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Published in Wonderland Magazine, 2007

Maximum jersey: the enduring cool of cycling apparel

You'd have to be an unbendingly Bond Street or seriously tweedy kind of person if sportswear doesn’t form a component of your wardrobe. In the past 20 years sports apparel of all kinds has made the transition from the field of dreams to the kickabout of the everyday. If you like your weekends relaxed, it's safe bet you’ll be cuddling the Sundays in some combination of Nike, Adidas, Converse, Umbro, Reebok and Polo. When we shop, socialise and play, dressing is done in subconscious homage to heroes of the sporting life: rugby or basketball players, footballers, surfers, sailor or runners.

Cycling clothes are a notable exception to that, and a strange one given that we’re cycling more than ever today. In London 700,000 cycle journeys are made every day, and sales of road, hybrid and touring bikes are surging. This summer the sport’s popularity is certain to grow when ultimate road cycling [1] event - the Tour De France – makes its debut around the Westminster streets before sprinting off to Canterbury in a blur of speed, colour and lycra.

Wearing cycle clothes requires a brave psychological leap, however. Designers have attempted to integrate the sport’s timeless, speedy cool of into the vernacular of street style before. Anyone who recalls Trevor Ward presenting an OB in a pair or Look shorts for Network7 in the late Eighties will know that roadwear’s last fashion moment was something of an on-yer-bike affair.

Wearing cycle clothes – even when you're cycling – isn't much easier. Strips worn by teams at the top of the road-racing world the tend to be garish-going-on-radioactive. Colour schemes are the opposite of muted – bright pinks, canary yellows, brilliant whites, verdant greens and every other Pantone shade feature on the back of riders in the <peloton>[2]. Meanwhile, the sleek, aerodynamic, clingy silhouette is unflattering if you don't possess the physique of a underfed whippet.

Equally, most current pro cycle strips are emblazoned with marques that are unlikely to figure on the Superbrands Top 100 Cool Brands index any time soon. You may never even have heard of pro team sponsors like Fassa Bartolo, Quickstep and Phonak – few of us, after all, have recourse to the services of an Italian cement company, a flooring supplier from Belgium or a Swiss hearing aid manufacturer respectively. And as for cycling shorts themselves, even in these expressively metrosexual times, it take a determined person to pack their insecurities into above-the-knee knee lycra and brave the catcalls of the white van men in the commuter gridlock. Yes, the colour, fit and the shape, as well as the Eurocenteric associations of cycling clothes can make you look ‘gay’. They are in many ways an offence to the British sense of sartorial reserve. They are, in short, an acquired taste.

But once the taste is acquired, a cosmos of eccentricity, romance and beauty opens up, because cycling is fusion of the athletic and the aesthetic forged through a tradition of pain, heroism, endurance and conflict. At its highest level cycling is arguably the world’s toughest sport, and the contradiction between superhuman physical achievement and skimpy clothes in pretty colours is just one of the oddities that cycling fans enjoy.

Cycling strips look the ways they do for some very good reasons. Form follows function: jerseys are cut long on the spine because riders spend a long time in the ‘drop’ position. Most feature three pockets on the back to carry food and water bottles, and a zip at the neck allowing riders to regulate temperature between sweaty climbs and chilly downhill plummets. Shorts, meanwhile, features a chamois pad to protect riders – a strictly ‘commando’ crowd – from chafing and soreness, and are fitted close to reduce drag, support the quadriceps and, one speculates, to improve the view of the rider’s bulging tibialis anterior[3]and shaved lower legs.

Against the density of sponsorship branding and the explosion-in-a-paint-factory palette of modern pro team strips, those from cycling’s classic monochrome era of the Fifties and Sixties shirts look iconic, minimalist and as cool as the summit of Mont Ventoux. Jerseys were originally produced in wool, silk or acrylics, and sponsors’ logos - usually only one per shirt - were embroidered on or were appliquéd felt designs. ‘Back then shirts were far more restrained and less garish,’ Kadir Guirey, a devoted collector of cycling ephemera. ‘The guys look really cool in the old films – the graphics are very clean and don’t so much look like advertising hoardings.’

