died when the Omertà (the Spanish term for the code-of-silence that professional cyclists adhere to) snapped briefly and Levi and George and Floyd and Tyler admitted that their victories were delivered as much through vials and syringes as through guts and sweat.

Cyclists on high-end bikes dressed in pro team kits used to rule the roads in our country. Fueled by a Lance-driven haze everyone from Trek to Cannondale to Specialized marketed the pros as what the high-end cyclist was to aspire to. What we got was flabby riders in yellow Credit Lyonnais jerseys, pumped-up cyclists in CSC gear and scrawny guys in Credit Agricole colors all drinking iced lattes at the end of their rides.

For years you could stop in a bike store for a group ride and see such a collection of licensed professional cycling team clothing. A-level club rides often devolved into town-line-sprints between U.S. Postal Service guys with Treks versus Cervelos being piloted by CSC kitted riders along with the occasional Gerolsteiner Specialized fan.

They’re gone. Vanished. In their wake is a new type of high-end cyclist, one that wants to identify less with the professional teams and more with a subdued display of prowess and acumen.

The Palisades mountain range of New Jersey sits just outside Manhattan and each weekend day thousands of New York City cyclists use its rolling hills and wide shoulders as a proving grounds for their fitness programs. On a weekend day an aerial view of the George Washington Bridge looks like a parade of brightly colored ants. Cyclists stream outbound across the bridge and then all turn right to head North up Route 9W while a returning phalanx turns left onto the bridge’s bike path and back to the City.

My home town of Nyack, New York, sits about 25 miles from Manhattan and riders use the village as either a half-way point on a fifty mile day or a rest stop on a longer ride up to Bear Mountain or beyond. For the last year I’ve owned a coffee shop called Gypsy Donut and Espresso Bar (gratuitous plug- in Nyack as well as a satellite shop inside Piermont Bicycle Connection in a neighboring hamlet and I spend a lot of time observing trends in cycling and in cyclists. Before that, I spent eight years as the president of the Rockland Bicycling Club and led rides up and down the cycling corridor.

As a semi-trained graphic designer (I went to art school but I didn’t focus on design for my career) I also pay much attention to trends in cycling clothing. The garish logos, the painful color combinations of most professional really caught my eye, albeit not in a good way.

Designed to stand out on TV cameras, a pro’s jersey is purposefully obnoxious. Even teams that start off relatively clean, design-wise, find themselves devolving in time as sponsors come on board and the lycra starts to get cluttered with brands.

Around 2009, right when Lance was making his “comeback” I started to notice that the professional team jersey wasn’t the mainstay of the roadie anymore. In fact, many jersey designs that previously burned their way onto my retinas were fading from the road and my memory.

The Primal Wear frog started to disappear. Jerseys brightly and painfully displaying Sesame Street characters simply weren’t on the road. The same with Pink Floyd covers geometric patterns, official state logos, and bicycle tour companies.

One weekend a year ago I decided to ride the most trafficked route in the area and count how many jerseys I saw with the logos of professional teams, or other decorative branding. I discounted anyone wearing the full team kit of a local race team (since they were more likely to actually be Cat 1-5 racers out training) or anyone wearing the jersey of an organization to which they probably belonged. (This included local bike clubs and businesses where co-workers ride together, such at the Turner Construction guys.)

What surprised me was that I only counted a dozen jerseys that fit my criteria on a two hour ride. Just a few years earlier that number would have been higher by a factor of ten or more.

Even more surprising was that the people who weren’t wearing pro team kit were also by and large not wearing garish jerseys of any sort. There were a lot of Castelli and Assos pieces, a good amount of Louis Garneau and, increasingly Rapha.

This past year I repeated my casual survey of cyclists and have found that the most common (or at least most cohesive and identifiable) cohort was the Rapha-wearing rider. What’s amazing to me is that at first, I thought of Rapha’s clothing as being nearly the diametric opposite of the pro team kit. It’s understated to the point of being almost transparent, but yet they maintain a design style across all of the garments that make their clothing uniquely identifiable. (Anyone who has seen a dozen riders pull up to a cafe with the trademark white band around one arm knows what I mean.)

Thinking on this a bit though I realized that these pieces aren’t the opposite of professional team gear on non-pro riders but rather the newest form of the signifier of the high-end enthusiast.

People wore team jerseys (for the most part) to show that they were part of the cognoscenti of cycling’s highest form—the pro rider. Yes, a lot of newbies put on a Postal jersey to try to fit in too without the background, but by and large wearing a replica pro team jersey indicates that you have some degree of familiarity with pro cycling in the way that a Lakers jersey shows that you could chat passably about Shaq.

But then Lance’s comeback sputtered. The peloton exploded with news of doping scandal after doping scandal. Floyd went down in flames and tried to take all of the cycling with him when his legal defense passed up the idea that the tests were faulty and he finally came, to tell the truth.

In a lot of ways, professional cycling died in 2009. A professional cycling team that was labeled as clean and honorable one week would just as likely be expelled from a grand tour the next. Wearing a pro team’s jersey was more of a liability than a profession of love for the sport.

