For cyclists, Halfords’ new ‘lab’ stores are certainly interesting, but as ever, the indy pack continues to race ahead.

On Thursday, Halfords will reveal what trade’s been like in the first quarter of this year and if the analysts are correct, the picture may not be pretty. Halfords, like many others, will have been affected by the almost unprecedented rainfall that we’ve all had to put up with over the past few months and there’s no end in sight.

It has however unveiled three pilot stores which aim to change perceptions and which are also intended to square the online, offline circle (a review of the new stores can be found here). And if you look at the cycling department in each of these “lab” stores, one thing is likely to spring to mind: the biggest player in the cycling market has seen what the better indies and smaller chains such as Evans are doing and has learned.

It’s a truism that independent retailers tend to be rather lighter on their feet than the larger operators when it comes to responding to a local market in-store, but full credit to Halfords for taking the leap it has. The best indies however somehow always manage to be a couple of moves ahead.

Step forward Rapha, the very upmarket cyclewear and accessories brand that was established in 2004 and which now operates a web-based operation that is a must-visit if design and cycling are your bag. Now, following two years in which it has opened pop-up stores in locations from San Francisco to Osaka, the UK’s first Rapha permanent store opens at the end of this week near Piccadilly. Among other things, it will offer visitors a decent espresso, the chance to watch the live action from the Tour de France and a changing room that has been fashioned by cutting the floor out of a vintage Citroën delivery van - and all within a 1400 sq ft space.

Rapha founder Simon Mottram says that it’s about being in touch with the (road bike) cycling community. All in all therefore, this looks to be one of the smaller, but more exciting store openings that will take place this year and up to 15 more stores are planned around the world. Which means perhaps that with its connections to some of cycle racing’s bigger names, it should do well. Meanwhile, the new look Halfords stores are certainly better, but as Rapha shows, the best indies tend to stay ahead of the peleton.