Was the past a better place? It certainly wasn’t as comfortable for the racing cyclist with itchy wool clothing that sagged in the rain and winter training meant bulky clothing and millefeuille of layers just to try and stay warm. GPS bike computers, electronic shifting, the widespread use of carbon in frames and rims are all obvious tech advances. But what of clothing? Often overlooked it’s been through several revolutions in recent years and there’s more to come.
The story goes that once there was wool and then came Lycra. For wool don’t confuse it with today’s modern varieties, like soft and easily washable merino. Instead riding around in old wooly shorts sounds dire with tales of shorts and jerseys sagging in the rain. Lycra, a brand name for spandex arrived in the 1980s and today makes up a small share of the material in a typical pair of race shorts, the majority of the mix being polyester. It makes for a fast drying and form-fitting garment.
As revolutionary as this was it took until 2010 for teams to start using lycra jerseys. For years cyclists had used special clothing for time trials, all lycra “skinsuits” for example but for ordinary road racing jerseys went from flapping wool to flapping polyster and stayed that way for years, within reason with many riders opting for a tighter fit and for years many team kit suppliers made kit to measure to their riders, after all they want all of their riders to look right all of the time. Today kit is still custom made for the pros but all race jerseys are chest-hugging and designed not to flap at all, there are consequent gains in aerodynamics.
Winter clothing is probably the greatest gain. Nothing works on a long wet day, you’ll still get a soaking and begin to get colder. But as long as it’s dry there’s a range of materials and garments for use in harsh winter conditions, at least excluding the toughest parts, think Canada or Russia etc. It wasn’t long ago when a ride in cold conditions meant a constricting amount of layers were needed to keep the warmth in and the wind out but today there are winter jackets where all you need is an undervest and you’re good to go even when the thermometer approaches freezing.
Much has been made of the so-called Gabba top produced by Castelli, an Italian manufacturer and since replicated by other brands. As an article in Rouleur earlier this year told pros sponsored by other kit suppliers were buying their own Gabba jerseys and blanking out the logo in order to race: the highest compliment. It feels like a wetsuit in your hands but breathes a bit with ventilation holes. The point isn’t to stay totally dry inside not to let every vapour of sweat out but it provides a thick enough barrier to stop temperature shocks. It’s useful but perhaps its reputation precedes it, this new type of garment is an improvement but not amazing.
Rain remains the weakness of all bike clothing for now, there are great items for hot weather, for freezing weather and enough to work through a few rain showers but a ride or a race in sustained rainfall still means being soaked to the bone. You’ll remember the snow in the 2013 Milan-Sanremo, the cold was bad but the worst was the dampness caused by slushy roads. Once shorts and leg-warmers got soaked it was game over for many.
What’s new? How about electronic clothing? Today many cyclists wear a band around the chest fitted with an electronic device that picks up the heart rate for a device like a watch or bike computer. But imagine if your jersey or shorts did this instead, the fabric could include tiny microcircuits to detect your heart rate. It’s not science fiction, many start-ups are working with large apparel brands to produce items like this. There’s more to come with the possibility of clothing to measure your breathing, not airflow but measuring the rate at which your chest expands and contracts. It’s possible to produce fabric with temperature sensors as well which could be of use to kit makers when working out heat loss or temperature of fabric on a hot day. The future? Before you say “I don’t want it” remember that this doesn’t mean these kinds of garments won’t appear in the pro peloton soon as part of a marketing push.
Clothing has improved a lot because it’s shrunk. Tighter fitting clothing is more aerodynamic but better wicking fabrics mean a jersey doesn’t have to flap around to cool the rider. This holds true for the winter too, many facing the looming northern hemisphere winter can ride with clothing that finally keeps you warm for hours without the bulk of Bibendum, at least if it’s dry.
Does this progress beat carbon rims, electronic shifting or GPS bike computers? A subjective question but the windtunnel might say yes. Modern clothing has made riding possible, or certainly far more comfortable, than it was in the past. You can have all the electronic gears and GPS gadgets you want but they’re useless if you’ve lost the feeling in your fingers.