And that’s why I believe that companies like Rapha suddenly took off. Lots of cycling clothing companies make riding gear without pro logos and some of them offer a higher level of quality than Rapha. But the cohesive branding and marketing of Rapha’s clothing has (at least in several key cycling markets) allowed them to become a sort of brand for the cycling enthusiast that wants to show other riders that they love the sport, but doesn’t want to wear the logo of a doper, quite literally on their sleeve.

This wasn’t always the case. Also in 2009, an internet fad poked a bit of fun at the feeling that guys in Rapha gear were a tad bit, well, douchebaggery, to quote the company’s own spokesman, Slate Olsen. An animation tool called Xtranormal popped up that allowed people to quickly create small movies with characters performing dialog (via speech synthesis) scripted by the animation’s creator.

In one particularly funny cycling related clip that is attributed to Ritte Racing blog, two figures are chatting after a group ride. The more pompous of the two claims he can pull 560 watts on a regular climb, but due to a bit of hydration he decided to back off—he wasn’t being dropped.

He brags about his “abnormally strong” legs and how he doesn’t need to ride in the small ring, how his legs are like a track sprinter’s legs and so it’s “amazing” that he can climb so well.

After spewing all of the comments that are the hallmarks of the rider who thinks too highly of himself, the riding partner, fed up says “you dick.”

“What?” says pompous rider.

Recovering quickly the partner says “I really like your new kit.”

“Oh, yes,” he replies grandly. “It is made by Rapha, of course.”

Rapha’s Slate Olson is a hard man to connect with. When I started working on this piece I reached out to him via my long time friend in the bike business, Chris DiStefano, the company’s communications director. Chris and I first met when he was one his way into the job as PR honcho at Shimano and I was temporarily on my way out of working as a writer and photographer in cycling more than a decade ago.

I had asked Chris about my feeling that Rapha somehow had tapped into a zeitgeist, creating a line of clothing that allowed cyclists to wear a uniform without making it look like a uniform.

Chris agreed but had me set up a conversation with Olson who left Nike to help the UK-based Rapha launch the brand in the United States. (Olson has since become the company’s chief global marketing officer and will be moving to London.)

Olson was in the UK when I first reached out to him via email but then he popped over to Belgium for some research. “Funny,” quipped DiStefano “he didn’t mention any of that when he told us about this trip before he left. [I recall] something about ‘nothing but meetings’ at the London office.” (Well sure, I replied, when he was in the London office there were only meetings. In Belgium it was nothing but riding.)

I finally get a chance to sit down and talk with Olson on the phone when he’s returned from his trip, still a bit jet lagged. At one point I mention the Xtranormal clip and he laughs, having mostly forgotten it, he says. It’s the laugh of someone who doesn’t mind being the butt of an inside joke, as long as the joke was made with good intentions.

Here is the conversation with Olson, which covers everything from the enthusiastic roadie, the future of transpirational cycling and professional teams like Sky, of which Rapha has become the official clothing sponsor.

Bike Hugger: So, are we seeing a change, are road cyclists changing?

Slate Olson: I think we are seeing that the good news is that we’re are seeing a proliferation of the bike for general transportation, there are more people taking to the roads. And for them, there is a new way. They don’t have to have a number on their backs, they can have a goal and the experience itself is a part of it.

Rapha Continental [ed note- this is a Rapha program where they ride epic routes in the States and then blog and video the travels on their site] was started more than five years ago as a way to remedy the roadie douchebaggery of racing. People didn’t count unless you had a finishing place and number on your backs.

That extended to people riding the same routes for training all the time. It’s a big beautiful country and the best way to see it is on a bike. Cyclists, they all know Lance, they know the Tour de France, and the chances are they know [famous routes like] Alpes d’Huez.

But there is amazing riding here that no one talks about, [much] of which is out our back doors. We are encouraging people to get off their regular routes and go explore. I think that exploration is exactly what has fueled a big part of America’s fantasy with just being American.

When I talk about Continental, it’s one part Easy Rider, and one part Endless Summer. And that’s what we’re drawn to. A lot of us are finding our way through the bicycle. The camaraderie, the challenge. I think a lot of us are being satisfied now.

Compete, compete, compete. Race to win. That impacts the clothes that people choose. You don’t need your clothes to be super tight, super bright [if you’re not racing] when you’re riding [for fun] in the deepest forests of America.

I think cycling has changed. I think more and more people are just accustomed to hearing about cycling. “My friend is a biker, my friend is a cyclist.” At least they’re recognizing that people are on bikes.

When I was a kid, if I saw an adult riding a bike to and from work, they were probably a drunk. They had had their license taken away from them. I grew up in Eugene Oregon, if you saw people riding then, it was because they had lost their license.

[ed note- Eugene, Oregon now has one of the largest concentrations of transportation and recreation cyclists in the U.S.]

Just seeing the proliferation of bikes in everyday life, you have to change thinking about how you dress. I think more and more that when you see a cool piece of team kit they are probably doing it purposefully more often than not.