Retro jerseys are going through something of a vogue today. The Poole-based e-tailor Prendas Ciclismo has reissued several in lycra: seven-times Tour champion Eddy Merckx’s orange & black Molteni Arcore shirt (the name of a reputed Italian sausagemaker) and the Peugeot team’s black & white chequerboard shirt. US retailer Vintage Velos are doing a brisk trade in nostalgic jerseys reproduced the merino manufactured by the Swiss company Woolistic. The geometric designs, bold branding and deep wool hues make them attractive even if you’ve never drunk Cinzano or ever heard of the espresso machine manufacturer Faema, two of their leading lines. Similarly, there’s a booming eBay market for original team jerseys - <maglia storica> [4] - among the antiquarian collectors looking to complement their original Fausto Coppi [5] Bianchi machine with the correct strip. Expect to pay tens of thousands for an original Merckx yellow leader’s jersey – if you can find one.

‘It makes sense that they are collectable,’ says Jethro Marshall, a sports apparel expert. ‘In the Sixties and Seventies the Italians and French were making the most interesting apparel in world for men. There was enthusiasm for the sport and the garments were created more out of love than most. Plus they don't feel like one huge corporate advert - more like someone’s favourite derailleur manufacturer.’

While Nike, Adidas and the Italian componentry manufacturer Campagnolo have recently marketed distinctly retro-inspired roadwear, iconic cycling simplicity of this kind never quite made it into the synthetic modern era, just as it didn’t in motor racing or football. While the basic silhouette and function of the cyclist’s strip has remained the same, during the Eighties lycra replaced wool as the material of choice for major apparel manufacturers like Santini, Nalini, Endura and Vermarc. Then, the invention of sublimation printing permitted PC-based jersey designers to go nuts at their workstation and reinvent roadwear into the technicolour riot that snakes through mountains of Europe every summer.

‘Sublimation printing allowed people to design whatever they wanted want straight off a PC,’ says Simon Mottram, MD of the British neo-classicist roadwear brand Rapha. ‘In the Eighties, design went was berserk. You could fit on thousands of logos and there was a terrible rash of awful jerseys. People are looking back looking back to the period before that - aesthetically it was much simpler.’ Mottram argues that the Mapei team’s Eighties strip – a kind of tumbling cubist fantasia - embodies the worst of the visual diahorrea. Perhaps that’s why the strip was recently reissued and has become a collector’s favourite.

All of this, meanwhile, was achieved without much consideration of the riders themselves. Cycling has always been a highly commercial sport, and the riders remain hostages to marketing as well as being the fabled ‘convicts of the road’, an epithet coined by the journalist Albert Londres, in 1924, who compared competitors to men he’d observed toiling in penal colonies. The Tour De France itself was launched as tactic to boost a newspaper’s circulation, and the riders have been human billboards since the stage-race sport began. Part of the cycling’s somewhat rarefied appeal is that unlike, say Formula one or the Premiership, sponsors remains local, unglamourous and often peculiar - like the hearing aid manufacturers or cement companies above - rather than the usual global booze, computing or tobacco conglomerates.

Something else has been lost in the sport’s increasingly mediatised and professional new image. ‘These days rider are fitter, they’ve got better drugs and they’re covered with sunglasses and helmets, but it was harder in the past,’ says Simon Mottram. ‘back then you could see the pain in their eyes.’

Mottram’s Rapha aims to connect contemporary cyclist culture with the epic narratives of the black & white past. The brand launched in Selfridges in 2004 with an exhibition entitled Kings Of Pain: huge blow-up photographs of legends like Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx [6], Hugo Koblet and Gino Bartali fighting up severe <hors catégorie> [7] hairpins in the Pyrenees or Alps, drenched in sweat, eyes and veins bulging. Stories of heroism are literally sewn into Rapha’s garments: open the pocket of a jersey and you may find a few words, for example, on Bernard Hinault’s against-the odds 1997 again victory in the Dauphiné Libéré. It is a very knowing and coolly understated kind of cycling geekery.

