Caroline Crosswell and Darren Read

LONDON — Premium British cycling brand Rapha makes a strong case for putting community at the heart of a business.

“Our goal is to get more people into cycling; we want cycling to be the most popular sport in the world. And the Rapha clubhouse is the real embodiment of this, the place where cycling is most relevant,” said Darren Read, Rapha’s head of retail for the U.K. and Europe.

“When I first joined Rapha five years ago, the brand was just for the enthusiastic cyclist, and we worked out of a piano factory in North London,” Read recalled. “Now we are a team of 600 based in 28 different locations all across the globe. Cycling has gone through what can only be described as a revolution over the last 10 years.”

The label was founded in 2004 by former brand consultant Simon Mottram, who felt that the cycling wear available at the time didn’t connect him to the sport. He soon learned that he wasn’t alone.

Since then, Rapha has grown into a direct-to-consumer business and Read said the absence of any wholesale means Rapha “can completely own the customer experience and gain so much deep customer insight from data.” Rapha’s original mission to be cycling evangelists remains at the heart of the brand.

The brand launched the Rapha Cycling Club in 2015 to create a global community of passionate road riders accessible to everyone, of all abilities, with service and support from the brand. There are now 7,000 members of the club who are invited to annual “summits,” and who get early access to the latest products and events and free coffee in the clubhouses. They can also participate in organized rides in 17 local chapters based in cities including Singapore, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Seoul.

“We call our stores clubhouses because we’re inspired to do more than just sell,” said Caroline Crosswell, Rapha’s director of retail operations and development, of the brand’s 22 clubhouses. “They’re a hub for events, they’re a place away from home for our city members. We have cafés, we have localized food, retail, we just hang out and we chat.”

They also have memorabilia in the store, she said, adding that Steve Jobs’ bike will be displayed at the new Palo Alto, Calif., clubhouse.

The recently launched Rapha Travel sees cyclists jetting to places such as Patagonia to ride. “Travel is really what we’re about,” said Read. “Our guests are expertly cared for with incredible local knowledge and local guides, and they take place in some really incredible places.”

Rapha has been expanding by more than 25 percent every year and it reported sales in excess of 63 million pounds in 2017. Mottram still runs the business after the sale of a majority stake last year to the U.S.-based RZC Investments, overseen by Steuart and Tom Walton, the grandsons of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton.

Crosswell said Rapha’s employees believe the team that rides together, stays together. “We practice what we preach. We believe absolutely in what we do; we all get free kit, and we are all ambassadors for the brand,” she said. “This a crazy thing, but we close our clubhouses three times a year so that whole teams can ride together. We close our head office three times a year so that the whole company can ride together. Every Wednesday morning we all ride together and there is no one in our office.”

Passionate, borderline-obsessive staff, whom Crosswell calls “unicorns,” are a large factor in Rapha’s magic formula. “We ask a lot of them, we ask them to be able to ride with all of our members, we ask them to retail, we ask them to talk and engage with our VIPs and, yeah, we also ask them to make a cup of coffee,” she said.

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