Bike Hugger: Did you intentionally position Rapha to be a “high end” brand, or did you try to market to an experience? Because there was some negative feedback about Rapha when the gear first landed in the states based on price and perceived attitude.

Slate Olson: One thing we are conscious of is that we are a very small brand. We are very conscious of the customer that is drawn to us because of the exclusivity or because the brand is obscure.

The thing that’s interesting is that…well I know a guy who lives in Portland and at least forty percent of the people on one of his group rides were wearing Rapha. We asked him “how does that make you feel?” and he said “those are the guys I want to ride with.”

And then there are other people that recognize that Rapha is fashionable or sensible, or that it [it indicates] a certain stature of their prowess, that’s’ what we’re seeing.

This has been both good and bad when they see a Rapha cyclists and they go “oh yeah, I know what those guys are all about.”

The original [more elite cyclist] customer of ours is a benchmark for us because he was the spot-on customer. But as it’s grown it’s being redesigned by the customers and because of things like the [Sky] Pro team in a way, it feels a little bit less austere and unapproachable. People don’t see it as “those rich guys who have more money than sense.” People who appreciate the history [of cycling] or the materials, or the performance.

Bike Hugger: Do you guys have to work on not being haughty? [This is the point at which I mention the Xtranormal video.]

Slate Olson: That’s a bit of a burden for us because people know us that way. I guess, ideally, I always want the first thought to be “good quality.” I don’t mind if it’s also “it’s expensive,” as long as they say “it’s worth every penny.”

We’re not afraid to be considered a worthwhile expenditure. that’s something we discuss with our customers and our friends. One thing we work hard with on Rapha Continental or our Gentlemen’s Races. [ed note – This is how Olson describes the Rapha Gentleman’s Race on his blog. “I sold it to the racers as an unsupported, unsanctioned, unmarshalled, six-rider team time trial meets alley-cat, meets ‘Cannonball Run’. Inspired in large part by the Rapha Continental style of riding long days, gravel roads, hard miles and finding your own way, the race was two very different rides over the same +/- 125-mile course.”]

It’s about being real and open and honest about our love of the sport, and use that to knock down walls.

Someone once referred to a group of our riders as the “black train of death.” But a lot of our rides are about celebrating the experience.

Bike Hugger: Sure but much of your promotional materials feature people grimacing in pain on a climb or sweating, and the average customer doesn’t understand the correlation between pain on a ride and enjoying the experience.

Slate Olson: That’s true, but we are just real people that love to ride bikes. We have an appreciation for the culture, whether that’s donuts and coffee or bikes and clothing.

Also, working with our partners, whether it’s frame builders or whatever, we say “let’s find great people that are drawn to [cycling], that can spread the word.”

Sometimes it’s just “hey, those Rapha guys are okay, they’re not a bunch of dicks like you thought they were.”

I think we’ve worked really hard. We aren’t trying to out-cool or outsmart everyone. This is a niche sport. It has these European rules. It’s expensive and takes a bit of knowledge to get into it, and we don’t want to be a niche brand in a niche sport making it harder for people to enjoy it. Our goal is to make people recognize that this is the most beautiful sport in the world. Racing, or travel or commuting. If more people like we do, that’s great.

Bike Hugger: What do you think about companies that have recently started to turn out very similar looking gear to Rapha. Giro, for example, just released a line of urban-inspired clothing that they say represents the new elite road rider. Some of those pieces look an awful lot like Rapha gear.

Slate Olson: First off I think that any impact we’ve had to make people look better on the bike is a real improvement. I think that’s a really good thing. We are really hopeful that we will stay a bit ahead of everyone by surprising people with a new direction or new product.

I think the benefit of us being who we are—we’re just nine years old in July—in a lot of ways we think that people point back to us. We have almost redefined [cycling clothing] for a lot of people, we’ve been able to help lead this change of culture and fashion and style on the bike.

As a lot of these guys, new companies or big companies do products [that look like Rapha] we are genuinely honored to think we’ve had an impact on that.

Bike Hugger: What about the Giro jacket that features the same zipper as yours, and the same name?

Slate Olson: The guys at Giro partnered with us on their shoes. They were very honest about where they were influenced.

From our standpoint, Giro with their size and their [distribution] model is very different than ours. But in a way, it [gives proof] to what we’ve been doing. They have a larger megaphone than we do about how it can evolve.

My boss at Nike had a saying “be the last man standing.” I think…hopefully, we’ll surprise and delight people and bring along some who are more like us. We don’t directly react to what [other companies are doing].

We have a real point of view. It hasn’t wavered a lot in nine years. It’s grown but there’s a measure there, we’re controlled and mature about that change. We focus on the customers.

The culture of the sport is what keeps it fresh.

For more information on Rapha, visit their site. Particularly relevant to this discussion are their blog and videos. Also see WSJ article about this same topic with quotes from Byron, our editor, in it.

Other companies rocking the new road ethic include Cafe du CyclisteSearch and StateGiro’s New Road line of gearUpright Cyclist.

Ed. note: After a good run of 42 issues, our magazine app is no longer available, but we’ve archived the content here on our blog. 

Also published on Medium.

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