cycling in the hebrides. island touring and day rides. richard bartlett. cicerone books paperback 300pp illus. £14.95

cycling in the hebrides

i have only cycled in london once and the end result did not recommend itself. granted, i was naive enough to direct myself by means of a screenshot from a google map of london, a bad idea as it turned out for google did not name every street i was to come across in my misadventure. it's a tad scary when you're a country boy stopped at a roundabout desperately trying to figure out the way forward.

this subject matter raised its head during the past week when folks asked if i'd rented a boris bike when in london for the bike show. if i truly had knowledge of how to navigate the rabbit warren that is central london, i might have considered it. as it is, both london and i were considerably better off by my choice of travelling on the underground along with a brief riverboat journey to the tate britain at pimlico. i have trawled the impressive list of cicerone publications, but nowhere can i find a guide to cycling in central london. until that publication arrives, i'll confine myself to boats, trains and shanks's pony.

however, the hebrides are a whole 'nuther bucket of santanders, much given to traversing by bicycle from end to end starting either north or south. given that scotland's west coast islands cover a larger and arguably more inclement area, devoid of anything like the joined-up transport system to be seen in london, a comprehensive guide is possibly a must. unless of course you're one of those intrepid adventurers willing to adapt to whatever you might meet along the way, with no specific schedule to which it is necessary to adhere.

cycling in the hebrides

hence, of course, richard barrett's cicerone guide to cycling in the hebrides. this particular volume has been previously published and reviewed by yours truly in 2012. since i no longer have possession of that copy, i must assume that this is hopefully an updated version. if that's the case, i have a few misgivings that pertain specifically to the islay section of the book, commencing on page 90.

though the hebrides technically begin with islay in the south and end on reaching lewis in the far north, you have to get there first. mr barrett has therefore cleverly included linking routes that allow unfettered bicycle access to this most marvellous of scottish journeys. these commence on the scottish mainland, bringing the touring or day cyclist to ardrossan for the trip to arran, then onward to the kintyre peninsula and the kennacraig ferry terminal for the calmac ferry to islay.

barrett's first proferred taste of island cycling is along the south taking in the distilleries of laphroaig, lagavulin and ardbeg. i pointed out in my review of the first edition of this book that, despite spelling it correctly on the accompanying map, laphroaig had been incorrectly spelt in the text. sadly, despite this heads up, the distillery still suffers from this iniquity. additionally, mr barret contends that the south coast distilleries "offer tours, sampling and cafés". unfortunately only ardbeg has a café. if i correctly recall, laphroaig might have a coffee machine in the visitor centre, but otherwise...

cycling in the hebrides

further on, when cycling round loch gorm on islay's west coast, he mentions "Turning east around the northern shore of Loch Gorm, the road passes through Ballinaby, which is the largest village in this part of the island." sharon and jim mcharrie will be most amused to read of their farm being described as a village. there are but three occupied buildings on the farm, one of which is a holiday cottage. he may have incorrectly confused ballinaby with the houses at carnduncan about a mile further round the same road, but it is no village either and the road does not, in fact, pass through it.

unfortunately, i'm not finished yet.

cycling in the hebrides

in his brief history of the hebrides, he makes no mention of the lords of the isles who based their governance at loch finlaggan on islay. the lords of the isles are an important aspect of the islands' history, stretching from islay through mull, iona and on to skye, it's hardly a point that will restrict any aspect of cycling the isles, but odd that it has been omitted.

on a more specific note, on page 96, when describing a circuit of central islay from bowmore, he advises "Head up Main Street and turn left towards the radio mast along the minor road immediately behind the church. turn right at the T-junction at Laggan Bridge and follow the B8016 for one and a quarter miles southwards, the turn sharp left onto 'High Road'..." actually that would be the 'glen road'; turning right at the bridge has already taken you onto the 'high road'.

