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All-weather jerseys

Stu Bowers
20 Apr 2016

No brand’s line-up is complete without a Gabba-esque all-weather jersey. We examine the thinking behind this must-have item of kit.

After our buyer's guide to weather beating jerseys, we take a closer look at the driving forces behind these new, and in some ways indispensable, items in the cyclists's wardrobe.

In March 2013, conditions for the 104th Milan-San Remo, the longest single-day race on the UCI calendar, were atrocious. As if its arduous 298km route was not a sufficient test, Mother Nature decided to pummel the riders with howling winds, sleet and even snow along the way. 

The brutality of the weather caused the race to be cut to a mere 246km, yet it was still a decimated peloton that finally made it to the famous seafront finale. It was an event those riders will never forget. For clothing brand Castelli, and the cycling clothing industry as a whole, it would be a landmark day for a different reason. 

What soon became apparent, as TV cameras began to beam live pictures around the world, was aside from those riders from teams Castelli actually sponsored, many others were using the same black jersey, with its logos covered or inked out (something that later spawned an idea for Castelli to, rather cheekily, market a ‘Pro’ version of the jersey that came with a black marker pen). The attempted concealment of what we now commonly know as the Gabba jersey didn’t go unnoticed by the cycling’s governing body either, and the UCI dished out fines aplenty for the infringements of its rules over wearing ‘non-sponsor’ kit. That only gave the Gabba story even more impact. What could possibly be so good that pros were prepared to buy them and stump up for a UCI fine for wearing them? Castelli had undoubtedly hit on something.

Turning point

This wasn’t the first time the Gabba jersey had been used in the pro peleton. It can be seen on the shoulders of Cervélo Test Team riders as far back as the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2010, but the media storm surrounding the 2013 Milan-San Remo was the big turning point, causing a noticeable shift in attitude towards what constituted wet weather gear, at least as far as racers were concerned. 

‘Like so much of what we do, the Gabba came about from simply chatting with the team [then Cervélo Test Team],’ says Castelli brand manager Steve Smith. ‘We talked about ways we could better serve the riders’ needs for racing in bad weather. Then we pulled apart the old-style waterproof bags that riders were using, and said wouldn’t it be better if it didn’t flap around? And it would do a much better job of insulating the rider if it was close fitting too. So the process began. 

‘What’s really cool, looking back, is we went to our designers and said, “Hey, we want to do this short-sleeve rain jersey thing,” but then we told them not to spend too long working on it. We told them it was just for the pros and we’d never sell any of them, so don’t waste too much time. That was what we were originally thinking. We really had low expectations, so the way the pros reacted really shocked us.’ 

Castelli’s low expectations for consumer demand proved correct, at least at first. The company sold just 278 Gabba jerseys in its first season, but then the summer after Milan-San Remo 2013, sales rocketed to 1,126. ‘The year after that San Remo was the first year we took pre-season orders for the Gabba and we sold well over 4,000. Now the Gabba collection [including the long-sleeved version] accounts for over 40,000 sales,’ Smith says. 

Changing perceptions

These figures reveal more than just the success of a single product. The Gabba undoubtedly lit the touchpaper for an explosion of new products, and with that created an entirely new sector in the market – rain jerseys. 

What was different from what went before was a new attitude to the protection a rider actually needs to maintain warmth and comfort in bad weather. Until this point wet weather riding gear was designed to keep you dry, with breathability merely a consequence of the level of technological advancement of the materials used. However, unlike in the outdoor industry where keeping out every single drop of water is sometimes a matter of life and death, rarely, if ever, is this going to be the case in a bicycle race. Instead, retaining the aerodynamically proven properties of a slick-fitting short-sleeved jersey, with insulation properties working more like a wetsuit than a hardshell waterproof, seemed to be a better tack. 

‘It was the first recognition from the industry and also the consumer that we don’t need to think about wet-weather riding gear as fully waterproof anymore,’ says Smith. ‘The Gabba is more “functional water protection”. This is why the Gabba has opened up another whole new class of products, because while fully waterproof stuff still has its place, there is a whole range of weather conditions and temperatures where waterproof just doesn’t work well.’ 

Endura brand manager Ian Young agrees. ‘I think what the Gabba did was not only change the perceptions of the riders in the pro peloton but also hinted this could work as a commercial product. Serious roadies have come to realise over the last few years that you don’t have to be 100% dry to be comfortable, even for a long day in the saddle.’ 

Young is candid about where the inspiration for Endura’s Classics Jersey came from, but that’s not to say it’s simply a copycat product. Endura, just like Castelli, looks after the clothing needs of a top pro team – Movistar – so has its own pool of professional bike riders to direct it in researching and developing new products. 

‘Fit was so important for the pro riders because they wanted to get away from the flappy jacket scenario. That formed a big part of this product development, to create a [water-resistant] membrane with enough stretch to allow the garment to fit just like a race jersey.’

