Leaning back in her chair, Marta Gut pauses to consider the question. ‘My role,’ she explains, ‘It’s all about communicating a lifestyle and a culture. Product will sell itself if people trust in your message. But you have to believe it yourself.’
We’re sitting in the ‘Galibier’ meeting room in the considered, yet far from minimal Rapha HQ. Although an unassuming exterior – if you ignore the Citroen H Van parked conspicuously outside – the brand ethos is perfectly encapsulated in the entrance off Tileyard Road as employees ride their bikes directly into the building’s reception and the waiting bike storage and showers. Fronted by a seating area – used by company founder and CEO Simon Mottram to hold weekly staff meetings – a café completes the scene with a sizable queue already building when I first arrive. Not that surprising, I suppose. Coffee and bikes?
After passing a wall display showing the expanding international network of Rapha Clubhouses – even the string that physically links them to the London-based centre of operations is Rapha pink – stairs lead to an open plan mezzanine level. The atmosphere is surprisingly hushed for such a busy workspace with the sense of focus softened by the casual attire and degree of lycra that is evident.
From her seat, Marta runs through the team demarcations – marketing, communications, design – punctuating her descriptions with an occasional glance towards the individuals clustered together in groups. Clearly at ease in this environment, her enthusiasm for the brand is unfeigned and infectious. As she points out early in our conversation, ‘I look forward to coming to work each morning.’
Slight in build and with a dry sense of humour, Marta’s accent hints at her Polish background along with the occasional use of a word that confirms she isn’t a native English speaker. But this simply provides the first clue to the journey – both geographically and culturally – that she has undertaken and is still enjoying. Currently Rapha’s Press & Relationships Officer for UK & Ireland, Marta reflects on her decision to leave family and friends behind and move to the UK. ‘I was really good at maths – loved it so much that I took extra classes – but surprisingly didn’t enjoy the economics course I was studying back home in Poland. So I decided to come to the UK for a foundation year before researching other courses.’ The subsequent move met resistance with the exception of her grandfather. ‘He’s now sadly passed away but at the time he was really supportive,’ Marta explains before adding, ‘Every time I achieve something I always think of him.’
Speaking about her degree in photography from University of the Arts London, Marta acknowledges the opportunities it also provided for coordinating events and exhibitions. ‘I didn’t realise at the time but you learn so much about relationships, networking, visual culture. It changes the way you look at the world.’ Skills that would prove invaluable when she co-founded Spine Photographic immediately after leaving university before her first role with Rapha as a visual merchandising supervisor. With a nod towards her colleagues busily working outside our meeting room, Marta points out, ‘A lot of the people that work for Rapha have an art school background.’
Asked what first appealed about working for Rapha, Marta acknowledges that she’s had a love of cycling from a very early age when she would ride in the mountains near to where she grew up in Poland. ‘I remember following my dad up this steep climb on a heavy steel bike that was far too big for me and wearing my little pink helmet.’ These memories and the Rapha Continental films she later saw had a galvanising effect. ‘The images were so beautiful. I felt intrigued by the brand.’
Initially balancing working part-time at Rapha with paid commercial commissions through Spine, when an opportunity arose to take a full-time position with the marketing team, she decided to accept. ‘I did the Tempest Festival – running the Club there – and just stayed.’ Finding that she still relishes the creative culture and freedom that the job brings, it’s the common bond of a shared passion for cycling that Marta feels is a clue to such a productive and focused workforce. With another of her frequent smiles, she observes, ‘What other company encourages you to go for a ride on Wednesday mornings?’
Asked about the most rewarding aspect of her role, she simply states, ‘There’s literally nothing better than someone bringing a paper to your desk to show you an article that you worked on.’ Challenges focus on breaking down perceptions in the fashion press that Rapha is purely a cycling brand. ‘The City range is proving very successful but people don’t always see it as a fashion line. Our goal is to change this perception by communicating the versatile nature of the designs.’ But these are questions of brand identity that Marta is happy to address and feels fully supported by Simon Mottram’s style of leadership. ‘That’s why Rapha is so successful,’ she explains, ‘The way he knows everyone’s name, the way he checks if you’re ok.’ A regular cyclist himself, Marta suggests with a wry smile that any non-cycling employees not initially sharing his enthusiasm almost inevitably take up the sport. Encouraged by quarterly ‘company’ rides and a perspex board attached to the bike racks where personal cycling goals are posted against staff numbers, Marta points out: ‘These individual targets needn’t be extreme. Whether it’s riding 10km to work or competing in a transcontinental race; the point is that we’re all enjoying the freedom and experiences that riding our bike brings.’
With a company ethos that’s so all-encompassing, I ask whether the line between home and work can become blurred? At this Marta pauses, taking a moment to consider her response: ‘I tend to be disciplined and go home at six but emails? I prioritise but I always check. At the weekend, I’ll ride with friends and enjoy some time away from the office. You need an opportunity to collect your thoughts.’
Currently enjoying living and working in London, Marta doesn’t rule out a subsequent move. ‘It’s perfect at the moment as my networks are all here but I’m not attached in the sense that I wouldn’t be able to move in the future.’ Commuting by bike is more challenging since recently relocating south of the river but at least this brings the benefit of being closer to the countryside that surrounds the capital: ‘When I lived in East London it could take over an hour to get out of the city for a ride.’
Organisation, Marta confirms, is the key to cycling in London. ‘Riding for pleasure is easy but you have to get up at five in the morning. Commuting is doable. On the way in, I plan in my head what I’m going to do that day. The evening ride is all about exploring. I don’t care if I get lost on the way home.’ Preferring climbing hills to a flat ride – the idea of Regent’s Park laps she describes as a nightmare – Marta currently rides an aluminium Condor Italia RC with another Condor – a steel-framed Fratello – a planned purchase. After flirting with carbon, she feels more of an affinity with steel frames and would choose a custom build – Saffron and Feather are both mentioned in conversation – as a dream bike.
Finding a release on her bike from the associated stresses of a busy work life, the 2014 Rapha Manchester to London ride proved to be particularly challenging. Already carrying an injury when she set off on the 220 miles to be covered in a single day, after struggling through the Peak District her knee finally gave way. ‘I was in so much pain they had to put me in the car,’ Marta reflects. ‘By the fourth checkpoint I’d recovered a little bit so even though it wasn’t easy I managed to ride the last 40 miles. But it’s still unfinished business.’
As for future plans, Marta again pauses as her gaze takes in our meeting room and the busy office space visible through the glass partition. Whilst remaining a practising artist having co-founded the photographic collective Skin&Blister in 2015 and happy to continue working with Rapha, she acknowledges that a move to expand her role would be welcomed. ‘It would be nice to grow with the company,’ she reflects before adding, ‘You’re encouraged to talk about what you want to do.’ And as we say our farewells I’m left with the impression that, for her, it’s all about the journey; the forward movement and the unexplored directions that her next bike ride or career move will bring. As she comments before returning to her desk and waiting emails: ‘I’d hate to think of myself as a closed book.’
Feature image / Jochen Hoops
Imperial Works interior / Andy Matthews
Imperial Works exterior / Chris Hargreaves