As the “custodians” of cycle-clothing company Torm, Alan Parkinson and Paul Higginson firmly believe that to be small is to be beautiful.
“Sigh… can everyone stop ripping off my shit please?” tweeted Rapha co-founder Luke Scheybeyer in October 2010, having pointed to the product pages of Torm.
He was suggesting that the startup cycle-clothing company based in Broadstairs, Kent, was getting a little close to the bone with its figure-hugging, classic-styled Sportswool jerseys.
Not long after Scheybeyer’s micro-rant, the lawyers moved in; and not long after the lawyers moved in, Torm removed some of their products and tweaked their designs to differentiate their products further from the designs of Rapha.
Torm, like Rapha, produces cycling jerseys and base layers using Merino-based Sportswool. Also, like Rapha, it follows a classic, almost retro, design and puts a lot of emphasis on style. Where it differs from Rapha is price – a Torm long-sleeved jersey will set you back £55; a Rapha equivalent £140.
Following the spat, internet gossip boards were split. Some saw it as bullying on the part of Rapha; others as Torm taking the proverbial. Either way, fast forward a couple of years and both companies continue to prosper.
&Bike caught up with the “custodians” of Torm, Alan Parkinson and Paul Higginson (the original founder Charlie is no longer involved – although the three enjoy a drink on a regular basis), and it soon became clear that the Torm philosophy is a hundred miles away from that of Rapha…
&Bike: What is your target market? What about your production, how important is the “made in England” trend? How many people do you employ and are they cyclists or seamsters?
Alan Parkinson: I like to think that our customers are people like us, this might be pure fantasy. One of the reasons we stay deliberately small is so we can interact with our customers and find out more about them. The way the world trades is changing and we embrace that. Currently most Torm (and other people’s) products endure a rather tortuous journey before they find their homes with cyclists all over the world.
We’re having a great time paving the way for our jerseys to be manufactured closer to our distribution centre. We’ve even made our business trips by bike.
Paul Higginson: Torm is made up of just me and Al. We do everything, along with running a local bike shop so we’re busy! I hope that our customers are like us, people who are passionate about cycling, quality and sustainability. For anyone using Merino-based products, the journey starts on a hillside with a sheep a good 10,000 miles away, on the route to the UK we use manufacturers who share our philosophies and we will continue to work with manufacturers based on quality not price.
&Bike: So, tell us about the Rapha thing.
AP: Rapha is an awesome brand which has inspired a lot of people to get into cycling. Their business model is very different to ours. I think our customers are different too.
PH: Rapha do so much to support cycling that you have to respect them for their approach. Our approach is not better or worse, it’s just different, and there’s room for everyone out there.
&Bike: What’s your favourite bike and why?
AP: It certainly changes regularly; but just now it’s my 1950’s Claud Butler single-speed conversion. I first restored it as a trendy flat bar run around but the gear was too high for about town. Eventually I put drops on and started using it for my 17-mile commute. What a revelation; the pencil thin steel tubes make it a real silky ride and the gear is challenging but manageable. I hope I don’t break it.
PH: It’s often what a bike means more than what it looks/rides like. For me its my Roberts 1994 Audax bike – it means I’m going exploring and probably up a few hills!
&Bike: What’s your favourite ride (route) and why?
AP: My favourite day in the saddle was spent riding with a friend from Cannich to Kyle of Lochalsh, offroad via Glen Affric. It was so special because we made almost no preparations; we just opened the map in the morning and headed West.
PH: I love climbing over the White Cliffs near Dover, as you crest the hill the Channel reveals itself on your right. As you run down the long straight road to St Margarets you see France on the horizon just 23 miles away, it reminds me that the rest of the world is very close if you want it to be.
&Bike: Is there a current cycling brand, event, race, occasion that particularly inspires you?
AP: I really fancy the Early Riser Festival in the New Forest. I’ve just been looking at the website and it looks right up my street.
PH: Me and Al look to brands that make the best products they can, not the most products they can or the most money they can. They focus on quality and sustainability which will always give better value in the long run.
AP: Torm found us. We are the custodians of the Torm. Sometimes, on a good-legs day, you can sit up on the bike and say ‘I feel really Torm today’. OK we made that up after the event; Torm sounds Scandinavian and those guys really know what they are doing when it comes to technical fabrics.
PH: Having spent many years in a scientific role, I wanted to be a part of something completely different, follow a passion and go find out what its like to build something using your own values and at your own pace. The name is a tip of the hat to the Scandinavians who really know about outdoor life and technical fabrics.
&Bike: What’s your take on British cycling culture?
AP: I love the diversity. Running a local bike shop certainly puts us in a good position to see it all. The people I have the most time for are the commuters and their workhorse bikes. I really like the camaraderie of the road club and have huge respect for those who devote their time organising events and training the kids. I discovered club cycling late on and I think it’s important that we keep it accessible to all and not too intimidating.
PH: As me and Al also run a local bike shop we get exposed to people from all different aspects of cycling culture. People are starting to remember that cycling is a great mode of transport as well as a great sport and that can only be a positive thing. These days there’s a bike out there for everyone!
&Bike: Do you think cycling is, well, a bit of a rip off?
AP: Well, no. In my previous career I helped to develop products that people didn’t really need. Because people didn’t really need the products, other people had to be employed to convince them that they actually did need them. This made the products even more expensive than they should have been. THAT is a rip off. People need bikes.
PH: Errrr, No. For cycling, all you need is a bike that is safe and fit for purpose, the rest of the stuff is optional. Cycling doesn’t have to cost the earth and in fact may go some way towards saving it.
&Bike: How do you see Torm developing over the next two to three years?
AP: I think we’ll see a few new products but there will be no cufflinks, corkscrews etc. I’d like to offer more garments so that people can feel more aligned with the brand; however we won’t do it just for the sake of it. When we have stuff we believe in and we can offer, sustainably, at realistic prices, then we will. I’m not against growth but I believe it should be organic.
I also quite like the idea of a small retail outlet where people can try before they buy. Like our current bike shop but better located, less greasy and with better coffee.
PH: We’ve built the company organically, using our own resources and if we need help we ask our friends. This is how we would like it to continue. We will add some new products but we don’t want our business to be built on debt and will be about products we are passionate about, we don’t get passionate about cups, bags and socks. Small is Beautiful in our eyes.
Disclaimer: I own three Torm jerseys and one Rapha jersey. I love them all, and they are the only jerseys I wear (although I can only carry off the brilliant-white Torm jersey on a particularly svelte day…) All were paid for.
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