Evolution of the Cycling Jersey

In Cycling, Fitness / Health, Tech / Gear, Performance

The world's most famous cycle race, the Tour de France, is most notable for the yellow jersey that is worn by the lead cyclist. Those familiar with the world of cycle racing will know that Spain's famous Vuelta a Espana features a coveted red jersey and in the Giro d'Italia the general leader is denoted by the maglia rose (pink jersey). And it’s not just the race leaders that have iconic shirts; the story of entire competitions is played out in the different colours denoting the points leader, the mountain leader, the youth leader, the leading team, the most combative team and the lead local competitor. 

You don’t find this kind of symbolism in the kit of many other competitive sports, so it is hardly surprising that the cycling jersey industry is so vast and so competitive, with manufacturers vying to produce items that look and feel better than those of their rivals and can perform at the highest level. Le Coq Sportif currently supply the yellow jersey for the Tour de France; Italian pro cycling outfitters, Santini, make the red jersey for the Vuelta a Espana and Castelli enjoy the prestige conferred by creating the maglia rose for the Giro d’Italia. Although their brand names enjoy less prominence on these than the logos of the many and varied sponsors, there is no doubt that they reap huge benefits from their association with the top athletes in road cycle racing.

Tour de France Stage 16 - 2016

However, the race for innovation (and the subsequent prestige of supplying kit to the highest profile cycle races) is only part of the story. Cycling is also a sport that honours its heritage, so being able to retain elements of jerseys worn by previous generations brings its own kudos and has a wide appeal, not only to the organisers, participants and fans of historic races such as the Tour de France, but also to leisure cyclists looking for retro cycling jerseys that highlight the heritage of their favourite pastime. 

The cycling jersey industry displays a unique juxtaposition between relentlessly innovating to improve performance, whilst simultaneously embracing a misty-eyed nostalgia for the bygone days of cycling. We’ve decided to don our rose-tinted glasses and look back at the evolution of the cycling jersey, to learn more about its humble beginnings and find out why retro cycling jerseys are all the rage these days.

The Early Days of Cycling

The basic template for the bicycle as we know it today (with two equal-sized wheels and a chain drive) was invented in 1885 and just afterwards people started to worry about what would be the most practical and stylish attire to wear to operate one. The fastest and fittest of these then started to look for the best garments to wear to race. Shortly afterwards, in the early 1900s, the cycling jersey was invented. 

Cut long in the back to accommodate the bent-over position adopted for road racing, a cycling jersey tends to sport the following key features:

  • Pockets are located on the back panel, as front pockets would be uncomfortable and likely to spill.
  • The zip at the front is usually made very long, giving the cyclist flexibility to fully close it in cold conditions and while resting to open it up and increase ventilation during periods of exertion and in hot weather.
  • The fit tends to be figure-hugging to help reduce air resistance, both for comfort and to facilitate higher speeds.
  • Made from materials designed to be breathable and to wick moisture from the skin. This keeps the cyclist cooler, dryer and more comfortable.

In the early days, the vast majority of cycling jerseys for both leisure and racing were long-sleeved and made of wool. Whilst better at wicking away moisture and absorbing sweat than cotton would have been, these woollen cycling tops weren’t very breathable or lightweight and they became extremely uncomfortable and heavy when wet.  However, it was not until the 1940s that Armando Castelli developed an infinitely more comfortable and lightweight alternative made out of silk.

This innovation not only helped elite athletes to clock up faster racing times it also meant that pockets, collars and zips could be introduced to cycling attire without weighing down the fabric. When compared to wool, silk’s superior ability to hold dyes meant that cycling attire could now be more vibrant and could incorporate branding and sponsorship logos more effectively.

The Advent of Lycra

The next major development in cycling apparel came in the late 1950s, when DuPont, a chemical manufacturer in Wilmington, Delaware, developed Lycra. An industry game changer for sportswear as a whole, Lycra is a polyether-polyurea copolymer, a synthetic fibre known for its exceptional elasticity. Adding Lycra (also known as spandex) to cycling kit resulted in garments that were stretchier, more aerodynamic, lighter weight and better at wicking moisture away from the body. Garments containing Lycra could also carry more complex designs, making it easier for individual cyclists and cycling teams to stand out from the crowd. 

