many a rock and pop band has tried to make it in the united states and failed miserably, despite months of endless touring. yet rapha, only a few years into their rapid ascendancy, have managed to make quite an impression on the american cycling psyche.
trystan cobbett is their man in america, based over on the west coast in los angeles. how did it happen, how does it all work, and does he have a pink couch?
how and when did you become involved with rapha?
I started with Rapha in early 06 as the company looked to support the brand in the States. I had originally approached them as a buyer for a retailer in Los Angeles, I saw the product as something that we really needed here in the US and I approached them about bringing it into the store. Simon (Mottram - Rapha's Managing Director) and I got to talking about ways that the brand could really make an impact here and pretty soon he offered me an interview. They looked at a number of ways to do that including handling the product through a distributor, in the end they decided the direct market approach was the better way to go.
is this your sole activity, or is rapha one of many?
Well, that's an interesting question. Technically I'm only a part time employee but it's definitely a full time job, especially with all the activities we have rolling out in 2008. I also do a number of smaller projects, I occasionally work as a consultant and mechanic for film and television when cycling is involved, I'm the mostly silent partner in a messenger firm, and I'm a frame builder; although this last is much more of a hobby than an occupation.
are you the sole rapha chap in the usa, or are there others working with you?
No, we now have a creative writer/director for the Continental team who works closely with me, he's been fore-mostly responsible for the identity of the Continental, its team and the direction we've taken it. Over the next few months we'll have a warranty office in the US to help process the customer returns and exchanges, we're hoping this will make it easier for our customers to order with confidence knowing that they won't have to handle returns through customs. We're also expanding our marketing department in the year ahead, that will mean at least one more person to help keep all of our plans on track.
in the uk and europe we have this rich heritage of cycling history with which rapha have become identified. is this the reason for rapha's popularity in the usa, or is there a different perspective across the pond?
It's true the US customer does look to Europe for inspiration. Our own cycling identity is pretty strong, but we certainly don't have as many Greats as Europe. In a way I think that's part of Rapha's appeal, but in some cases it's the opposite, Rapha is certainly steeped in heritage, but it's also doing it in a more subtle way, not like the guy wearing a full Gerolsteiner kit out for a Sunday ride. Rapha is a way of expressing yourself to yourself. That's why we put the stories in the pockets and not across the chest.
is rapha marketed differently in the states than in the uk?
We use the same distribution techniques and similar marketing, but it's definitely different in its perception here - the brand is even more exclusive than in the UK. In a lot of ways I've looked at how Rapha built the brand in the UK with great success and have borrowed from that, but we've realized that we needed to do something different here to really get it to stand out. Which is why we've developed the Rapha Continental, it's really about celebrating cycling Americana and making that an inspiration in itself.
rapha continental seems to be developing nicely - how much of this was your idea?
I wish I could say I dreamed it up on my own, but our creative writer Daniel Pasley is primarily responsible for the concept. He came up with the concept and has been vital in refining it to where it is now. My role has been to make it come to life and keep the project moving forward in the right direction.
where do you see this going, longer term?
We're already starting the process of building out an Eastern team to compliment the West Coast one. I must say it's pretty exciting, we have some great candidates for team members and a few really talented frame builders have shown interest in being part of it. By the end of 08 we will have close to 20 team members and the website will document 50 or more rides around the States. We haven't really built an end date into the project so it's anyone's guess as to how it will pan out in 09.
rapha has come in for a degree of flak over here for their perceived high pricing. does this carry through to the usa, or are americans a bit more sanguine about paying for quality?
I'm always surprised that people will pay thousands of dollars for the perceived value of a bicycle, hundreds for shoes and helmets and sunglasses, but balk at the cost of a Jacket. True $200 is a lot for a jersey, but in most brands the difference between a $50 and a $100 jersey is pretty nominal; I like to think that the difference in our products is self evident. There was a time when I would buy the cheapest of everything, from a toothbrush to a set of tires, but at this point in my life I recognize that there are some things you just can't skimp on.
rapha in the uk have made their way from nothing to top of the tree in a very short space of time, ploughing their own furrow, so to speak. with the rapha continental partnerships through chris king, brooks, ira ryan etc., has it been necessary to forge these to achieve the same profile in america?
Rapha here has enough buzz behind it that many people want to work with us. This makes my job a lot easier, being able to approach a company hat in hand and receive nothing but enthusiasm in return has been a wonderful feeling. It makes me realize I'm part of a brand that is recognized as something genuine and appreciated. We still have a ways to go and as the Continental team gets bigger it's necessary for me to keep seeking out new partners but this isn't nearly as big a challenge as it would be with a lesser brand, or a less exciting project.
has rouleur (rapha's luxury cycle magazine), which seems really different from american cycling mags, made inroads into the american cycling psyche?
Rouleur still has a small following here, it's definitely for the truly passionate cyclist. For those that have discovered it it serves as inspiration and justification. I think we still have a way to go with getting the mainstream cycling community to recognize that it's not all about the latest stats of your favorite rider, it's also about the joy of being on the bike, the reward that comes from the challenges, and the people that make it what it is.
are you now, or have you ever been a competitive cyclist. if so, in which discipline?
I was a passionate mountain biker in the mid nineties and competed for a few years, I've competed in a number of urban races when I was a messenger, and a few cat 4 races. The fact is that I'm a fairly solo rider, I like to be on the bike by myself and for myself. I find joy in setting personal challenges, not challenges laid down by others. When I raced did I win? Yes, occasionally; Ira Ryan can easily kick my butt though, as can the rest of the Continental riders.
do you have a wall of pain and suffering in your office, and more importantly, a pink couch?
Ha! no I don't have a pink couch. The US office is still pretty small but we're preparing to move into a larger space in a couple months as the new staff come on board, if I can find a nice couch which happens to be pink I won't rule it out.
money no object, which frame/bike do you buy?
Hmmm, well my favorite bike is my titanium Independent Fabrication Crown Jewel. When I worked in cycling retail I was privileged enough to try just about every frame material and most major builders in the industry before I decided on that bike. Being an amateur frame builder I have a few bikes that I've made myself including my personal Continental team bike which uses Ritchey couplers so I can travel with it. I suppose I should say that one of the bikes I've built is my favorite but there's something about riding a bike made for you by someone else which is gratifying. Like a painting done by a great artist, I might be able to paint something like it myself, but I would never appreciate it as much as someone else's.
campag or shimano?
I'm not as committed to this as many are; but personally I gotta go with Sram. I suffered from some nerve damage in my hand when I was cycle touring in China and as a result I'm fairly particular about my handlebar and shifter configuration. The Sram shifters just fit my hands better than the others.
can you fix bicycle bits if they break, or do you have to put it in the shop?
No, I can fix just about anything on a bicycle and my workshop at home has just about any tools I would need excepting a spoke cutter. I'm not saying I'm the most talented mechanic in the world, but I've built wheels and assembled or tuned bikes for a few pro riders.
favourite item in the rapha wardrobe?
Well, when it comes to pure performance pieces the Sportwool Jersey is just incredible. I've challenged it with sweltering temperatures and cold rain and it regulates temperature better than anything else I've used. There are few items in the line I don't use on a regular basis, I've gotten rid of nearly every other product I own except for shoe covers and some head wear.
any message for the guys in perren street?
I wish I could think of something witty or brilliant to say here but I talk to the London office just about every day so I'm afraid there's not much we haven't discussed. If pressed I'd have to say-Keep the rubber side down!
as always, if you have any comments, please feel free to e-mail and thanks for reading...........................................................................................................................................................................................................