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Multi-coloured bike top

Matt Barbet leader's jersey
Matt Barbet
7 Aug 2015

Red and yellow and pink and green, Vuelta, Tour, Giro, Points too; And there is a rainbow, rainbow jersey too.

Is there any sport aside from cycling where the use of coloured clothing is so significant? The hues adorning riders’ jerseys take on great importance in competition, and spots, stripes and logos play their part too. 

The yellow jersey is now part of the greater language of sport alongside world cups and championship trophies as signifiers of the upper echelons of performance. The Maillot Jaune (or Mellow Johnny if you say it like a certain Texan used to) is now recognisable to anyone with even the most fleeting relationship with pro cycling. Yellow has to be the colour most synonymous with the world’s biggest race, and therefore with cycling itself.

Controversially – and also a tad prematurely – Russian pro team Tinkoff-Saxo dabbled with having the exact same tone dominate their kit, before realising having every rider look like they’re leading the Grand Boucle was a bit of a faux pas. The next iteration was more fluoro.

Or chartreuse, if you buy your cycling clothing from rapha.cc. After redefining the look of cycling kit with a muted, monochrome aesthetic, the premium brand’s about-turn five years ago resulted in its first high-visibility garments in the chartreuse shade. ‘Studies have found that the rods in the retina – the part of the eye that works best in low light – are particularly receptive to the yellow/green colour,’ they said. Fine, as long as you don’t team it with shots of the authentic French liqueur that shares its name.

Before the introduction of the fluoro flash, black was the colour most associated with Rapha, and that filtered through to the teams that wear its kit, namely Team Sky and JLT-Condor (until they switched to Mavic this season). Before black became the new, er, black, there was the Maglia Nera.

None more black

The Black Jersey was awarded to the last-placed rider in the Giro between 1946 and 1951 and incredibly, it was strongly competed. Italian Luigi Malabrocca was a past-master at hiding in barns and bars to eke out his time, while none other than Giovanni Pinarello won the last one, decades before the bikes bearing his name would be ridden to Grand Tour victories by the likes of Indurain, Wiggins and Froome.

Black also extends to the bikes themselves and it’s the ubiquity of all-black frames – or ‘murdered out’ as some say – that prompted me to add a bit of shiny bling to my own carbon steed, earning me the nickname ‘Goldenhubs’ from my riding buddies. Using gold is daring, maybe even foolhardy, I know. No one is going to argue with Sir Wiggo wearing a gold helmet and shoes as he takes the Hour record, nor Spanish pro Samuel Sánchez, who still adorns himself in it, even though he won the Olympic Road Race way back in 2008.

Back to the jerseys, and red polka dots signify the King of the Mountains in the Tour (also won by the aforementioned Sánchez) although the eye-catching design is the subject of conjecture. Either it came from a chocolate brand called Poulain, who sponsored the first KOM jersey in the 1970s and had it mimic a chocolate bar wrapper, or TdF organiser at the time Félix Lévitan was inspired by polka-dot jerseys he had seen at the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris when he was younger.

Over in Spain, the red jersey, or Maillot Rojo, is reserved for the winner of the Vuelta. Stripes, though, are really for different types of victors. National champions tend to have them across their chests in the shades of their own federation, while it’s the rainbow of blue, red, black, yellow and green that belongs to the World Champion.

Although the blue of Etixx-QuickStep is now his colour of choice, when Mark Cavendish become the first Briton since Tommy Simpson in 1965 to win the Rainbow Jersey, he wisely stopped the pristine white background at his waist and sported more traditional black shorts.

Sure, if you’re World Champion, you can do what you like, but white bibs take some pulling off, if you get my meaning. No cycling civilian should really venture into that territory. Even so, they’re not the most horrifying hue to adorn the lower portions of riders. That would be brown – fine for the legs, diabolical for the shorts. So, pity the French pros of AG2R-La Mondiale, who have no choice but to look like their thighs have been painted with Marmite. And thank the stars that you have a rainbow of other colours from which to define your own sartorial cycling style.

You can follow Matt Barbet on Twitter @MattBarbet

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