Rapha Perren Street Pilgrimage

Rapha Perren Street Pilgrimage Oh Tourmalet

That last assignment to cover the launch of the Specialized McLaren Venge gave me the chance to do two things I've been wanting to do for ages. The first was to get up to Glasgow for a little landscape shooting with my uncle Douglas. We had a good time and managed a pretty spectacular visit to the winter wonderland of Glencoe. Images in a following post.

After the short hop back to London I donned the robes of a penitent (in my case a Rapha winter jersey over nocturne T) and cabbed it from Paddington Station to Kentish Town where Rapha makes its home off Perren Street. I've visited Slate and the Portland office on a couple of occasions but this was my first chance to touch the black stone at the heart of my favorite cycling brand. It was a pilgrimage long imagined and long overdue.

After dispatching the cab, I trundled my rollers though the gate and into the Imperial Works close where Rapha makes its home. The offices sit immediately adjacent to the Kentish Town station and the constant schedule of trains is a good metaphor for the stream of orders that now leave the building daily, bound for every corner of the cycling world.

I negotiated three, or was it four, flights of steep diamond-plated stairs... passing the former offices of Rouleur in one of the hairpins... to arrive at the crossroads of business (on my right) and design (on my left) where all the ideas, patterns, pixels and production gets sorted. Simon Mottram, Rapha's convivial Managing Director was expecting me and after parking my luggage next to the flat-top-tube Colnago propped against the wall behind his desk, he gave me a grand tour. Looking very fit and wearing what appeared to be mtb SPDs Simon put faces to the names of friendly Rapha folk like Joe Hall, Simon Huntsman and René Groot who'd been on the other end of emails over the years. Sadly I missed meeting Simon's other right hand, Laura Etherington, who was out for the day.

Simmon Mottram at work

Simon Mottram at work

The design team meets

Convening the design roundtable

Simon recounted Rapha's humble beginnings when he Luke and Claire got things started in a single hutch of the rabbit warren of rooms they now occupy throughout the building. In all the excitement Simon admitted some of the details of Rapha's rise to prominence get sketchy at times, but in those instances he defers to my pal, and Rapha's historian-not-in-residence, Brian Palmer for their Hansard. It might also be said that were disaster to befall the earth and cycling as we know it obliterated, Brian's bike shed bunker on Islay would contain the complete genetic record of Rapha's creative efforts. All hail the best dressed man in Scotland.

Yellow Jersey

Much of that Rapha style now springs from the mind of another pal, head designer Graeme Raeburn, who momentarily broke away from a design meeting for a handshake hello and a promise of lunch to follow. The Rapha peloton now counts more than 60 riders and many of them ride into work each day. Having witnessed the insanity of bike riding in the City, that definitely qualifies for combat pay in my book. Other than Simon's bike the rest of the fleet was tucked away elsewhere in the building, but obviously never far from mind.

coffee dishes

Coffee in the Pink, Bottles out the Sink

As Simon took me around to the various functions of the office one thing struck me as incongruous with my imaginings. My experience with Rapha USA, colored by Portland, the Continental, cyclocross and custom bike building had me expecting the same courier-tempered, urban vibe I get from the house on North Mississippi. The difference was less ink in London, and not a beard in sight. If Portland is hip, London is cool. At least that was my impression.

After giving me a generous hour in a busy day, Simon broke off for a scheduled call with a just rousing Slate Olson (it was 6 am Portland time). With his meeting ended, Graeme reappeared for the short walk to the fabled Mario's cafe for some lunch. Mario's apparently doubled as the Rouleur editorial office much of the time prior to their move to new digs a few miles away.

Paris Roubaix

Rapha's collaboration with the ASO produced this year's Paris Roubaix Sportif jersey, t-shirt and musette. While polyester naturally wouldn't have been Rapha's first fabric choice the jersey will be within the means of thousands of participants who will wear it with pride.

Rene Carrick Whitney

With a company ride and day-off planned for the next day, René Groot and Carrick Whitney appeared totally focused on clearing their respective plates.

Graeme Raeburn is a quiet, thoughtful reed of a chap who doesn't let on just how good he is on a bike. He's completed the Cent Cols challenge, spun out an ass-numbing 416- and 429-miles in his last two 24-hour TTs respectively and started the whole Festive 500 phenomenon that pushed everyone's chair back from the holiday table last December. He's still happy riding the steel Enigma XC that Jim and Mark arranged for the Cent Cols, and perhaps that's why the carbon Specialized frame sitting on the windowsill behind him has yet to be built up.

Inspiration Gloves

With service from Mario himself we had a good chat and a tasty lunch before heading back to the office. I spent the next couple of hours hanging about taking pictures and basically soaking in the atmosphere of the place. Simon Huntsman, who heads production, appeared to have the neatest desk in the department. The display cubes behind him included the latest Specialized Prevail helmet and a Giro throwback called the Hammerhead (in it's original packaging).