now i realise i could easily be accused of pettiness at this point and i might well be inclined to agree with you. however, if i was able to come across these errors relating to merely one island in this travelogue, one has to wonder if such a proportion is repeated throughout the book. as one who has only ever cycled islay, jura and colonsay, how would i know?

cycling in the hebrides

in an ideal world, folks such as i, happily reviewing several travel books sent by the good folks at cicerone, would have thorough experience of that which we presume to critique. unfortunately, that's a situation that is very unlikely ever to occur given the extensive nature of the cicerone catalogue. overall, this, as with many another volume from cicerone, is essentially well-researched, well written and copiously illustrated. unfortunately, it may have stalled slightly at the proofing stage.

art lies in the details.

such criticisms aside, i'd be hard-pushed to withdraw any recommendation; the directions, detail, maps and instructions will almost certainly get you from the ferry port at ardrossan to the northernmost point of lewis in safety. there are plenty of narrative distractions along the way to enhance your appreciation of the islands visited, while each route and day trip is conveniently summarised at the back of the book.

and mr barrett did have the great decency to mention velo club d'ardbeg, debbie's and the ride of the falling rain, so he's quite obviously a decent fellow who is welcome to join us for a bike ride and a coffee anytime he's in the area.

cicerone books

monday 22 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

excellence and humility

jeremy powers the book of cross

i doubt very much whether the velo club are alone in surreptitiously aiming to sprint for the 30mph signs at bruichladdich village. i say surreptitiously because almost all of us, with one notable exception, practice to deceive; pretending that we have no intention of sprinting and that this is the very week when lead out duties are uppermost in our minds. the perfect excuse for failing to be first across the line.

jeremy powers the book of cross

of course, that's not the only excuse; failing to win the sprint on consecutive weeks rather obviously requires more than one excuse if credibility is to be maintained. oncoming traffic might reasonably be blamed for my not coming round the front of the peloton. "i was in completely the wrong gear," is always a favourite and "i was boxed in," almost sounds like it could be the truth. the real reason, however, is almost never uttered by any of us; "i was totally stuffed and didn't have the legs."

jeremy powers the book of cross

those are scenarios played out all across the country at the end of a sunday ride because it is apparently in breach of the macho manifesto to simply accept defeat without having someone, something mechanical or some unfortunate happenstance to blame. it is one of the aspects of cycling that we all have in common with the professionals, though it ought to be pointed out that they have a lot more to lose than do we.

i have yet to hear of a cycle club that refused a membership renewal to anyone who successively managed not to place in the lunch-time sprint or not to notably summit after having been paced up to and over a small hump-backed bridge. the pros usually spend the majority of their careers chasing a contract, one that depends on being victorious when the guy in the car expects that to be the case. hence, of course, the professional cyclist's book of credible excuses.

jeremy powers the book of cross

jeremy powers, american national cyclocross champion is not only impressive in victory, but equally so in defeat. winner of over 60 uci classified victories and usa national cyclocross champion in 2012, 2014, 2015 and again in asheville, north carolina in january 2016. on the back of such successes, he was once more the principal rider in the usa national team participating in the 2016 world championships in zolder, belgium, slipping a pedal at the start before heading backwards to eventually finish 33rd. not the placing he had hoped for and certainly not commensurate with his american season and several previous forays into european cyclocross.

jeremy powers the book of cross

american 'cross fans had placed their faith in possibly a top ten position or at worst, top twenty. "i slipped my pedal at the start, and it put me in the wrong place. mentally i had to come back from that. it's just like, 'darn it!' when you're racing against the best in the world, guys who are used to riding courses such as the mud steeped championship course at zolder, any mistake, however, small, is going to place you at a huge disadvantage.

