Interview with František Raboň - marketing director of Kalas Sportswear
He was one of the most prominent personalities of Czech cycling, helping stars in elite stables to win races. He was a regular at the Giro, winning time trials. But then, František Raboň decided to retire at the age of thirty-one. However, he did not disappear from cycling. For the last six years, as marketing director, he has been instrumental in making the Czech cycling equipment company Kalas one of the world's top companies.
It's been almost seven years since you retired from racing. How did you get used to life outside the racing saddle?
Pretty much no problem. I only think of my career during these interviews and things like that. Even though I finished quite young, I never thought about coming back in all that time. I quit for several things, partly because of my young children and heavy travel. Now I'm enjoying family life and finding fulfilment in my current work for Kalas. That keeps me near cycling, still in touch with the people I used to race with. For example, Mark Renshaw is now our biggest customer in Australia. Yet I don't have to go away for a month anymore. I just go to races for maybe two days and then go home. The older I get, the more I realise how cool it was and how far I've come. And thanks to the way I treated people back then, it's coming back to me in a good way now. Even when I don't see someone for a few years and now I call them, the response is immediately positive. I wonder myself if I would be just as interested in something completely outside of the industry, like in construction or so.
But given that you work for a cycling equipment company, your career and the fact that everyone in the industry knows you as a great cyclist must make your job a lot easier, right?
When I finished, I believed that whatever I’d do, I would be successful in any field because of my character and work ethic. I don't want to sound pompous, but the fact that cycling has its own rigid rules of training and is about hard work, I figured that if I worked just as hard at any job, I'd be good at it. That's why I encourage my daughters to take up a sport as well. I don't know if I want them to do it professionally because I know what it takes, but at least I want them to be able to do more sports. For them it's great equipment for life.
When you talk about diligence, do all cyclists have this quality, or are there those who take advantage of their talent and don't push themselves?
Cycling can't be cheated. I play a lot of hockey in Pilsen with former hockey players. And even if they're 60 years old, they'll just beat me up because they have the technique I lack. That's not in cycling. I don't train now, so if I got on a bike, I'd be eaten like a raspberry by everyone who rides regularly for two months. As a former pro, I know what the head is supposed to do, what the legs are supposed to do, but if the performance isn't there, I can't beat the others. Talent isn't enough here, it has to be worked.
However, as a lot of my former colleagues are finishing now, I can see that they are often floundering on how to translate that into their normal life. They don't know what to do with themselves, so after a while they try to rebuild their careers. But it's all just temporary. Like me, if I decided to come back at 34, I knew it would be for a year or two, and then I'd have to deal with it all over again. You just can't do cycling forever. It's difficult for a lot of riders to start doing something else. I, on the other hand, didn't really feel any major change after the end. Right away I was able to fill my life with something else I enjoy, so I didn't even think about going back.
You started working for Kalas right after your career had ended?
I was aware of two things. I wanted to quit when I decided to quit and secure myself financially. So I used the money I earned from professional cycling to buy a house and create a cushion. And when I finally decided to quit, I had six months to figure out what I wanted to do next that I’d enjoy as much as cycling. I started actively looking for something. I was in contact with Specialized, the company I was riding under, to become their ambassador, but then my father introduced me to Kalas. We agreed on a two-month trial period, and now I've celebrated sixth year here. Originally, I was going to be mainly a test rider, that I would ride in their outfit and then say what to improve. But after a month, that took over. As I started going to meetings, I became more and more involved in marketing where I could use my name. It picked up pretty quickly. Now we're making jerseys for the British national team or the Alpecin-Phoenix team, headed by Mathieu van der Poel, who is now expected to shine on the Tour de France.
Many Czechs may not even know that the Czech company Kalas is so successful in the world of cycling that one of the best cyclists of today, van der Poel, wears its jerseys. Can you introduce Kalas?
What I liked about Kalas from the beginning was that its global reach allowed me to travel and use the languages and contacts from my career. It's a Czech brand that is a leader in the Czech market, but it also has big international ambitions. At the same time, it's a company that is truly family-owned and built from the ground up. This year marks thirty years since Mr Čestmír Kalaš founded the company from scratch. In 1971, he founded a cycling club in Tábor and tried to find sponsors for it. After the revolution, he created this company so that cyclists would have something to ride in. It was purely out of desire to help a local team. He took out a loan of 400,000 crowns and mortgaged their family home. So, at 48 he decided to start a business completely outside his field. And he turned it into this great company, which is now run by his grandson. From ten employees there are now 270 employees and it's all earned. That's the difference from some of our competitors who grow up fast just because an investor pours in hundreds of millions, buys beautiful offices, hires hundreds of employees, and everything goes ritzy instantly. It's not as sophisticated as in our country, when Mr Kalaš used to go to Switzerland to buy fabrics and then borrowed machines to get things going. This year, the company will exceed CZK 300 million in turnover and, according to Forbes magazine, it is one of the largest family-owned companies in the Czech Republic. We have 80 seamstresses and produce about half a million products a year in 5,000 different designs.
