BY CHRISTINA COOKE
Rapha's classic bib short for women riders.
// Courtesy Rapha Roadwear
For the next four years, a niche bike apparel company with its U.S. headquarters in Portland will outfit the top-ranked pro-cycling team in the world. The London-based company Rapha announced in January its sponsorship of the British Team Sky, which claims 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and several national champions among its ranks.
“This is the highest level,” says Slate Olson, general manager of Rapha’s Portland office, which oversees marketing, customer service and distribution in North America. “We have high, high hopes.”
Since launching in 2004, Rapha has produced cycling apparel known for its understated retro styling, high-quality merino fabric and unapologetic high prices — most jerseys cost at least $200. The company grossed $30 million in 2012, a 50% increase over 2011, and hopes to achieve a similar growth rate this year with the help of the international spotlight. The Portland headquarters, for its part, is gearing up to support the expected worldwide expansion.
Fran Millar, head of Team Sky’s business operations, says the team broke its contract with former sponsor Adidas a year early to sign with Rapha because leaders realized they wanted a company that specialized in cycling.
“At the core of their business is the idea of making people fall in love with the sport, and that’s what we want to do,” Millar says. “I don’t think we could be more closely aligned.” Rapha produced 700 custom pieces of on- and off-bike clothing for each of the team’s 27 riders and 68 staff. It also developed lines of performance apparel and street clothes for fans.
Olson sees many benefits to the investment on Rapha’s end. Sponsorship will allow the company to build credibility as a high-performance brand and fine-tune its designs with help from the pros. While cycling is hugely popular in Europe, where most pro races take place, Olson sees potential for the sport’s growth in the U.S. — aided by the fact that two of Team Sky’s riders are American. The team will compete in the USA Pro Challenge in August.
“We have massive lengths we can go to here based on the sheer size of our country and the number of cyclists,” Olson says.
Already, the North American headquarters has begun preparations to serve a larger market. The seven-person Portland office intends to hire several more employees over the next few years. Distribution, formerly in London, relocated to Portland last February. And while the primarily online company does not plan to add U.S. retail partners beyond the existing 14, it will establish additional Rapha Cycle Clubs: retail spaces that sell gear plus coffee and food. There’s one in San Francisco, and Olson expects another three or four to open in the next few years.
In addition, the Portland headquarters will continue disseminating positive stories to inspire potential customers. Outfitting the No. 1 team in the world, Olson says, will “give us a pretty big megaphone.”