With the announcement that Rapha and Sky will part ways after the 2016 season, I thought it might be a good time to revisit an interview I did with Graeme Raeburn, lead product designer at Rapha, back in 2013. In this interview, I sought to find out exactly what goes into designing, producing, and testing kit for a top-level team, along with other stupid questions like, "how many pieces of kit will each rider get?" The amount of work, and sheer number of pieces that are designed and produced helps paint a picture as to why sponsorship at this level is an undertaking that few companies can take on. And also why it's a commitment that a company like Rapha may want to leave behind at this point.
The world of professional cycling is, in many ways, full of dark corners. Ongoing events continue to show just how sizable (and dark) those corners can be (though I suppose we knew about them all along). But there are lesser, more benign areas of the sport that fans often wonder about as well, but little information can be gathered about them. In the end, the sport thrives on rumors of all kinds, which makes sense when you consider that cycling itself is a bit of a traveling circus. A moving target. So we relish the unknown, and we want to look in those dark corners.
"He's not riding the sponsor's frame, you know..."
"His wheels are re-badged, and I heard he's switching to that other team because he can't stand the sponsor's tires. Oh, and if you look closely, he's using a black marker to cover up the logo on his saddle."
"His team is working for that other team, because of that one time that the other team worked for his team earlier in the season. Remember?"
"I saw pictures that showed that those frames are actually made in the same factory as my IKEA Billy bookshelves. Seriously."
With this type of mentality, it should come as no surprise that as Rapha announced its sponsorship of Team Sky late last year, fans of the sport began to talk. A company with as many detractor as Rapha will always attract attention, but as the announcement was made, the amount and level of rumors began to escalate to humorous proportions.
Within those rumors and supposed bits of information, however, were a handful of questions, ones that I'd often wondered about myself. How does a company like Rapha (a relatively small one I thought) take on a project like this? Did the team or specific riders have unusual requests? Does one of the riders have unusually long arms or...uhm...some other appendage that requires special attention? How much kit does each rider get? Are different fabrics or manufacturing processes used for the pro kit in comparison to their standard consumer products? Will a pro team finally stop wearing baseball caps during podium presentations? Will Bradley Wiggins ever publicly denounce Paul Weller's work with The Style Council? I wanted to know.
Rather than simply sit here staring at a wall, wondering about these things (as I often do), I decided to go to the source. I wanted to find out about this and their other pro team sponsorships (Rapha-Focus, Rapha Condor JLT), but also about Rapha's inner workings. They're a company that—whether some like it or not—is growing leaps and bounds within the context of a niche industry that has seen little change in terms of design and marketing for many years.
Much to my amazement, Graeme Raeburn, lead product designer at Rapha, agreed to talk to me.
Graeme first became interested in cycling through mountain bikes in the mid 90s. Later, when he worked as a bike mechanic in London, he turned to road cycling as a logical and convenient way to get around. Graeme studied at the Kent Institute of Art and Design, followed with a master's degree specializing in womenswear from the Royal College of Art in London. After graduation, he set up a small design studio with his brother, Chris Raeburn, in which they produced technical and high-fashion apparel from military surplus fabrics, as well as luggage. Chris continues to work on his own, including a recent collaboration with Victorinox, and a future line that will see both brothers team up once again, under the label Rapha/Raeburn.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a designer?
I oversee all of the garments in Rapha’s main line, and accessories to some extent. I’ve been involved with items like shoes, but not as hands on as with pieces like jerseys, base layers, socks, caps, gloves, outerwear, and bibs.
Were you the primary designer for past professional teams that Rapha has sponsored, like Rapha-Focus and Rapha-Condor-JLT? Did that work influence the project with Sky?
Yeah, absolutely. They were very important to our development of the pro line that we have, as well as the pro ‘cross line as well. We have a great relationship with those teams, and they’ve always given us really encouraging feedback for how to improve our products. So Sky have really inherited the benefits of those relationships.
When were you and other Rapha employees first told about the deal with Sky?
You know, I’m not exactly sure, but we’ve been working on this for at least six months. I do remember a few of us being called into an office, and getting the sense that something was going on. I just didn’t know what it was. Something big, or important. Once we were told, it still took a while for it to sink it. This may sound like a cliché, but the whole thing didn’t seem real until it actually went live just recently. When you see the photos from the shoot in Mallorca, with the riders wearing the kit...only then did it seem real. I guess you are so focused on the details for so long, that you have trouble seeing the bigger picture.
Once the project kicked off, how did Sky inform you about their needs, and did you meet with riders to assess their specific requirements as well?