"i think that the courses in europe are generally more difficult. back home we have eighth grade and here we have honours..."

jeremy powers the book of cross

but powers is, to all intents and purposes, a gentleman, not given to airs and graces and with nary a hint of arrogance. even when heading for a reconnaissance of the zolder course, wending his way through wandering riders, support crew and spectators, he joyfully greets fans and utters a "thank you" when someone steps back to let him onto the start straight. he may be the american national champion, but well knows that manners cost nothing. even after the finish, still coming to terms with a very hard race and the fact that his finishing position was a long way from his ambition at the start, he has time to walk over and greet some american fans.

jeremy powers the book of cross

this is not to place jeremy powers on some sort of a pedestal; many professional riders are courteous and friendly, but few come across this self-effacing. "there were plenty of opportunities for me to make up time and make up places, but i wasn't able to." none of this is anecdotal or the result of a post-race interview seen in print. the words are from powers right enough but formed as part of the final chapter (for this season at least) of powers' video series the book of cross, filmed across the recent season by motofish.

"i feel that i let not just myself down, but my family and the people that follow my racing."

if you've missed any of the three episodes of book of cross, now would be the ideal time to catch up via the links below. i'll be lucky if i ever truly get the hang of mounting and dismounting smoothly on my cross bike, but despite this self-professed ineptitude, i could pretty much guarantee that if i (metaphorically speaking) bumped into jeremy powers in bridgend woods, he'd at least shoot the breeze for a few moments before leaving me scrabbling in his wake. it's riders like powers that make you proud to be a cyclist, no matter your favoured discipline.

the book of cross chapter one | the book of cross chapter two |the book of cross chapter three |

sunday 21 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

the danube cycleway volume 2: from budapest to the black sea. mike wells. cicerone books paperback 282pp illus. £16.95

the danube cycleway volume 2

many years ago, our local tourist marketing group published an annual visitors' handbook illustrating the many individual aspects of the island that may be of interest to those visiting for a week or so. rather obviously, the eight malt whisky distilleries play a large part in islay's initial attraction, but assuming that wasn't the sole reason for visiting, it seemed pertinent to point out places of interest such as the museum, finlaggan, the rspb reserve etc.

the danube cycleway volume 2

unfortunately, the one thing the marketing group sort of failed to take into consideration was the advertising of this booklet, meaning a number of pepople found it at the end of their trip, reading about places they missed while departing on the ferry.

it would be iniquitous to compare a small island like islay with that of a 1700km plus bike ride from budapest in hungary all the way to where romania borders the black sea. this extensive and picturesque route takes the intrepid cyclist through serbia and croatia, straddling the bulgarian border for almost half of the proscribed distance, ensuring that nobody will return home having missed any important features along the way. mike wells, author of part one of this bicycle ride (from the black forest to budapest) is eminently qualified for having continued into volume two, having walked and cycled extensively throughout most of europe and britain.

the book itself is the archetypal instruction manual, the sort of publication that, were it to arrive along with an item of electrical equipment or do-it-yourself furniture, we'd ignore it completely. the danube cycleway volume 2 however, while it may be seen as a last resort in the latter case, it seems very likely it could be a major timesaver and lifesaver if you happen to be astride a fully-loaded touring bike on your way to the black sea.

wells prepares the traveller impressively for the journey that might be about to be undertaken, including a surprisingly comprehensive history of the region for such a modestly sized publication. in truth, this tends to be a feature of the majority of cicerone publications. and despite this being volume two, the author does not take for granted that every reader will be widely experienced in either the area or that of cycle-touring.

there are short, yet concise sections concerning accommodation, the immediate environment, the danube cycleway, pre-ride the danube cycleway volume 2 preparation, wildlife, food and drink and several other factors that you'd probably never consider until it was too late. the other ideal feature of this and other cicerone guides is their compact size. though it might overstretch a jersey back pocket, it would easily slip into a handlebar bag, making it a simple matter to follow each turn along the way. the note-like riding instructions are remarkable clear...

"Once over river, drop down and turn R back under bridge and follow this road for 3.5km. Just before road turns R under railway bridge, turn L and first R following one way system."

the danube cycleway volume 2

naturally enough there are road maps and street maps of the major conurbations to be met along the way, while wells intersperses the necessarily dry riding instructions with descriptions that might enhance the rider's appreciation of his/her surroundings.

