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Until recently, talking about style in cycling was tantamount to blasphemy. We certainly don't remember recent athletes in this extremely popular but not particularly chic sport for their fashion sense. Indeed an outright technological distortion has been engineered to exploit production techniques borrowed from other sports (at the time it was swimming more than any other) for the creation of what could, at best, be described as a substyle. When we think of today's cyclist, what springs to mind is the fairly accurate image of the standard athlete with a bricklayer's tan wearing garish colours and covered with sponsor logos galore... mostly indecipherable. An image of the average cyclist that is anything but flattering or elegant. Unlike other kinds of athletes. This involution (because we will see that it has not always been so) plumbed the depths when Darwinian acronym: ''MAMILS'' (middle-aged men in Lycra) was coined. Who knows which cycling tribe invented it but it was certainly of the growing North American strain.
Sad. That's the word that comes to mind if we consider these sorry excuses for a sporting style, the victim of there being no barriers for entering the cycling apparel sector that once enjoyed significant and dignified appeal. Just think of Fausto Coppi, Fiorenzo Magni or Hugo Koblet. A cyclist style concept emerged for the first time in the period from 1939 to 1951, despite the impact of World War II, when the world cycling championships were suspended from 1939 to 1945. Certainly, apparel of sorts existed for cyclists before this time, but now an innovative style theory was developing, mostly borrowed from other sectors, which helped to define the cornerstones of modern cycling style. In the preceding period (late nineteenth-early twentieth century), the only apparel available was loosely defined as sportswear, in other words not specific to any sport in particular. A sort of all-weather gear for athletes of various disciplines, comprised mainly of snugger jerseys than were normally worn, with a polo neck or turtleneck, which the Italians called ''sport'', which was almost always of random origin and usually with a row of buttons long one side of the shoulders.
The tops were worn with short, dark trousers that offered no sort of protection against prolonged contact with the saddle. At the end of the Twenties, the first modifications appeared in these ''normal'' articles of outerwear, adapting it to the task in a more or less organized way. Ottavio Bottecchia, the legendary first great hero of cycling who died so mysteriously, was one of the first to wear close-fitting trousers, but it was only later, at the end of the Thirties, that we start to see hints of what was to become a truly modern aesthetic standard for cyclists. Proportions began to be standardized with tops and trousers acquiring a distinctly lean line, and only the sleeves ere sometimes still loose and not completely tight-fitting. Gradually polo necks were replaced, first by a smooth, round collar that was not adjustable in any way, similar to the T-shirt neckline of today. Marcel Kint wore a top like this when he won the 1938 world championships in Valkenburg.
At that time, however, another style was also developing and soon became the standard look for several years: the shirt collar. As the name implies, the upper part of the top looked like a proper shirt although it was not so much a shirt as an item that resembled the tunics worn by polo players from the end of the nineteenth century, and which seems to have been designed by the famous Brooks Brothers. These were actually the first known variation of the shirt and called for a collar with two or three buttons, which as then finished with quite visible stitching to reinforce the upper section. The combination of a shirt collar on a body similar to a T-shirt was indeed a novelty. Tennis player René Lacoste had begun promoting this style by wearing it himself as early as the late 1920s and attaching a shirt collar to a snug top in wool yarn was probably the first innovative contribution in the style history of cycling apparel. At the end of the Thirties the figure of the modern cyclist began to develop although World War II was looming and, of course, priorities like simple survival were more compelling by far than style. The war halted most sporting events in Europe, especially the most prestigious, and throughout the Forties the cyclist figure gradually emerged. Archetypal cycling apparel as we know it today was a product of the early Fifties. Strange as it may seem, in a world that over the last sixty years has seen the emergence of print and production techniques that are actually quite sophisticated, only cycling wear materials have progressed and there have been no changes in proportions and key aesthetic and functional elements.
As we were saying, in 1938 Kint was one of the first to wear a top that could be called ''transitional'', a suitable term for describing the aesthetic differences that distinguished it from previous shirts in use up to that time. The word indicates the temporary nature of this new standard, a hybrid that was half shirt, half T-shirt, from which it borrowed the neckline.
