Prendas Ciclismo’s warehouse is a sight to behold for admirers of professional cycling and the often beautiful clothing worn by its heroes.
Signed jerseys decorate a space filled with dozens and dozens of boxes of clothing, many containing reproductions of iconic kits from cycling’s rich past.
Mick Tarrant and Andy Storey can number Bradley Wiggins among a host of professional riders to whom clothing has been despatched from their small unit on the south coast of England. They have direct relationships with the most respected names in cycle clothing, some of whom reproduce Prendas’ vintage kits.
Tarrant founded Prendas Ciclismo (the name means ‘cycle clothing’ in Spanish) in 1996. Storey came aboard permanently in 2004. They are self-confessed fans of the sport; strong amateur riders schooled in the club tradition, who have turned a business processing 32 online orders a month from a spare bedroom into one that now receives hundreds of orders a week.
The Prendas story is one that encompasses the giants of the sport and tiny factories in Italy and northern Spain. In a market crowded with labels claiming an association with the sport’s heritage, Prendas prides itself on a direct relationships with manufacturers who clothed heroes from Coppi to Moser.
Cycle clothing had been a “fascination” for Tarrant and offered the commercial advantage of direct and exclusive relationships with suppliers; opportunities not enjoyed by stockists of bicycles and components. “I was working towards providing something different. No-one was specialising in clothing. I was the only one,” he recalls.
He started the business from home, equipped only with a credit card ‘swipe’ machine and a telephone. Trips to Spain to visit Exteondo and to Italy to collect Mapei kit from Sportful ended at a fax machine extruding “a rainforest” and days spent fielding phone calls.
Enter Storey, who designed a website for Prendas. “I said, ‘what do I want a website for? I haven’t got a computer,’” Tarrant recalls. In its early days, the site served only as an online showroom. Storey would print orders received by email on his machine and fax them to Tarrant. When Storey went on honeymoon, his brother Barney (a building control officer at the time, now a successful tandem pilot for TeamGB) pushed printed copies of emails through Tarrant’s door while out on his rounds.
“It took us two years to let them order online,” says Storey. He presents a printed graph showing total web orders for February 2000. “32 orders in a month.” The figure has grown vastly over the years, the result of hard work.
The office walls are covered in jerseys and photographs, the majority of them signed. Garments bearing the signatures of Mark Renshaw, Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd, Bradley Wiggins, Greg Lemond, Eric Zabel, Paolo Bettini, Eric Vanderaerden and Helen Wyman are among a broad collection visible to visitors.
The jewels of the collection, however, are produced from anonymous cardboard boxes: an immaculate black and white Peugeot jersey bearing the signature of Robert Millar; an impossibly heavy woollen replica of Fausto Coppi’s Bianchi jersey made by Santini.
Most of the companies with whom Prendas deal directly manufacture their own product, and most are European. Both are important considerations. Tarrant offers MOA-Nalini as a ‘for instance’. “They employ about 350 people in a little place called Castel d’Ario. It’s a tiny little town. When the factory whistle goes, they all walk out to lunch. Hardly anyone gets into a car. Why? Because they all live locally. So if Nalini decide to outsource China, suddenly all those people have no job. The fabric of the whole society changes. You rip the heart out of the whole community.”
The Basque community is another that holds a special place in Tarrant’s affections. The team he roots for is Euskaltel-Euskadi. The rider he most admires is Samuel Sanchez. One of the first manufacturers with whom he founded a direct relationship was Exteondo.
Today, the most significant of Prendas’ direct relationships lies with Santini. The Italian house, 47 years old, and still in the control of founder, Pietro, and his daughters, Monica, and Paola, is one of the most respected in cycling; supplier to many of the greats of Italian cycling (the aforementioned Coppi among them) as well as to Katusha and Orica-GreenEDGE in the modern peloton.
“I wanted to have a French champion’s jersey made,” Tarrant recalls. “There was a team called Bonjour. Didier Roux was the French champion. It was a really simple jersey and had ‘Bonjour’ with the tri-colour. I thought, ‘What a great jersey’. How often would you have ‘Bonjour’ written on a French champion’s jersey? It was about 2001. We had long sleeves, short sleeves. That was the beginning.
“The following year, ironically, they took on Mapei. I’d done the Mapei clothing from Sportful every year since the team started. It was a natural progression. We plunged in. That was the beginning. 2002.”
Tarrant recalls doing “ridiculous things” like taking 100 Andrea Taffi jerseys with tricolor bands and the name of the Italian champion on the back. “The guy at the factory would say to our export manager, ‘Anna, are you sure you’ve got this right? Some guys in England want to buy 100 Andrea Taffi jerseys? Have you got a deposit from them?’ They’d never experienced anything like it.”
One rider eager to purchase the growing range of national champions’ jerseys offered by Prendas was one B Wiggins of Maida Vale. Tarrant produces an order form from 1997, a document discovered during a recent clear out, a period in which he was aware of the Londoner’s growing reputation. “We used to give him socks and stuff. Stickers for his bike. All free of charge. He used to collect champions’ jerseys, of which I had plenty.”
