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Off-road is the new road says Rapha founder as company identifies knobbly-tyred adventures as key emerging trend

Clothing brand's CEO Simon Mottram highlights "looser, more experiential” style of riding...

Rapha founder and CEO Simon Mottram believes mixed terrain riding is the key emerging trend in cycling as people seek “a looser, more experiential” kind of riding. We caught up with him earlier this week to hear his thoughts on the growth off-road and ultra-distance cycling, and how it is leading to a shift in the company’s focus away from the road.

Adventure riding has long been part of the brand’s ethos – cast your mind back a decade or so ago to the Rapha Continental series which would see riders, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups, take on challenging rides initially in North America and later further afield, their efforts captured in videos that for many came to epitomise the brand’s image long before it moved into UCI WorldTour sponsorship with Team Sky.

The company remains in the top flight of men’s road cycling through supplying kit to EF Education First, whose riders this year have been given licence to take part in off-road events – in June, Lachlan Morton won the inaugural GBDURO self-supported race from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and as part of the team’s ‘alternative racing programme’ the Australian also finished fourth at the Three Peaks.

> WorldTour pro Lachlan Morton wins “unimaginably hard” GBDURO bike-packing event

In ultra-cycling, James Hayden wore Rapha during the second of his back-to-back Transcontinental Race victories last year, and this year’s victor, Fiona Kolbinger, also sported the brand, which has also developed specific ranges for riding gravel, as well as on-bike luggage for long-distance cycling.

The proliferation of such events has been a big theme that we at road.cc have followed over the past few years, and sitting down to chat with Mottram at the brand’s north London headquarters earlier this week, we pointed out that through the Rapha Continental series, the company was ahead of the curve in helping that style of self-sufficient riding break through.

 “I’m glad you noticed that because people forget about us but that was 10 years ago,” he said. “We've been making Explore product for four or five years and in terms of telling stories, as you say 10 years ago.”

The Rapha founder's thoughts on the emergence of this type of cycling as an important new trend will perhaps not come as a surprise to much of the cycling media, where publishers have long recognised that there is a great deal of cross-over between road and off-road cycling.

User surveys on road.cc regularly reveal that a significant proportion of our readers own and ride off-road bikes regularly. 

We were speaking with Mottram at an event to which the company had invited members of its Rapha Cycling Club to hear about forthcoming products and initiatives – more of which on road.cc in the coming weeks.

He pointed out that “There are some people here tonight who I know do lots of Audax rides,” and that it was “amazing” that the brand, once viewed negatively in the Audax world, had become “quite accepted because we do lots of these ultra-endurance events and we’ve championed them for a long time, and I think our customers have started doing that and they’ve found them interesting.”

Mottram highlighted a shift away from highly-organised, mass participation events on the road, towards a more individual, less regimented type of riding, something he believes the industry has bought into and is supporting.

“Racing, Gran Fondos and sportives is what it was, it’s now becoming much more about long distance endurance rides, or touring where it's a bit less strenuous, or off-road, or a combination of all of them which is really exciting,” he explained.

“I do think the mixed terrain – slightly off-road, or mainly off-road riding, is the thing that's going to grow and get the industry right behind it, which is always interesting because they want to sell their bikes.

“That means that they’ll all be talking about it now, so the bikes they’ll put in front of you are going to be gravel bikes, adventure bikes, because that’s what they want to sell, or e-bikes, because they want to sell those too.

“So that will give it some momentum but I think it also just taps into a freer, less miserable and less data-driven type of cycling,” – one that Mottram believes is more about the essence of riding for the experience, rather than going by the numbers.

“I don't use watts and all that sort of stuff, but I do use Zwift inside because I think it's quite helpful,” he says, “but actually I don't want to just be measured, I don't want to just chain gangs where it’s all about fitness and on the road.

“I'd rather be off-road and I ride most mornings now off-road. But I'll be on-road for a bit, off-road for a bit. I think that's where the nice balance will be.

“We don't have gravel roads in England where we do have bridleways and a few fire roads and it's quite tricky. But if you look you can find out you can find it, even in North West London I can ride for four or five hours with no roads at all.

“So, I think it just taps into a spirit that people have, they don't want to be too, as I say, miserable and tough, you know, sneering people in tight Lycra … [it’s something] a bit looser and more experiential, which I wholeheartedly approve of, now that I'm 53,” he adds, laughing.

Rapha founder and CEO Simon Mottram (picture credit George Marshall)

Mottram retains a 5 per cent stake in Rapha and remains in charge of day-to-day operations following the sale of a 90 per cent holding to RZC Investments in 2017, a deal that valued the business at a reported £150 million.

The private equity house is the investment vehicle of Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart – for decades the world’s biggest retailer until being overhauled by Amazon earlier this year.

Wal-Mart is based in Bentonville Arkansas, and the brothers – both hugely keen mountain bikers – have helped fund 400 miles of trails in the state through the Walton Family Foundation. That gives rise to the question of whether Rapha will branch out into that discipline.

“Well I think there's two things going on,” Mottram replies. “I think there is there is a gradual moving to mixed terrain riding, which we were talking about.

“And you've seen in some of our photoshoots we're now using flat handlebar bikes and I go out riding, ’cross rides, ’cross/gravel/whatever, and there's all sorts of bikes on there, from skinny tires where people are really on the edge to people who are on full suspension mountain bikes.

“I think there is a general blurring, which is a good thing, it's a bit less about tribes or cliques or what have you.

“I think that's happening. I know that over half our customers have got a mountain bike, we’re a direct to consumer business, so we can find that stuff out, so that’s quite interesting.

“And in America particularly now, there aren't that many customers, riders who are mono-discipline – people seem much more relaxed about dipping in, so I think that that trend is just going to continue,” he says.

While he doesn’t say where that might take Rapha in terms of future ranges, there’s a clear hint when he adds that putting that together in an equation suggests that “we’ll do more in that area.”

In the second part of our interview, coming on Sunday, we’ll be looking at some of the issues that have affected Rapha over recent years ways in which it is addressing those.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.