Clothes. Cyclists have been wearing them for years. But as Peter Maniaty recently discovered, the history of our riding garb is more curious than you may have imagined. As is the future.
Few would argue it’s inadvisable to ride naked. Skin suit, yes. Birthday suit, no. Unless you happen to be an attention-seeking protestor with a very thick skin, literally and figuratively. For apart from being decidedly uncomfortable on the nether regions and outer extremities, riding sans kit can slow you down faster than a roadside guard-rail, as flailing, drag-inducing body parts ruin any aerodynamic advantage you may have otherwise enjoyed. Which brings us swiftly to the evolution of riding kit. And what a fascinating evolution it’s been.
Like many a weekend criterium, things started off pretty slowly on the clothing front. In the early days, around the second half of the 19th century, it’s fair to say riding attire was essentially no different to everyday attire. A quick image search reveals page upon page of suited, moustachioed and suited gentlemen proudly astride their penny farthings and just as many ladies on their step-throughs immaculately dressed in, well, dresses; and ankle length ones at that. A bit like wearing jeans on your road bike, civvies may have allowed for immediate assimilation back into society at the end of a leisurely jaunt. But it was hardly practical or conducive to high performance pedalling.
Of course, the explosion in popularity of bicycling towards the end of the 19th century brought about an equal explosion in bicycle racing. And as the stakes grew, so did the need for an edge. This came in many forms: safer and faster bike designs; pneumatic tyres (invented by John Dunlop in 1888, quickly replacing the iron-banded wheels typically used on aptly-named ‘bone-shakers’); smarter nutrition; and, yes, often blatant cheating either through questionable stimulants or simply hitching a ride for a few miles on the local train or coach. It also included fashion. And, at that time, cycling fashion was really all about one thing: sheep.
Whilst far from perfect, knitted wool did offer some benefits when compared to rolling out in a three-piece suit or Sunday dress – it certainly wicked moisture away from a rider’s skin better than cotton, for example. That said, wool did tend to lose its shape when it became wet from the elements or sweat and it could also shrink in the wash.
Despite such limitations there wasn’t a whole lot of alternative to wool until the 1940s when the Italians – and in particular a tailor by the name Armando Castelli whose son, Maurizio, would go on to create the Castelli clothing brand in 1974 before dying, rather poetically, in 1995 of a heart attack whilst climbing the Cipressa of Milan-San Remo fame – began experimenting with silk skin suits for none other than Il Campionissimo himself, Fausto Coppi. Around the same time two British chemists, John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, also patented the first form of PET, or polyester, which would have an unprecedented influence on global fashion for decades to come, including cycling.
Whilst nowadays wool’s time in the cycling sun has largely passed – although Sportwool may have something to say about this (see right for details) – the golden fleece still has many loyal exponents. L’Eroica, for example, sees the Chianti region of Italy overflowing with wool-wearing rouleurs each October. Some are even under the age of seventy.
Of course spandex, better known as Lycra on these shores, has emerged to well and truly replace wool as the most ubiquitous substance in our sport, perhaps rivalled only by carbon fibre. But for all of wool’s history and Lycra’s body-hugging perks, there are other materials and innovations which have had a profound effect on the things we wear, and resultantly how we feel, when we ride.
Still in plentiful use today albeit in a reduced capacity to years gone by, leather’s role in cycling fashion has changed considerably in the last century. Initially helmets, gloves and shoes were made pretty much exclusively from animal hide. As, of course, were the earliest chamois patches sewn inside bike shorts for the riding ‘comfort’ of our ancestors. Today, it’s really just shoes and gloves. Well, bits of them anyway. Maybe your saddle and bar tape are made from leather too, especially if you’re a little old school. But these aren’t clothes, of course.
Outsiders may laugh at the bulges residing in the seat of our pants. But for those who typically ride further than a round trip to the shops, the person who invented the saddle chamois surely deserves a knighthood on humanitarian grounds. Millions of bony backsides say ‘thank you.’ Originally fashioned from leather, chamois inserts are now 100% synthetic and positively space age in their construction, coming in a mind-boggling array of sizes and shapes to suit pretty much any rider in any conditions. They also tend to have truly superb names; none more so than the ‘Kuku Penthouse’, part of the S7 range of shorts from Swiss company Assos. It may sound funny, but at up to $500 a pair, it’s serious stuff indeed.
