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PHOTOS: Daniel Wakefield Pasley
There we were, sitting having breakfast in middle-of-nowhere Maine, quite unaware that someone had not only recognized us but was taking the trouble to let us know. It was only when we stepped out of the café on our way to the day’s ride that we saw it, the note. No more than a passing remark, albeit one scrawled nonchalantly on a napkin in red Sharpie and shoved into the back of my saddle. It said, simply, ‘Rapha = Poser’.
We laughed it off, much like we do when we’re cruising down a familiar stretch of road and from a pick-up truck that pulls up next to us, with a teenager hanging out of the passenger door yelling: “Go Lance!”
Climbing into our car, we made the two-hour drive to Medway, ME, for the start of Baxter, a 126-mile ride with an elevation gain of 4,167ft and where 45-miles are ridden on a gravel road through the wilderness of Baxter State Park. As we drew closer, I began to think more about that message and about the Rapha Continental. Our mission throughout has been a simple one; to take on some of the most grueling rides in North America with the aid of the finest cycling clothing and accessories in the world. Does that make us posers?
Just a few weeks earlier, our group had tackled the Deerfield Randonee, ‘D2R2’. On at least three occasions that day, I had to disguise the extent of my pain from the rest of the team. I wouldn’t have admitted it publicly but I wept silently to myself at the top of that day’s hardest climb – 27% which came at mile 90 of a 112-mile day. And then there was the time that we rode in Litchfield, Connecticut. The heat, even in the morning, was more intense than most days ever get, eight hours in the saddle brought half of us near to heat exhaustion.
And before that we had ridden Six Gap, in Vermont. The best part of 150 miles, it takes riders over six mountain passes or ‘gaps’ and includes 14,000ft of climbing. I’ve seen some of the best men I know come close to breaking point on these rides. I’ve watched strong riders, good friends, turn on each other in moments of extreme exhaustion as they push one another to – and in some cases past – their limits.
And through it all, the Rapha kit stood up to the punishment we handed it, through every hour, every mile and every change of climate. The writer who penned that hasty missive that morning believed, incorrectly, that Rapha riders were merely a victory for style over substance and that real cyclists prefer to let their riding, rather than their clothing, do the talking. For this reason, so the thinking goes, they are perfectly happy with threadbare Pac Lite jackets and tights with holes in them. For truly hardcore riding, ‘Don’t care’ is the label of choice. We of the Rapha Continental, however, believe the opposite is true. If you look good, you ride better. And if you ride hard you need to look good. It’s not an affectation but an aesthetic, a particular and vital sense of dandyism that lies at the heart of European road racing culture. Think Fausto Coppi and Hugo Koblet or, more recently, Mario Cippollini and Filippo Pozzato. To a man, these are riders for whom dressing correctly was, or is, an intrinsic part of their armoury. Devastating your rivals with perfect souplesse is one thing but doing so with a sartorial style that mirrors your riding is the ultimate statement.
It has been with this knowledge that we have set out on every ride that has made up the Rapha Continental so far. It was with this knowledge that we set out to ride Baxter. The 45-mile dirt road stretch turned out to be much like the Forest of Arenberg – one entrance, one exit and where you either commit or you don’t. We did, because riding hard is the only way we know, whatever the conditions, whatever our other commitments in the wider world and in the full knowledge of the pain to come. Looking good whilst we do that isn’t some arbitrary aspect of the Continental philosophy. It is the Continental philosophy. If that makes us ‘posers’ I guess we should take it as a compliment.