It was interesting, because we had to fully respect their then-current contract with Adidas. So it was done with a certain degree of…well, there was a lot of closed doors, let’s say. Just to insure that the story didn’t get out, or that things didn’t go awry. So the initial part of the process was very hush-hush really.
How did you approach the Sky project at first, and how far reaching will Rapha’s design be within the team? In other words, are you designing for people other than the riders?
Within cycling, there’s an obvious focus on the technical end of things. Aero skinsuits, things like that. So lots of resources go into that. But at the same time, you have a soigneur who has to stand at the finish line with a basic rucksack and a bin bag to collect the rider’s kit at the end of a 200-kilometer mountain stage. And normally, there’s no effort put into their needs. So for us, it’s about identifying those different needs, and seeing where we can make a difference in order to make the process more fluid and more comfortable for the team. So we’ll identify those places where we think we can improve things.
For example a musette bag. Is there a way that it can be improved, that it can be made in a way that makes it easier for a rider to collect it? Some projects end up being long term ones, whereas others we can address quickly. Things like zip pulls, and making sure that zippers run as freely as possible for the riders.
Did the project create greater demands within the company than a normal line would?
We employed people specificallyfor certain roles for this project, to actually work on specific things, since our product range suddenly ballooned in size. Plus there were products that we were simply not familiar with, like putting together a fan range. That meant finding more competitively priced fabrics to work with.
In total, what does taking Sky on mean to your product range?
On paper, I think it doubles it. In some cases though, it’s a matter of taking existing products and re-coloring them, like our jeans. But we also have new products like the fan range, and special items for riders, like national champion jerseys. Then there’s team issue kit items, like the climber’s speedsuit. It's a very lightweight speedsuit for hot days. So the range has grown in very different ways.
Are there other rider-specific pieces that are team-issue only?
There’s an interesting gilet, which is quilted with PrimaLoft, which is like a synthetic down. I think they also have a jacket like that, which is a very thin, light layering piece of kit. There’s the speedsuit, which is a skinsuit with pockets. We have a climber’s jersey, which is very light, and very well ventilated. But there’s also things like mechanic’s aprons, soigneur’s bags, for the finish line. That one is like a big messenger bag, which they can swing around and have everything in front of them, including a cooler area for chilled bottles.
Did Sky riders need any specific pieces of kit that had not been addressed with past teams like Rapha-Focus or Rapha-Condor?
Yes, take for instance the race jersey that we had issued to Rapha-Condor-JLT. It’s very lightweight, but for Sky, that material was actually used for their long sleeve jersey. So it’s not that they’ll use it for deep winter, but it’s for cooler conditions. So their jersey is actually a step lighter still. And that’s because Rapha-Condor-JLT mostly races in the UK, and northern Europe. In the UK it will hit 25 degrees [77 Fahrenheit] on a good day. But Sky will be in the Tour Down Under, and Qatar. They really prefer to layer, so we found that we had to develop more lighter weight products for them.
How did the actual graphic design portion of the kit, the printed graphics, come about?
Looking at it, you may think that it wouldn’t take a genius to come up with it. But the initial phases were all over the place. We approached it being open to all possibilities, and were open to seeing everything, just to see what could be out there. All that work was done by our graphic designer, Ultan Coyle, who actually won the national 24-hour time trial. Anyway, we ended up with a very refined, and very elegant design I think.
Did the team, or specific riders have unique needs or requests that made their way to you, as something that needed to be worked on?
None of the riders were very demanding at all, no real divas there. But they have specific needs, so we did individual fittings. Every rider has a custom kit, down to all of their garments. So all their on and off the bike clothing is tailored for them.
In terms of special items, there are some special things. Like Ian Stannard, UK national champion, has his own base layer. It’s like the Franco Ballerini, “Merci Roubaix” one, but his says “Merci Essex”. So it’s very tongue-in-cheek, because Essex is…well, it’s a cheeky county I guess. And Wiggins has one with the mod target.
Beyond those things, were there any unusual needs, in the sense of crazy long arms, or riders that like their bibs to be unusually short or something?
They’re cyclists, and cyclists have the most extreme body types. Now, within a team of people who are basically doing the same thing, you still have a huge variety of body types. I haven’t heard of any super freaky stories, but I can tell you that our pro kit, which is already very slim fit even for the fit guys that you and I would know, that had to be tailored down to fit them.
How did the tailoring and measuring happen?
We wanted them to know that they could come back to us with feedback and criticism during every step. So the measurements were taken in a hotel room, or conference room somewhere, and we then sent them a first round of kit, which was completely black, with nothing on it. We then had them fit again and revised, while paying attention to every detail, since they were able to ride in it. We then went into a third round before going into final production runs.
