How did Rapha & Nike change cycling & running?
The last decade has seen revolutions...

The last decade has seen revolutions in the sports of cycling and running — these revolutions have been influenced, encouraged and utilised by brands such as Rapha & Nike to build a following that has swelled into a movement for the sports and their champion brands.

Cycling has undergone somewhat of a resurgence. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people embracing the bicycle, for recreation, sport or as their primary form of transport.

Cycling has always had ‘tribes.’ Collectives that align to particular values attached to cycling — even if they themselves are unaware of such categorisation.

Image: Beardy McBeard.

Road cycling is perhaps the fiercest ensemble in enforcing these ideals. Road cycling regards it’s history in high esteem and cherishes it’s heroes and lore with passion and commitment. Whilst this created a base of dedicated, die-hard cycling enthusiasts it also built walls for the every-man. Cycling became the home of the elitist — a place for those who pledged themselves to the religion of road cycling and followed the victorious disciples of the racing elite.

Meanwhile a revolution was brewing.

Image: Mash SF

Bike messengers were the anti-establishment, the rebels, and they were building their own exciting counterculture. They rode track bikes on the street which an act in itself is considered heresy by the cycling old-guard. They rejected the uniform of the road contingent — instead adopting a punk style of mixing cycling clothes with street wear. People started to take notice. More and more media poured out of this vibrant counter culture into the mainstream audiences. It was embraced as a new angle on cycling and was adapted for commercial purpose by cycling brands, creating a new market sector of built for purpose urban single-speed bicycles.

People started emulating this new wave movement – cycling to work on a vintage track bike. A bike that was built for the velodrome but was ridden by a rider who wasn’t concerned with the velodromes strict rules.

This (generally) youth centric movement was adopted by a new generation of cyclists. Add into the mix an increasing cost of transport along with the success of olympic cycling teams and it was clear cycling was changing.

Quote: Simon Mottram | Image: Rapha

Rapha was founded in 2004, right in the middle of cycling’s ‘re-birth.’ Founded by Simon Mottram, Rapha was born from a frustration with the current offering of clothing products from cycling retailers. Rapha started modestly with only three team members but have quickly expanded over just 12 years to become a multi-national success, with physical stores in 13 locations around the world     but more importantly Rapha have capitalised on the cycling revolution   cultivated a movement of cyclists. Embracing the history of cycling but taking it to it’s next evolutionary step, modelling cycling, and the market in it’s own image.

Images: Rapha

Rapha respect their origins but they have also been bold in their execution. The dedication of the ‘old days’ is still there, but rather than being closed off and isolated, it’s throwing it’s doors open to outside influence. In 2005 Rapha founded Rouleur — a magazine widely regarded as the finest racing reportage available and admired by audiences both internal & external to cycling. When you flick through Rouleur (and later the Rapha branded ‘Mondial’) you will find much more than race reports. The publication(s) explores cycling culture but also life outside of cycling. They celebrate the lore of cycling whilst also pushing it forward.

Images: Rapha & Neil Bedford

Around the same time they also released their ‘Fixed Urban Range’ — a collection of tailored pieces with cycling specific features aimed at the neglected ‘commuter’ market — a market with minimal relation to the elite of world tour cycling. Even tapping into the anti-culture of the burgeoning fixie scene, but in a very ‘Rapha way.’

The City collection is for the ‘urban cyclist’ for rides to and from the office. In reality this is Rapha’s fashion offering. The communications are detail orientated and use the visual language and tones of high fashion.

Images: Rapha

One of the keys to Rapha’s success is they aren’t selling products, they are selling a way of life. In all of their product sectors they are building lifestyles  –  The ’Pro-Team’ collection is for the serious cyclists, bred from working with world tour race teams. The collection’s collateral material focus on the hardships of racing and training, and the technicality of the garments produced for them. Even celebrating the dedication of racing by creating an almost sub-culture within Rapha represented by the Pro-Team range  –  including it’s own identifying mark.

Quote: Simon Mottram | Image: Rapha

Rapha took time to build the culture around the brand – Simon Mottram was a marketing & branding consultant before founding Rapha. Building a Rapha fanbase meant that Rapha’s customers believed in the products, they believed in Rapha and they believed in cycling again. Rapha romanticised cycling into something that transcended a sport and turned it into a cult. This strength of following allowed Rapha to expand into more than a cycle clothing brand and into a luxury cycle brand. It’s a subtle difference but now, rather than just selling jerseys, Rapha sells a suite of products that also include luxury travel, world tour team sponsorship and it’s own global cycling club.

