Rapha founder Simon Mottram on how he took a bet on Rouleur

We interview Rapha founder Simon Mottram on how he helped launch Rouleur magazine 14 years and 100 issues ago

Rouleur has come a fair distance in its 14-year lifespan. But then, cycling has changed a lot since 2006 too. Back when Rapha employed no more staff than you could fit in a cab, it took a very big gamble on creating a new style of cycling magazine.

Taken from our most recent podcast, in conversation with our presenter Ian Parkinson, Rapha founder and chief executive Simon Mottram remembers those early days.

Simon Mottram: The idea for Rouleur came from Guy Andrews. He was the first editor and he set it up with us. But the idea didn't come about until after we launched Rapha.

I'd met Guy when I was first putting a business plan together. I'd been recommended to go and see him by some friends at CycleFit. They said you must be mad, but go and see our friend Guy, he works in PR and cycling and he knows everything there is to know about the industry, maybe he can give you some advice.

So I went to see Guy who was in a little lockup in Battersea and I showed him my plan for Rapha. He gave me various bits of advice, including don't do it, which tended to be the most common advice I received at the time. But we stayed friends and in contact, and when I started the company, Guy became the most important press contacts I had, because he'd taken over as editor of Road Cycling UK. So because he was down the road, and because I knew him, and because RCUK became quite important for Rapha as a place to get our products out, I started seeing him fairly regularly.

So at least once or twice a year, we'd sit down, and I'd take him through the products and he'd write about them. We'd have a good chat and the conversations always ended up with us drinking coffee, or something stronger, and just moaning about the state of the cycling media, in particular, the magazines. Guy had quite extensive experience in magazines by that point and I was an enthusiastic consumer of magazines. It always came down to the same terrible things. Most magazines at the time were just incredibly simplistic. They were printed on really cheap paper and dispatched with no effort regarding creativity, storytelling or photography. The whole thing was a bit dumbed down, as was befitting of the industry at the time.

This was in 2004 or 2005, and the whole cycling boom hadn't taken off yet. After about the third or fourth time we’d sat there moaning, I said, well, listen if you care about it that much, why don't we do something together? You know, we’ll publish the magazine, but it can be your thing. Rapha will come in as a partner with you and we'll take the financial risk, we've got loads of customers already who I think would love to see something better. That's where the idea came from. But how the whole thing should come together was very much Guy Andrews’ vision. I just went along for the ride.

Ian Parkinson: So effectively Rapha were paying for it and Guy was doing the production?

Simon Mottram: That's right. I had plenty of other things to do. I think about three or four people were working for Rapha at the time, so we were doing a lot with not very much. And I'm not a magazine publisher. So we let Guy get on with it and bring in the people he wanted and we paid for it. The first couple of issues we were quite involved. There's a lot of Rapha material in there, a lot of our photography. There are also a couple of the articles that we worked on together. The overall look and feel of Rouleur, our graphic designer put together. So it was a sort of collaborative approach, but then it all came out of Guy’s head really.

Ian Parkinson: I've actually got a copy of the first edition and it's incredibly thin, like a pamphlet.

Simon Mottram: It’s about 50-pages or something, wasn't it? It had virtually no advertising because we just called in a couple of ads from friends. As I said, the content was a lot of Rapha stuff.

The cover was done by a friend of mine, Ben Ingham, who’s done a lot of work for Rapha through the years. He did the cover, which is that amazing chainlink. But you’re right, it was very thin, and then it was eight or nine pounds a copy. It was basically cocking a snook at the rest of the industry, and saying no, people will pay more for something that's higher quality, even if it's only 40 or 50-pages long.

Rouleur Issue 1

Ian Parkinson: I was disappointed to discover my copy of the first issue has got a pink Rouleur masthead on the front page. So although it's worth a few bob on eBay, apparently, the ones with a silver logo on the front are worth a lot more.

Simon Mottram: There was a special foiled cover version, which I think we did 100 or 200 copies of. I'm fortunate enough to have a couple of them. It's hard to imagine now what a surprise it was that this magazine came along because there was nothing like it. There was nothing that made people go, wow - how exciting! Instead, most things you consumed because you were obsessed like me, and you just wanted to know all the details, and you put up with the fact they looked ugly. Whereas here was something which was more intelligent.

