The Rapha Cycling Club pitches itself as the heart of the global cycling community, so when we received an invite to the RCC Summit on Mallorca, we immediately took up the opportunity to find out whether the events are about more than just free coffee. What resulted, is a story featuring pink stitching, megaphones and a collision of cultures.

Since it began in 2004, apparel brand Rapha have made it their mission to transform cycling into the world’s most beloved sport. With their HQ in London and direct-to-consumer model, Rapha haven’t always followed the rules in their short history. In fact, they’ve jumped head-first over the rulebook and have managed to establish themselves as an intrinsic part of cycling’s rich tapestry. But how did Rapha’s founder Simon Mottram manage to create a company with a market value of £ 200 million? Why do Rapha split opinion like little else within cycling? What even is the RCC Summit and who are the individuals who’ve flown across the world for a four-day get-together? “Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. We are now ready for landing.”

It’s 1st November 2019 and I’m about to land at Palma de Mallorca airport. I’m dressed casually, nondescript even, in a t-shirt, jacket, and rolled-up jeans. The pink stitching on the inside hem of my ankle is the only clue to where I’m going, or what my interests might be. If you know Rapha, you know. I wonder if any of my fellow travellers clock me as a roadie or just see me as a regular guy looking for winter sun. I don’t know and don’t care either. I tug my Rapha Explore down jacket into place, strolling through the arrivals entrance, keeping an eye out for any like-minded individuals. There’s a group of Koreans to my left. It isn’t just that they’re almost entirely dressed in the Rapha Off-Bike collection, the stickers on their luggage give it away: Bianchi, Campagnolo, Passo Pordoi, Colnago, and RCC. This feels more and more like the start of the Summit, right here at the airport. The RCC Summit is basically an AGM for the RCC – Rapha’s own cycling club. Across the world, it is split into regional chapters. Until now my encounters with RCC members had been limited to just a handful in Berlin, Copenhagen and London, a result of just a few occasional visits to Rapha’s stores/cafes. Rapha calls their stores/cafes ‘clubhouses’ and they are where members can enjoy exclusive perks, like free coffee, as well as meet fellow riders and pick up local tips. I didn’t know if the Summit would just be a bigger version of a chapter meet, or what it would entail. But now I was starting to get excited.

Our first evening together starts with a crash course in Mallorcan given by Rapha’s CEO, Simon Mottran, who then entertains us with a lively presentation, repeatedly interrupted by raucous cries of “Cheers!” The first round of shots are ordered, and the atmosphere is relaxed as dinner begins. There’s little sign of overzealous dieting by athletes and much more focus on staying hydrated from whatever the table’s beverages are. Chapter leader Chris Chen from Singapore gets a hero’s reception when he announces to the table, “You can ride with me in the slow group and we can talk about happy things.“ Sounds good to me.

Given that we number close to 200, Rapha sensibly decide to spare the Mallorcan roads our heaving throng and we split into groups before setting off. I’m next to ride leader Chen from the evening before. “We don’t have a specific Rapha Clubhouse in Singapore, but we collaborate with a café and we’ve got a seriously engaged group of regular riders.” A large chunk of the crew flock around us, with a palpable energy and euphoria that could light up Mallorca for days. Like a team without a coach or a club without a race calendar, it feels like this set-up allows them to have a great time simply riding their bikes. There are the expected self-deprecating jokes about, “Ride slow, look pro” as each group sets off on the ride, head to toe in Rapha. It feels like a celebration of each other, yourself, the opportunity, cycling, and life on and off the bike. While it might seem excessively fanciful or pretentious to some cyclists, especially the racers who have grown up in the gutter, RCC has somehow carved out an existence that sits parallel to the world of FTP, watts per kilo and lactate thresholds. As I watch the other groups starting and empty my lungs from cheering, you can’t help but notice the lack of hierarchy. Everyone’s represented: from hardcore athletes to leisurely weekenders, people on ancient 10-speed road bikes with rim brakes right through to the most bling-bling models from the current pro peloton. I feel like the Summit brings together contrasting attitudes and philosophies in a beautiful coexistence that would usually be met with raised eyebrows and hushed criticism in the world of cycling. Is it this tendency towards overt displays of discipleship that irks so many people about Rapha? But why?