Rapha aren’t the only brand innovating at the crossroads of technical apparel and street style. Paul Smith Jeans’ ‘531’ collection for s/s 2007 featured shirts with buttoned rear pockets and jeans with red polka-dot lining in homage to the King Of the Mountains [8] jersey. The collection is named after the fabled brand of bicycle tubing produced by Reynolds of Birmingham, and it reflects Sir Paul Smith’s own fascination with the sport - as a teenager he idolised the unbeatable Italian rider Fausto Coppi, but his ambition to become a pro cyclist was shattered by a bad injury.

Poles apart from the moddish cool of Rapha and Paul Smith, another British brand, Foska, markets an equally British but alternative perspective on the sport , retailing road jerseys emblazoned with kitchen-table FMCG brands like Marmite, Fullers ESB, London Pride, Irn Bru and Heinz Beans – a self-parodying joke for the kind of self-conscious <rouleur>[9] who doesn’t aspire to be the next Lance Armstrong. Marmite is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the love-it-or-hate-it brand’s bestselling jersey.

‘Cyclists have choice of Tour De France strips, or relatively plain kit,’ says Foska’s Tony Yerbey. ‘There’s a whole bunch of people who don't take cycling so seriously, but still want to wear a technical garment. With our stuff you're probably not associating yourself with Lance Armstrong. Their irony of having a beer brand on your back is not lost on people.’

Take a spin round Richmond Park in south-west London on any weekend morning, and what you see as the riders fly past can look like an explosion in a paint shop in a park. It is a highly coded environment - only the hopelessly amateur rider would show up in a yellow leader’s jersey – at the same time as being brazenly individualist, because at its heart, cycling is an nonconformist sport.

Unlike the mass tribalism of the football shirt, apparel choice in cycling can express affiliations to pro and amateur teams, leading riders, bicycle brands, nations, defunct sausage manufacturers, beer logos, your favourite rock group, your employer or just about anything else.

Two broad groupings emerge: neophiles and classicists. The former prefer appliance-of-science US and Japanese bike brands like Trek, Specialized and Giant, and while the latter are those who’ve embraced the flamboyance of the sport’s continental origins and invested in romantic, hand-built machines by Bianchi, Pinarello, De Rosa, Look, Orbea or Colnago, some hunted out on eBay and restored to their lean, chrome-finished glory.

Apparel choices break down accordingly. Purists on the former side fly round the park’s 11km road loop in plain black Endura tights and perhaps the Discovery Channel jersey of Lance Armstrong’s former team. The other, superperfectionist tendency will wear outfits that match their machine: those riding a Bianchi will be wear the lime-green and turquoise Liquigas-Bianchi strip; if they’re riding a Colnago, look out for the powder-blue Team Milram strip worn by the Italian sprint hero Alessandro Petacchi. Someone else is wearing the red, white and blue St Raphael strip in honour of Tom Simpson, the British rider who rode himself to death on the summit of Mont Ventoux in 1967. A rider in a good mood will bike past in the stars-and-stripes Brooklyn Chewing Gum shirt, and another rolls past in head-to-toe Rapha.

And while it’s safe to say few of these riders – and this writer in particular - won't feature in the pro rankings, what they wear proves they all know cycling is an aesthetic pleasure as much as it’s an athletic challenge. While the white van man looks on from his gridlock and wonders, the riders pursue the beauty of speed and distance.



1. Road cycling: competitive cycling epitmoised by the Tour De France. Distinct from touring and mountain biking

2. Peloton: the bunch of cyclists who ride together in stage races such as the Tour De France and Giro D’Italia

3. Tibialis anterior: calf muscle

4. Maglia storica: Italian ‘historical jersey’

5. Fausto Coppi: <Il Campionissimio>, the Italian rider who won the Tour De France twice and the Giro D’Italia five times

6. Hors categorie: French terminology for an extremely steep climb

7. Eddy Merckx: fearsome Belgian rider, nicknamed ‘The Cannibal’, regarded as the most successful rider ever.

8. King of the Mountains: prize awarded to the rider who performs best on mountain stages. Honoured by wearing a white jersey with red polka dots. Other jerseys are Yellow (for overall leader) and Green for points won during sprint stages

9. Rouleur: rider

© Kevin Braddock, 2007


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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