Simon Huntsman and his Giro Hammerhead IT Specialist needed

Something tells me there might be an IT position opening up soon.

Union Jack Flandrian

All too soon, it was time to put away the cameras, say my goodbyes and catch a taxi to Waterloo Station for a train ride South to rendezvous with the Specialized launch team and the real work of the trip. I expect the next time I visit Rapha HQ they may be in new digs, having outgrown the available space at Imperial works. If that's the case I can't wait to see what the future holds for the black and pink. The success they've had is well deserved, and it certainly hasn't gone to their heads. Many thanks to Simon, Graeme and the whole Rapha crew for their generosity over the years and a great afternoon.

Next week I'm off to shoot Paris Roubaix week. I've got a few new tricks up my sleeve that might let me post an image or two from the road. We'll see... there never seems to be enough time or enough sleep to do everything I'd like.

12 Responses to Rapha Perren Street Pilgrimage

  1. phaty says:

    Seeing those pictures something very strange popped up in my mind: wouldn’t cycling be the greatest sport in the world if those pro-assholes and the whole UCI wouldn’t try to kill it year after year with the doping and the corruption and whatever … Cycling has it all, the men, the machine, the drama, the history and yet I can’t stand it anymore! Oh and by the way: “The difference was less ink in London, and not a beard in sight. If Portland is hip, London is cool.” will make my quote of the day list! :) Thank you

    • Hi Phaty,

      You’re so right about the “spoilers” messing with our beautiful sport and I’m glad you picked out that particular quote from the story… it’s interesting that Rapha have been able to tap into the culture of two great towns. I don’t know if I nailed the difference spending a few hours in London, but I felt there was something to it.

      ::M

  2. Steve C says:

    Looks great, Michael. At your recommendation, I did get in touch with Simon and he’s invited me up to Kentish Town when I get a spare day.

    It’s incredible how widely the brand is spreading. I’m on the sofa after an 80km spin this morning and it seems like every other person I passed (or who passed me…) was a well-attired ‘Raphista’.

    All the best for Paris-Roubaix!

    • Hi Steve,

      Always felt better with some miles in my own legs when it came time to enjoy one of the classics. I’m assuming you’re watching Flanders of course ;-)
      Congrats on the 2nd place finish in Australia, more good stuff to come there.

      It’s not going to be easy but I hope I can get some good stuff from Paris-Roubaix.

      ::M

  3. woooowwwwww…
    nice report!!
    really love it!!!
    hope to see you in paris roubaix!

  4. kurt says:

    Velo,
    It must have been great to hang with the gents of Perrin St and take in the aura of the place of it’s origin. For their employee’s sake, I hope they can retain the atmosphere and culture as they continue to grow. The product is the fruit that is born from the collaboration of passionate, innovative individuals allowed to blossom in an environment that nurtures. Growth often brings the need for organizational structure that stifles creativity and favors the path of least resistance.

    I wish them luck.

    You didn’t happen to mention to Simon that we are still waiting to see the black marked state of Florida on the continental map filled with pink, did you? I would love to ride with them to Key West.

    Keep checking off your items from your list of adventures. Memories are all we have left in the end.

  5. Jon Moss says:

    Really enjoyed reading about your visit Michael. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Simon a couple of times now, and have always been made very welcome.

    When buying something nice, it makes it much, much better to actually know about the brand, the people and thinking about the product. That special connection if you will. Knowing the people especially, makes Rapha my first port of call for clothes, both on and off the bike.

    Speak soon!

    Jon

  6. Slate says:

    What a handsome lot. Glad you had a chance to spend some time at Imperial Works.
    Best of luck at Roubaix.

    • Thanks Slate,

      It was funny that you were on the phone at the same time as my visit; felt like I should have been two places at once. Am I reading the tweets right; you guys are riding the ToC route at the moment?

      ::M

  7. BR says:

    Nice check-off from “the list”. I had the really cool Giro in 1985 with the stretchy cover…had Zebra stripes! Traded in my Bell V1 Pro!

  8. Tim Cox says:

    Wow what a fab post, Michael! Both the copy and the photos are so colourful – I’d love to drop by the P St HQ some day, as well. Rapha’s kit – both road and urban – has brightened many a day for me. Thanks guys!

    It has occurred to me that Mr. Palmer may have the entire collection in the Islay bunker; I have him down as a potential source for replacement of discontinued Rapha pieces. (No tumble-drying, Brian, OK?)

    Did you happen to chat with Joe et al re. the April Fools gags? Both were nicely executed, dontcha think?

    Have fun at Paris-Roubaix. After last weekend’s Tour of Flanders, I think it’s gonna be fireworks time. Looking forward to catching up with you and Mr. Chrome later this month.

    And Slate, if you’re reading this, hope that sunburn is on the mend.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  9. BR says:

    Have fun my ass…I hope some dweeb spills Primus on those damn Specialized sneakers or he gets hit with a flung bottle from the break. Gifts and/or souvenirs will reduce my vitriol. Travel safely – that is all.