Coffee Chronicles: Third Rail Coffee at Rapha Cycle Club


Antithetical to the New York City coffee shop experience is Third Rail Coffee's pop-up shop in Rapha, a high-end bicycle clothier on the Bowery—erected this summer only, as a calling card for the UK-based company. A very, very fancy calling card. Your chance to see it expires at the end of this month.

On top of the first-rate coffee provided by one of my very favorite NYC cafes, Third Rail (visit their original store near Washington Square Park), the Rapha Third Rail offers a very unusual cafe experience for both coffee lovers, bike snobs, and, really, anyone.

As you roll your bike into the store (naturally) for free indoor bike parking in one of Rapha's many convenient slots, take in your surroundings. To the left, a world-class coffee bar. Dead center, a gigantic communal table covered in French cycling maps. To the right, two plasma TVs showing cycling highlights (now that this year's Tour de France is complete). And is that a Citroën bus back in the distance behind a couple of racks of cycling jerseys? Why, yes—yes, it is.

Order up an espresso—it's only Stumptown brew here at this Third Rail outlet, though their other shop has featured Ecco and Intelligentsia, among others—open up your laptop, and linger awhile. Or if you've forgotten your laptop, fear not any Facebook withdrawl. There are two pristine public iMacs hooked up in the back of the store, just awaiting your gentle keystrokes. While you're at it, don't forget to take advantage of the clean public washroom and hospitable air conditioning. (Where are we, Sweden?)

The folks at Rapha are no fools when it comes to outfitting a beautiful community space: great coffee is key for cyclists, and you can't make them feel comfortable without it. (Traveling to the World Barista Championship earlier this summer, I ran into a barista who worked in the London Rapha store—a worldwide nexus between cycling and coffee that the company clearly understands.)

"There is definitely a longstanding kind of connection between cycling and espresso in particular—it's very espresso-centric. The percentage of cyclists that order an espresso is higher than every other kind of customer," says Humberto Ricardo, Third Rail owner.

I've noticed this for years. I think it has its roots in that cycling is embedded in European culture, and Europeans are much more apt to be into espresso and espresso-based beverages. So I think there's a historical conection there, and it doesn't fill you full of milk before you go out riding. On the flipside, when riders come back from a ride they fill up on calories, and are more likely to get a latte or cappuccino. In general cycling and caffeine go together; it goes with it, like a sub of a subculture.

Though the Third Rail pop-up concept isn't as outlandish as, say, Stumptown Amsterdam, there are a few differences between this shop and their Sullivan Street store. They don't do single origin coffees brewed on Chemex, and have a different kind of espresso machine—but the quality is still Third Rail.

"I wouldn't do it if i had to compromise the quality in any kind of way," says Ricardo, who's also overseen a temporary Third Rail booth at the blooming New Amsterdam Market.

As for the feel inside the Rapha shop, it's still like no place I've ever experienced, a kind of high-end tranquility surrounding my short but exquisite coffee. Nothing about this space, or my drink, seems hastily thrown together or "popped-up".

"I wouldn't get into a situation where i couldn't provide at least one aspect of coffee, whether it be pourover or espresso, to my standard," reiterated Ricardo about the space, which actually seems to have a bigger coffee bar than the permanent Third Rail store. "I would have to have all the equipment that i would need to do it right—that's why there's a whole complete bar there.

"There's nothing really temporary about it, except that it's temporary."

Visit Third Rail Coffee at Rapha Cycle Club while you can at 352 Bowery at Great Jones. Or stop by the cafe after hours on Saturday September 25, for a party and latte art throwdown with prizes from Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and more.