BY MEGAN TOMPKINS
PORTLAND, OR—Slate Olson never wants to ride a gravel road again.
Through the Rapha Continental, the performance apparel company’s pursuit of the most epic rides across the country, he has handled enough gravel descents to last a lifetime.
“We have a passion for the road less traveled, and that has been translated by most of our ride hosts as as much gravel and as much climbing as possible,” said Olson, general manager for Rapha North America.
His hope is that cycling consumers are inclined to follow in his tracks as the company documents its epic rides in an online road journal dedicated to the lost art of cycling and the glory of suffering.
Olson said the journal also illustrates that the United States can rival Europe in terms of great rides. “All of us look to Europe and think of Alpe d’Huez and the cathedrals of cycling. But we have equally beautiful and challenging routes in the states as well,” Olson said.
Daniel Pasley, a writer in Portland, Oregon, pitched Rapha on the idea of getting a group of riders together to document some amazing rides. Rapha kicked the idea around for a year and in 2007 gathered a Northwest team of riders and launched a few local rides. Last year it added a dozen rides and recruited a Northeast team. By the end of this summer, Rapha expects the two teams to have completed and documented 50 rides.
Rapha has teamed with framebuilders such as Sycip, Bilenky and Independent Fabrication and industry partners such as Chris King who participate in the project and share the vision.
“It’s been an evolution over the last three years,” Olson said. “It started as a backyard project, last year we added East Coast rides and this year we are putting appropriate rigor to it,” Olson said.
Rides are documented on a dedicated Web site, www.rapha.cc/rapha-continental, through images, words and video. Pasley is the lead writer, but other photographers and journalists contribute to lend a nice mix of voices to the site. The rides live in an online library, though Rapha also plans to commemorate them in a coffee table book.
This type of experiential marketing offers consumers a more authentic look at the company than traditional advertising, said Olson, who spent seven years in U.S. brand advertising for Nike before joining the fledgling UK apparel company last January to set up its U.S. office. The London-based startup just celebrated its fifth anniversary.
“It’s a very intimate personal connection—it’s more about storytelling and less about trying to sell,” Olson said. “We’re a small company and wanting to grow and enjoy that and are really proud of what we make. For me, this is a way to bring them into the story as opposed to telling them.”
Steve Francisco, chief executive officer of internationally respected design studio JDK based in Burlington, Vermont, agreed that by telling a story Rapha comes across as unique and authentic. Such alternative means of reaching consumers are also effective for a small brand like Rapha, he added.
“Rapha is telling a story about a brand and an experience that someone can have with a brand that people want to be part of,” said Francisco. “They don’t need to run a headline on an ad—that to me is old-school marketing.”
By focusing on creating a compelling experience, Rapha gives people something to aspire to. “These are experiential moments, whether at a coffee shop or at the top of a mountain. People say, ‘Man, I wish I was there,’” Francisco said.
A cycling enthusiast who works with clients like Giant Bicycle and SRAM, Francisco joined the East Coast team of Rapha Continental riders last fall. As one of 20 cyclists participating in the rides, his image, history and personal accounts are on the Web site. He said consumers connect personally with the stories of real people from different backgrounds.
“Everyone’s unique and independent and got their own thing going on, but we come together and we all suffer the same,” Francisco said. “I’m right there next to a dude who’s a messenger in Philly, and we’re doing it because we love it not because we’re getting nice clothes and nice bikes. I’d be doing it on my day off even if it wasn’t part of Rapha.
“From a branding standpoint it authenticates their position; these are real people on real rides, really suffering, who happen to look really good in their clothes,” he added.
Because of its small size and limited production runs, Rapha currently sells through nine pro shops it has hand-selected in key U.S. markets.
Most of its sales are consumer direct and the Rapha Continental road journal helps drive valuable traffic to its online store. Olson said last year the Rapha Continental Web site got about 10,000 unique views a month; this year it has more than doubled and almost tripled that number in some months.
Olson said although the site has no comment functionality, it encourages customer communication via e-mail. Last year, Rapha received so many e-mails from people suggesting rides that it opened up this year’s ride selections to customers. Through the Continental Calling the company received about 250 submissions, from which it selected the 27 routes from Austin, Texas to Onekama, Michigan it plans to ride this summer.
Olson said Rapha wants to speak to its core cycling consumer, but he also hopes that the imagery and passion portrayed through its Web site will simply encourage people to get out and ride.
“We see the value in this idea of longer-form content—it’s an ongoing beautiful project,” Olson said.
“As we’ve brought films to it, we’ve brought another dimension for people to be inspired by. If we’ve done that and given people a little bit of an itch to go out and seek an adventure that’s good for us.”