Were there some considerations for Team Sky, aside from making kit lighter weight, that were completely different from that of your standard range, which is aimed at amateurs?
There’s the question of durability. Specifically how hard they are on their kit while washing, which is something we hadn’t foreseen. We knew that Rapha-Condor riders were wearing the kit seven days a week, and because they don’t pay for it, they don’t really have to think too much about it. But with Sky, it was beyond that. With them, they use a really hot wash, and really hot tumble dry. That’s because in their bus, they don’t have time to sit and let things dry, or air-dry them. They need to turn kit around as quickly as possible.
I don’t know if it’s true, but I was told that they generally think of shorts as something they wear three times, and they just get ditched. Surely we want them to last much longer than that.
Bibs certainly do last much longer than that for us civilians!
Yeah, and we also have an interesting situation with merino wool base layers. Because you can’t tumble dry them on hot, since they’d shrink away and disappear. So we’re going through an interesting learning process.
And it’s not like you can tell the team to change how they wash their kit.
Right, they’ve been doing it this way for four years. So we’re having to color-code pieces, and give them color-coded wash bags as well. So with kit, it’s not just aero concerns. It’s not wind tunnel testing…
It’s washing machine testing! Who knew?
Yeah, but it’s a good learning experience for us. Because they are so hard on their products on and off the bike, that will help us improve the lifespan and durability of all our products. That’s how glamorous this all is!
Speaking of glamour, I would imagine that one of the most sensitive piece of kit for professionals is bib shorts. Were there any special considerations for Sky beyond what you’ve done for the consumer lines, or for the other professional teams?
We used a standard pad, and pro bib, without any changes. There are riders that have a preferred saddle and we have—again, this is the glamour of the job—we have identified that the saddle is not very compatible with the pad. So they are happy with the chamois, we’ve been using it for years, it’s top of the range, blah blah blah. But it’s a problem that Jeremy Powers had also. I went to Roubaix in December, and we talked about it. As soon as I looked at his saddle, I understood why. It has a ridge along the top of it, along the middle with two spines on either side [from what I can tell, Powers is using a Fizik Aliante VS saddle]. This meets exactly at an indentation in the chamois. So we’re looking into putting different chamois in each shorts.
As a designer, what was the most challenging aspect of this project for you?
You know, that particular shade of blue that Sky uses is difficult to get, due to the intensity. So dyeing all the different materials, and trying to get them in the same color was really challenging, and it had to be done in a very short span of time. We have very good suppliers, and I think we’re good customers, but we must have been a nightmare to deal with. Dyeing leather, wool, three-ply technical outerwear, socks, the waistband in underpants, and belts all the same....well, that was reallyinteresting.
As a layperson, one of the most difficult pieces of kit that I think you’d have to deal with is a rain cape. As I see it, there’s no way to make them work really well. You have moisture that you’d like to get out, and moisture you’re trying to keep from getting in, and doing both seems impossible. You just end up creating a weather system inside the cape.
We’ve specked the highest-level technical membrane. In terms of breathability, it’s on par with Gore-Tex. The zipper is really free running, so in terms of ventilation they will rely on unzipping the front. In terms of breathability, your body heat will transport moisture out because it’s super, super breathable. It also has a Teflon-type coating on the outside. It’s called a DWR, durable water repellent coating, which means that rain won’t go into the membrane. On the one hand, it’s a simple garment because it doesn’t consist of very much, but at the same time, it’s very technical, with a lot of attention to detail.
I’ve noticed that many teams have generic rain capes. In some cases they are plain black with a small sponsor logo in white, but sometimes they are just black, with nothing on them, which strikes me as odd. Teams, I thought, would at least get a cape that matches their primary color.
It think that came as a result of races like the Tour of California, and the Giro, where there’s been terrible weather and the officials were sympathetic to the riders, and allowed them to wear plain kit.
Is that normally allowed?
The deal is that every layer of the kit should look the same.
Which is how the one for Sky will look?
Yeah. It should all look the same, and your race number should be visible ideally. That’s why the clear rain capes are so popular. Although the race number being visible is not as important, since that’s on the bike as well. The ability to identify what team they’re in is very important though.
You’d think that teams with budgets that are well in the millions, could get capes with at least a logo on them, or in color that matches the kit.
Yeah, from the outside, people assume that all Pro Tour teams are perfectly oiled machines, but that’s sometimes not the case. So, the rain cape is actually one piece that I’m really proud of.
How many pieces of kit are issued to each rider?
The official figures are, 130 styles and 700 individual pieces.
Can you clarify "style" versus "pieces"?