Ian Parkinson: I remember going along to the first Rapha pop up at Selfridges and thinking no one is going to pay 60 or 70-quid for a jersey - although I did because I bought one. And then, at the same time, thinking no one's gonna pay nine quid for a cycling magazine either. But both of those things now seem relatively unremarkable. In fact, £70 for a jersey and £9 for a magazine seems almost a bargain these days.

Simon Mottram: It's sort of mid-market now isn't it? The Selfridges thing was 2005. We were a year in, so perhaps getting a little bit ahead of ourselves by going into Selfridges. But it was a nice thing to do. I remember us having enormous visuals of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Fausto Coppi, eight feet tall on the first floor of Selfridges, which was quite surprising to the average shopper walking in.

Ian Parkinson: That was very much the sort of early Rapha and Rouleur look, people in black and white suffering.

Simon Mottram: It was about human beings. Until Rouleur came along magazines had been about the technology. Even when they were talking about racing, it was technical coverage. I always felt that the appeal of the sport was its human side. It was about the human endeavour, that it was the human stories that made it compelling. Although Guy is a complete technology nut he saw that too. So the photography we used, and the photographers Guy brought in like Timm Kölln, Olaf Unverzart, and Ben Ingham were very good at capturing human beings rather than bits of metal. I think that's part of the appeal.

You may not know why we priced it at nine pounds. I mean, now it seems like a standard price for a quality cycling magazine. But at the time, the most expensive magazine was three pounds. We had a big argument. Guy wanted to keep it somewhere around the five or six-pound mark and I was pushing for 10. We decided to settle on nine because that was the price of the London congestion charge at the time.

It was the least sophisticated pricing strategy you can imagine. But it kind of amused me that we did it that way. In the end, it worked and the subscriptions were decent value.

We started with two a year and then went to four, so there was enough time to consume it. The whole idea was that it would sit on the coffee table, it wasn't something you consumed in the smallest room and then threw in the bin. It was something that you treasured and kept dipping into. There's now a lot more of that, but at the time, it was just piles of rubbish in the corner.

Ian Parkinson: Lots more people are now doing very similar things in clothing and media to Rouleur and Rapha. Does that annoy you at all?

Simon Mottram: I've learned not to let it annoy me. If it annoyed me I'd be a very twisted and angry person, because it happens a hell of a lot. It comes with the territory. Being first into a market and establishing that market is a place I'd always rather be.

You dictate the rules of the game, and you're always one step ahead of the competition. The price that comes with that is that people will see what you do and they'll probably see the mistakes too, because when you're first in you make a lot of mistakes. Rapha certainly made a lot and I suspect Rouleur made a lot as well. So people come in as followers and copy you, and yeah, that can be frustrating. I've learnt to let it wash over me. It's more flattering than it is annoying these days.

The only thing that annoys me is when people don't realise that is what they're doing. It sometimes happens, and I'm sure it happens with Rouleur, other magazines that have come along don't even reference Rouleur or haven't rationalised the fact that they are effectively copying somebody else's playbook. They think they're doing something original, but they're not.

Ian Parkinson: From those early issues which Rapha supported is there a particular favourite article or a favourite cover that you remember? 

Simon Mottram: My favourite cover by far was the Pantani cover with the distressed photograph of him crossing the line at Piancavallo.

I absolutely loved that, partly because I love Pantani, but also how the image captures the fragility of the man. I found it so arresting, I've got it in my kitchen framed on my wall. I look at that one every day. I actually learned a lot about the sport through the magazine, which is, I suppose, what the objective was. A couple of articles spring to mind. We did an amazing article with David Millar quite early on. I think Guy wrote it himself and Taz Darling did the photographs. I remember it being stunning, absolutely stunning. It was a feeling of wow, that's a bike racing hero shown properly rather than some dull interview on the team bus.

Another article I loved was the piece about the frame-builder Pegoretti. He featured in an early-ish issue. The cover shows a picture of his original workshop up in the Dolomites, there were these doves on the window panes, and it's all very moody. I remember going there for that interview with Guy and Ben.

It was a hard place to find, over the railroad tracks in this misty valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Then you heard this sound of free jazz, and you looked over the railway at this amazing, old industrial building with the door half a jar and smoke coming out of the door, which was from one of Dario’s endless cigarettes. Anyway, we walked in and there he was with his blowtorch.

We spent a couple of days with him really getting under the skin of the man. It was magical. An unforgettable experience.

Rouleur Issue 100 is available on our Emporium now.

Lead image courtesy of Rapha & George Marshall

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