The introduction of Lycra to cycling kit marked the beginning of a “synthetic takeover” and in 1977, when the chamois leather pad was removed from padded shorts and replaced with a man-made alternative, there were officially no more natural materials left in top level performance cycling gear. 

Another significant side effect of using Lycra in cycling jerseys was that, because it provided a better canvas for intricate patterns and designs, it suddenly became a more attractive prospect to race sponsors. In the beginning, race sponsors were strictly relevant to the sport, with the names of bicycle manufacturers being the most common adornment to a cycling team’s racing kit.

Cycle race, London 

However, as time went on sponsors became more obscure and riders began to sport the branding of anything from banks, supermarkets and tech firms to food manufacturers, pen makers and suppliers of DIY materials. No part of a cyclist’s kit is considered too sacred to bear a sponsoring brand’s logo (even the armpit is fair game) and the result was that professional riders became high-speed billboards of competing logos and brand names in a rainbow of vibrant colours. This was a far cry from the subtle colours and simple designs that characterise the first hundred years of cycling attire and many brands, including Rapha and Endura, have a core consumer range that is notable for its simplicity and the absence of bold patterning and strong branding.

The Rise of the Retro Cycling Jersey

However, given the rich symbolism of legacies such as the Tour de France’s yellow jersey, there is an almost equal compulsion in the cycling community to wear the styles and designs of previous cycling greats. Some cyclists are even returning to the idea of woollen jerseys and embracing merino for colder winter rides (though they are probably grateful for the luxury of lightweight synthetic alternatives when the summer comes round again).

There is also a significant market for products that replicate the iconic jerseys worn in historic races (logos and all). From the Peugeot World Champion 1966 jersey and the jersey worn by Belgian Tour de France champion Eddy Merckx in the 1970s, to the Piet Mondrian inspired La Vie Claire team jersey from 1985, there is a buoyant market for retro cycling attire that combines the honouring of historic races and the champions of yesteryear with more recent innovations in performance technologies – you can now have your cake and eat it when it comes to cycling’s dual preoccupation with its heritage and innovation.

Technological innovation in cycling attire means that cyclists have more opportunity than ever to create their own unique look for their time spent in the saddle. Whether you are an elite professional looking to stand out from the crowd in a packed race or a leisure cyclist wanting to be smart, safe and visible on a weekend bike ride, the wealth of styles, finishes and performance enhancing features is vast.

In his 2018 post about the history of cycling apparel for Gear Junkie, Adam Ruggiero asserts that experience and innovation have brought us to two simple rules for cycling kit: ‘White Lycra shorts are never a good idea, and kit can never be too loud.’ So, whether you embrace bold new patterns and neon colour palettes, prefer plainer cycling attire accented with high viz and reflective elements to keep you safe on the road or want to honour the champions of your favourite race by wearing retro cycling jerseys, you can’t go wrong until you start reaching for those white shorts.

New Proviz Slipstream Cycling Jersey

Here at Proviz we are proud to say that our range of cycling shorts comes without an option to choose a white colourway - we are all about flattering black shorts with reflective and high viz detailing to help keep you visible to other road users. Plain black may be flattering but it doesn’t really get you noticed when you are out and about. If, for reasons of style or safety (or both), you prefer cycling attire that turns heads, you may be pleased to discover that we have recently introduced a new line of long and short-sleeved cycling tops inspired by vintage race designs and the optical illusions of Twentieth Century Op Art. Bringing the style and innovation of peloton gear to the everyday cycling jerseys you use for your weekend rides and your daily commute, these new cycling products are perfect for use as spring and summer day viz, they can also be layered up with jackets, gilets and warmers when conditions are cooler. 

Shop Proviz Cycling Jerseys