Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rapha Re-Imaginings

The folks over at Rapha have an imaginative approach to memory. There's often talk about "vintage style" in their marketing for their super-expensive cycling clothes, and on their website and blog, but I sometimes wonder if they have people there who actually remember riding bikes before about 1990 or so. I just don't think things were as they "remember" them.

On the Rapha site right now, they have a story about the recently revived Stelbel brand, and a collaboration they're promoting with them. For those who don't remember, Stelbel was one of the first TIG-welded road bikes -- first available in the '70s. Stelbel was founded in Italy by Stelio Belletti, who worked in his father's shop welding tubes for aircraft and motorcycle applications. He thought TIG-welding would be a good way to build a bicycle. It was a big departure from what was available at the time, though TIG-welding would become the norm for steel, aluminum, and titanium frames by the mid 1990s (which was ironically soon after the time that Stelbel ceased production).

For the collaboration, Rapha is offering a special "retreat" to Tuscany (and specially priced for members of the 1% club) in time for the L'Eroica ride, and participants will have the opportunity to buy a special Rapha-themed Stelbel bike, featuring a "custom Rapha design aesthetic" with vintage components "individually sourced" (which probably means they have someone scouring eBay as a full-time job). The 3-day trip costs $3100 per person, and there is no price listed for the bike. Expect it to be at least as much as the trip, if not more. NOS Campy doesn't run cheap.
A limited-edition Rapha-Stelbel collaboration.

I've NEVER been enthusiastic about welded bikes. Structurally, there's nothing wrong with welding. But the real advantage (and the reason it is so common today) is that it's cheap, not because it's pretty. It's far less labor-intensive than an artfully crafted lugged frame. But for all Rapha's talk about aesthetics, as far as I'm concerned, welding is boring. And yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but check out this lovely prose from the Rapha story:

"Think Bianchi celeste. Think Coppi (& Giulia). Think the maglia rosa. Indeed, the Italians are credited for developing the bicycle from a functional, no-frills utility into an aesthetic plaything, as the post-WWII commercial boom flushed the pockets of everyday men. With handsome pro racers sitting astride the first bicycles painted bright colours, the eyes of the rest of the world glanced oh-so enviously towards glamorous Italy."

Nice, but I didn't know the Italians invented bright colors (and in many cases, the French aesthetic was not only beautiful, but remained more functional!). And where do TIG-welded bikes fit into this glamorous aesthetic? Those "handsome pro racers" were invariably straddling bikes with carefully filed and thinned lugs.

At least the welds are smoothed.
The article contains more debatable prose. "TIG welding allows steel tubing to be joined together in a stronger, lighter and more aesthetically pleasing way than the fixed handles called 'lugs' with which bicycles were put together before Stelio came along." Lugs are "fixed handles"? What the hell?

Stronger? Debatable. Lighter? Perhaps, but not enough to notice. More aesthetically pleasing? Please.

Rapha goes on to say that the Stelbel is "just the sort of classic model that vintage bicycle aficionados ride at the ever-popular L'Eroica sportive in Tuscany." That's not only debatable, but I believe that even a cursory look at the majority of bikes used in the event would make it demonstrably untrue. It would be difficult to find anyone at L'Eroica riding a TIG-welded bike -- even an original Stelbel (there were only about 2000 ever made). Participants must ride bikes from 1987 or earlier -- and that usually means lugs. Newer bikes can be ridden, but they have to be built and equipped in the same style as those meeting the 1987 cutoff. Nothing in the L'Eroica rules specifically bans TIG-welded bikes, but let's face it, most "aficionados" would be on lugged frames.

No - it seems to me that the folks at Rapha, for all their talk about "epic" adventures and "vintage aesthetic," are far better at marketing than memory.


  1. Thank you for calling out this and any BS-laden copy. It does get pretty tiresome.

  2. A TIG-welded frame with NOS Campy? Is that surreal or merely oxymoronic? Or a pure-and-simple bastardization?

    1. Stelbel did make them that way in the 70s and 80s, but when people lusted after Italian race bikes in those decades, they were lusting after lugged beauties from Colnago, Cinelli, DeRosa, et al -- not TIG welds.

  3. Rapha definitely is Epic... and very successful at tres chic marketing to a clientele that equates cost and exclusivity with value..

  4. Rapha's original Team Sky kit was a joke. All black, all over, in the hardest race, in the hottest month. Only thing that wasn't black was the the "Sky" logo and the little fascist armband for brand recognition. The 3/4 length sleeves and crew neck looked terrible. Makes all the racers look like JV baseball players. Please let that jersey style die.