Brands are interesting, or at least I think so.

As a consumer, our relationship with brands is a complex one: it’s based on a multitude of experiences with a brand – it could be physical, for instance in a shop or it could be an emotional one, seeing a tv commercial. All of those experiences add up to what the brand means to us and I’d guess that most people don’t really think too much about it, we just get on an transact with brands. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s not often then, you encounter a brand so single-minded in what they are doing, it’s breathtaking.

Rapha are one of those brands.

If you’re a cyclist, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about. If you’re not, you won’t. And that’s because they spend every single waking hour focusing on their customer – hardcore cyclists – what they like, what they want, who they are – you know, all the stuff a lot of businesses don’t do particularly well. I’d go so far to say that if you’re not a cyclist, they actually don’t give a monkeys about you – these guys are seriously focused on their bike riding customers.

Simon Mottram, founder and CEO of Rapha was speaking at an excellent conference I attended this week –  Hull Digital. He is the founder of the business and the Rapha brand we see is essentially him, the embodiment of his values and beliefs. Rapha as a business has grown off the back of  the popularity of cycling and particularly the MAMIL phenomenon (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). Middle aged men with disposable income in wealthy countries have essentially fuelled Rapha’s growth and emergence on to the world stage of cycling, leading to their sponsorship of the world’s best cycling team, Team Sky for whom 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins rides.

So they’re doing loads of things right: they love their customers and know them intimately; they are cycling nuts themselves so know what works and what doesn’t; their products are reassuringly expensive and technically the best available and they have a brand with superb provenance (their name comes from an Italian cycling team in the sixties) and a highly sophisticated, perfectly judged visual identity. What’s not to like?

Interestingly I was talking to a young dude who cycles competitively at club level at the conference  and whilst he appreciates the Rapha image and ethos, he claimed he’d be ridiculed at his club if he turned up in head to toe Rapha. It seems there’s a culture of not trying too hard with your image in British club cycling – the tattier the kit, the more kudos it gains you, something coincidentally I’ve experienced first hand playing tennis at club level. It’s almost not the done thing to look the business, which I find bonkers. I imagine there’s no such culture internationally where our more stylish European cousins or monied Americans spending big time on Rapha kit.

I have to admit the geek in me really enjoys the attention to detail lavished on every product Rapha sells from gloves to jerseys to embrocation. They know full well that their customers are complete geeks too and cater for their every branded whim. It’s a joy to behold when not only is the product brilliant but the packaging is just as good too.

Rapha has really set its stall out to own a very specific space in the market and it’s a joy to see a brand at the top of its game. I just hope that they don’t get snapped up by a Nike and lose their independence – a similar thing happened a few years ago with once uber-cool brand Howies who lost their way after acquisition to the corporate world – who have since bought their independence back, tellingly.

My prediction is that Rapha will continue to plough their stylishly unique furrow, independently, for quite some time to come.

A Zen Day

This is what I hope is going to be the first of many guest posts.

The book club that I’m a member of decided it would be good idea for us all to write a short piece for our recent trip to Rome (more on that later) and we all reviewed each other’s work. It was quite nerve-wracking, but ultimately quite uplifting.

One of our other book club members wrote a fantastic piece about a subject very close to his heart – cycling. I asked his permission to publish it on my blog and he kindly agreed.

If you’re a cyclist you will absolutely love it, if you’re not a cyclist it will actually make you want to be one, it’s that good.

A Zen Day

Today is going to be a good day, or at least that is my hope and intention.  It has already started well even though it began was last night.  Good tunes were playing and a great red was open, which had been kindly donated by friends at a previous get together but not drunk.  So there I was with a weighty red on the table and oily hands as I prepped the bike.  There are times when prepping the bike is quite frankly a pain in the arse, you don’t have enough time, energy or inclination so it gets rushed and in my experience you will pay for it later out on the trails.  Last night was none of those things.

For me music is such a fundamental part of life and can really come into it’s own when you need to concentrate on what you are doing.  It never ceases to amaze me that, for example, if I was to start listening to music at work it would lead to me being hauled in in front of the boss as music is classed as being a distraction.   How come then heart or brain surgeons have it on when they operate?

