Cycling Jerseys before Rapha

A new book documenting the design history of cycling jerseys and the stories behind them is rich in inspiration

When the celebrated yellow jersey first made its appearance at the Tour de France in 1919, its distinctive colour was due to expediency, not choice. Needing 36 jerseys to cover all the sizes and stages of that year’s race, the organisers had to settle for yellow, the only colour available in such quantities. As a consequence, chance played its part in establishing the yellow jersey as a visual signifier of the overall leader and an icon of the sport. This is just one of many facts unearthed in Chris Sidwells’ book dedicated to Cycling Jerseys, which set it apart from others on the subject.

Anybody recently perusing the bookshop shelves dedicated to cycling, won’t have escaped the steady increase in titles on the subject, climbing in tandem with the popularity of the activity itself. From the more obvious but mundane maintenance manuals to exotic ‘classic collections’, there’s a title for everybody from the novice to the hardened enthusiast. And then there are volumes for the esoteric, niche audience that takes delight in the unusual and offbeat. Cycling Jerseys occupies this sliver of the shelves, a book dedicated to a subject that graphically appeals on so many levels, supported by the untold stories behind each example illustrated.

Cycling legend Eddy Merckx (right, in Molteni Arcore top) shaking hands with fellow rider Joop Zoetemelk in 1973

I have to confess here that on a trip to Holland I purchased Koerstru! or ‘Race Jersey’, an earlier book on the subject containing the personal collection of Henk Theuns and published in 2010. It was updated and re-published in English by Bill Humphreys a year later but somehow it’s appeal wasn’t about the words so much as the glorious images of those jerseys. From a graphic designer’s point of view, they have so much to offer, with their harmonic or discordant colour combinations, graphic shapes, typefaces, hand-drawn fonts and company logos. They demonstrate that any designer working in this area had a veritable potpourri of elements at their disposal to work with.

Think Eddy Merckx and it’s difficult to imagine him in any other top than that classic Molteni Arcore jersey in burnt orange

Where Cycling Jerseys differs and is set apart from becoming yet another picture book, is in the dedicated homework that Sidwells has put into his volume. Perhaps a little wooden and regimental in tone at times, it nonetheless feeds the needs of those anoraks amongst us, myself included, who are interested in knowing the origins of many of the designs, and realising how chance sometimes played its part in the best laid plans, or designs. It’s a pity that the layout and typography of the book couldn’t have been made as engaging as many of the jerseys: that difficult line to tread in not allowing the book design to overshadow the content. In this instance the design has ended up just a little bit vanilla, disappointingly given the subject. A couple of typos accentuate the missed opportunity to create the definitive volume.

The French cycling team line up for the 1932Tour de France

That aside, on a more positive note, the chapters successfully break down the various jerseys into bite-size chunks covering Champions, Grand Tours, Team, National and Track, to name a few, before rolling through the best examples from the last six decades to the present. By doing so the book illustrates the gradual rise of corporate sponsorship in the sport from a single sponsor, if one existed, to the travelling billboards that many of these garments have become, especially over the last 30 years.

One of the pink jerseys worn by Merckx when leading the Giro d’Italia in the 70s. The pink colour was a reference to the paper used by La Gazzetta dello Sport, a sponsor © Henk Theuns

Within these pages there are jerseys to appeal to all tastes and styles. The one thing they all seldom escape from is becoming blank canvases for sponsors, even in their formative years. For my part I still favour the understated elegance of the early examples, many rooted in folklore, that have stood the test of time. However, even some of them have slightly insidious origins. Take for example the beautiful pink jersey worn by the leader of the Giro d’Italia, first pulled on by Italian racer Francesco Camusso in 1931. The corporate world of advertising was making inroads into the sport even then as this Maglia Rosa, as it’s known in Italian, took its colour from the newspaper stock of its sponsor, La Gazzetta dello Sport.

1937 jersey for the French Alcyon team in Kingfisher blue – Alcyon means Kingfisher in French © Emile Arbes

And similarly, that distinctive yellow leader’s jersey in the Tour de France was for many years considered to have originated from the yellow pages of L’Auto, the sports newspaper. This fable probably originated from the fact that its owner and originator of the Tour, Henri Desgrange, used it to gain publicity over his arch-rival, Le Velo. That the jersey still carries his signature, HD, in distinctive initials, to this day, is a fittingly poetic gesture on a garment normally festooned with the language of commercialism.

It is these little stories and anecdotes throughout that raise the bar with this book. Having said that, I think the layouts could have made better use of the cut-out jerseys, with their distinctive designs and historical racing scars. I yearned to see the woven fabric, wear and tear, scuffs and stains in all their detail, sustained by these jerseys in famous wins and failures in the course of their duty: the tangible visual record of man’s pain and suffering under extreme conditions.

The Flemish Flandria team line up at the start of the 1964 Tour de France

Had more space been dedicated to these it might have impacted on the welcome supporting images of the riders bedecked in their distinctive tops, racing or in rare moments of relaxation. It made me realise, looking at these poignant photographs, how synonymous some of these riders were with the sponsors’ name emblazoned across their chests or a particular colour. Think Eddy Merckx and it’s difficult to imagine him in any other top than that classic Molteni Arcore jersey in burnt orange.

A spread from Cycling Jerseys, featuring the red polka dot King of The Mountains jersey

With the inevitable need to accommodate ever increasing sponsors’ logos and names, there are consequently several examples of ‘car crash’ designs, especially during the 70s. But for every one of these aberrations in the designer’s art there’s a classically understated jersey that, in my mind, looks as good today as when it was first worn.The simple, reserved black and white chequered band on the Peugeot jersey, forever associated with Tom Simpson, or the red polka dot King of the Mountains top, resplendent in its graphic restraint, are a salient reminder that less can be more.

It’s no surprise then, when thumbing these pages, that the popularity of these classic jerseys has found a new appreciative audience by way of contemporary makers such as Rapha, as well as appealing to nostalgic over-60s enthusiasts such as myself.Skilfully tapping into a history rich with such graphic iconography, Rapha’s jerseys go to prove that the simplicity of those early designs at their zenith never went out of fashion because, I’d surmise, they never were fashionable. Designed to do the task in hand with the minimum of fuss, much like the riders who wore them, they effortlessly eschewed style in favour of function.

And, although modern materials and aerodynamic racing skinsuits, with their faint whiff of banned substances, illustrate how far jerseys have advanced technologically today, those early, woollen tops with their crude, stitched typography still convey the true spirit and soul of cycling for me.


Designer Philip Carter was co-founder of Carter Wong and now runs graphic design practice Carter Studio along with his son Joseph Carter

Cycling Jerseys: Iconic designs and the stories that made them, by Chris Sidwells, is published by Thames & Hudson, £18.95.

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