Since it is handmade, do you tailor the biggest stars' jerseys, or do they choose from standard sizes and designs?
We have 12 different sizes, including extended sizes, and due to the complexity of the manufacturing process, it is not possible to make any more special sizes. At most for the time trial suits, which are specific because of a lot of aerodynamics involved. Now we're making jerseys for our national team at the Olympics. If we approached everyone individually, we probably wouldn't do anything else. But it's interesting how the biggest stars are actually quite modest. The general managers of the race teams confirm this to me. For Van der Poel, for example, we would have been able to do basically everything, but he's happy with what we deliver. Conversely, there are riders who are on the edge in the teams, they don't finish the last race, and then they call me to see if they can get a 1.5 centimetre sleeve lengthening. One time a rider called me in a similar matter when I was on their team bus. His boss overheard it and told me not to listen to him at all - that he should be training, not making shit up (smile).
When you think back about your career, how important is a quality jersey for a cyclist?
When I look at pictures from when I started, I think how incredible the change has been. It's similar to, say, football. When you watch the European Championships game now and you compare it to what the footballers wore when they won silver medals at Euro 96 - they were wearing shorts that were three sizes bigger than they are today. The jerseys were hanging on them, now they have them tight to their body. It’s the same in cycling. A huge change came in 2008 and 2009, when we started having a terrible time with jerseys, bikes, helmets, trunks, everything. Since then, it's often been taken to extremes. Everything has to be as aerodynamic as possible, materials have to be as flexible as possible. But the biggest change was in the clothing for bad weather. There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. My dad used to race in the 80s and he said that back then when he got wet in a cotton jersey and then had to ride in 8 degrees Celsius for the next six hours, he was frozen to the bone. It's very different today.
What's special about your jerseys for Van der Poel?
As soon as a major new thing comes out today, the competition tries to include it within six months as well, so technically we'd be hard pressed to find anything significantly different. The most challenging thing for us in making his jerseys is to make sure the designs are correct, given that he rides almost all disciplines. We must have accurate charts when he rides the Dutch championships, the European championships and the world championships, all in cyclocross, on mountain bikes and road bikes. And we also have to manufacture it up front with the expectation that he will win. We have to take into account the possibility that he will win the world championship and in two days he’ll ride another race where he’ll have to have the triumph marked on his overalls. And in two days, of course, we wouldn't be able to produce it and deliver. So everything is made in advance, and if by chance he doesn't win, the clothes are disposed of. This way the biggest specificity is the number of designs.
How many people are looking after it?
A lot. I have a sort of mini team with a graphic designer and shipping, and we keep an eye on the details. We try to treat everyone the same in the company, but with Van der Poel in particular we're doubly careful to make sure everything goes out right. After all, he's now going to be wearing our jersey in the Tour de France, which is watched by two billion people. Of course, mistakes can happen, we are only human, so I try to check everything with my team as much as possible before sending it out so that we can detect any possible mistake in time.
Speaking of the Tour de France, it's a race you miss in your career. When you had the opportunity to ride it, you turned it down due to fatigue from previous races in favour of team success. The next chance never came. How sorry are you that you didn't take part in the Tour de France?
Personally, I'm not bothered. I was a pro for eight years and rode the other two main races - the Giro and the Vuelta. In 2009 I did the Critérium du Dauphiné, which is a dress rehearsal for the Tour de France. And I was fourth and seventh in the time trial, so I should have done the Tour then, but I was so tired that I said I just couldn't do it. I was still young then, so I thought there was still a chance to go later. Though there wasn’t. But I'm not sorry. I've experienced a hill littered with fans at the Giro and it wouldn't be any different on Tour, just all painted yellow. When you're riding Tourmalet or Mortirolo, it actually comes out quite the same. I'm happy with my career. I've fallen in love with the Giro. But I understand that a lot of people take it as some kind of benchmark if someone has done the Tour de France or not. However, I did everything I wanted to do. Of course, I had my unfulfilled dreams.
So, can we say that the main criterion for success is to get into a professional team at all?