"The park in the centre of Poian Mare (pop. 12,500) is a small pavilion built in 1830 by Prince Milos Obrenovic of Serbia, which hosted a convention (1835) that agreed an economic treaty between Romania and Serbia (at that time semi-autonomous vassal states of Ottoman Turkey)."

as if all the foregoing were insufficient to aid a touring trip through central europe, the entire trip is sectioned into manageable chunks at the back of the book, allowing any prospective trip to be divided according to riding ability and prevailing weather conditions. and should you fancy being a tad more studious in your ministrations, appendix c contains the serbian cyrillic alphabet.

don't leave home without it.

cicerone press

saturday 20 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

a classic story


a mere eight days. that's all we have to wait until the proper cycling season begins. i've no doubt that racing down under and through the deserts of the middle-east has kept one or two sponsors happy and more than likely the chaps who won races and stages. but, and i cannot stress this enough, it's all pretend; those are not the real faces of cycle sport. if we might drift sideways into restaurant parlance for a minute or two, the january and early february stuff is simply the aperitif. the main course starts at the brilliantly named omloop het nieuwsblad next saturday, then kuurne-brussels-kuurne on sunday 28 february.

omloop het nieuwsblad

i know, because i have the bunting ready for display. (metaphorically speaking, you understand)

i cannot deny a certain apathy pointed in the direction of the tour down under, the tours of qatar and oman and some spanish stuff. i desperately want to believe, but the effort is falling far short of the desire. i also (sort of) understand the uci wishing to spread the sport farther and wider, but it disturbs me and many others, that the true european heritage of the sport has suffered as a result. in the natural order of things, the cyclocross season would come to a fading end, just after the world championships, to be followed at a safe distance by the spring classics.

dwar doors vlaanderen

if i were au fait with the art of film-making, the sight of mud-spattered riders crossing the finish line would make the ideal transition into scenes of a closely formed peloton being blown from one side of the road to the other. add a smattering of rain and you have the perfect recipe for road cycling. even the giro d'italia and the tour de france pale by comparison; they may be the poster boys for our obsession, but let's face it, they'd hardly be described as gnarly.

of course, there may be hereditary reasons for my delight at the onset of the one-day classics, possibly one that is applicable to all scottish cyclists at least. it's a theory that has a great deal to do with the weather. i have been tirelessly repeating the slogan appended to endura's classic jersey (notice the coincidence?): 'if you think the spring classics are bad, try scotland.' because, despite my total lack of any racing experience, i figure it's mostly true.

dwar doors vlaanderen

i might be in serious danger of undermining my credibility, however, by admitting that i have not an earthly as to who might be in form, who might be tipped for the win and who might be targetting specific events. but i honestly don't care. i'm still a great believer in watching the race unfold either on british eurosport or a tiny window on sporza, because no matter what any of the admittedly well-informed pundits might say, you can't tell the winner till he crosses the line. the rest is just window-dressing.

who amongst the followers of rules #five and #nine could possibly not feel a shiver of excitement at the mere mention of the scheldeprijs, the e3 harelbeke, dwar doors vlaanderen or the brabantse pijl? in fact, who other than an obsessed cycling cognoscenti could have arrived at such evocative and unpronounceable names in the first place?

so at the risk of insouciantly dismissing multi-day stage racing out of hand while effortlessly disparaging the efforts of our antipodean brethren, i think it only fair to say that the true cycling fan needs a smattering of rain, wind, cobbles and armwarmers. those are the very reasons that the classics were invented in the first place, races that i only bring to mind at this point to allow you a clear week of anticipation.

you're welcome.