First there was nothing to protect your eyes from the elements or road debris, except perhaps your hands and the brim of your hat. Then along came goggles. Then sunglasses. Then sports-specific sunglasses. Then sports-specific sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. And finally, sports-specific sunglasses with photochromic lenses that adjust to the light conditions you’re riding in without you having to do anything. Originally patented by the Corning Glass Works back in 1969, photochromic technology took some years to make it into the mainstream. Most of the top sports eyewear companies now offer a photochromic option with their frames, albeit at a hefty price premium.
Heads Up Display
With more than a hint of science fiction – and, yes, some safety concerns – wearable optical technologies have been gaining more and more attention in recent times, as evidenced by the arrival of several Heads Up Display (HUD) innovations in 2013 including ‘Recon Jet’ – a unit developed by the US-based Recon Instruments which integrates wirelessly with third party devices, allowing ride data and other information to be viewed through the wearer’s sunglasses as they ride.
Tech-giant Google is also looming as a major player in the HUD space on the back of its Google Glass technology; recognised by Time Magazine as one of the “Best Inventions of the Year 2012”. Intriguingly for cyclists, the San Francisco-based Strava became publically linked to the Google Glass project when it released its own ‘Glassware’ app for Android devices in November 2013; a system that utilises both video and audio technology.
“For any starred segment, Strava Glass will give you audio and visual information when you start, are half way, near the end and complete,” explains project leader for Strava, Mateo Ortega. So how do riders react when they use it for the first time? “Big smiles, especially when the audio kicks in,” says Ortega. “Having the world audibly painted for you in real-time without having to do anything is a magical experience. Typically a list of a million feature requests and possibilities ensues.”
Given it’s Ortega’s job to think about such possibilities, what might the future hold? “Wearables are opening all sorts of doors for athletes. Glass really showed us that this is just beginning. I imagine in 50 years’ time, technology will be embedded in the human form and take bio inputs.”
Not so long ago, helmets weighed a whole lot more – and protected you a whole lot less. Pre-1970s the most common form of helmet on road and track was the leather ‘hairnet’ style, somewhat reminiscent of having a bunch of overcooked sausages on your head. Whilst offering some protection from minor bumps and scrapes, they were hot, heavy and provided hardly any genuine impact absorption should you take a nasty tumble. Not surprisingly, plenty of riders didn’t bother wearing them at all, opting for the non-existent protection of a riding cap.
Things began to change in the 1970s, however, when new foam construction techniques began to liberate cyclists’ heads everywhere. The first helmets remotely resembling those worn by riders today were essentially a by-product from the development of motorbike helmets, boasting polystyrene foam liners and hard polycarbonate shells.
Eric Richter Senior Brand Manager for Giro Cycling in Santa Cruz, California says arguably the biggest game changer was the 1985 arrival of the original Prolight helmet, which slashed the weight of helmets by around half. “It reduced cycling helmets to the bare essential elements, and in doing so revealed something so pure in function and design that its success defined Giro as a helmet brand for nearly two decades.”
Lighter, stronger and able to be more easily molded than ever before, the technology opened the way for all manner of revolutionary shapes and designs – a trend that continues to this day with, amongst other innovations, the arrival into the mainstream of aero road helmets during the last 12 months, led by the aesthetically polarising Giro Air Attack.
Clipless pedals and carbon soles
Today’s cleat-based cycling shoes are positively space age compared to the footwear of yesteryear. The earliest bespoke cycling shoes were typically of the lace-up variety and hand-made from leather with stiff wooden insoles. They were also designed to accommodate a toe clip. This system, involving a small metal cage which secured the rider’s foot to the pedal for greater power and stability, was in widespread use for the majority of the 20th century.
Whilst the first clipless pedals were reportedly invented as far back as 1895, making them older than the Tour de France, it wasn’t until nearly 90 years later that French company LOOK produced the first widely-used clipless pedal system in 1984; borrowing similar technology to that used in their popular snow ski bindings. It’s fair to say Bernard Hinault’s win for La Vie Claire whilst using the LOOK system at the 1985 Tour de France catapulted clipless pedals into the mainstream and ever since toe clips have been slowly but surely confined to the history books, certainly in racing circles.