The manner of Wiggins’ and Team Sky’s Tour de France success gave it an air of inevitability, but in 2001 the idea of a British ‘superteam’ rolling out from the Grand Depart, far less occupying the first two steps of the final podium in Paris would have seemed laughable. Wiggins (him again), Sean Yates and Max Sciandri were among those left standing in Trafalgar Square at the launch of the Linda McCartney team.
Tarrant describes the event as a ‘fiasco’ but saw an opportunity among the wreckage. “Etxeondo had this team kit and naturally I bought it all. I found the invoice the other day. It was really expensive then – in 2001! It was the Brit team that got away. And the kit was immaculate. All the blue chip sponsors: Jacob’s Creek, Jaguar. You just know you could get the money for it.”
Chief among Prendas Ciclismo’s unique selling points is the company’s reproduction kit. They began commissioning them after Tarrant procured some of the jerseys commissioned by RAI for the Italian broadcaster’s Coppi documentary.
Storey opens a box with a green and red reproduction of Gino Bartali’s Legnano-Pirelli jersey. It feels as heavy as a chain mail, but is unquestionably beautiful. Tarrant marvels that the reproductions didn’t sell. “They were lovingly made and deadly, deadly accurate,” he enthuses. He produces a reproduction of Coppi’s blue and white Bianchi jersey, delicately folded, from a separate box. “I started working with Santini and found they had some left over in the warehouse, and they did another production for us, but they weren’t a runaway success by any means,” says Tarrant.
There are few hard and fast rules on which the pair choose a kit to reproduce. There have been none earlier than 1992 and they have tended not to be “too garish” (a recently-commissioned repro of the fuchsia and yellow GIS-Gelatti jersey represents a departure from that, Storey admits). “Even in the dead of winter, we sell them. The appeal is timeless. I’m quite amazed by it,” says Tarrant.
The manufacture of past kits is the last step in a chain that begins with an instinct for a classic design. Tarrant is adamant that the team is a minor concern. The pair draw on a deep knowledge of the sport’s history, evidence of the self-confessed fan mentality, to select a design they believe will sell (discussion of the GIS-Gelati jersey involves a long-ish deviation into GIS’ sudden termination of interest in the sport after years of backing for, among others, Francesco Moser). Painstaking research is followed by correspondence with sponsors of the day to gain permission to use the logos.
The first repro kit ordered by Prendas was the classic black and white Peugeot kit, worn by Millar, Roche, Yates et al. Tarrant noticed a mistake on the Santini website while researching the company prior to his first visit in 2002. “On their website, they had a picture of Phil Anderson, but captioned Sean Yates or vice-versa,” Tarrant recalls. “They said are you sure, and I said yes. Monica called her dad over. I said, ‘By the way, can you make that jersey for us?’ They said, ‘No-one’s ever asked us’. I said, ‘Well, I’m asking.’”
Prendas’ range of accessories are popular across cycling’s varying constituencies, Storey adds. Tarrant’s relationship with the manufacturer of Prendas’ gloves and overshoes, supplier to some of the most exclusive brands in cycling, is instructive.
An invitation from Exteondo to the 1997 world road race championships in San Sebastian included an opportunity to meet 1988 Tour de France champion Pedro Delgado. For a party of Italian guests, the day had gone badly. A camera left in a hotel room had cost them a photo opportunity. Tarrant offered to take photos and send them to Italy. In turn, he was invited to visit the factory on his next visit. “You go to the factory and they get a bunch of samples out: ‘Oh, you make these – I had no idea’. They said, ‘We can make them for you, if you like’.
Competitors range from high-end brands to the major online retailers, and customers from riders searching for something unique (Tarrant estimates only 15 per cent of the lines stocked by Prendas can be bought elsewhere) to those simply seeking the most affordable kit.
The Prendas customer base now covers a cross-section of the cycling world from traditional club riders to the legions who have joined the sport in recent years. Delivery addresses give a clue to the shifting demographic, Tarrant explains, but adds that Prendas has only experienced a ripple effect from road cycling’s exploding popularity. “For the newbie, we’re not the first stop.” he says.
The trickle down of technology from the peloton to the consumer is trumpeted by manufacturers of frames and components. Is the same true of clothing? Tarrant believes that while fabrics may have reached a level of efficiency that is difficult to improve, ironically, professional riders now sometimes receive a standard below that of their predecessors, typically from manufacturers without a special production department, who, he claims, “can’t be arsed” to produce a superior line for the team.
“To some extent, it’s gone backwards,” he reflects. “Pro team stuff used to be pro team stuff.” He cites a graduate of British Cycling’s Academy who rode in the WorldTour peloton in Prendas gloves with the logos blacked out. “Our accessories are better than a lot of the pros get.”