friday 19 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

bang for buck

dw 6000 series ul stands

despite the scary thought that it would put me into irretrievable debt, in my second year at college i purchased a pre-owned drumset for the princely sum of £180. made by the premier drum company for boosey and hawkes, it was badged as a beverley set, resplendent in a shiny gold wrap and replete with a premier 2000 metal shell snare drum. memory does not allow me to recall how good or bad this set of drums sounded, but i do remember the fitted hardware. to put not too fine a point on it, the stuff was atrocious.

the two piece tom holder mounted to the bass drum would rarely remain where it had been set at the beginning of any gig, and on more than one occasion, the tom itself adopted an altogether disturbingly awkward and unplayable angle midway through a fine rendition of wishing well or the doobie brothers' long train running. had i possessed the power of john bonham this would have been somewhat unremarkable, but in truth i was and remain, a relatively light hitter. i prefer to think of my drums as musical intruments rather than a means of letting off steam at the end of a troublesome week.

around the same time, the japanese began to infiltrate the uk market, not purely in the realm of electronics, but also via the world of music. yamaha, tama, pearl and others offered particularly inviting quality for less money than had been hitherto the case, particularly with reference to american drumsets such as those proffered by ludwig, gretsch, rogers et al. but the biggest difference was in the heft of the hardware. large diameter stands with double braced tripod legs, wing nuts that could be comfortably hand-tightened, rather than fumbled with two fingers and snare drum stands that would allow keith moon to stand on while leaping in the direction of roger daltrey.

shimano dure-ace gear mech

never mind the considerable addition to the weight of that hapless trap case; these things were sturdy enough and heavy enough to remain in place no matter the battering they might receive. and the extra few pounds deducted from an all but non-existent student's bank account were felt to be well worth it for both the improved status conferred and no longer having to worry about cymbal stands disappearing off the edge of the stage.

vintage, however, is now the contemporary percussionist's watchword. white marine pearl is currently enjoying a resurgence, even in flavours replicating the yellow staining achieved through many years of gigging in smoke-filled rooms. and it will probably come as no real surprise to learn that the original vintage drumsets were not reinforced with oversized and overweight hardware. this is a situation of which i was reminded only yesterday on collecting my copy of modern drummer from the newsagent.

on page five there is a full-page advertisement for drum workshop's latest ultra-light 6000 range of hardware: a cymbal stand, hi-hat stand and snare stand with a combined weight of less than ten pounds. if you've ever had to lug a trap case up a flight of stairs and the full-length of a village hall, you'd be every bit as appreciative as i. but, and as cyclists you will scarcely believe what i'm about to tell you, these stands are notably cheaper than their more substantial brethren.

shimano 105 rear mech

if i might cite as an example, the drum workshop 6000 series snare stand retails at £79 compared to the 9000 series at £139. it is almost a concept of entry to the world of the weight-weenie when related to bicycles, that the lighter a product becomes, the more expensive it will be. this is most often referred to as the law of diminishing returns.

a shimano dura-ace rear gear mech weighs in at 158g and has an rrp of £150. the lightest shimano 105 rear mech weighs 221g and has an rrp of £40. granted, this is a bit like comparing apples with oranges, and few of us would argue against the knowledge that riding uphill is notable easier on a lightweight bicycle. it is also inarguable that many of the lower cost components, such as gear mechs, are comprised of more resin than the super-dooper lightweight stuff, probably justifying the lower cost.

but are we having a smattering of wool pulled over our eyes based upon carefully instilled preconceptions?

those cheaper, lightweight drum stands have need of supporting the same drums and cymbals as that of their heavier weight brethren, a function to which i can attest first hand. drum workshop and their competitors will have spent possibly every bit as many research and development dollars refining their latest items of lightweight hardware as have shimano, campagnolo, sram et al, spent on their own featherweight products. yet drummers would be aghast to be charged more money for lighter hardware than the comparable chunky stuff.

could it be that this is a part of einstein's theory of general relativity? or perhaps we could persuade drum workshop to make bicycle componentry?

