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The Cycling Jersey: A Slow and Often Ugly Evolution

Posted on 08 August 2015

Over the course of the 20th century clothing design ran in weird and wild directions as fabrics and uses expanded our horizons. Even technical clothes where function beats out form tended to improve dramatically over a couple generations. Cycling jerseys are an odd exception. Maybe there's something in the sweaty culture of man-plus-machine simplicity that resists? Maybe the lack of drastic change in bikes themselves hasn't necessitated different gear? Regardless of the reason, the jerseys donned by dedicated bike nuts haven't changed much since the 1910s.

For those without personal experience, bike jerseys are shirts you wear while riding unmotorized bikes, most often seen covering whole packs of pasty bike owners as they fill all the outdoor seating at your favorite coffee shop. Jerseys are cut like an unflatteringly narrow polo shirt, often with a mock turtleneck to block a whole extra inch of sun from evening your tan, sometimes with a half or full zip front to diversify your sunburn profile, and almost always with a couple water bottle pockets on the lower back. You can even add long sleeves if you're really dedicated. But that's it. That's the heart of 1915-slash-contemporary jersey design. Add "sweat wicking panels" or swanky extruded fabrics and you're still dealing with this very familiar shape. So what's worth writing about? What they lack in structural innovation they make up for in interesting and trashy graphics. Here are a few favorite trends and examples of jersey design through the ages. 

 

Early jerseys looked a lot like light wool sweaters. Because they were. We largely forgot about wool as a technical fabric in the second half of the 20th century. This was a pretty stupid modern conceit considering how well it regulates body heat, how dapper these dudes look, and how bad synthetic fibers reek when you use them for sweating in. The early Heroic era of cycling is largely marked by un-marked jerseys, simple shirts with nothing but a stripe or a club name to distract you from a racer's sweaty, wine-fueled grimace. Some interesting bygone design features included simple buttoned loops to keep your wine bottle in place and extra long and narrow pockets, the better to fit your baguette.  

Despite evergrowing love of internal combustion, cycling has been a major international sport for the better part of the last century. As such, jersey design's crappy aesthetics has been heavily influenced by sponsor logo placement and team owners' questionable color choice. If sports jersey designs were established on the visual merits of their sponsors' logos, the world would be a lovelier place. That said, there seems to have been a fleeting era of reasonable, balanced, attractive team jerseys.

For both the biggest innovations and excesses I'm comfortable pointing to Italy's long history of great graphic design and terrible taste. The early '70s Bianchi, Campagnolo, and Bianchi-Campagnolo designs are easily recognizable thanks to modern reproduction by the surviving sponsoring companies. They're also just plain beautiful. I'm partial to this era of Tour style design in part because they didn't screw around with fitting 15+ bank logos on one shirt, and in part because the riders were less concerned with pointing fingers over blood doping and more concerned with where they were going to stop for more wine and cocaine. A simpler, nobler era, and the graphics showed it.  

The later 70s and '80s swung the other way, bringing their familiar flash, fantastically bad design, and a healthy dose of sweatsuit chic. Why? We don't know and we don't need to. 

...Because after the early '80s we stepped into the cycling big times as a sport, and lost our damn minds on design. There are a couple odd and notable exceptions, including that magical moment when known convenience store 7-11 and contemporary Walmart-crap-bike-manufacturer Huffy sponsored not just a great team of megababes endorsed by Eddy Merckx but a miraculously decent jersey. 

But it really was the beginning of the end. The Nascarization of cycling in the '90s saw even heavier sprays of logos, notable increases in hi-viz colorways, little to no consideration for form, and borderline creepy graphics.

The few positive standouts are timeless classics that no one is really allowed to mess up. The King of the Mountains jersey for example is perennially fun and particularly hard to botch:

But Lotto and Predictor pregnancy tests on the same salmon colored kit? A fine and ironic pairing, but be still my retching heart... In the last 15 years the trend in professional jerseys has been ever-uglier graphics panels loaded up with barely altered logos. However, the consumer trend toward more traditionally built steel bikes for long riding has sparked a return to simpler jersey designs. The majority of the consumer level options still tend towards icky rip offs of team patterns or humorous photos your uncle might email you, but there's more brewing.

Manufacturers working directly with consumer has allowed a bloom of DIY designed kits to hit the road. And, arguably more importantly, high profile brands like Rapha are stepping up for discerning riders who crave fine woolen bike wear, Chinese-made to look like it was knitted by Eddy Merckx's own grandmama.  

What does the future hold? More bank logos, back pockets, and plenty of pretension, but maybe some better design. Meanwhile... ugh.

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