Images: Rapha

This club, the RCC is a £130.00 a year membership. For the entry price members get access (they still have to purchase it) to club kit, a ‘black card’ that get’s them a free coffee at clubhouses (what Rapha call their stores) and other benefits. But more than anything it allows the customer to become part of Rapha’s brand of cycling. They wear the RCC logo with pride and sing the praises of Rapha, and pay to do so.

All of this is tied together with the underlying principles of Rapha:

Rapha’s Company Principles

This obsession with cycling bleeds out of everything Rapha does. This level of detail obsession in how a cycling brand is marketed was unprecedented. Considering how expensive bikes can be, the existing communication that surrounded them was laughable.

Images: Rapha

Rapha has changed that. Now, other sports are looking to Rapha and its work in cycling to show how to inspire their audiences to participate and engage in sport. Meanwhile Rapha continues to grow globally, building a burgeoning fan base of cycling enthusiasts that are dedicated not only to the sport of cycling, but also to Rapha as its leading light.

"Cycling’s too important to wear a scratchy jersey with a terrible zip."
Simon Mottram

Nike is one of the biggest sports brands in the world, with a full roster of elite athletes that often appear in huge production campaigns on their behalf. However with running Nike have taken a different approach.

Running has rarely been afforded general mass-market appeal. There is the international marathon circuit but there are [relatively] few ‘elite’ runners or superstars. Even the big ticket events are [relatively] open to all to participate. Running requires no special equipment to get started, there have even been bare-foot running movements where one could argue you don’t require any equipment at all, even shoes.

This presents a problem for a company/brand that sells high end running equipment. How do you build a sustainable turnover of product in a sport that doesn’t really need any specialist equipment?

Images: Nike

What Nike did was bring everything back to the runner, back to their world. They made running all about the consumers personal experiences, about their local running scene, rather than any global stage or superstar athlete.

First, communications were centred on the runners dedication to running  –  to how they will strive to overcome any obstacle in their way. This was framed within running but spoke of the characters of the runners rather than any technical running specifics. For example: We Will Make It Count campaign was all about bringing runners together into the community Nike had created with their Nike+ app.

Images: Nike

Nike was taking an individual sport and was turning it into a team sport. Individuals would log their progress but they would share this with a community who were doing the same. They made the running club more accessible to all, and championed the idea through the application itself but also through print and web campaigns.

The natural evolution of this was the Nike local run clubs. Meet ups facilitated by Nike to get runners together to meet up and run together, before work, after work etc. These were inclusive clubs with an exclusive feel — The entry fee being the dedication it took to run itself.

Images: Nike

Images: Nike & I Love Dust

Running became a social currency aided by new focusses on health and well-being and Nike is capitalising on this with their inclusive Run Clubs and meet ups. They are not aggressively pushing product  –  you don’t have to wear Nike branded equipment to attend. However the sessions are organised and carried out through a Nike branded program and lead by a Nike run ambassador, so passively those who attend are seeing authority figures in running using Nike equipment  –  the effect being that they relate good runners with Nike products. So next time they are looking for new gear, they consider Nike to be the aspiration for them and their peers.

Images: Nike

The Nike+ applications are an easy, low or no cost entry into the world of Nike. Customers can experience Nike’s passion, dedication and expertise in running before making any purchase. Through these touchpoints they build a relationship with Nike, this relationship means that when they are looking for equipment Nike is often the first place they will look. This conversion is made easier still by click through links within the applications — giving Nike direct communication with their audience.

Rapha and Nike have elevated running and cycling beyond a sport and turned it into a religion, appointing themselves as the authority.

They have cultivated a following, something for their customers to stand behind — they present their passion and love of the sport as the reason why their product offerings are superior to their competitors. They don’t directly argue they are better than the rest, they are ‘in it for the sport.’

This unwavering dedication gives their markets something to attach and relate to — But importantly, they have the products that are a result of such dedication to their sports and their followers.

Words & Pictures — Jack Sadler

Images: Beardy McBeard, Mash SF, Rapha and Nike — as credited


Interview with Simon Mottram –  [thewashingmachinepost]
Juliet Elliott, Let’s Hear It For Fixed Gear Bikes  – [Juliet Elliott]
Rapha Timeline –  [Rapha]
Simon Mottram: On Passion, Obsession & Why Your Brand Should Take Sides  –  [99U]
How Rapha pedalled its way to success in cycling fashion  – [BBC News]
Sitting in with Rapha founder Simon Mottram  –  [VeloNews]

Nike 2013 We will make it count campaign –  [Highsnobiety]
Nike Plus –  [Nike+]
How Nike Excels on Social Media –  [Nuke Suite]
Nike Grid –  [YouTube]
Nike Run Club –  [ilovedust]