Scroll through the history of your social feeds and it’s easy to see that Gen Y were desperate for a brand like Rapha to come along. Kit that functions, looks stylish, and manages to piece together cycling’s rich history into one sleek and palatable unit. This is exactly what Rapha have done. Mattram’s dream was realized, the brand grew rapidly, expanding beyond its aesthetic-conscious core to appeal to the masses. In a way, this mass popularity is almost at odds with its aura of exclusivity, but it’s just part of the brand growing up, accepting that its image needed an update to render it accessible. As Gen Y started to see Gen X and the Baby Boomers in their favourite kit (pink stitching and all), these early adopters moved onto the next trend, adopting emerging brands whenever possible, but retaining their deep loyalty for Rapha. After all, aren’t most emerging brands taking cues from Rapha’s designs anyway? Rapha came along at exactly the right time with the right products, enabling them to define cycling’s zeitgeist between retro and modern minimalism. They gave cycling a look, and it’s this look that, at least in part, is bringing more and more people to the sport. Who’s going to refute the benefits of more cyclists?

The second day of the Summit passes as quickly as the kilometres we’ve ridden. By evening, we’re all happy to sit and chat, discussing plans for the next day. I get a flood of new likes and follows, but I’m confident these Instagram friends are ones I’ll keep. The night is soon over and I’m back on the bike the next day, with my camera jostling over my shoulder. We snake through the Serra de Tramuntana. I’m on the wheel of the equivalent of a diesel engine, with legs that tirelessly bashing out huge amounts of torque at a low cadence. It’s when I spot the Rapha membership tag #0001 on his seatpost that I realise who it is. Simon Mottram, clad in a sharp-looking Martini Racing kit, throws a grin over his shoulder. He eases up and I pull up beside him to ask my burning question: what is the RCC actually all about?

He tells me how the brand came into existence and that the first ever photoshoot for the inaugural collection was done in black and white on Mallorca. That, he says, makes him even more pleased to see so many club members gather on the island. After we’ve chatted for a while, it’s clear that Simon is well aware that the RCC members want much more than just free coffee. Membership fees have been rising slightly and now cost € 85 but RCC wants to make sure its appeal is strengthened for those without a clubhouse in their area. So it now provides personal injury insurance, preferential early-access to new collections, exclusive RCC products and limited member-only editions, guaranteed entrance to Rapha events, offers and discounts with partners, plus, of course, invites like these to exclusive travel events and RCC Summits with round-the-clock care. The new RCC manual sounds enticing, but the coffee is no longer free – discounted only.

I thank him for the conversation and relax into the sweeping corners of the coast road towards Banyalbufar. This day passes just as quickly as the others and before I know it, we’re at a beachside fish restaurant near Palma on the final evening of the Summit. Next to me sits Dirk, Rapha’s country manager for German-speaking countries. As we run through the past few days, the Mallorcan clubhouse’s ride leader Tolo grabs the megaphone. It’s hard to decipher his words in the raucous atmosphere, but this isn’t, in fact, a speech for everyone, it’s a proposal for his partner Alicia.

Even from my pretty conservative German understanding of life, the slight incredulity I feel is quickly quashed. The timing of the proposal is apparently perfect, Alicia says yes and the crowd whoops. Hundreds of smartphones document the moment and the well-wisher throw wild congratulations at the pair in what feels like 137 different languages. It’s chaotic and beautiful and there’s an explosion of endorphins. It feels in this moment like these are faces of people around me that I’ve known for my whole life. In these few days I’ve learned not only about the RCC but also its members. The concept has won me over. It makes sense, for cycling and for life. It’s up to every individual to decide if this colourful Rapha community makes up the beating heart of the global cycling scene but on this particular evening, in this fish restaurant outside of Palma, that’s exactly how it feels to me.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, we would be stoked if you decide to support us with a monthly contribution. By becoming a supporter of GRAN FONDO, you will help secure a sustainable future for high-quality cycling journalism. Click here to learn more.

Words & Photos: