Cycling is one of sport's most colourful spectacles and the sheer quantity of different designs in the peloton is one of the main reasons for that.
Kit designers also find a lot more freedom in cycling, but also have to contend with more commercial pressures than other sports. And if you couple that with sponsors changing all the time it's unsurprising that you don't find as much kit continuity as in a sport like football. That means that over the years we've seen countless designs. Some of them great, others, well, less so - and it's normally those designs that stick in the memory...
Team kits can be just as divisive as the riders who wear them and given that choice in clothing matters tends to be rather personal, I should warn you that some of you might hate the choices further down the page. With that in mind, when putting this list together I figured I’ll pick whatever I want. If you don’t agree with the choices – or have some examples of others that should be here – let me know in the comments.
Oh, and you know how a lot of riders say you should never wear team kit? You'll see some of the reasons why below. What you might think is cool now may well turn into something you're ashamed to wear once that team is dead and gone...
La Vie Claire
Two pretty good guidelines when designing are kit are to keep it simple and, if possible, use the work of an artistic master. La Vie Claire followed both of these when they adapted the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, father of an artistic school known as neoplasticism.
In Dutch, neoplasticism is called De Stijl which translates as ‘the style’ – a far cooler name, I’m sure you’ll agree – and basically focused on the use of straight lines and primary colours to create abstract images. In fact, Mondrian’s principles called for the use of primary colours with black and white, changed by Benetton for red, blue, yellow, black and grey. A far more sensible choice for bike kit. Remember those all-white Française des Jeux kits? Remember what they look like in the rain? That’s why shorts shouldn’t be white.
Benetton designed the original jersey using Mondrian’s principles and it proved to be so popular that it stuck around for four years between 1984 and 1987, during which time La Vie Claire riders won the Tour de France twice, with Bernard Hinault in 1985 and Greg LeMond in 1986. There aren’t many teams who have had that kind of jersey continuity (usually because most new sponsors quite rightly want the kit tailored to their preferences), but this one was such a great design that it did.
It’s worth pointing out that when the team’s kit did finally change, it became this. Don’t mess with a classic, is pretty much the lesson there.
Now I don’t want to propagate the idea that team kits were just better back before the 90s happened, because it’s just not true (as Atala and Fagor-Mercier capably demonstrate). But also because those jerseys were made from wool. And not fancy merino wool either, plain old wool, pretty much the opposite material in every way to that which you’d ideally want a jersey made from.
The truth is that advancing technology and the advent of lycra simply made it easier to plaster logos all over jerseys and use all manner of colours that just wouldn’t have been practical before. Who says progress is always good?
Another team who had a wonderful jersey were Ti Raleigh. They also had Joop Zoetemelk, Hennie Kuiper, Jan Raas and more on the team, who between them won almost every race going, which must make life very easy for the directeur sportif. But, just in case that wasn’t enough, the DS happened to be former Paris-Roubaix winner Peter Post. A super team, indeed.
The beauty of this jersey is that it matches seamlessly to black shorts, too, something that all kit manufacturers would do well to remember. Black shorts are classy, but can occasionally be rather jarring, a fact that tempts too many world champions into matching all-white kit.
Shorts aside, this jersey was so good and has stood the test of time to such a degree that the current incarnation of the Raleigh squad base their current kit around the same design.
Brooklyn Chewing Gum
Having Mr Paris-Roubaix Roger de Vlaeminck on your team is always going to grant you a certain level of gravtias. Coupling a rider like that with a kit like this is a dream recipe.
Wonderfully, Brooklyn were actually an Italian team that rode in the 1970s and early 80s, whose best rider was a Belgian and whose team colours were the American flag. Say what you like about the USA, but they sure do make a nice flag.
As well as keeping the design simple, the red, white and blue colour scheme wasn’t going to fail. It’s arguably the most popular colour scheme in history when you look at the sheer number of countries who’ve used it as their flag: the UK, France, Netherlands, Russia, Iceland, Cuba and the aforementioned USA being just a few of the many examples. Brooklyn also deserve credit for resisting the urge to try and use any form of the Brooklyn Bridge on the jersey, despite it being on the packaging of the gum. Chapeau.
Rapha and Sky might be two of the more polarising brands in cycling, but together they’ve created a kit that stands out with its simplicity and elegance. Even if they won as much as they do, it’s fair to say Sky wouldn’t have the same number of haters if they were dressed like Manchester United in the early 90s. You can't hate something that ugly, it's just not fair. If your kit looks like that even your own fans won't want to wear it, that'll make it hard to shift units no matter how many races you win.
If there’s one thing that Sky – and plenty of the other brands here – have taught us it’s that the best way to create a good-looking kit is to keep things simple.
The Team Sky colour scheme is also smart in that it’s made life easy for them to plaster it over pretty much anything you can imagine, including team vehicles, all manner of casual clothing and more merchandise than even the most passionate fan would have room to house. If you want to be commercially successful, image and the bigger picture are really important factors. How many people do you see wandering around in Lampre-Merida kit? Almost none. Not even Filippo Pozzato.
Perhaps the masters of keeping things simple were Molteni. Look at Eddy Merckx’s iconic Molteni jersey, it’s orange and black. That’s all. Except for when Merckx was world champ, of course, like in the picture below. Or wearing yellow at the Tour. Or pink at the Giro. Or other leaders' jerseys. Come to think of it, maybe he didn't wear that Molteni jersey very much at all...
Naturally it helps when you've got the greatest cyclist of all-time riding for you, as Merckx did during Molteni's sponsorship of the team between 1971 and 1976, but it's it’s fair to say that even winning every race going wouldn’t have made The Cannibal’s jersey a winner if he’d been riding for Kelme. Some things will never catch on. It's also why the Molteni jersey has become the kit was regularly associated with Merckx.
The Molteni jersey is a classic and harks back to a time when, by and large, things were just a bit simpler. Including cycling jerseys.
And the bad...
Have you ever tried to Google ONCE? It’s a nightmare, because it’s just the same as the word ‘once’. Almost as difficult, in fact, as trying to make the distinction between the two in writing, which I’m hoping is going better than I think it is. And of course, ‘ONCE Upon a Time in the West’ would have been a totally different proposition with Alex Zülle, Laurent Jalabert and Abraham Olano in leading roles.
Anyway ONCE, for those who don’t know, is a lottery for blind people in Spain and the team mirrored the sponsor’s yellow and black colour scheme. Or, they almost always did. The main problem was that ever year, at the Tour de France, ONCE weren’t allowed to go with their predominantly yellow jerseys because it'd clash with the Tour's maillot jaune, and the brand made the rather bold decision to change the yellow to pink. Even the aforementioned Jalabert – a rider with more panache than a bag full of Tommy Voecklers – couldn’t make the pink look cool. Although he tried his best.
The one saving grace was that the shorts weren’t totally pink as well, meaning that even if an ONCE rider managed to grab yellow, they wouldn’t have to suffer that kind of kit clash. However, as Zülle demonstrates here, the choice of pink bikes was a pretty bad one. Having said that, Zülle didn’t have to worry about wearing yellow all that much…
If you can process the colours out of your mind for a moment, the actual design of the current Ag2r jersey isn’t all that bad. It won’t be winning any awards, but there have certainly been far more egregious crimes against cycling fashion.
The problem comes, however, in the choice of colours. Light blue isn’t bad, and white is fine if used in sensible quantities but brown? Brown is a big no-no. Don’t get me wrong, brown has it’s place, and I fully admire the job it does adding a tonal warning to mud, but on a cycling kit? The last thing you want is to look like the French or Flandrian field into which you’ll fall during muddy Spring Classic. Unless they designed it for that reason, in which case it’s a pretty prescient bit of thinking.
Oddly, in the early 2000s, when Ag2r La Mondiale were still Ag2r Prevoyance, the company had a far better blue, white and yellow colour scheme which actually looked okay (see Moreau, Christophe, for further details). Whichever geniuses decided to remodel the company colours to include copious amounts of brown probably laughed all the way to the bank to deposit the hatfuls of money they no doubt received for the idea. Meanwhile, poor young cyclists were designed for ridicule every time they ventured out. No wonder Nico Roche got out of there...
Before David Millar was driving round in Maseratis, wearing more Poc clothing than you could shake a Swedish stick at and designing super swanky clothing ranges with Castelli, he had to ride his bike dressed like this. Just saying.
Graeme Obree’s career on the road was curtailed for many reasons, one being his hard-line anti-doping stance. Having to wear the above jersey probably just added insult to injury.
If you’re ever in an argument about which team was the greatest of all time, you can bet anything you like that Mapei will come up in discussion. In the 1990s, Mapei were a genuine powerhouse and, at various times, featured the likes of Johan Museeuw, Franco Ballerini, Andrea Tafi, Frank Vandenbroucke, Pavel Tonkov, Paolo Bettini and the early years of Fabian Cancellara, Oscar Friere and Filippo Pozzato – and that’s leaving plenty of other big names off the list.
Mapei also featured one of the most colourful kits of all time – quite literally, in fact lifted straight from the packaging of their sponsor, er, Mapei, who make building supplies. Seriously pop down to your local B&Q this weekend and you’ll probably see something they make. To prove that point, here’s one I took recently, although now I come to think of it all that proves is that I’m the sort of sad act that amuses himself by taking pictures of cycling sponsors’ products when I’m out shopping. Since I’ve already shamed myself, here’s a picture of what Soudal – co-sponsors of Lotto Soudal – make. It’s sealant, since you asked.
But just because a kit becomes iconic doesn’t make it good, and although if I had one I’d wear it all the time, it’s impossible to get past the fact ‘tutti frutti’ is not a strong look. Long as the pictures of Museeuw et al dominating races throughout the 90s may last, the peloton won’t be missing this one.