The Cote d'Azur was looking more gris than bleu the morning Ride Velo turned up to interview Café du Cycliste boss Rémi Clermont. But the soggy weather didn't dampen our spirits when the elegant new café cum shop came into view in the old port of Nice. Rubbing shoulders with the super yachts moored outside, this slick cycle 'hub' reflects the hard work and vision of owners Rémi and business partner Andre Stewart, a Mecca for the aspirational cyclist in the South of France.
Having spent a couple of days exploring the area by bike, we could see exactly why the geography of the Alpes-Maritimes has created this French rival to Rapha's crown. And on arriving at HQ, the first thing boss Rémi showed us was his 3D relief map of the region, made into a table, and proudly displayed in the middle of the shop, more prominent even than the thousands of euros worth of designer rental bikes on display or the luxurious apparel ranges they have created.
Despite appearing to encapsulate all things French, we were surprised to discover that Café du Cycliste is a very international outfit - their first online customer was from Japan and only 25% of their sales are to the European Union. Neither Rémi nor Andre are from southern France - Andre is in fact half Brazilian and half English and Rémi hails from Alsace, which borders Germany. But the company's roots are very firmly grounded in the region and the stunning Riviera provides much of the inspiration for its quality clothing range.
Nice is in a 4km plain surrounded by mountains so it's fantastic for cyclists, the only drawback being the lack of space to practise time trialling - apart from one stretch of flat running along the river valley near Antibes. But the huge choice of climbs explains the proliferation of pro cyclists and their teams who live and train between here and Monte Carlo, such as Chris Froome, Richie Porte, team Astana etc etc and Rémi nonchalantly mentioned that Nairo Quintana had popped in for a coffee and a pump the other day.
The Riviera's stunningly beautiful coastline is passable all year round, while in the summer months, Cols reaching up to 2,800m are accessible on a day's ride from the town. Rémi's personal favourite is the Col de Turini which has no less than six possible roads leading up to it - practically one for every day of the week!
So it was back in 2009 that former work colleagues Rémi and Andre decided to buy and renovate a favourite watering hole near the town of Grasse. They regularly stopped for coffee during rides out from Nice in the village more famous for growing flowers for Chanel no. 5 perfume. Here Café du Cycliste was born. Andre was between jobs, having left the IT start up company where he'd been Rémi's boss, and had some money to invest. Rémi was looking for a new challenge and wanted to launch a clothing company.
While Rémi had no experience in the rag trade and Andre had no business plan, the two started from scratch, learning as they went along. After about 18 months of researching fabrics, going to trade shows, meeting manufacturers and asking advice from friends, Rémi launched his first range consisting of a pair of bib shorts and two or three jerseys which they attempted to sell out of the mountain coffee shop. "We didn't sell one jersey to French people!" Today the clothing arm of the business turns over €100,000s a year and last year their glossy new harbour-side café opened its doors to the public. But still only 15% of their customers are French.
As IT specialists, they built their Café du Cycliste website but the sales didn't start rolling in until they translated it into English. "Cycling is traditionally a blue collar job in France - like boxing - it's traditionally lower class," said Rémi. He got into cycling as a boy via his father who is a very keen cyclist and, at the same time, a cardiologist. "Today it's quite cool to say your Dad's a road cyclist. When I was young it wasn't cool. It's really clear for us in France, Italy or Belgium that cycling was such an uncool sport to do, but it's really changed."
Rémi originally studied business and marketing in Paris and it was surely this background that enabled him to foresee the coming sea-change; "cycling was uncool but I realised that there was was something happening with road cycling. Before the shift, the audience didn't really have any money to spend on cycling. Everything was about finding the cheapest way." Café du Cycliste is not the cheapest brand - in fact their range sits alongside Rapha in terms of price and quality with our favourite 'Claudette' men and women's jerseys retailing at €165.
Like Rapha, Café du Cycliste clothing tries to be understated and different to the team kit screaming advertising slogans and day-glow colouring from some teams of the pro cycling world. "French cyclists are getting more and more into the brand, but the vast majority are club cyclists who just buy their club jersey which can be expensive and usually not very good quality," said Rémi. "Either that or they buy something that promises a competitive advantage, so technical it promises he can fly to the moon in it!"
Unlike Rapha, Cafe du Cycliste offer a wide range of styles. We love the stripy Claudette jersey which has both a men's and women's version, but we were both mentally drawing up our birthday wish lists for some of the other jerseys too which differ in style but have the same quality. It's original in design, fun, stylish, and a move away from MAMIL ultra performance wear.
