Monday, 14 September 2009

Romance and Style

Baseball and road cycling, more than any other sports, drape themselves in their past, and are seen through a romantic soft focus by their fans.

Baseball evokes nostalgia for an older, purer America, where dads and sons have a catch on warm summer evenings. The crack of the bat speaks of honest, blue-collar work, punctuated with moments of glory. Think The Natural, where Roy Hobbs' homer shatters the lights like Fourth of July fireworks, or Crash Davis's signature speech in Bull Durham.

Cycling, in turn, celebrates the purity of athletic suffering, digging deep to surpass soul-crushing conditions and vast landscapes. The tifosi point to these elements when describing the "beauty" of their sport. They talk of Andy Hampsten's mythic ride over The Gavia, swoon over Hamilton's second place in the Giro with a busted shoulder.

It's not surprising, then, that it's these two sports where performance-enhancing drugs spark the most resentment among fans. It's not just about unfairly beating your rivals. PEDs spit in the face of the romance.

One area where cycling differs vastly from baseball, however, is the sport's obsession with aesthetics. The height and color of one's socks, the whiteness of the bar tape, glasses over helmet straps, the sag of your pockets, even the shaved legs. All speak to an unspoken code of do's and don'ts.

And nobody does cycling style like Rapha. The company elicits both passion for their brand, and hatred for their over-the-top, and arguably pretentious ad copy. The word "epic" is tossed around maybe a little too casually, and "suffering" is fetishized to the point of obnoxiousness. It is, after all, just a sport.

That being said, Rapha deftly weaves together the romance of the ride, the nod to tradition, and the detail-oriented, technically-sound, fashion-forward style that cyclists crave. The fact that every item is unapologetically (over)priced only makes it that much more attractive. $207 jersey? Drool. $70 silk scarf? Yes, please. $400 jacket? A must have.

Rapha may speak to dandies with more money than sense, but god, they do it well. I must be right in their marketing bullseye, because their website sucks me in like a Sportwool-lined black hole. More than any other cycling or fashion brand, they successfully tell a story and cultivate an identity through photos, copy, events, and features. Instead of pro riders, they feature a "team" of everyday riders who are fast, but don't feel the need to talk about it. The "Rapha Continental" crew documents a series of "epic" rides across the US with photos, film, and soundtracks. This road journal perfectly captures my love of the bike, and, incredibly, inspires me to seek out tougher rides and try to look good doing it.

Interestingly, Rapha has established itself as the evil twin of Rivendell, my first entry into cycling as an identity beyond the bike. Like Rapha, Rivendell has an equal share of cultists and haters. But Rivendell is all about accessible, friendly, and practical cycling. Kickstands are king, baskets are beloved, and your bars must be level - no ABOVE - the saddle. Sloppy, beat up machines are celebrated! While Rapha is neo-retro, Rivendell is simply retro, evidenced by their love of leather and lugs, seersucker, not Sportwool. The only common thread between the two brands is the pricing scheme, though Rivendell goes out of its way to over-explain why they charge so much for their goods. With Rapha, if you have to ask, it's too much.

Funny that these contrasting brands each speak to me, bookending my attitude towards the bike and riding. It's a testament to the marketing genius behind both companies, and their ability to craft an identity beyond the goods themselves.

This evening I submitted myself to Mistress Wendy, my cycling dominatrix. Spin classes at Berkeley Ironworks are taught by cyclists for cyclists. Intervals, tempo rides, cadence, single-leg drills, LT sets - it's all there. This is not aerobics on a bike.

Still, there's nothing romantic nor stylish about pedaling a stationary bike to nowhere, while an angry ultra-marathoner yells at you. But it is an express lane to the pain cave. And sometimes that's all you want.

p.s. Sold the Atlantis today. But I still have a soft spot for Rivendell.

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