With the 2012 season under way all the top teams have unveiled their colours. Amongst these team colours are the national champions jerseys. Just as the world champion wears a jersey with the “rainbow bands”, national champions get their special jerseys.
The winner of the annual national championships gets to wear a jersey that represents their country for the year. It’s usually a variation of the national flag or colours. For example you’ll see the French champion in a big blue, white and red tricolore jersey. But in recent years the design has started to change, moving away from a flag turned into a jersey into a more normal team jersey with just hint of national colour. Here’s a more detailed look at the how and why.
Go back in time and the national champion was obvious, visible from afar. An Italian would be obvious in their green white and red kit, as if their jersey was cut from the national flag. The US champion had the stars and stripes and so on. This can still be the case.
But in recent years it’s got harder to spot the champion of a nation. For example see the jersey of Alejandro Valverde in 2009, instead of the normal yellow and red Spanish flag, the Caisse d’Epargne team gave him a red and black version in corporate colours that featured the Spanish colours in a much more discreet way, a move away from the more obvious jersey worn the previous year by Joaquim Rodriguez. In 2009 and 2010 Pozzato was the Italian champion and he went through a range of jerseys (here, here and here) including a black version but eventually was forced to standardise the jersey by the Italians.
Other teams have done similar things and it can be hard to spot these riders because if they wear special jerseys, they are not always as distinctive as they once were. There are different reasons for this. First, if a company is paying millions to have a team riding in its name the presence of an alternative jersey can distract from the corporate colours. We might think the distinctive colours of a national champion are a big draw and publicise the team and by extension the sponsor. But those who work in corporate branding go to great lengths to codify a company’s image with a “style guides” that can run to hundreds of pages, specifying the exact Pantone colour references, the fonts and lettering to be used in communications, branding and all derivative products and images. To suddenly see a brand’s colour change because of a bike race can prove too much for some involved. Don’t forget these are the people who pay for the team.
Like many I’m a fan of the sport’s history and myths. The images of champions from the past are memorable in part thanks to simple but bold jerseys, whether Fausto Coppi or more recently the Swiss flag on Fabian Cancellara.
This age is not over. We still see many national champions in obvious jerseys, Philippe Gilbert is wearing the Belgian flag and Sylvain Chavanel the French flag. But some are less obvious. Movistar, the continuation of the Caisse d’Epargne team, features the colours but within the normal colours of the team jersey, here is Giovanni Visconti of Italy:
Visconti’s jersey is recognisable and I think we’ll be able to pick him up from both a helicopter and a moto camera angle thanks to the bands on the chest and the shoulders. Perhaps the hardest national champions to spot are the Radioshack-Nissan ones, as pictured above. Obviously Frank Schleck’s national title is camouflaged amongst the team jersey because the squad has a Luxembourg flavour. But the others on the squad like US champion Matthew Busche and Fabian Cancellara have a more discreet kit.
Is this just branding and national pride?
The rules are written down, at least in part. As is custom on this blog, here’s the relevant rule:
1.3.069 The specificities concerning the design of the national champion jersey are described in the brochure available on the UCI website. These specificities are applicable for all the disciplines.
Before production, the national champion jersey design (colours, flag, drawing) reproduced by the titled rider must be approved by the concerned national federation and must respect the latter’s dispositions.
Each national federation must have its national champion jersey design registered by the UCI, for each discipline, at least 21 days before the national championships of the discipline in question.
The wearer of a national champion’s jersey shall be entitled to match the colour of his shorts to that of the jersey.
So we have both UCI and national federations setting the rules. The brochure mentioned in the rule above goes on to specify the surface area available for sponsors, for example a rectangle 10 centimetres high on the front and back to put the sponsor logo. But the full design, whether you go for the full flag or use a team jersey with a small flag featured is down to the national federation to set the colours.
Finally, note a rider who has won a national title in the past has the right to wear the colours on their collar and sleeves afterwards.
Some national champions are more visible than others, there’s some inconsistency across designs. I like the retro-look of some national champions, the jerseys are often similar in design to those worn 50 years ago. But pro cycling is driven by commercial pressures and if anything I’m surprised more teams and sponsors haven’t tried to impose their brand ahead of the national colours but this seems to be a matter for each nation, there is no standard format.