The style was not destined to last long. While it was certainly a technical improvement compared to the previous tops that imposed polo necks even in summer, like its predecessors it did not allow for any adjustment. This was the time when a school of thought in terms of utilitarian clothing began to emerge for cyclists too.
Paradoxically, before the most classic clothing aesthetic, so to speak, ruled the roost. Like players of polo, football and tennis, those who engaged in cycling would do so dressed meticulously in jacket and tie. In the limbo between the 1920s and the 1940s, we see that apparel was classic, traditional, and continued to be used as a post-event standard simply because there were no alternatives. The need to improve performance required the enhancement of practical clothing and also went hand-in-hand with the gradual loss of the ideal of elegance that represented a sort of Coubertinesque philosophy of sport.
So for over a decade, the shirt collar became the accepted standard for cyclist tops, at least at competitive level. And bottoms? An item that could be defined as shorts was also subject to change, more in substance than in form. A kind of close-fitting standard garment had certainly been in use for some time. Perhaps shorter than we might think today, a good twenty centimeters or thereabouts above the knee. And, of course, without the everpresent bibs we see today! Again, the practical aspects won out over the shape, but it was not until the end of the Thirties that any uniform type of production developed. Many cyclists were already seeking items in wool, like that used for tops, although initial results were disappointing as wool wore out quickly due to continuous friction with the saddle. So alternative materials were tried, like silk, linen and cotton, always natural fibers, which were easier to come by. Wool, however, was more versatile because the weave was more elastic and it soon became the preferred material for making cycling shorts.
To achieve a good stretch-strength ratio, a lot of work was done on the weaving tension during wool production. In the Thirties the first reinforcements in the saddle area were also gradually introduced, forerunners of the seat pads of the future, and which usually consisted of one or two extra layers of the same material used to make the shorts. Funnily enough, at the time the scope was to give reinforce the garment rather than damp vibrations on the body. For a long time, until the early Forties, a double layer of fabric in the buttock area was thus the standard seat pad. The first inserts began to appear in the early Forties and were usually made of sheep or goatskin. This represented the first important change of approach in the production of cycling gear and, once again, was strictly utilitarian - now the aim was to protect the rider, not the trousers! This innovation was mainly due to the albeit partial introduction of synthetic fibers.
Indeed, the addition of nylon to wool yarn made it possible to obtain a knit (in the sense of wool cloth that was then used to cut pieces to make trousers) that was more compact and resistant, but at the same time strong enough not to require an external reinforcement. Moreover, since a more professional attitude was starting to grow, the consumer factor, however minimal and marginal, was also emerging. Athletes started demanding several garments, to be able to change them at will, regardless of whether they were worn out or not and in any case with a frequency that until recently had been unthinkable. The new invention of internal padding, which was soon to become an established standard, became known as a seat pad and pampered the rider far more than anything had done up to that time. It was by now the end of the Thirties and war was on the horizon. Almost everything, including sport, at least that which could be described as professional, ground to a halt for five - six years. Yet there were those undaunted by the approaching tragedy and found the spirit to continue riding and racing, with a passion for competition, for speed and - in a nutshell - for life.
Because this was the sport of pioneers, something that came from within, the desire to race, the desire to be alive, against any logic that said they should have other priorities. Their faded photos reveal anxiety but also hope, in the expressions of people who are no longer with us. Like Emilio De Marchi, a pioneer of cycling apparel, in his baggy knickerbockers and sports jacket or sweater, pictured with his ''ACF Conegliano'' team during the 1942 Coppa Bottecchia or on the Bassano del Grappa track in 1943, the perfect embodiment of this indomitable, romantic, ''we race at all costs'' spirit. We can just imagine him saying something like that to his wife, left waiting for him back home. The War, with a capital W, as it was known in these parts, even though two world wars had already left their mark here, did not realize who it was dealing with.