Weather resistant membranes
Some of the more iconic sepia-tinged images from years gone by are those of Tour riders hastily thrusting newspapers down their jerseys at the top of mid-stage climbs in preparation for the chilly and winding descent to come. While reasonably effective at stopping wind (no doubt dependent upon on the girth of that day’s paper) news print wasn’t especially practical or comfortable; and it certainly provided minimal protection from heavy precipitation with a tendency to become more akin to a chest-hugging paper mâché as sweaty riders wound their way to the valley floors below.
The quest to strike the perfect balance of form and function continues to this day in a multi-million dollar sports apparel arms race where new fabrics and cuts are often tested just as rigorously in wind tunnels as the latest frames and wheelsets. Proprietary names and processes abound like Windstopper, Windtex, Thermoflex, TwinDeck Foiling, AirBlock and ThermoCool. Not to mention a clever polymer known as ‘expanded polytetrafluoroethylene’. Try spelling that after a few Belgian ales.
Of course, whatever you’re wearing and however much it cost you, chances are you’re still going to be cold, wet and wind-swept if you find yourself caught in an alpine blizzard or tropical storm. In such conditions, a cup of cement should do the trick nicely.
We can’t finish this journey without a dip of the lid to Lycra, also known as spandex or elastane dependant largely on where you happen to live. Invented in the late 1950s by chemists at DuPont in Virginia, USA this remarkable synthetic fibre revolutionised life for cyclists, just as it did for many other sports such as athletics, skiing, swimming and rowing.
“Lycra really changed everything when it arrived,” recalls Giramondo Sportswear’s Connie Bof, who still spends most weeks surrounded by the stretchy stuff. “The way things were fitted and sewn; it made the clothes a lot more complex with a lot more panels, for example. But it also made them so much better for the rider.”
Lightweight, aerodynamic, comfortable, flexible, easily adorned with the sponsor’s colours, and able to be blended with other textiles such as cotton and polyester, few road or track cyclists wouldn’t own at least a couple of items fashioned from Lycra. Skin suits and compression gear, in particular, simply wouldn’t be the same without it. About the only thing Lycra doesn’t offer – yet – is the remotest hint of protection should you and your bicycle ever part ways. On contact with bitumen it tends to shred faster than Mark Cavendish on an HC climb, leaving the fallen rider with a nasty and largely inevitable case of road rash.
Yes, yes, I know. There are myriad other materials cyclists wear when out riding each year. Cable ties in magpie season, for example. This is not an exhaustive list. But it’s fair to say the innovations featured here – save perhaps for the magnetic pedals – have had the largest widespread impact, certainly in the context of contemporary cycling. Who knows what riders will be wearing in 100 years from now? Kevlar-infused Lycra? Socks with inbuilt power meters? Paper thin helmets? Genetically modified silk? Or how about single-use silicon suits that peel off after you’re done, or even wash off after 12 hours like fake tan? Based on the last 100 you’d have to think anything is possible. As Giro’s Eric Richter says, “We’re at a point where interest and inspiration is coming from every direction; the diversity of ideas is very exciting.” Indeed it is, Eric. Indeed it is.
Sportwool: an Australian innovation
Did you know wool has actually been attempting something of a sporting comeback during the last decade thanks in no small part to Australia? In the late 20th Century the CSIRO embarked on a unique project funded by The Woolmark Company (today known as Australian Wool Innovation). It saw CSIRO scientists challenged to create an active sportswear fabric that united the best characteristics of natural and man-made fibres. The result was Sportwool – a lightweight, composite fabric with a fine inner layer of merino wool and an outer layer of hard-wearing polyester. Used by Australia’s 2004 Olympians in Athens and in other sports including cricket and the AFL, Sportwool is highly elastic, provides UV protection and no matter how much you sweat won’t retain odours. Cycling apparel companies such as Rapha and Columba currently offer Sportwool ranges. The CSIRO has also adapted the technology to a 100 per cent cotton fabric.