It has been a couple of years now since Rapha exited the highest levels of pro racing with the termination of its partnership with Team Sky.
To the onlooker it seemed an odd decision - the hook-up provided credibility, exposure and priceless product feedback. But behind the scenes it was a nightmare. Sponsorship of a pro-team involves a lot of kit - thousands of pieces per rider over the course of a season, and that all costs money.
Which is fine if you’re reaping dividends through the leveraging of rider profile, if you are in a position to call on the team help promote the brand. The thing was, Team Sky didn’t want to play.
This ultimately led to the termination of the Team Sky contract as Rapha focused on smaller outfits such as Canyon//Sram, Wiggins and the Rapha Focus cyclocross team. Then in 2017, those partnerships started to unravel. As part of a new strategy to get the world riding bikes, Rapha decided that sponsorship money would be better utilised promoting group rides and the RCC.
Rapha has undergone monumental changes since then, as recent events have illustrated, and a lot of the ambitions outlined to staff in the five-year-plan in September 2017 have been either rolled back or scrapped altogether.
But one initiative has endured, partly due to the enormous amount of time and expense in creating it, and that is Rapha’s manifesto - a blueprint that aims to revolutionise pro cycling, and the economy that goes with it. A two-year study, led by four academics and based on interviews with more than 50 stakeholders that ultimately concluded that people find cycling a bit boring.
This is where the EF partnership comes in. By turning professional cyclists into personalities, fans can connect with the people behind the Oakleys (or in the case of EF, Pocs).
EF Education First Drapac was always going to be a shoe-in for this role. It is an enthusiastic underdog, mildly dysfunctional with a long and distinguished roll-call of characters. Of all the WorldTour teams, EF Drapac seems to have the most fun, and sometimes it wins.
Rapha is billing its EF partnership as a first step in taking a “disruptive” approach to the sport and revolutionising the way pro cycling is presented through storytelling, by profiling “inspirational and charismatic” riders.
The brand points out that storytelling has been part of its business for the past 15 years of its existence, during which time it has made more than 300 films. With this new subject matter a whole treasure trove of material has potentially opened up. There is talk of following EF Drapac riders beyond the WorldTour, to ultra endurance events and city centre crits, for instance.
Will people actually watch this stuff? Recent attempts by Rapha to bolster its multimedia output have not fared well - the summer’s series of Race Radio YouTube films failed to make much of an impact, and after taking the Thereabouts movie concept from under the nose of CyclingTips it promptly shut the series down after one rebranded movie.
It could be the case that Rapha has a greater need for this partnership. Perception of the brand was dented by a 2017 corporate buyout that resulted in the grandsons of the founder of Walmart becoming the new owners.
If all goes as planned, some of that fairy dust from the cool kids of the peloton will start to rub off.