Head of design over at Rapha, Alex Valdman, recalls how Team Sky too came to him with a seemingly impossible request: ‘The riders wanted something waterproof but completely breathable, but this is not possible. If you put a GoreTex jacket over your head you will suffocate. It’s waterproof but not truly breathable. So for the Shadow jersey the task became more about how we could manage the rider’s body temperature, not simply keeping water off. The ePTFE [Expanded Polytetrafluoroethylene] membrane technology is 25 years old now, so we invested really heavily into researching new fabrics that could deliver wind and water resistance with no membrane. This enabled us to develop lighter and stretchier garments for the Shadow kit to provide a much wider comfort range.’

To shell or not to shell

The upshot of this for consumers is there is now a glut of new products burgeoning this new sector of the market, but we’re not going to get into the technical specifics of each individual garment here. The issue is whether we should all be re-evaluating how we dress for a wet ride
and does this spell the end for the waterproof hardshell outer-layers as we used to know them? 

‘We do still sell a massive number of race capes,’ says Endura’s Young. ‘There are still a lot of riders out there who prefer to be able to take a layer off and stuff it in a pocket, particularly if they are experiencing bigger temperature variations or massive downpours, like up here in Scotland [where Endura is based], so there is definitely still a place for hardshells. The Gabba has definitely opened people’s minds, though, and given us another option to think about. And let’s be honest, we know how people love to buy kit.’ 

Young also makes another pertinent point: ‘For the uneducated, though, it’s been a confusing message to get across, as this style of garment, ours included, cannot be sold as “waterproof” because we’re not taping all the seams and so on.’ 

It’s a similar tale over at Castelli, as Smith tells us, ‘To begin with we were stuck in this conundrum that if we were going to call something a “rain piece” then it has to be completely waterproof because that’s what the consumers are predisposed to expect. But we wanted the Gabba to open up their thinking a little, because by not taping seams and using lighter weight fabrics we could really achieve a fit that would ultimately create smaller airspaces around the body which would make it a considerably better insulator than a jacket. 

‘On a four-hour ride you might get a wide variety of conditions and that’s what the Gabba aims to do – to be a new era of semi-protective everyday wear,’ he adds. ‘I actually use my Gabba just as much in the dry as I do in the rain.’ 

Versatility seems to be the strong suit for this type of outer wear, as Young is again in agreement with Smith, saying, ‘Certainly the breathability and versatility of this type of garment means it has a lot to offer, and not just in the rain. Riders wear it a lot in the dry too. And
there is still potential to further develop this concept – if tape gets stretchier, then together with new fabric technologies it could bring us even closer to the best-of-both-worlds scenario.’ 

Rapha’s Valdman has his own viewpoint on the do-it-all garment, though: ‘When I think of outerwear, waterproof is just a tiny part of it. OK, I admit, I’m from California, where it only rains five days a year, but actually most people can ride most of their time in dry conditions. Consumers, for the most part, are often searching to try and buy that one product that will work in all conditions. That’s the Swiss Army effect. But for me clothing is best when it has a specialty for a certain situation in mind. 

‘Personally, I still think hardshells make a lot of sense if they can be light and packable enough not to take up all the space in my jersey pocket, but when you are riding at a tempo that will help keep your body temperature up, then for me this is when it’s about just water resistance. I would much rather get a bit of water coming through than wear something like a race cape or a shell that will just cause you to sweat loads and ultimately then be soaking wet anyway. There’s a reason why there are no pockets on a rain shell. It’s because people don’t tend to want to be riding in them all day. The Shadow jersey is a kind of hybrid of a jacket and jersey, with the ability to ride it all day. That’s the beauty of this kind of garment. It will keep you dry for a 20 minute dump of rain, but with no membrane, so its truly breathable.’

Looky-likey

The Gabba unquestionably laid the foundations for this new clothing sector, so does Castelli feel in any way aggrieved that all of its rivals now offer similar products? 

‘Initially people were literally copying us stitch for stitch, and at first we were like, come on…’ says Smith. ‘So we went back to see if we could make ours better still, and see maybe what else we could do with it. We really struggled to find ways in which to substantially improve on it, so I guess then it was easier to feel flattered.’ 

And finally, the million dollar question: who makes the best copy? Smith’s answer is somewhat non-committal: ‘You’d be surprised how little time we spend looking at what other companies do. So, I have a vague idea about other people’s versions of the Gabba, but I haven’t really ridden in any of them. I’m always out riding in our stuff.’ 

If you’re still not convinced about adding a water-resistant jersey to your cycling wardrobe, then perhaps the final word should go to the Velominati and Rule #9: ‘If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.’ And let’s face it, no one ever looks good in a flappy jacket.

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