Rapha’s Matt Duer on Community, Gear and Driftless Gravel

Rapha became one of the first brands to pair fashion and technical apparel when it launched in 2004. Since then, Rapha has redefined the cycling experience for riders by creating gear that balances style and performance. We sat down with Rapha’s Matt Duer to chat about Rapha’s entry into the mountain bike space, the common thread that unites different cycling communities across the continent and why the Driftless region of Illinois is one of the best places in the Midwest to ride gravel. 

Where is home?

Chicago, IL.

How did you get into cycling?

I played soccer during my younger years all the way through college. After school, I was looking for a competitive activity and landed on running. I trained and ran my first marathon and didn’t exactly enjoy the experience! The next week I bought a road bike and quickly got hooked on the sport and all the gear that goes with it.

What does cycling mean to you?

Cycling fuels me to be a better person, a better dad and helps me escape and see places I wouldn’t have otherwise looked for.

What bike(s) are you currently riding?

My gravel bike, a Santa Cruz Stigmata, and road bike, a Specialized Aethos, get the most miles these days.

Can you tell us about your current role in the cycling industry and how you got there?

Currently I oversee Rapha’s Wholesale business in North America, but I started out with Rapha by opening our third US store in Chicago. I had the pleasure of running clubhouses (that’s what we call our stores) in both Chicago and Boulder, Colorado during my time in retail. Now I travel all over the continent visiting our Wholesale network. 

Seeing as you’ve ridden all around the US on different types of bikes—what’s the one common thread that unites cycling communities?

The communities that I’ve experienced all show a sense of adventure and being an advocate for the sport.

Why is community so important in the cycling world?

Community in cycling is the only way our sport will sustain and grow for the future. Rapha’s purpose is to inspire the world to live life by bike, and community is one way we can achieve that purpose. 

What led Rapha to starting group rides?

Group rides are a central part of cycling culture, but at Rapha we believe that hosting our own rides allows our customers to get closer to the brand and form lasting memories with us. Ultimately, group rides have become our best way to create loyalty and connection with our customers. 

Are cycling clubs and shop rides becoming more popular?

Cycling clubs and group rides have certainly become more popular—most cycling brands these days are looking to create shared experiences for the customers on the bike. Rapha is proud to have been a leader in that space. 

Have you seen a shift in how shop/club rides are being created? Drop vs no-drop, more inclusive, etc.?

Yes, there are many more options to choose from when it comes to rides. There has been a noticeable increase in more approachable, no-drop rides for every type of rider. 

There are many ways people connect to their bikes and Rapha has done a great job fostering cultures in the city, road and gravel space. Recently Rapha moved into the MTB category—can you talk about that move? 

Mountain biking culture is completely separate and different from road and gravel culture in many ways. Three years ago when we launched, Rapha set out to enter the MTB space authentically with a selection of products built for the sport. We worked closely with legitimate athletes in the trail riding space to build out a collection designed for comfort and function in all conditions. 

What’s the primary focus or goals you’re trying to achieve in the MTB space?

It sounds simple, but our goal is to make the best performing MTB clothing on the market. 

How’s the MTB community responding?

Customers everywhere tell me they absolutely love our MTB products.  I'm seeing more and more of it on the trails, too. We still have work to do to establish our brand in the space, but we know it will come with time. 

Speaking of community, can you tell us about The Ten Thousand?

The event was started by a good friend of mine who owned a local bike shop an hour and a half west of Chicago. They needed to pass the event on to someone else and asked if Rapha and myself would take over the reins in 2020. The ride is hosted every Memorial Day Weekend in the Driftless region of Illinois—one of the best places in the Midwest to ride gravel roads. Our main route will offer 10,000 feet of elevation gain for riders—climbing that is very atypical of our area. 

Can you tell us more about the Driftless region? What makes it ideal for gravel riding in the Midwest?

The Driftless area can be found in Illinois, Wisconsin and even parts of Iowa and Minnesota. The name given to this place, Driftless, represents why this landscape looks so different from the rest of the Upper Midwest. During the most recent glaciation period (about two million to 13,000 years ago), glaciers flattened out most of this area, but for some reason skipped over the Driftless region.  The landscape left behind is endless ups and downs, beautiful tree-lined vistas and one of the most memorable and challenging areas to ride a bike. We chose this area for the Ten Thousand because of how beautiful and difficult it is. 

What sparked the creation of this event?

It started out as just a few friends riding gravel roads in their hometown, and is really inspired by trying to introduce more riders to some of our favorite roads in the midwest. 

What goes in to mapping out the specific routes each year?

We typically offer three routes and multiple aid stations for riders. The planning and logistics for this event is mostly taken on by passionate volunteers who are familiar with the backroads of the Illinois Driftless—without them, this event wouldn’t exist. 

What's the best way to train for this ride?

Considering this event is late May every year, the best way to train is to just get as many miles in your legs as possible. Just ride your bike and try to get in several long rides (4+ hours) in the lead-up to the event. 

What’s an ideal bike setup look like? Kit? Gear?

Many sections of the Ten Thousand route are quite rugged, with large-size chunky gravel, so I always recommend the widest gravel tire your bike can fit.  Considering the route is also very remote with few refill spots such as gas stations, bringing a lot of food and water is also crucial to survive the ride. Kit that supports bringing extra supplies, such as cargo bib shorts and jerseys with ample storage is key. 

Any info about 2024 you’d like to share?

We will be back out in the Driftless in 2024 with all new routes! 

Let’s pivot now to gear. How does Rapha balance performance and design?

Rapha sets out to make the world’s best cycling products. With innovative products designed for specific types of riding and terrain, we aim to give riders the best experience possible on a bike. Rapha owns every step of the design process and can even produce samples in our in-house atelier to rigorously test each product. 

Why is design important when it comes to gear?

Design is so important for technical gear because it ultimately impacts the customer’s experience on their ride. Ultimately, our design should allow the rider to focus solely on their ride while feeling good in what they’re wearing. 

How has the Rapha aesthetic influenced cycling? Visually and culturally?

When Rapha first started in 2004, we were inspired to design cycling apparel counter to what was available in the industry. Most kits during this time were filled with logos and just not aesthetically pleasing or performance oriented. Rapha really started the conversation around pairing fashion and technical cycling apparel. From our color palettes and key design features, you know when you’re looking at a rider in Rapha. 

What new Rapha products are you most excited about for the fall or winter?

I love a cool late-fall ride in the Midwest, especially as the leaves change. My go-to kit for this time of year is our Pro Team Winter Tights, Pro Team Thermal Jersey and our newly redesigned Insulated Vest. 

What’s one snack that is always in the jersey pocket, hip pack or bar bag?

I love candy, it’s kind of a problem, but my favorite treat to have on a ride are Nerd Gummy Clusters. If you haven’t tried these yet, do yourself a favor and get a bag. Your life won’t be the same. 

Rapha is from London, so is it tea or coffee for you?

Coffee before the ride and midway too! 

Deep dish or nah?

Deep dish all day! 

Gravel or pavement?

Gravel—it allows me to get off the beaten path a bit more. 

Up or down?

Up, up, up! Challenge yourself!

Dream bike?

A Moots titanium gravel bike, handmade in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  

Dream ride? 

Mixed terrain riding in the Bay Area of California. 

Can you point us to a great Chicago area ride that we can share?

The Des Plaines River Trail is the best off-road riding near the city, just 30 minutes from downtown.