Anyway the bike’s propped up on its stand, wheels are off and I’ve fitted on my knobbly tyres with no trouble.  Back mech has been hand cleaned so it sparkles, cables loosened, lubed and re tightened.  Wheels re fitted and flicking through the gears there is a perfect change – one tap one change up and down everytime so no excuses tomorrow for hitting the wrong gear.  Gear laid out, food made and water pack chilling in the fridge.  Ready to roll.

I’m normally an early riser on a Friday but today is special.  Flexed the day off work, no one knows what for and no one knows where I’m going, which adds a real schoolboyish excitement to the buzz I’m already feeling.  Alarm at 5.  No problem getting up but the fear is what is outside.  Peak through the curtains and it looks clear and crisp, got a way to travel but not going to check just head out.  Downstairs make up some soup and coffee, pack the bike and kit and hit the road.  Still dark.

Heading east towards the rising sun, nothing on the roads at this point but mind whirling.  Ipod plugged in on shuffle and the volume cranked up.  “Son I’m thirty I only went with your mother cos she’s dirty” – the voice of Shaun William Ryder blasts out, what a great way to start a journey.  Mind starts to wander at this point to the theory that your ipod knows what you want and for example never plays a random shuffle but picks tracks that you are more likely to want to listen to.  I’m shaken out of this train of thought by the dam right spooky second track of “Is there a ghost in the machine” by Band of Horses.  Weird but great.  On it goes track after track of genius comes blasting out as I roar towards the sun singing my head off.  Starting to see some commuters heading the other way now and to them I must look like the Ghost Rider on my way back from doing the devils bidding.

I’m at the forest for 7.30 and park up at the barrier waiting for the rangers then decide fuck it lets unload here and bike in so I reverse back down the approach till there is a clearing and get the frame, wheels and kit out.  Before assembling I take a good hit of coffee, no point rushing now and spoiling the prep.

For some reason I always have problems putting the wheels on without having a bit of disc brake rub.  Drives me nuts.  Take my time today and despite the bitingly cold fingers slot the wheels in tighten up and spin.  Total silence apart from the gentle whir of the hub.  Yes.

Load up and fire road it down to the car park.  This was just what I wanted no one here, no cars, nothing.  The most massive smile is spreading throughout me and I’ve not even started.  Flick a few turns to feel nicely warmed up and head for the trail.  I love this start, snaking sharply uphill with 180 degree switchbacks as you climb into the tree line.  At this point you can already get a feel for how things might go.  I’m low geared but smooth – for me smooth is everything, forget speed it is all about the flow.  Legs working at a comfortable and reassuringly familiar cadence, heart beat rising but steady and then into the trees where the gloom and stillness hit you.  Sounds feel magnified now under the canopy and my breath is billowing out in front of me.  It’s crisp but I’m already warm.

I know at this point that I’m taking a risk here.  Never bike trails alone is my mantra but I’ve wanted to do this for ages, it has gnawed at me until I had to succumb.  I’m reaching the point of commitment and nerves are rising, I start thinking of other things, distractions, coming off, need to quickly get back to the flow.  Smooth and safe smooth and safe, concentrate but be lose and adaptive.

Here we go into the first rush.  Downhill fast now with berms banking left then right coming quickly.  Flick the bike from one to the next, high on the lips, higher than I’ve been before but feel so in control.  I can feel the rush in my body and brain, see the drop off and manage to pull up before I hit it so go airborne for a short time, land perfectly and into the next section of berms.  Whooo haaaa 2 more hours of this to go, but what a start.

Can you be at one with a machine or pieces of metal?  A few months ago I grappled with Mr Pirsig and his Zen ways.  Eastern mysticism, zen Buddhism, greek philosophies, western consumerism, family relationships and education clashed in a dizzying odyssey and it affected me greatly.  I find myself often thinking about it and today is no exception as I feel close to the moment, the flow the oneness, the zen whatever it is.  The weird thing though is that I’m flesh and bone sitting on metal, plastic and rubber riding over compacted soil but feel very much more than the sum of those constituent parts.  Some days I clank and I really mean clank along.  I feel stiff, each turn of the cranks feels forced, I feel every bump in the road or trail, traffic blocks me, the gears are never smooth, the breathing is strained and it feels like hard work.  Other days it is the total reverse, smooth turns, silky changes, breathing totally natural, traffic parting for me as if I’m Moses and no red lights.  I muse a lot on what causes this difference.  Can you mentally prepare to be in the moment, does it just happen or is it all simply an illusion.

