From Californian surfers to British road racers, Piers Thomas has crafted performance clothing for all types of athletes. Here, Rapha’s Team Sky Design Manager tells us about how his working relationship has evolved with the Team in season number two.
Team Sky are now riding in their second collection of Rapha kit. How has Rapha’s relationship with the team and riders changed over the last year?
I think it has really evolved. We’ve been working together for quite a while now and got a lot of positive feedback. This has helped me design a lot of solutions for this year’s collection; things like flexibility of fit, removing seams, all driven by what the riders have told me. Making the riders happy is really important. When a rider comes in for their fittings, you’ll know in the first five seconds, when they put the piece on, whether you’ve got them or you haven’t. If it fits right from the outset, you’ve got them. Fit is the biggest thing, fit is all you ‘feel’ in a garment.
We’ve also made improvements to our processes in-house, getting kit sampled, tested, and made for the team when they need it. Paul Carr [Rapha’s Team Sky Product Account Manager] has also worked on something we call ‘active receiving’, making sure the riders try on their kit and let us know of any problems as soon as possible. By the end of February this year, we knew about any problems with fit, plus what other items they needed.
Tell us about the Team Sky design philosophy?
Early in our relationship with the team, before the start of one of the Classics, Dave Brailsford mentioned the phrase ‘robust simplicity’. At that stage, we were still getting a better understanding of what Team Sky meant by ‘marginal gains’. Robust simplicity is kind of the flip side of the coin, taking away issues across the board, eliminating problems for an overall net gain in performance.
Within the team, who does the feedback come from?
The Product Working Group, to give it its official title, a group drawn from a cross-section of the team. We’ve got six riders, a DS, mechanics and Rod Ellingworth [Team Sky’s Head of Performance Operations]. The riders include Richie Porte and Dario Cataldo, who are into TTs. Bernie Eisel and Ian Stannard are involved for the Classics side of things. Then we have Ian Boswell and Luke Rowe, who are GC-type riders but who also represent the American and British new schools. The team are always interested in what we’re working on, always asking, ‘What’s next, what’s the next innovation?’. In fact, they’ve requested I spend a lot more time with the Product Working Group.
Of the riders involved, who focuses the most on the details?
They’re all slightly different. Dario’s a real tinkerer, Ian Stannard is very straight-up and really has a good understanding of how he wants to feel, which is great from a design perspective. Ian’s very good at articulating what he needs.
His feedback after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad [when he became the first Briton to win the race] must have been rewarding?
When he spoke to the press afterwards, I heard him stress the importance of kit on a day like that. And he didn’t actually talk about his tyres or his frame, so it’s an interesting place we’re in now. There is an emotional value in clothes. We have all been wearing clothes all our lives and clothes have this emotional subtext. It effects the mindset of the riders, who want to feel supported and confident. Clothes are tools and tools have emotional value, whether it’s an iPhone or an axe.
How far does the customisation for each rider go?
Generally the fit, sleeve and leg length etc., as well as the chamois they use in their shorts.
Do riders ask for specific products, or are you always suggesting things, putting prototypes under noses?
They wouldn’t have the products they have now if it was a one-way street – the Mesh Skinsuit is a fine example. Everyone thought I was absolutely bonkers but what was Chris Froome wearing when he won his last race? If I’m doing my job properly, I’m bringing things to the table that the riders didn’t think they needed. It’s also about the way those things are delivered. Sometimes they think I’m nuts and I’m OK with that because normally I’ve got a pretty strong idea. It’s up to us to work with them and help them exploit advantages in their kit as much as possible. Bradley Wiggins, for example, asked for seamless arm warmers because they don’t absorb the rain as much.
Of all the products the collaboration has produced, are there any that stand out, or that have transferred directly into Rapha’s main Pro Team collection.
The Team Sky Pro Mitts are a good example, and are heavily influenced by the feedback from the team. They are really stripped down, with mesh backs, separate snot and sweat wipes, and with minimal padding for an enhanced connection to the bike.
What’s been the most surprising aspect of working with Team Sky?
Challenging the perceived wisdom, such as weight dissipation between the riders bodies and bikes, such as glove padding and the shape of a collar. Traditions can sometimes hinder certain innovations. If everything looks and feels safe and comfortable, then you can bet that no advances have been made.