Friday 17 November 2017

Book Review: The Art of the Cycling Jersey

“What is the well-dressed cyclist wearing these days?”, I hear you ask me. “Or back in those early days?” I am glad you asked because Rodale Press' excellent book, “The Art of the Cycling Jersey,” subtitled “Iconic Cycle Wear Past and Present,” shows us that looking good and going fast are not mutually exclusive.

Copenhagen 2011: The British National Team leads Mark Cavendish to victory at the World Championships
British author Chris Sidwell's latest book addresses an area that has been an empty shelf on my gargantuan bookshelf. We have books on famous races, famous riders, suffering amateurs, the training programs they suffer with, custom bicycles, vintage bicycles, components (yes, we have both the original and revised editions of “the Dancing Chain," a history of the derailleur) and even variations of road surfaces in Belgium, to say nothing of daunting climbs and disastrous around-the-world rides. It is about time that somebody recognized the role of the cycling jersey in our sport and this elegant and attractive book is welcome indeed.

The Tour de France King of the Mountains jersey, little changed since its introduction in 1975

The book is set out chronologically. In the early days riders did not really have cycling-specific clothing in the first races but there was a realization that clothing should be more form-fitting to offer less wind resistance as well as appropriate to the weather conditions. During the first Tour de France racers did not ride in teams and were free to choose their own gear. The winner of that first race in 1903, Maurice Garin, wore a distinctive white jacket to keep cool. In a pre-yellow jersey move, race officials gave him a green armband to distinguish him as the race leader. While jackets had their place, it was the sweater's evolution that began the march towards the jersey as we know it.

“The first cycling jerseys were plain wool, but bicycle manufacturers who sponsored early professional riders soon saw the publicity possibilities of having their names on the jerseys. So in the early years of the twentieth century, bike manufacturers' names were embroidered onto some woolen jerseys, often in a rough copy of the script used in the manufacturer's logo. They were stitched by hand, using the same think wool the jersey was made from, although in a contrasting color. This relatively crude method was improved with the introduction of lighter, thinner wool yarns to make cycling jerseys. The embroidered letters on some of these were quite exquisite.”

1926 The three Pelissier brothers riding for Dilecta-Wolber

The first chapter of the book covers this early evolution and focuses on some of the notable teams that made their mark, at the finish line and in fashion statements. These included the blue jerseys of Alcyon, the French team whose riders won a dozen Tours de France on the way to victory in 120 world-class races; Legnano, the team of Gino Bartali, with its green jerseys with red sleeves; and Atala, a team that existed from 1908 to 1989, with striped jerseys (“reminiscent of the clothing you might expect jail inmates to wear”) and the company name in a flourished italic script.

The next section of the book deals with the World Champion's rainbow jersey, created in 1927, and a number of celebrated National Champion jerseys from the Promised Lands of Cycling: France, Belgium and Italy. It is clear that the author pines for the days of simpler jersey designs and disapproves of the watering-down of the impact of these iconic symbols, notably the Italian one which seems to have become subsumed in the colours of the team sponsor.

The Grand Tour jerseys, on the other hand, still retain their power, although it seems as if Vuelta organizers have not always been ready to settle on a particular colour for their race leader so the three jerseys of the Tour—yellow, green, and polka dot—and the Giro's maglia rosa get subchapters to themselves. The Yellow Jersey, introduced in 1919, may be the single most celebrated article of clothing in sports.

1966 Tour de France: eventual winner Lucien Aumar following Raymond Poulidor

There is so much in this book that is of interest that it is surprising it is only 224 pages in length. It covers national team jerseys, special track jerseys, and jerseys from particularly notable epochs of cycling: the 1920s and then each decade on from the 1950s. The greats of cycling were always closely identified with their jerseys: Poulidor with Mercier-BP-Hutchinson; Coppi with Bianchi; Hinault with La Vie Claire; Indurain with Banesto; Boonen with QuickStep; Merckx with Faema and then Molteni; De Vlaeminck with Brooklyn; Simpson with Peugeot. There is a fine selection of photos of these riders in their prime and the accompanying text is packed with unfamiliar facts or some that are just good to savour again:

“The man with the most yellow jerseys to his name is Eddy Merckx, who wore it 96 times between 1969 and 1975, on the way to winning five Tours de France. Another five-time winner, Bernard Hinault of France, is second, with 73 days in yellow....Only four men have held the Tour de France yellow jersey every day from start to finish of a single Tour...”

Jacques Anquetil (left), one of France's greatest cyclists, never won the French National Championship
Along with the history of the teams we are given an enlightening look at the development of the jersey from the sweater to a sort of polo shirt with front pockets, from wool to not-entirely-succesful wool/synthetic blends to the current clothing made from high-tech materials that fit the form exactly, so that time trial skinsuits, meant for the aero position, are actually awkward to walk in. There are different weights for different weather and a range of designs that vary from simple and elegant to garish and, well, embarrassing. The book concludes with modern jerseys, and a set of the jerseys used in the 2016 UCI World Tour.

Les bleus--the 2016 French National Team
It is perhaps to the author's credit that he does not single out the worst jersey designs of the past (and present). The famous saying “de gustibus non est disputandum” (“there is no disputing about taste”) probably applies here since everyone has their own views. For example, the Mapei jersey, with its vibrantly coloured plastic blocks, seems to annoy many but is also considered a classic. Mr. Sidwells is keen on the Carrera outfit, with its psuedo-denim look, and worn most effectively by Stephen Roche in his miraculous year (the Giro, the Tour, the Worlds) in 1987. So we are not given a chance to ridicule bad designs; I leave it to the reader to look up the 2010 Footon-Servetto team kit or the Castorama ones that made the riders look like housepainters or toys from Gepetto's workshop. Brrr...

This book focuses entirely on professional racing and does not cover the clothing choices of enthusiastic amateurs. The introduction by former Bicycling Editor-in-chief Bill Strickland is more tuned to this element:

“The jersey! The most dominant value of the cycling aesthetic, and one of its simplest components, yet also the one most laden with subtext and potential ironies and sincerities and affiliations and memories and references often unknown to the wearer A jersey can be a nod to a team, a racer, an era, a fabric, a design sense, a remembrance, a personal experience, an aspiration, or else simply come in a color we really like and that happened to be in our size.”

We are not going to enter the argument of whether it is good or bad form for amateurs to wear pro team kit—fans in other sports have no issues with this—but just remember that in his early racing days Greg Lemond showed up in a yellow jersey to the amusement of other competitors whom he then thrashed.

I would like to admit that I have a 2001 Mapei World Championship jersey (Oscar Freire's second title) that I wear but I only wear it while on my home trainer in the basement and never, ever outdoors where someone could see me.

Except for the jersey I look nothing like this.  Photo credit: Mapei Madness

All photos courtesy of Rodale Books unless otherwise noted

“The Art of the Cycling Jersey—Iconic Cycle Wear Past and Present”
by Chris Sidwells
224 pp., hardcover, profusely illustrated
Rodale Books, 2017
ISBN: 978-1623367374
Suggested Price: US$27.99/C$32.50

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