And this hiatus truly ended, tragic but equally vital for it proved the superiority of the spirit over all else and others, if ever there were any need for proof. Cycling - like other sports - resumed its pursuit of progress. The main visual tenets of apparel, an integral part of the style (if it could be labeled such at the time), would soon be defined and stabilized for a long time to come.
The image of the modern cyclist, not too dissimilar from that of today in all the main features except the gaudy colours, developed in the collective imagination. In Conegliano Veneto, just a few months after the end of the war, Emilio De Marchi decided to start mass producing the clothing that his wife Emma had previously run up from time to time just for ''his'' cyclists and a few friends.
De Marchi was born in 1906, in San Fior, near Conegliano. He had known Ottavio Bottecchia, that first great hero of Italian cycling, but he loved all sports and he never missed a local event, whether it was football, basketball, or a cycling competition. The geographical proximity to Ottavio Bottecchia (whose name, after his tragic early death, was patented as a trademark by Teodoro Carnielli in Vittorio Veneto) and probably some post-war euphoria, convinced De Marchi to make the leap. In the early months of 1946, Conegliano's Maglificio Sportivo was busy. Certainly it was working on an artisanal scale but soon, and faster than De Marchi initially imagined, it was contributing enormously to the crucial definition of precisely those elements of style that were forging the image of the cyclist at the dawn of what was to become the golden age of cycling.
Also at the turn of the Forties, in about five years, the criteria for design of tops were gradually defined and quite precise features emerged: they were made in wool, with a snug fit (perhaps not the sleeves, which did not yet have close-fitting ribbed cuffs) and shirt collar. The most popular option offered two front and three rear pockets, closed by shirt-type buttons, usually in mother-of-pearl or bone. Some cyclists preferred to have just the three back pockets, sacrificing capacity for look or for cost. The three or five-pocket debate continued for a few more years to the point that even the model of the next (and final) transition to a new type of collar (still used today) was still being offered in with two extra chest pockets, although these are now only seen in vintage replicas. By this time, in other words the late Twenties, many - but by no means all - shirts on the market carried sponsor branding. A substantial difference lay in the fact that even then, if the jersey was used by a cycling club or a leader celebrating a national and international victory, or was a national shirt, no branding was allowed.
A marvellous photo of Coppi and Magni taken at Milan's Vigorelli velodrome clearly shows Coppi, or the ''heron'' as the Italians called him, in full Bianchi kit, while the other great gentleman of cycling of the time wears the Italian champion's shirt, albeit with his club shorts. Sponsor logos, for those who managed to find any, were not something to be taken for granted at the time, and were embroidered using semi-automatic machines. The brand most commonly used for this type of work, Cornely, also gave its name to the technique, which was actually in use until the end of the Seventies and was probably the longest-running production in terms of cycling gear. It was, however, rudimentary at best, sewn mostly freehand or perhaps with the help of small stencils called block prints, or the draft graphics of wording (which was all it was at the time) that were alcohol mimeographed onto tissue paper. These were then laid on the garments later and fixed into place with dressmaking pins, ''stitched over'' with a sort of modified sewing machine for embroidery (the first company to make these machines was precisely Cornely), circling quickly with a crank that ensured the continuous flow of thread in the chosen colour, using a specially threaded needle. The more precisely and closely the pattern was followed, the more valuable the garment was considered. Graphically, the tops differed mainly in the basic colours and geometric patterns of horizontal or vertical stripes and, in some rare cases, diagonals were the highest creative expression that could be achieved because of the technological limitations of the machinery used for production. Standard graphics quickly developed and became distinctive as they had in other sports, like football. Unlike other sports, however, it was unusual for these designs to last long in cycling because rather than a geographical identity they actually represented the demands of sponsors who wanted visibility. With the exception of the colours and as is still the case today, cycling's albeit scant decoration was destined to change frequently and it was not unusual to see stripes become wider or narrower, with other minor differences, from one year to another.