thursday 18 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

spreading the word


though it has nothing much to do with anything in particular, the approach to the east entrance of london's excel centre is quite disappointing. aside from the apparent closure of an expansive area of car park for no discernible reason, the substantial signage adjacent to the glass doorways can surely be of no succour to indigenous brits, even if from the country's more northerly regions? designated a part of the abu dhabi exhibition company, it seems we are incapable of retaining ownership of any large uk exhibition centre. even chris hoy's velodrome exists under the emirates banner.

dive show

that aside, my recent trip to the nation's capital impressed upon me one salient factor; nothing ever seems to open early. despite the fact that i arrived at the tate modern when i should have been standing outside the far more impressive looking tate britain. not one second before 10am did the security guard open the doorway to a modernity i'm quite happy to leave hidden behind the tate modern's overbearing northern warehouse demeanour.

and there, on friday morning, stood in an increasing queue at one of the many entrances to the excel's impressively large exhibition space, not one public foot was allowed past the barcode scanners before 10am. maybe we're on the eve of a revolution that will allow the uk to rival switzerland in the percision stakes?

chris hoy

while sitting astride one of the many red plastic chairs that populate the centre space between exhibition wings, i noted a ponytailed and bearded fellow sat opposite. he and his similarly dressed colleagues wore fleece jackets bearing the words 'i'm not lost, i'm just exploring' across the back. you would wonder, as did i, just how this tongue-in-cheek statement related to bike riding? perhaps at a stretch, you might find a snicket of humour were it to be seen on the back of a followed mountain biker, but generally speaking, it seems more related to the outdoor fraternity.

in fact, that was precisely the answer. not only was the abu dhabi exhibition centre home to the london bike show, it was also housing the outdoor show, the dive show and the triathlon show. ferrari naturally enough, as a fine, upstanding member of the cycling community, i ventured nowhere near any of the above, confining my interests solely to the stands exhibiting clothing, bikes, components, nutrition products and copies of the daily telegraph under whose auspices all this existed.

it was, to put not too fine a point on it, a remarkably entrepreneurial idea. reinforcing my long held notion that the motoring brigade have a greater degree of perspicacity when it comes to marketing than the cycle trade, there was both a ferrari and a maserati in evidence, as well as an impressive exhibit by vw campervan conversion specialists vanworx. with no barriers, physical or otherwise between all four shows, there was every opportunity for what i believe the horticulturists would refer to as cross-pollination.

of course, i have no words, numbers or observations to back this up, but theoretically i figure it must have happened once or twice over the shows' four day existence. the road market has apparently plateaued, while the offroad market is allegedly on a slow increase as more people discover gravel. the more non-cyclists who subsequently become cyclists, the better. perhaps the guy with the 'i'm just exploring' fleece jacket had had the slogan specifically created to explain his presence in a show that was perhaps not his first choice

wednesday 17 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................

an imperialist of the finest order

rapha cycle club

as the years advance, a one-day trip from the hebrides to the big city has become less amenable to the point where i no longer have the fortitude to undertake such a brief, yet hectic journey. if i point out that i departed the sunborn yacht hotels' 'sunseeker' moored adjacent to london's excel centre, just prior to 19:30 on friday eve and arrived home in bowmore at 15:45 the following day, it will give some idea of that which i discuss.

i'm not attempting to gain sympathy by describing this infrequent plight, simply placing it in some sort of age perspective. enduring two hours on a ferry, four hours on a glasgow-bound bus, waiting around seven and a half hours for a coach to london and repeating the sequence the following day(s), no longer holds the same sense of intrepid adventure that was once the case. this time round, i took advantage of the premier inn's guaranteed good night's sleep and made it a two-day trip.

rapha cycle club

however, extending my usual stay by a period of twenty-four hours was not without considerable benefits. for starters, i had the opportunity to experience the frank auerbach exhibition at the tate britain, followed by a long-overdue visit to rapha's imperial works in tileyard road. aside from the chance to view as yet unreleased products, all of which i could tell you about, but then i'd have to shoot you afterwards, i have a great number of friends at rapha, some of whom i have known for nigh-on ten years and one particular friendship that has lasted twelve years.

ceo, simon mottram and i were first introduced when i called to find out from where the progenitors of the sportwool jersey had suddenly appeared. though brand new to the uk market in july of 2004, simon told me that he'd received a message from a gent who claimed to have been a long-time fan of rapha and was most pleased to see their clothing available in britain. yes, that's what we thought too.

those halcyon days of yore are now approaching some twelve years distance, with rapha having reported a 37 percent increase in their annual turnover for 2015. that must have been very welcome news, but was the increase expected?

