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In praise of the cycling jersey

Trevor Ward
26 Sep 2016

The cycling jersey is as much a work of art as it is performance sportswear.

The pocket has come a long way since its humble beginnings as an external pouch attached to a lady’s dress that, according to the Eighteen Maxims Of Neatness And Order, published in 1812, would contain ‘a purse, a thimble, a pin cushion, a pencil, a knife and a pair of scissors’.

And in those intervening years, it’s fair to say that one garment above all has elevated pockets to an art form: the cycling jersey.

Photographs from the Tour as recently as 1959 show jerseys that had two capacious breast pockets, as well as the now ubiquitous three rear compartments. Clearly, five pockets – with buttoned openings – were considered essential in an era when riders were expected to be completely self-sufficient.

Despite being made from heavy wool, the cycling jerseys of the first half of the 20th century were effectively all-purpose survival suits in which riders carried food, drink, tools, rain capes and other necessities.

Even during the Merckx era, riders would regularly have an extra bidon stuck in their middle rear pocket, such was the scarcity of team cars and roadside soigneurs handing out liquid sustenance. Despite their functionality, however, these early jerseys also managed to ooze class: those pockets, for instance, were secured by pearl buttons, and the buttoned-up fold-down collars positively laughed in the face of ‘marginal gains’. 

Wool jerseys only gave way to polyester in the mid-1980s, and since then advances in design and printing have seen them mutate from shocking to stylish. But throughout their evolution, jerseys have always had to make concessions to performance – those collars were rubbish in the wind-tunnel – and politics: how do you accommodate all those sponsors’ logos, national flags, Olympic rings and world champions’ stripes without provoking a diplomatic incident or breaching a contract? 

The flapping collars, fiddly buttons and front pockets eventually disappeared in the early 1960s, replaced by crew necks and zips. But sponsors’ names remained decoratively – and heavily – embroidered upon jerseys until dye sublimation (pioneered by Castelli in the early 1980s) and, more recently, digital screen printing offered aero advantages and considerable weight savings.

These modern printing processes inadvertently made it possible to produce some truly horrendous creations. Never mind Mario Cipollini’s nausea-inducing skinsuits of the 1990s, with designs ranging from Julius Caesar to the musculoskeletal system (think along the lines of the medical posters you see pinned up on the wall of physiotherapy treatment rooms, or just Google it). There were also jerseys that resembled pages from a telephone directory, so densely cluttered were they with the names and clashing fonts of all the various team sponsors.

Walking billboard

Rumour has it that in 2008 there was not enough room on the jerseys of its smaller riders for all the sponsors of the snappily-named Serramenti-PVC-Diquigiovanni-Androni-Giocattoli team to be included. Whether this entitled them to a discount or not isn’t clear.

‘Modern professional cycling teams have up to 30 partners and technical sponsors, and they all want their logo in a prominent position on the team’s clothing to get some return on what’s often a considerable investment,’ says Andy Storey, jersey collector and author of The Art Of The Jersey.

‘In recent years Leopard-Trek and Team Sky have bucked this trend by using a limited colour palette and a minimal number of logos. The placement of logos is now also much easier to achieve. Just look how much extra space a raglan sleeve [one with no shoulder seams] gives sponsors when a rider is in the racing position.’ 

Interestingly, both the teams Storey mentions employed the services of design agencies to come up with their styles. Part of their brief would undoubtedly have been: make our product look so good that we sell loads
of replica versions to our fans. It worked.

For Storey, who works at retro cycling clothing specialist Prendas Ciclismo, the single most important change in jersey design was the change to a full-length zip. 

‘You only have to look back at photos from the 1980s when riders were still riding in the high heat of the summer with a short 14 or 15cm zip,’ he says. ‘Greg LeMond was an innovator on zip length and during the late 80s and early 90s he quite often could be seen with a team jersey that had had an after-market three-quarter-length or full-length zip added.’

The cycling jersey is so unique in form and function that it has tempted a host of famous artists and designers to attempt to embellish its style. I remember bumping into Sir Paul Smith in Naples at the start of the Giro in 2013 when he could barely contain his excitement at having just seen his maglia rosa design being unveiled. ‘It would be a dream come true if Cav is the first to wear it,’ he told me. A few hours later Cavendish duly obliged by winning the first stage.

The Giro organisers have never shied away from tinkering with this most iconic piece of sporting kit, having previously used designs by fashion duo Dolce & Gabbana, futurist painter Marco Lodola and, in 2004, US artist and record sleeve designer Mark Kostabi (he did Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion).

Storey believes this trend will continue and will prove a far more attractive selling point for the average cyclist than advances in fabrics, weight or aerodynamics.

‘Some of these “marginal gains” are either simply not applicable to those of us that aren’t a 65kg racing snake, or are just marketing hype,’ he says. ‘Sure, if I’m going to be riding down at the local outdoor velodrome I’ll select an aero fit, but if I’m going out on a ride for enjoyment, I simply want to look good!’

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