There are certain things in the world that are deemed absolute. Things which are “certain.” The inevitability of death is the one most often cited. Taxation is the close-run second. We accept both of these statements because the first is true and frightening, and because the second is true and it’s made funny when allied with the first. It takes our minds off our mortality for a few precious micro-seconds.
In the cycling world there are also a few absolutes, a few certainties; some human beings who need to put themselves through the rigours of a testing cycle race will, on occasion, resort to using drugs to assist their performance. This is, and will remain, true and frightening. Equally, Tom Boonen will always attack on the Taaienberg and some people will think it’s a race-winning move – even if it is sixty kilometres from the finish line. Here the first part is true and the second part is just plain funny. Boonen can’t possibly win from 60km out – unless it’s Paris-Roubaix..
A third widely accepted cycling absolute is that clothing company Rapha will only produce garments that pay a certain homage to the Golden Age of cycling – the one when cyclists tackled such monstrously long stages they probably had to set off two hours before they finished the previous one. When changing a tyre meant ripping off a tub with your teeth because your hands were frozen to the bars. When ‘riding to the max’ meant keeping going until one of your legs fell off. All this modern day rubbish about power meters, number crunching and analysing data to keep you just under your threshold has no place here surely. Rapha’s heroes rode on feel. And that feeling should be one of epic suffering.
And yet Rapha have now embraced just such unemotional, unphysical ‘data’ for the latest incarnation of their ProTeam kit. They have partnered with London design agency Accept & Proceed to take the length and altitude information from the stages of 2013 Tour de France and use this as the basis for a striking new fabric print. Of course, this being Rapha, on some garments they have overlaid it it with the bodily stress values experienced by one of the TeamSky riders during that Grand Tour in order to make it suitably steeped in pain. Numbers are fine it seem, so long as we don’t forget how much they hurt.
Joking aside, the new patterned ProTeam kit is seriously striking and marks a very new direction for the company as they enter their second decade in business. High quality, minimal design that, visually at least, owes much to those days of pre dye-sublimated yore, has been their thing and they have carved out a sizeable niche in the cycling apparel market with it. But here we find them dallying with frivolous pattern on the outside of the garments – and employing with that most flippant of clothing technologies; dye-sublimation to apply it. This is in stark contrast to what has come before, where a discreetly patterned jacket or pocket lining was as much as would pass the bar. And it’s not just the ProTeam and 1980’s Trade Team inspired collections that follow this trend of deviation – though they are undoubtedly the most obvious. The fluoro pink of some ranges has been toned down, but has been replaced with convict-like stripes that, even in grey and white, are just as loud and attention grabbing. Make no mistake, Rapha are boldly going somewhere different. But where exactly?
They haven’t completely eschewed the Golden Age references, and a forthcoming jersey release will celebrate just the kind of historical cycling tropes that we have come to expect from Rapha. But the embracing of the Data Print shows the next stage development of a company who have always sought to innovate and test convention. It shows a growing up and a pushing against the very boundaries that it initially created in order to define itself. I think it’s really interesting on more levels than just an appreciation of the aesthetic-pleasing deployment of interesting data.
My own interest in cycling data has grown recently from an idle interest in my Strava yearly total and the odd email every few months telling me that I have lost another of my (precious few) KOM awards. I’m now a co-owner of MassifCentral; a small start-up company who take ride data and use it to create bespoke artworks as memento’s of epic adventures. Partially abstracting the data is the key to creating something simultaneously beautiful and informative and Rapha have achieved the abstraction part really well. Repeating the basic motif and playing with scale serves to obscure the informative part but telling the story of the 2013 Tour isn’t Rapha’s aim: they are looking for patterns that can invigorate the range but which also have some meaning and relation to their core values. This is achieved in the ProTeam kit. It doesn’t look like Rapha, but it looks like something Rapha would do. My feeling is that the soon-to-be-released Trade Team jerseys – which also use dye-sublimated printing techniques – are less successful in the sense that they lack either the familiarity of the more usual Rapha collections or the arresting edge of the new Data Print Collection.
As the flagship range in a rapidly increasingly catalogue, the ProTeam kit rightly gets the most attention and marketing budget. A gorgeous photoshoot featuring Pete Kennaugh – whose stress values are apparently the ones spread across the notched arrow feather motif of the stages on the wonderful mesh base layer – in Hong Kong is accompanied by a clever film and an interactive window display in their London and Tokyo Cycle Clubs that reinvest a sense of motion back into the pattern. The pattern has been rendered in two colours and applied to bottles, wallets, caps, base layers, arm-warmers and musettes. This isn’t some half-baked idea snuck out in a couple of products to ‘test the waters.’ It’s Marmite territory for the brand – you will either love it or hate it – but the brand is fairly well acquainted with passionate aficionado’s and sneering detractors already. Judging by the first few sightings of pieces of the kit ‘out in the wild’ already over the weekend I think that they will be okay.