"We have grown by more than 30% each year since we launched. It gets harder as the business and numbers get bigger, but that was the plan."

rapha cycle club

not being one particularly enamoured with numbers, nor one given to so-called digital banking, my principal means of checking how much or little money i have is to look at the balance displayed on the auto-teller outside my local branch. though that number is mostly weighted towards the disappointing end of the scale, basically i'm not the most astute when it comes to tracking incomings and outgoings with a view to maximising their intrinsic benefit to yours truly.

in the case of a now multi-national cycle clothing company still keenly intent on expanding in strategic fashion, where the money comes from and where it's going are very much of daily interest. in the light of rapha's increasing turnover, is simon able to attribute growing sales to any specific strategy or is it as a result of a combination of things?

rapha travel

"It's a combination of things: Strong international growth, especially in Asia Pacific. The UK business still growing surprisingly well, despite our (already) strong base there. Rolling out our physical cycle clubs, which add to our sales rather than cannibalising the web sales. Our growing product range, with more products for hotter weather and an expanded pro team range on the back of Sky and Wiggins."

thankfully, for the sanity of both myself and the business world at large, i do not run an international company of any description. i scarcely have a five minute plan as opposed to a five year version and i find the business news on radio four's today programme totally inscrutable. i have a better understanding of the principles behind the discovery of gravity waves than of the nikkei index.

rapha cycle club

building a successful company such as that based at imperial works means having the ability to observe and comprehend market trends and acting accordingly. these conceivably vary from country to country, with some international markets obviously larger than others. take the usa for example; potentially there are still many north american cyclists who have yet to be made aware of rapha's substantial range of apparel. this has brought rumours of reverting to online sales only, dispensing with existing retail partners other than the rapha branded cycle clubs. is that the plan?

"Absolutely. As of 31 January this year, we are 100% direct-to-consumer all over the world. That has been our plan for quite some time."

rapha sky

an online sales operation does mean, however, that if the jersey or shorts you bought yesterday don't quite meet with expectations, there's no poor unfortunate salesperson to shout at in person. and though i'm far from suggesting that rapha engenders any untoward adverse customer reaction in any parts of the world, this method of sales places greater reliance on continually improving their customer service.

to be honest, rapha are justifiably renowned for their customer interaction. though i have had cause to be more than grateful to their impressive ministrations myself, i have also received many unsolicited testimonials that would suggest there are few, if any, holes in their ability to keep the customer satisfied. does the move to online only place greater emphasis on even better customer service?

rapha sky

"Yes, definitely.
"Everything Rapha does, from products to rides and events and content, comes from a love of the sport. We share that love with our customers and so we have always wanted to have direct relationships with them. These are built on great service and the direct relationships place the right importance on service and provide the right discipline for us. It's core to our business."

rather famously, rapha have rarely relied on press advertising to spread the word. instead, and aside from sponsoring specific events, such as the supercross series in the uk, there has been the very successful rapha continental with its attendant photography and videos, the highly-renowned rapha condor race team and a foray into individual sponsorship with usa national cyclocross champion, jeremy powers.

jeremy powers

and then there was team sky, a notably expensive undertaking but one that was bound to bring marketing benefits through the team's successes at the tour de france. however, sponsorship that works only in one direction is perhaps not the ideal scenario. rapha have now announced the finish of the team sky partnership at the end of this year. has working with the team proved beneficial from a technical point of view?

