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.
Simon Mottram at work
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
Something tells me there might be an IT position opening up soon.
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.