All I know is that today is one of the best ever, it is as if my senses have become super alert, I can feel the tiniest stone that I ride over and I’m constantly adjusting, adapting, manoeuvring and predicting in a constant series of smooth, flowing moves.

Good mileage has been put in so I stop near a clearing next to a tumbling stream and get into the soup and sarnies, simple but great.  Lie back and look up through the trees at the autumn sunshine flickering and bouncing down through the branches savouring the beauty of the stillness.  Maybe it’s stillness not oneness that is the answer, no matter how fast I’m moving if my brain and body are settled and still then I’m in the zone, who knows.

Need to get moving again as my temperature is dropping significantly.  Off onto my favourite stretch now, pure swooping, swirling, undulating single track and it doesn’t disappoint.  So great to be able to ride it at the exact rhythm you want not worrying about faster riders coming through.  The purity of it is so special today as I have not seen a person in hours when this stretch can often get crowded.  Up and down, in and out, whooping swooping delirium.  Then down the final stretch of berms and it’s done.

Perfect timing as I can start to feel the tiredness, not in the body so much but the brain from reading the lines, which is when you start to make mistakes.  So sad in a way to be finished but it was the right time.

Café is open and I become the only customer.

Get a great big pot of tea and sticky cake and lap it up in the most contented way imaginable.  Rerun the ride in my head and store it for future times when hopefully I can recall it and remember the feelings in me that it has generated.  Wonder in years to come when I’m older and creakier and maybe no longer riding will I be able to raise a smile of this day and think to myself that I had it if only for a moment. Realise I’ve got the whole way round without any dab downs which is a first for me.

Legs aching now so pack up and head back, tunes on singing away with a tremendous feeling of calm exhaustion.  Feel still.

Shower up and open the fridge.  There is one bottle of Czech’s finest, crack it and gulp it down.

Today I was the ghost rider.

Today was a Zen Day.

Ian Street

Two wheels good

Buying a bicycle is not simple.

First you have to decide where you buy it from and this isn’t simple either. There’s the main retailers like Halfords but the worry with these guys is that it’s not really what they do for a living and would you get the good advice? They might be cost effective in some areas, but there are lingering doubts. Then there’s the uber specialist bike shops, who all seem to have logos that look like graffiti and the guys in the shop clearly live and breathe cycling, but it can be intimidating crossing the threshold.

My inclination would be always to talk to the guys who are passionate about the product they sell (after all, I am) as in my experience they always give you advice based on their experience and the premise that you may be a returning customer and  probably worth looking after. An old fashioned concept in some places, I realise.

Once you’ve found a good shop then you’re faced with a bamboozling array from entry level up to state of the art pro bikes. Disk brakes – hydraulic? Hard tail? Fixed fork? Frame material? Road, trail, cross? There is pretty much an endless choice that unless the novice rider reads up assiduously for 6 months, I think it would be impossible to make the right decision.

Hence talking to a specialist to help navigate the process. I was recommended to visit my local bike shop in Rodley near Leeds – it’s called CrossTrax and it’s logo looks like graffiti. So off I went, brochures in hand.

A rather cool guy called Linden was incredibly helpful and advised me which bike he’d sell me based on my budget and inexperience (the last bike I actually owned was a Raleigh in 1976). Linden steered me towards their range of Scott bikes and in between calling me ‘man’ and ‘dude’ (which I actually liked, considering myself both of those things), instructed me that for the budget the Scott Aspect 45 was the logical conclusion.

Throwing caution to the wind, I ordered the bike in my size in the red and black colourway. It has black wheels and a very cool paint job. I have failed thus far to come clean on the key influence for me on the final decision on the bike selection: the bike brand and how cool the thing looks. But I’m okay with that – if you buy a bike from a shop like this, you know you’re getting top quality kit (which is important obviously) and as long as it looks the business, then the my internal brandometer is satisfied. Sad, I realise but welcome to my geek world!

I’m already very excited about getting my first bike since the hottest summer on record – probably more excited than I was back then.