"It's been a successful partnership from a number of points of view: awareness, performance legitimacy, story telling. More than anything, the partnership has taught us a great deal about the technical demands of racing and the needs of the world's best racers. We have done a lot of R&D and wind tunnel work in the last year that is now feeding into 2016 products."

cycle racing at world tour level undoubtedly brings its own demands, not only on the riders, the bikes and the support teams but, as simon states above, the technical advancement of performance apparel. does he think that the technical aspects of cycle clothing still have plenty of headroom left to explore?

rapha travel

"Absolutely. There are still many ways to gain a few watts. But I think the bigger opportunities might be around comfort, visibility and protection, rather than just speed. We are actively pursuing those avenues."

but let's briefly return to rapha's sales strategy. despite the shift to an online-only shopfront, the cycle clubs seem to have moved on considerably from their early pop-up status, becoming a more permanent part of the rapha firmament, offering visitors and club members not only an impressive double-espresso, but the opportunity to see the clothing range at first hand. as an unapologetically parochial question, with cycle clubs established all over the world, does simon ever see the time when one might open in scotland?

"Our business in Scotland is growing steadily, with big pockets of customers in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Once we have 200+ RCC members in one of those cities, I can see a cycle club following. It might take longer for one to open on Islay."

rapha cycle club

looking back to rapha's beginnings in 2004, the original premises were in the eponymously titled imperial works, a former piano factory in north london's kentish town. on my first visit, aside from the pink sofa, there were only four folk working in what seemed a generously proportioned office. in the move to tileyard road to accommodate an ever growing complement of staff, the name imperial works came along for the ride.

the current premises are home to a staff of around eighty, all beavering tirelessly in a large open plan space above a not insubstantial indoor cycle parking lot and a café serving weaponised espresso. i recall the days when i could phone imperial works and simon would answer the phone. those days are long gone, and improved financial results no doubt arrive with their own baggage. does he ever miss those days of innocence?

rapha canyon

"I miss being able to talk to everyone in the company across a single table! But growth brings so many more opportunities, like Team Sky, Sir Brad, the RCC, new product ranges and activities all over the world. I wouldn't want to go back."

one of the aspects of the radio's daily business news that has completely escaped my understanding is the continual need to annually improve the corporate profit margin, allied to the despair and outcry when the declared profits fail to match analysts' predictions. i can easily comprehend the need to make a profit, but have certain misgivings over the necessity or practicality of increasing them year on year.

simon mottram has long been a man to successfully base rapha's future strategies on carefully curated five-year plans. it's hard to argue with such methodology; there are several other cycle clothing purveyors who have been in business a lot longer than rapha, yet would struggle to match their performance. given his undeniable success in his chosen metièr, it surely wouldn't be out of order to ask what the future holds for rapha and, perhaps more importantly, simon mottram?

rapha classic jersey

"We are doing well, but there is so much more to do. Cycling is big in the UK but is still a niche sport in many parts of the world. Far too few people realise how amazing a life on the bike can be. We need more of them to appreciate the cultural and social side of riding a bike and the incredible discovery and adventures it can lead to.
"It's so much more than a form of exercise. We are so lucky to do what we do. Through better products, stories, rides and events we want to show more people what is possible. And somehow we need to help the top level of the sport to find a way to engage all the active cyclists out there. While there has been a boom in recreational riding, pro racing has been in the doldrums. It is commercially weak and I think it seems less and less relevant to regular riders. I still love it and care passionately about reconnecting it.
"On a more personal note, I have just turned 50 years old and am enjoying putting together 50 meaningful rides with friends all over the world this year. One of them will be the third annual Manchester to London ride on 4 September. Any chance of Mr Palmer joining me for a long day trip to the south?"

why would i say "no?"

very many thanks to simon mottram and to my friends at imperial works for their hospitality and eye-popping espresso last thursday. | rapha

tuesday 16 february 2016

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................