"Style" is the model of a garment, i.e. a medium weight jersey, a summer-weight jersey, a climbers jersey are three styles of that jersey. So for example, they might get issued 10 Medium, 5 summer and 3 climbers jerseys, giving 18 pieces in 3 styles.
Do you have any interesting stories from past dealings with professionals regarding how they use, or abuse their kit?
It varies. Some will keep a set of kit that they’ll only use on race day, for example, and three sets for training. But one of the Rapha-Condor-JLT riders cycles through his kit meticulously. On the inside of our pro kit, there’s a space for your initials, so that during a stage race, you don’t end up wearing someone else’s shorts or whatever. In that spot, he numbers his kit, so that he wears everything sequentially. He even does this with his socks! So the socks are worn as a pair, sequentially, one after the other.
How does he mark his socks?
I think it’s done with marker pen, inside or on the sole or something like that.
May I ask who the rider is?
No, no I can’t. He’d kill me if I told you. But if you look around, you’ll probably work it out. A lot of the top riders have that attention to detail. I guess it’s a matter of different personalities, like how you can get riders that are mathematicians, and get really into their watts, and numbers. There’s those that are really into being aero as well.
That reminds me of something I wanted to ask you about. The first set of images that came out of Sky’s riders wearing Rapha kit, which were studio shots on a black background, had them wearing really tight jerseys. Was that their aero jerseys? Is there a reason those were chosen for the shoot?
Not that’s actually the standard jersey that they’ll wear 80% percent of the time. So that’s the pro-team jersey. It probably looks tight because they were photographed standing up, and not leaning forward as they would on the bike.
Ah, makes sense. So the jersey is cut for a racing position, not a standing position. It just looked a bit tight.
You say “tight”, I say “fast” (laughs).
Does that primary jersey, which they’ll wear most of the time, have different fabrics from what you’ve used before in other jerseys? Do different panels use different fabrics?
Yeah, and that’s where the majority of our time is actually spent on, fabric development. Which is where you can make the biggest difference, but at the same time, it’s slightly frustrating because it’s not visible. You can take two pieces of really different fabric, and in a photograph, they might look the same. I suppose that’s why some clothing manufacturers have a billion daft names and numbers on the outside of their jerseys, to try and tell you about that technology.
But for that jersey, we developed the fabric specifically for it in three weights. This is because we have very good relationships with our mills. So the guy from this Italian mill who worked on the fabric with us, had great foresight. He knew that we wanted a medium and a heavy weight of this fabric. And he told us that once the looms are turned on, he might as well make a lighter weight one as well. So we developed the light version, which we ended up using on that jersey.
When you say that you developed a fabric, is that something you always do directly with the mill? How does that work? Do you meet with them and spec out your needs in terms of weight, breathability and the like?
Yeah, and you know…when I first started working at Rapha, getting a meeting with some of these people at a tradeshow or wherever, was tough. We’d have to spend a lot of time explaining Rapha, presenting ourselves and telling them what we’re about. But at Eurobike, when news about Sky came out, things changed. We’d walk to a booth, and everyone would say, “step right this way!” Suddenly everyone was bringing things out from their back rooms, things they were still developing. So the Sky project has really changed things. With Rapha growing, we’d already gotten to the point where mills were happy to develop stuff for us, but Team Sky has really made our job much easier. Although this exclusive fabric which we use on the main jersey is one we’d already developed, and Sky get to benefit from that.
It may seem rather mundane, a fabric, but I’m really proud of it. It has wicking through the actual construction of the fabric. It also has a wicking treatment, which allows further moisture movement, it has coldblack technology which allows it to reflect more of the sun’s heat. That’s really good on black fabrics. It has an anti-bacterial treatment on it. It’s also really soft, has enough stretch without it falling down your back. So it’s very unique. This is really how mundane it all is.
I suppose one person’s idea of mundane, will be someone else’s exciting details though.
Exactly. But to go back to your earlier question, we do use different fabrics throughout the jersey. We use a fine mesh on the sides, so we do mix it up a bit.
Do you think the range for Sky will grow next season?
I think the range will evolve, let’s put it that way. Obviously there’s only so many pieces of kit they can use while on the bike. So the off-the-bike area is an interesting one. And it includes the chef, the soigneurs, the mechanics.
I think Rapha is perhaps the only clothing sponsor who outfits riders off the bike as well. Usually that duty is taken care of by a second clothing sponsor. Which is probably why riders end up wearing clothing off the bike that they would never wear if it were up to them. I mean, I don’t think most of them would willingly wear track pants, and an ill-fitting polo shirt all the time.
And a baseball cap on the podium.
Exactly! Which begs the question, did you design a baseball cap for the podium? Please tell me you didn't.
No, we don't have a podium baseball cap in the range.