The look of the modern cyclist, however, was influenced by a seemingly minor detail but one that today still plays a fundamental role in cycling gear. We mean the introduction of the zip fastener or zipper, which permanently changed the cycling and sports apparel scenario overall for a number of disciplines. Despite having been introduced to the market as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, it was only in the mid-Thirties that the zipper became popular. At the end of the Thirties the US magazine Esquire finally endorsed it for the world of fashion. By the early Forties it was already being used on garments, mostly those worn by athletes after competitions. Inexplicably this innovative technology, which offered objective benefits from a practical point of view, was evidently still considered too exotic and trendy to be used during events. In a 1942 archive photo, we clearly see Emilio De Marchi wearing a sports jersey with a zip-up polo collar: another example of a transitional garment. Nonetheless, it took some time before the new standard was established as such. While it is true that some late-Forties images still show cyclists wearing zippered tops at various times, it is also true that it was almost always during prize-givings and, in any case, the zip was applied only to a shirt or polo collar.
Again, for unclear reasons, although the required technique was available to achieve a fundamental change, for a long time tops were made with a traditional shirt collar. In 1951, Louison Bobet won the Milan-San Remo competition, arriving distraught at the finish line, as can be seen in a wonderful photo. Apparently he then recommended the use of zips in place of buttons. And the flapping collar, whose only possible function was aesthetic, was sacrificed in favour of a more minimalist round collar, about four or five centimeters in height, and with a central zipper or zip, as it was by now known internationally. Emilio De Marchi, who was a manager and leader in the Bottecchia team when one of its members was Giovanni Pinarello, snapped up the idea. In no time at all the new zipped collar, not surprisingly defined ''French style'', established itself as the standard. On the surface a small improvement but it had a defining impact on the style of cycling apparel. Since then, in fact, despite technological evolution and the many developments in fabrics and accessories, the design of the cycling jersey has not changed.
If the only concessions to a variation on the classic jersey-shorts combination for many years came in the form of a light jacket in transparent nylon to be worn only in the event of a storm, and a newspaper specially folded to fit into a pocket, to be used on descents to alleviate wind impact as needed, the same cannot be said for post-event apparel. The problem of what to wear after a competition or training did not seem to be important until the late Thirties. Until then, the typical outfit comprised a sports jacket (usually just tweed) and ''sport'' trousers, also usually wool, thus called because they were shorter (usually just below the knee) and were tucked into regimental stripe or check socks. This, however, was typically an outfit worn by those accompanying the athletes, who mainly wore ribbed wool sweaters with a shawl collar fixed to the base by one or more parallel rows of buttons, and called a ''Galibier'' after the famous Tour de France ascent.
The sweaters were often customized with the colours and logos of the team sponsor and this meant they were in great demand among both cyclists and insiders, because for the first time they found an item of clothing that identified their passion and could be worn every day. From the Sixties through to the Eighties a version of the very popular Galibier, with zip-up tracksuit collar, was known generically as the ''DS'', standing for ''directeur sportif''. Until the mid-Forties everyone wore whatever they had available after a competition. It was not uncommon, before or after an event, to see athletes using baggy tracksuit bottoms that were definitely not suitable for cycling, and various kinds of jackets. From the late Forties onwards, however, a gradual change began to come about in the situation. The first piece of postevent clothing specially designed for the cyclist was a snug-fit suit that was a variation on the theme of the most common jersey-bottoms combination typically used by cross-country runners and boxers.
The cyclist tracksuit was extremely practical, first of all because it was very tight fitting (unheard of at the time), which added to the aesthetic notion of the cyclist looking like a sausage (a concept still quite common today). It was in total contradiction with the traditional rules of men's fashions of the time, which aimed for a soft, comfortable fit. On the other hand, the average cyclist was physically different, shorter and sturdier than those of today, which accentuated the comical aspect. Moreover, far from wearing a modern style of sneaker, most athletes wore regular formal shoes in dark leather, even during team presentations, which make photos of the time even more hilarious. Nevertheless, the cyclist suit was a huge hit and subsequently changed little until the early Eighties. It was actually perfect for its purpose: slim-fit legs prevented fabric getting caught in the bicycle chain and being generally very close fitting it was more efficient for insulation and fast heating. This was possible because it was used not only as official team apparel, but also in training. The cyclist suit was later completely abandoned, worn only off the bike, and in recent times replaced by models more similar to generic tracksuits. One of the latest examples of a cycling suit used as post-event apparel and elevated to icon status was certainly that of Francesco Moser, the San Cristobal world road champion in 1977: a light blue background with ITALIA stamped in block capitals. A model that inspired countless subsequent variations on the theme and is still very popular today. A garment that almost inevitably was found among escorts riding in or driving cars accompanying cyclists in the Forties and Fifties were one-piece biker suits.
