Posted by: Ian | November 13, 2009

Windows and Altura are very good

Emily writes that her life changed when she bought her first Rapha base layer. At around the same time, Cycling Plus ran a review of base layers and found that Rapha’s were, they admitted, technically very good but, as ever, they balked at the price. Similarly, their review of rain jackets in the same issue found that Rapha’s had superb water resistance and a great fit; but that didn’t get to be one of their product picks either. I suspect that there’s something just too Continental about Rapha for many people. Gore, say, are straightforwardly American and it’s no surprise to find that Altura are based in Thirsk. But when you buy something from Rapha, and even when you don’t, they’re likely to send you a delphic postcard depicting cobblestones in Belgium or a booklet of grainy sepia photographs of a blurred cyclist traversing desolate Norway.  Even their web site address eschews the corporate .com norm for the more self-consciously styled www.rapha.cc.  It either rankles with you or you buy it, and I buy it – metaphorically and literally.

For me, Rapha is the new Apple. I bought my first Apple product – a Powerbook – six years or so ago. I had only previously bought one computer and any positive feelings I might once have had for it were scrubbed from me by a sustained programme of negative conditioning in the workplace. Departments of engineers driven by standards gone awry and wrong-headed views about security ensured that every encounter I had with Microsoft software was a bad one. The Powerbook was wonderful. It was beautiful. The Mac OS – Panther at the time – was rock solid and didn’t permanently grind to a standstill running virus protection routines more damaging than any virus. The built-in software was all about the things that I enjoyed with not a spreadsheet or a powerpoint presentation in sight. When we went travelling for a year I used it every day for photo management, blogging, internet access, downloading podcasts, watching movies and TV shows, and email. During the year I upgraded to the new version of Mac OS – Tiger – and that was better still. It validated at a personal level a lesson I’ve learned many times professionally: the separation of hardware and software only works for stuff you don’t care about.

Since then I’ve bought several other Apple products: an iPod mini (I can’t recall whether this came before the Powerbook), an iPod shuffle, an iMac, a first generation iPhone, an iPhone 3GS, a Time Capsule, iLife, Aperture, Leopard, Snow Leopard, the MacBook Pro that I’m using now. I’ve been given a classic iPod stuffed with music and photos as a gift. I’ve bought MacBooks for Zoe and Heidi and an Air for Paula and countless iPods for everyone. It’s a lot of gear but we use it all the time and it’s all just fantastic. When I go to work and use Windows it makes me want to break things and be harsh with reasonable people. But it’s all okay: next year we get a web browser that has tabbing and hasn’t been deprecated by large parts of the world’s software-writing community, and in 2011 we’re due to get Windows 7, which, they say, is very good.

And for me Rapha is the new Apple. It’s beautiful in an understated way and it’s perfectly functional. Nothing about the clothing is compromised: the fabrics are luxurious against the skin yet are highly effective in all weathers, the XL and the 34’s fit me really well, there are features where (but only where) features help and there are subtle design notes to give me a fillip when I wear them. Since I got my first Classic Jersey I’ve never wanted to wear any item of bike clothing for which I have the Rapha equivalent. I have a medium-weight Gore rain jacket, Specialized shoes, Northwave boots for wet weather and Woolie Boolie socks, which are all great, plus some Pearl Izumi socks that are just fine. But that’s about it. From Rapha, as well as my Classic Jersey (which came with arm warmers), I have a Club Jersey, a Swift Jersey, a Long Sleeve Jersey, a grey Merino Jersey, summer socks, winter socks, a cap (I wore it in Corsica instead of a helmet to save myself from the intense sun), winter tights, Fixed Shorts, more arm warmers, a winter collar, a Gilet, a Softshell Gilet, an orange Stowaway jacket and some merino baselayers (two packs). Oh, and yes: I also have the trousers. I was going to lift a photo from the Rapha website of the discreet embroidered black-on-black Rapha logo above the pocket but they don’t have one in the gallery; that’s what I like: they leave you some things to discover for yourself.

It sounds like a lot of Rapha clothes, I know: in my defence, in a typical week I go out for ten rides, all year round, in all weathers. And I can’t remember the last time I bought any non-Rapha cycling clothes. (Now that I strain to recall it, the last item was a pair of Dromarti shoes that, in truth, were disappointing.)

In principle, being a fan of anything makes me a little uncomfortable. I worry that it stops me thinking straight. Bill Gates, after all, is a more likeable guy than Steve Jobs. And what is it with Apple and U2? It suggests a fundamental flaw. Rapha makes few false steps. In my opinion, the Rapha Condor Team Stowaway, when not worn by actual team members, is over-branded and perhaps almost as gauche as the U2 Limited Edition red and black iPod. However, the relationship with Condor itself makes all sorts of sense (unlike Apple’s U2 hang-up) and the team-wear looks classy in the pro peloton.

Both Condor and Rapha are London-based European outfits. I suspect it’s Rapha’s Eurocentricity that led them to put flashes, usually in white, on the left arms/legs of their clothing: functionally, these should help to highlight the rider to a passing car, but more effectively on roads with right-hand drive. Individual consumer response to this could be used as a personality marker: realising it, does it irritate you?

Six years ago Apple had about 2% of the computer market and it’s still only 8% now. As with Rapha, it’s sometimes said that Apple computers are expensive. In reality, macs are expensive because they don’t sell computers with the compromised levels of specification and software that would make them cheap. If and as they try, they have to avoid the risk of producing the equivalent of Porsche’s 924. Similarly, Rapha is more expensive than bike clothing is on average because they only make the good stuff. It surprises me that more people don’t buy it: at our sportives we’ve been lost in a sea of Altura. I’m sure it did the job.

My iPhone case

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