Say “Rapha” and many cyclists will associate this with a London-based company producing semi-retro styled cycle clothing. But this business has appropriated a slice of history as it tries to evoke tales of epic rides and hardened riders for its brand.
If you didn’t know, that’s the original Rapha jersey pictured above. Rapha was short for St Raphaël, a drink that was part herbal tonic, part apéritif. I’ve no idea what it tastes like as it’s no longer available in France but apparently still has a following in Québec.
Why the abbreviated Rapha instead of the drink’s full name? Well in the 1950s the Tour de France organisers refuse to allow openly commercial teams, only bike industry sponsors were allowed. So the Rapha-Geminiani tried to pretend there was no commercial link and that the team was simply named after the directeur sportif, Raphaël Géminiani. But this was a ruse, the DS’s first name happily coincided with the sponsor but the funding was coming from the company behind the beverage.
This might sound familiar, it’s a bit like recent tobacco sponsorship deals with Formula 1 and Moto GP where the sponsors back the team but weren’t allowed to display their full name, for example Valentino Rossi’s motorbike was covered in exclamation marks. Cycling fans might remember Unibet, a gaming company, backing a team despite a ban against this in France, at one point the team turned up in kit marked only with a cryptic question mark. Back to St Raphaël and in time the Tour organisers relented, Jacques Anquetil rode with the brand’s colourful logos.
So that’s the story of Rapha’s name, you can read lots more on the internet, for example Wikipedia’s page on Geminiani is great. And like a lot of history, it’s never as clear cut as it seems: the real Raphaël “Rapha” Géminiani had a furious temper and described doping controls as a “cancer”. That’s an aspect a modern clothing brand probably wont embrace.