There was an uncommon energy in downtown Denain this past Saturday, as this normally quiet working class community was suddenly transformed by the arrival of the team buses before the start of the second edition of Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
Gone was the pre-race uncertainty of the inaugural edition which, although twice postponed due to Covid, was ultimately a resounding success. This year, as the ladies prepared their bikes and rolled to sign-in, there was a quiet sense of confidence, as everyone here understood that a new and long chapter in cycling was only beginning to be written.
And the cycling industry was ready to seize the moment as well, celebrating this legendary cobbled classic with new designs and innovation. Unsurprisingly, the Specialized sponsored SD Worx team attracted its fair share of attention with a distinctive new Roubaix frame known as the Grit and Grace that was both stunning and subtle.
Inspecting the new bikes as they came off the team cars was Kayla Clarot, the creative mind behind the bike. “This is actually my first Roubaix,” Clarot admitted. “But I have been dying to go and am so happy to finally be here!”
But while she may not have seen the race in person before, Clarot was nothing short of ecstatic to take on the mission of creating a special Roubaix bike. She watched dozens of films, interviewed countless people and studied images of the race, searching for the colors and textures that would communicate the spirit of the race itself. “I really studied the event,” she said. “I watched ‘A Sunday in Hell’ (the iconic film of the 1977 race by Danish director Jørgen Leth) like four times over. It is like a work of art and it’s about cycling, and that is something I am trying to do, make something I do feel like is a work of art.”
“For me that color scheme also embodied the idea of the grit of women really fighting for space in cycling in a very patient and impressive way.”
From a visual perspective, the Grit and Grace bike is divided into three parts. The head-tube, top-tube and down-tube begin with a distinctive orange that calls to mind the sun reflecting on the cobbles in the dust. Meanwhile, much of the down-tube and rear triangle is finished in a subdued off-white. And in between, a bold purple band unites the two parts. “The front of the bicycle is like where dust is being kicked up with this mix of pinks and oranges,” Clarot explains. But as we move to the back of the bike, things start to smooth out with the earthier tones. And it is separated by this purple horizon line that joins the two worlds. It is a transition from grit to grace.”
But while Grit and Grace is about this epic Roubaix event, it is also about women’s journey to get here and finally get a chance to compete. “For me that color scheme also embodied the idea of the grit of women really fighting for space in cycling in a very patient and impressive way,” Clarot explained. “It’s like a bicycle race, really. You always have to fight for your place. And that is very much a woman’s experience. So I was looking for a texture that was both controlled and yet chaotic.”
Clarot, who is the senior concept designer at Specialized, has worked on prestigious projects before. She was the creative director for most professional team bikes, not to mention the Sagan Collection. But it is clear that Grit and Grace holds a special place in her heart. “Projects like this allow me to really put myself into it and pull on some levers, to create a project with real impact,” she says. “Specialized has just given me this amazing opportunity to create, be it with the men’s or women’s products, and the storytelling is one of my favorite parts of this position. At Specialized they understand that it is the emotional stories that drive culture forward.”
Interestingly, Clarot does not come from a pure cycling background, her first sport being snowboarding. And her interests extend beyond sports as well, including graphic design, which she has a degree in from San José State. “I was looking for a way to combine my creative interests with my interest in athletics, and so when an internship at Specialized popped up, I applied,” she said. “That was seven years ago, but they have really supported me and allowed me to grow.
Today Clarot continues to combine her interest in art and sport, constantly looking outside of cycling to find inspiration for her own work. “I am really into the Bay Area artist that goes by the name of HUEMAN,” she said. “She does a lot of large-scale murals on buildings. She just has a wonderful use of color and does a lot of work with themes around women, children and diversity in the art scene.”
Seeing the bicycle as her canvas, Clarot is excited by the possibilities that Paris-Roubaix has created. She also sees it as a real catalyst for growth in women’s cycling, but she also sees the development of the Grit and Grace Roubaix as a catalyst for bike design in the years to come.
“Because of the presence of Specialized on the racing scene, we have a big impact on the visual identity of the peloton and I think we can really shake things up,” said Clarot. “I think things have been one way for a while with the way that logos show up and the colors that are used on a bike. But the Specialized creative team has the power to make a mark. It took time. It took time to get the respect and trust from the different men’s teams and different women’s teams. It took time to be accepted, and to have that freedom. But now we have the power to say what we want racing to look like, and that’s super exciting.”