These were mostly made from closely-woven heavy cotton gabardine that was water and wind resistant, with a strong full-length front zip or buttons, fastened at the waist with buckled belts, trench coat-style. Timekeepers and other insiders would wear sweaters, cardigans or bomber jackets, and their watches always over the cuff so they could see the time more easily. It was almost always casual clothing, however, and the first waterproof Harringtons and parkas started to appear. Albeit from different backgrounds, they too helped define the idea of a cycling style which had much in common at that time with the more structured sport of motorcycling and with car racing. On the other hand, ecological considerations aside, the shared aspect of these sports was speed.
Two figures who contributed significantly to establishing a golden age of style in cycling, aside from the immortal Coppi and Fiorenzo Magni (above all for his exquisite courtesy), were undoubtedly two Swiss riders: Ferdinand Kubler and Hugo Koblet, immortalized in different photos that reveal all the charm and modernity of two timeless athletes, true masters of elegance on a bicycle. Koblet, known as the blond angel, was famous for his Mastroianni-style wavy hair and his impractical but ultra-chic tortoiseshellrimmed glasses, almost always competing with small but priceless watches; Kubler bore a vague resemblance to Coppi and always rode with aviator sunglasses and back-tofront cap like a modern-day rapper. Together, besides being famous above all for their sporting achievements (Kubler was a world and Tour de France winner; Koblet, Giro d'Italia and Tour de France winner), they were also known for the air of modernity they lent to the image of cycling at the time of the Dolce Vita. They were, in their own right, the most chic cyclists of all time. A separate mention, however, should go to Coppi and Bartali, the heroes of an era they helped to create, along with the aforementioned Kubler, Koblet, Magni, and Louison Bobet. For various reasons they were the figures who defined cycling style in the golden years. Much has been written by Fausto Coppi, ''the heron'', a champion and true master of sports style. Like Hugo Koblet he had great presence, albeit on a different physical scale to his Swiss colleague, and he exuded a unique aura. Coppi was famous for his obsessions, including that of having his jerseys made-tomeasure in silk by a Milanese tailor, and he still embodies the purest ideal of cycling. Gino Bartali, for his part, was quite the opposite, a shy, minimalist figure who was interested only in the physical, tough aspects of the sport, contributing in this way to the epic of cycling. The enormous gaps he put between himself and his rivals in his halcyon days filled his fans with joy. The authentic but loyal rivalry between the two cyclists hallmarked a decade, from the Forties to the Fifties.
Gino Bartali's epic victory in the 1948 Tour de France even served as the cement for repairing the unity of the state, seriously threatened by the attack on Togliatti. If Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali were cycling stars, in the Forties and Fifties, each with his own distinctive style, Fiorenzo Magni also contributed to the definition of this period with his polite manner and innate elegance, almost equidistant from the sophisticated Coppi on one hand and the deceptive simplicity of Bartali on the other. Magni made his mark with his discretion and courtesy.
There is no doubt that 1955 rang the changes in the world of cycling as the heroes of the post-war golden era disappeared from Tour de France and world championship rankings. In reality, Bobet stayed at the top of the leader board until 1958, at least for one-day races, with rankings of worldwide prestige. New names began to appear, first of all Jacques Anquetil, but even then the image of the cyclist's style was one of beauty and was thus defined for decades to come. The champions of the next twenty years, from Eddy Merckx to Francesco Moser, would dress in much the same way as those of the early Fifties, without substantial changes. Until Lycra came along ...