Interview: Slate Olson, of Rapha North America

British brand sets sights on US market

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Slate Olson is Rapha North America’s general manager. He took the job three years ago after spending seven at Nike, where he managed their US running, cycling and women’s advertizing campaigns. He was also intimately involved with the Livestrong sub-brand during its creation.

Olson is a former long-distance collegiate runner who turned to bicycles while working in the San Francisco Bay area. “I started riding road bikes as a commuter,” he said. “I bought a Bianchi for $500 and that began that whole thing. I had the best commute in the world – over the Golden Gate [bridge] every day.”

A smart dresser and a cyclo-cross enthusiast, Olson’s introduction to Rapha came through cyclist friends during a Livestrong commercial. After his introduction to the niche British brand, he became a customer, well before taking his current role of spearheading the company’s push into the US market. “I was at Nike, so I got everything for free or half price,” he said. “And then I started paying full retail for this stuff.”

Three years into his work for Rapha in the US, Olson successfully pitched and put together the Rapha-Focus cyclo-cross program, which has established itself as one of the most professional looking outfits on the domestic circuit. BikeRadar caught up with him to talk about the North American arm of the company and ‘cross – well, mostly the latter.

What does Rapha North America look like today?

There are four-and-three-quarter employees, technically, so five folks; four in Portland and one in New York. We started for two reasons: one from a marketing standpoint, and the other is customer service.

What made it difficult to do business with the UK was if something didn’t fit. I inherited some ongoing returns that were probably three months into the process, with duty and custom issues, etc. For all intents and purpose, we’re still mostly a marketing services arm of the company.

How’s it going in the US? In the UK the company is a polarizing entity, to say the least…

Things are going well, and we have a lot of work to do. I went to the Smithfield Nocturne this summer and I was kind of amazed at first because everywhere I looked somebody seemed to be wearing Rapha, whereas when I go to an event in the US it’s still few and far between.

If someone is wearing it and I don’t know them, I’m like, ‘wow, we’re making it’. Even among those who are very active in cycling, I still come across people who haven’t heard of us yet and that’s positive. I think it means we have space.

You mentioned that the US arm is more of a marketing branch of the company. How does sponsoring a cyclo-cross team fit into the brand’s plans? It must have been a push from you, as it seems that cyclo-cross is much less popular in the UK…

It’s pretty small. It’s kind of like ’cross in Boulder – no, just kidding, that was my Portland mentality! [Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado have an underground rivalry when it comes to all things bike Ed.] In the UK, it’s not a hugely popular sport. Participation is growing, but it’s so far behind what we’re at here in the States.

I love ’cross. Obviously we’re based here in Portland and it’s tough not to be aware of what’s going on locally. You know we have the Rapha-Condor- Sharp [road] team, who basically end their season in September, so for four or five months we’re more or less out of race mode, out of being fans and out of having great stories to tell and riders to admire, so that was where this began.

It’s an effort to perpetuate this love of racing that we have and kind of evolve it to include cyclo-cross. About Nationals time last year, conversations began with Chris Jones. He was a guy who we admired – the way he carries himself and how he rides – and we started chatting with him about a Rapha-backed team.

What do Rapha look for in a racer? Specifically, what drew you to Jones?

I think the fact that he has the road connection and the road background [Jones will ride for UnitedHealthcare-Maxxis in 2011] made it easier for London to appreciate. He’s a guy who has a nice style to him. Last year he had great success, but he’s not necessarily boisterous or standoff-ish. He just puts in the work.

He has an interesting background as well, as an engineer by schooling, and being in his early 30s he just fits right into the reality of what a lot of our customers are – but obviously he’s much, much faster. So I think he’s got cool stories that come out of that background and experience. I think he’s a good spokesperson for the sport of cycling and ’cross in particular.

How did Focus bicycles make it into the mix?

It’s through Chris. He was a bit of a surf bum down in San Diego and… when he got into cycling he quickly went from category 5 to category 1. The guys who own Focus USA had a bike shop down there and they sponsored him back then and the relationship has just continued.

That’s another thing; the more I learned about Chris, the more stories like this come out; of people that he’s maintained really strong relationships with. It speaks to his character.

It was a bit of a question at first. Sometimes people might not equate Rapha and Focus together but, especially from [Focus’s] stance in ’cross and their origins as a company that began with cyclo-cross, I think it’s a really great opportunity for us – and they’ve proven to be fantastic people and great partners.

Olsen is the man behind rapha’s involvement in u.s. cyclo-cross:
Mike Davis/PDX Cross

Olson is the man behind Rapha’s involvement in US cyclo-cross

Who designed the team kits?

The kit was a collaboration by James Selman at an agency called Weights and Pulleys and myself. We’ve been friends for a number of years. He’s responsible for doing the Mellow Johnny’s [Lance Armstrong’s bike shop in Austin, Texas] identity and did most of the Nike stuff that had to do with Lance; he has a long background in cycling and communications.

Then we worked with the design team in London to make the caps, umbrellas and the in-line kit – the ’cross jersey and bib shorts that share the same colors, the blue and pink and red – to share the connection with everybody to get into.

I’m not a team organizer but once Rapha-Focus materialized, guys like Fi:zi’k, Easton, Giro and SRAM came on [quick]. They’re great partners and it’s been really great to see.

What’s the pressure like when putting together a Rapha team? There have got to be high expectations to how it looks, right?

It’s funny. The response has been, ‘man, I’ve never seen a kit from Rapha that wasn’t black’. The response has been good.

Is there an off-the-bike dress code written into the team contracts?

There’s not a dress code per se, but we made sure that they have a full kit of the around-the-bike or city-riding pieces which allows them to travel and look smart. The idea of being a gentleman is important [to the team]. Respect and carrying yourself well; there are certain attitudes that we want to make sure our guys convey.

I think that Chris naturally embodies a lot of that and I think that our other racer, Zach McDonald, is a great young kid. He’s 19 years old and still figuring out his way as he comes up from the junior ranks to the seniors, and I think it’s good for him to spend time with a guy like Chris.

Where did you find Zach? He’s like the antithesis of Chris in terms of his background, having his start in downhill mountain bike racing…

He’s got a nice background of success in his own right. I caught wind of him a couple of years ago after he won junior Nationals and then I saw him race in Treviso. He’s funny and he’s still a young kid in a lot of ways. He’s got a lot to offer and a good road ahead of him [with cycling] if he wants.

He’s a bit of a Northwest project, with us being here in Portland; it was a hope to fit him into a pro program and the focus that brings along to help him mature and grow into something.

What are the Rapha-Focus program’s goals? How will you measure its success and where is it going?

We’ve got this idea toward 2013 and beyond. Our goal is to make sure that we’ve built something that will sustain and continue, and, looking towards 2013, will be really fun.

We hope to see if we can use cyclo-cross as a way to continue to find new customers and new fans of the brands, both Rapha and Focus. Getting that exposure is something that we want to do.

Back to the kit, it’s slightly different than everybody else’s and we hope that we garner that attention. We’re also excited for these guys to deliver results. I’d be really pleased if they both find themselves on podiums at the USGPs and also at Nationals.

Our long-term goal is to continue to elevate ’cross into the general offerings from Rapha from a clothing sort of standpoint. It’s a great sort of racing and winter training marriage and story. From a team standpoint, we’re going to look to add a little bit more to it.

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So, you might see another rider or two in the next year and then there’s an aspect of trying to play a positive role in US cyclo-cross to develop younger riders. We want to be one of those teams that people look for and look at, so expect good things for the years to come.