The inspiration behind Remi's designs was not being able to find anything he liked to wear. "99.9% of buyers are not pros and what was selling was designed for the teams. We all have different reasons to ride and we want to prove something to ourselves. I know I'm a bad cyclist. If I train hard I will be slightly better but I will still be absolutely shit! For me, cycling is like going to the cinema - it's relaxation." Who needs to shave micro seconds off their Sunday club run with clothing designed for professional marginal gains? There's also a great range of urban wear including chinos, shorts, shirts and a Harrington style jacket.
So why all the girls' names for their products? "You need to give a product a name," Rémi explained, "we could've called them something like EXQ Bionic II or Pro-light Z but we didn't want to go in that direction. It makes no sense to invent a name, so we used a person's name. We went for traditional French names, names that you wouldn't use today." I pointed out that my French stepmother's 100 year old mother is called Paulette, like their men's bib shorts. "Exactly! I call them what I like to call them whether or not anyone likes it. There's no real logic to it - that's just me thinking it's fun. It brings some identity to the brand." After all, Rémi gave his own son an ambiguous name - Marcel which is pronounced the same as the female version Marcelle so he must be pretty open minded!
Rémi wants to keep the brand for the leisure cyclist and isn't tempted to go down the pro team route. "I love racing but I don't really see the brand going into that. Rapha wanted to prove something...they proved that they could do something with a different aesthetic but be technical at the same time and then put it on the back of a champion. I love racing but this is by nature what we're not. It doesn't really make sense for us."
While Rémi, 40, looks very much the successful start-up entrepreneur, trim in designer denim, he claims to be a hippy at heart. His background as a kayak World Champion appears rather incongruous with the Rémi of today, but the jigsaw puzzle pieces slowly fall into place: "kayakers are hippies - they do wild camping, drive around in dirty vans, mud everywhere. " I pointed out this was in direct contrast with the the minimal and immaculate former art gallery we were sitting in. "Clean - this is what happens as you get older," he explained, "but even today I'm still more of a traveller." Rémi takes his five-year-old son to school every morning by cargo bike - he doesn't drive around the town in a Ferrari like the rest of the population of Nice!
"In opening up the café here, we want to be a hub for cyclists. We're not a bike shop - we don't want to sell. We're about helping people enjoy cycling; making the experience of cycling easier for people. The café is the flesh around our brand. Here, people can touch what you really are. We don't want to make money from renting bikes!"
And what bikes they have to rent! A couple of titanium Passoni XXTIs, and a handful of carbon Colnago V1-Rs and some steel Victoire Veloces (a brand we'd never heard of which bear an uncanny resemblance to Passoni). They're not cheap to rent at between €80 - €120 a day but for that you can use their immaculate new showers, lockers, leave your luggage and order a taxi straight to the airport immediately after your ride if you wish.
Rémi and Andre moved to the new premises in Nice from Grasse in June 2015 and nowadays Rémi isn't involved with the original café at all though it's still open and called Café du Cycliste, run by Andre with new partners. "We still own the brand. This business is much bigger. We developed the clothing side and needed bigger and bigger offices and space to show the clothing to people. A lot of the brand is about the Riviera."
Andre, 46, works in London now, his company was bought out by IT giant Cisco systems. "He has a real job." Café de Cycliste now employs 10 staff but is still a relatively small company, "we're lucky to be in a market that's growing," said Rémi. In the near future, the pair want to increase the range of accessories they're making and produce more cold weather clothing for us northern Europeans who don't have the Riviera's balmy climate. On the other hand, customers from the Far East are demanding super-light weight polyester for tropical climes and size XXS clothing. "We need to grow the range to please everyone!"
"I'm like any start up owner; it was tough and really stressful until a year ago. You have to do everything yourself - working every day and every night until 3am. Now we're happier. I'm not proud to be a businessman - being a rich businessman would not make me happy." But cycling makes him happy, as well as planning his next bike purchase from Alsace frame builder Mannheim (in case you wondered, it's steel over carbon any day!) Rémi admitted that he'd love to get more into mountain biking again, although the Cote d'Azur is a bit rocky.
The next challenge is an epic cyclo-sportive event they have planned to take place in June - the MercanTour with 4,600m of climbing in one day and a distance of 180km.
All this in one day! Is Rémi going to be taking part or just organising the event? No, of course he is riding, he protests. Ok Rémi, we believe everything you've told us up to now, but we don't believe you're a shit cyclist!