Posted by: Ian | July 26, 2013

Rapha Lows

Just over a year ago I sat in the Rapha Cafe on the day that it opened watching the Tour de France. It was packed and there was a nice, gently excited vibe. I  wondered then what it would become when it wasn’t new any more: a chic cafe, a cycle club or an expensive off-Regent Street clothes shop. Yesterday evening I had my answer…

For a few weeks earlier this year I joined in with the Rapha Thursday evening ride. Setting off from the Cafe in the early evening, we cycled up to Regent’s Park and did several circuits of the OUter Circle in a chatty two-line bunch before speeding up and settling into a through-and-off pack, then finally sprinting from the south-side lights to the south-east corner. The first couple of times I went along the evenings were still dark and the group leaving the cafe small. Then the evenings got lighter and the pack grew so that even after splitting into a fast and a slow set, each set was as large as the winter group. The last time I did it the group had grown to a hoard, almost as massive as the bunches that bomb (some feel obnoxiously) around Richmond Park.

That was in Spring. Since then I’ve been out of the country or Doing Other Things on a Thursday evening. But yesterday I was free and I decided to give it another go. I turned up early so that I’d have time to eat first. The small cafe was half empty and the guys manning the counter told me that they were virtually out of food. All that they had left in the way of savoury food was a beef brioche so I ordered that. I asked for one of the rice bars that they used to have to supplement it. Sticky white cuboids hand wrapped in silver foil, they were delicious and perfect as a pre- or post-race snack. They were apparently the same as the bars prepared for Team Sky. But yesterday the guys behind the bar told me that they no longer stock them.

Still, I used to enjoy having my coffee while trying to read the day’s L’Equipe. Yesterday there was no L’Equipe, just a Cycling Weekly; and it was a month out of date. The one guy who was still tending the counter was chatting up the only girl sitting nearby and he forgot my brioche. It wasn’t so much that he was incompetent in any way – he just seemed to have lost the habit of having customers.

With time to kill I checked out the stock on the shelves. It looked depleted and for the first time ever there was nothing that I wanted to buy. There was a 15% sale on all items, which was just as telling as the fact that I didn’t take advantage of it.

As time moved on there was a marked absence of congregating cyclists. When I asked one of the staff whether the club ride was on he told me that Thursday rides had been cancelled because they were too popular. Since I’m going to be in London over the weekend I asked whether they still do Saturday or Sunday rides. Well they do, but they’re popular too. The solution they’ve come up with to this is to restrict to a small number of places – I’m sure he said just ten – and require that riders sign up in advance. And to keep the numbers down prospective riders have to look out for the ride being advertised on Twitter, as they come online – which is at different times each week. Since I had an unexpected amount of free time, I checked out the upcoming weekend ride and it was, of course, sold out.

So this is Rapha’s problem. Primarily they sell top quality cycling clothes. The market for these is “niche”, partly because it’s limited to those of us who prefer Rapha’s understated aesthetic to lurid team-issue lycra outfits; but more because it costs a lot of money. Now, it turns out that the “niche” population of cyclists who like the Rapha style and can afford to pay for it is very sizeable, as you can increasingly see at sportives. In a half-hearted way, Rapha define a niche within a niche through the Imperial Works collection, in which select pieces are very occasionally made available just to we loyal few who consistently spend extravagantly with Rapha online; but this is very marginal. (If I had less money I’d still buy Rapha clothing but less of it.)

Rapha also ratchet up the wealth filter by many notches on their organised cycling trips, in which customers are offered the chance to cycle over renowned mountain ranges in the grand style, rather than navigating across with Google Maps and TripAdvisor as most of us do.

But wealth filters aren’t a viable way to reduce the Rapha-loving population of London to cycle club size, as they’ve discovered.  Their alternative of using nods and winks amongst the Twitterati is a reductio ad absurdum of the whole idea of a Rapha cycle club.

Earlier, I stopped into Look Mum No Hands for something to eat on my way home. We quite often go there in the mornings for a coffee and bacon roll after cycling around the park and before work; but this was only my second evening visit. There was proper food (I had beef stroganoff) and it was very good. It was busy and most of the people there had arrived by bike. There is a hint of a hipster vibe but nothing of the Rapha Cafe’s “off Regent Street” atmosphere. The walls are adorned with hand-written notes and simple printed flyers advertising stuff for sale and rides that customers have organised. It’s more hub than club, and much better for it.

I continue to love Rapha but they really only know how to be a shop.

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