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An ode to the Adidas cycling shoe

In-depth
30 Jan 2020
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Words: Joe Robinson

Three white stripes against a black leather background. Sometimes the white was fluorescent yellow, sometimes the dark black leather was bright red. But the most iconic was three white stripes on black leather.

Just from that brief description, almost everyone will know what I’m talking about, such is the iconic status that Adidas has built in its 71-year history.

This Bavarian giant born in the embers of post-War Germany, created by a man who started by making shoes in a small laundry room, that soon became as recognisable and as desirable as any brand in the world.

It’s an icon that transcends. David Beckham, Franz Beckanbuar, Jonny Wilkinson, Run DMC, all immortalised by those three stripes. And it’s an icon for our sport of cycling too.

It’s Eddy Merckx who comes to mind when we think of Adidas cycling shoes. Those three white stripes ending his perfectly cultivated legs, legs that were responsible for him becoming the greatest cyclist of all time.

But it was not Merckx who introduced Adidas into the peloton. The German brand had actually joined the cycling game not long after its creation, experimenting with racing shoes throughout the 1950s.

And it was actually a rider in a time before the Merckxian days that first gave Adidas a taste of success in the peloton and arguably forged a path to this relationship that would eventually take off.

Rudi Altig won the World Championships in 1966, a German rider with a sense of style. A man who once raced in a fedora. Adidas spotted an opportunity for some targeted marketing to a home audience and got Altig on board as effectively a sponsored rider.

In 1967, wearing his rainbow jersey, Altig raced in Adidas cycling shoes and did so until retirement in 1971. While World Champion, Altig was also riding for a team called Molteni. Here, a relationship blossomed and by 1971, when Merckx joined the team, Adidas had come onboard as clothing manufacturer and, more importantly, brought its shoes along too.

From that season onwards, the Merckx/Adidas bond boomed. He wore Adidas shoes to victory in all three Grand Tours and all five Monuments. He also wore Adidas to break the Hour Record, something that pleased the higher-ups so much that they even commissioned photos of Merckx whizzing around the Mexican velodrome to advertise their product.

The exploits of Merckx and his relationship with Adidas was so symbiotic that he even got the ‘Stan Smith treatment’ with the release of the ‘Eddy Merckx Competition’ shoes in the late 1970s. Emblazoned with his great name, eponymous soles and a golden grinning and butted chin portrait of the rider on the shoe’s tongue.

Die drei streifen knocked about the peloton intermittently after that but with the retirement of Merckx Adidas was soon overtaken by the likes of Time, Sidi and even Diadora as the shoe of choice for the very best.

That was until Der Kaiser Jan Ullrich and the pretty in pink Team Telekom of the 1990s. A German team with German riders, Adidas wanted in. First by producing Adidas cycling kit, utilising new Lycra technologies for its riders and then by producing a new set of shoes for Ullrich.

Retrospectively, it’s a time that Adidas would probably like to forget. A drug-filled era that’s tainted our sport and been largely struck off the record. Ullrich rode to the 1997 Tour de France title in a pair of Adidas Vuelta shoes, reinforced with military-grade Kevlar.

It was such a time to forget that with Telekom’s morphing into Team Highroad in 2007, Adidas retired from making its kit and from providing its shoes.

Adidas continued until 2005 developing cycling shoes but eventually lost interest, focusing its efforts on pastimes such as golf rather than cycling.

These 15 years bereft of Adidas cycling shoes have been long. Sure, it has dipped its toe into cycling’s warm waters, producing kit for Team Sky and Team GB, but it was far from the iconic clobber and kicks of days gone by.

Every few months I find myself trawling eBay, looking for Adidas cycling shoes. A pair of ‘rare’ size 10 Eddy Merckx shoes with ‘little use’ have been knocking about for a while and I often spend time trying to rationalise the £250 asking price only to remember that it would be a completely unjustifiable purchase when trying to save for a house deposit.

It’s obvious I’m never going to actually buy them but I still have a notification set up as to whether anything changes. And to be fair, they’re far too nice to wear regardless of the fact they can fit my three-bolt Shimano cleats.

Ultimately, this bi-monthly hunt around the internet for Adidas cycling shoes is just a cry for help, for Adidas to break its 15-year hiatus and to return to the world of cycling and to bring its shoe expertise and timeless style to the sport we all love. 

As, after all, you cannot help but think that if Adidas returned with a shoe called the 'Eddy Merckx', it would fly off the shelves like hotcakes? So, surely one day, it must happen and cycling will see the return of those three white stripes.