At the time I started among the pros, it certainly was, because it was extremely difficult back then. We in the Czech team raced only in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. And the teams from Western Europe didn't follow it much. It was winning the European U23 Championship that helped me. Nowadays, everyone can upload their training times to servers, where the coaches of the individual teams track it and then choose their riders accordingly. For example, Czech Lubomir Petrus was invited to Alpecin for a test after he had two great training sessions. These days, in the age of social media, it sometimes goes to the point where a guy will write to a team and say he could ride for them based on his training times. And they tell him, well, come to camp and we'll take a look at you. Different times.
This year, the Czech Republic will host L'Etape Czech Republic, a race with a Tour de France mood, where amateurs can try out the role of a professional cyclist for at least one race. Kalas is one of the partners, supplying jerseys to the riders. As a former professional cyclist, how do you feel about this event?
It's really cool. And I'm not saying that because we sponsor it. We have so many sponsorships already that we are now choosing carefully indeed - also based on the legacy of Mr. Kalas, who always supported Czech cycling. But when this event came up, I knew right away that I wanted to be there. I know this project from abroad and I know how difficult it is in the Czech Republic to close roads for races. That's why off-road mountain bike races are very popular here, because there's not so much traffic and it's safer. We're one of the top in mountain bike racing, but there aren't many road races. And L'Etape has such a name that it's going to make the closure easier, so it's going to be a great event. Plus, there are a lot of Tour de France fans here. I commentate for Czech TV, and when I see the viewing figures, it's incredible how many Czechs are interested in it. That's why L'Etape is a perfect project for Czech cycling fans. And I'm very happy that something like this will take place here.
Aren't you tempted to ride L'Etape as a racer?
I know for a fact that I won't do it. I've had a personal problem for the last five years that when I attend an event like this to support it, the fans often test me. I show up with no performance and just want to do it for fun. But then everyone is there cheering me on and wanting to race with me. Though I've already raced and simply want to enjoy the ride. So, I'll come and watch, but won't race anymore.
So you see safety for the riders as the main advantage of this race?
Yes. Amateurs are not quite able to ride in a normal road race. You must have a license from the cycling federation and be in a club. And I understand that normally it's difficult to close roads for the race. The organiser makes up a circuit of 120 kilometres which goes through 50 villages and needs a certificate from each one. So I'm not surprised that the organisers don't want to go for it and prefer to plan a mountain bike route through a forest. This will work though and I believe the race will get a tremendous response. I hear there are already over two thousand entries.
Speaking of safety, there's currently a change in the law being worked out that would require car drivers to pass cyclists with a metre and a half gap. How important do you think this law is?
I've never been hit by while cycling, but just yesterday (Sunday, June 13) I went for my third bike ride this season and I didn't get that. There's a car coming the other way, a car behind me starts passing me and almost hits me with its mirror. People don't seem to realize that if it had caught my elbow with the mirror, it could have run me under the car and end tragically. All he had to do was wait ten seconds. I got quite angry there and immediately remembered this issue and I welcome this suggestion. Of course, I know there are jerks in the cyclist ranks too, running red lights, jumping curbs, but driver in a car is protected, whereas hitting a cyclist can end tragically. That's why, for example, I don't understand the guys who put on headphones while cycling and can't hear a car coming towards them.
When you said you visualised what it would be like to win the Giro as a rider, do you have a dream that you visualise now as Kalas' marketing manager?
Definitely. Two years ago, we were preparing for Van der Poel, cyclocross champion, to win the world championship on the road as well. But that didn't work out because he didn't eat properly and with ten kilometres to go it was like unplugging him. Now there's a chance for something similar - if he wins Paris-Roubaix as world champion in our jersey, I'll hang that photo around here somewhere. He's now won two stages around Switzerland by class difference. Plus, the first two stages of the Tour de France should suit him, so now we're wondering if he'll get the yellow jersey. But I'm truly living the dream. We've now signed a new four-year contract with the British team where we'll be together for eight years. Add to that Van der Poel, who is becoming a living legend. It would be great to team up with him for the rest of his career and make history together. And now the main challenge for me is to match the global brands and show that a Czech company can do the same.
How realistic is the dream that one day a Czech cyclist in a Czech Kalas jersey will be as successful as, say, Van der Poel?
Slovakian Peter Sagan has succeeded. It all just has to come together, but why not. Zdeněk Štybar or Roman Kreuziger were on their way. There's a knock on the door and it's up to the youngsters to break it down. Then it's up to us to sponsor that particular team. Sometimes general managers ask us if we have a tip for a Czech racer. Petr Vakoč is currently in the Alpecin stable, but he is there because he is a great cyclist. Let's see, maybe he will manage to get among the elite.