by Imogen Smith

When you look at it, the combination of skin-tight Lycra and padded shorts is a little weird, especially when you mix them with the penguin waddle we’re forced to adopt to walk safely in our cleats. So what’s it all about? How did cycling clothing as we know it evolve? Why do we dress the way we do, and where to next?

Scratchy wool

Way back when the safety bicycle was invented in the late 19th Century, along with the pneumatic tyre, cycling became a safe and easy mode of transport for the masses. The more people rode, the more appetite there was for racing bikes, with the competition driving innovation, as it still does today.

Even in the early history of cycling, specialised garments appeared, with riders typically wearing home-made wool shorts and long or short-sleeved woollen jerseys - often with a high collar to keep riders warm. Most riders wore wool socks and slipper-like leather shoes that were easy to get in and out of toe cages.

Wool was the choice because it stayed warm even when wet from rain or sweat (and that’s why it’s still a popular choice for socks and base layers today). Unfortunately, it was also pretty scratchy, and when it got wet it tended to sag, particularly the shorts. Chafing from home-spun wool shorts was an enormous problem, and riders could finish races bleeding because of them.

Sometime in the early 20th century this problem was addressed by sewing a piece of leather into the seat of cycling shorts. A ‘chamois’ is kind of mountain goat, but it’s likely that early cycling chamois were actually pieces of sheepskin, and what we now call ‘chamois cream’ was a kind of grease or leather conditioner applied directly to the chamois to soften it and decrease the risk that it would rub against the skin.

There’s evidence that as cycling clothing became more specialised, and professional racing grew in the 1930s and ’40s, some manufacturers of cycling clothing turned to softer deer leather. Still, the chamois did nothing to dampen vibrations or cushion the backsides of avid riders – its only purpose was to reduce the inevitable friction between skin and scratchy, wet wool.

Sponsorship and space-age fabrics

Where jerseys are concerned, Italian clothing maker Armando Castelli and his son, Maurizio Castelli (the founder of today’s eponymous clothing brand) both pioneered new fabrics and styles for the growing sport of cycling. In the mid-century, Armando Castelli was the first to introduce silk jerseys (legend has it that the first of these was worn by French star Jacques Anquetil). Apart from being lighter and cooler than wool, silk also presented the possibility of taking colourful dyes, without which the growth of the sport in association with lucrative sponsorships might not have been possible.

Maurizio broke away from his father’s tailoring company and started his own clothing business – Castelli – focusing particularly on sporting apparel. He became interested in a new material called Lycra, at the time used mainly by speed skiers, and introduced new cycling shorts made of the fabric in 1977. The day his Milan store opened with the new stock, a line of customers snaked around the block, eager to try the cutting-edge fabric. Clearly, chafing wool had run its course. Lycra jerseys had even more significance. In the early 1980s Castelli also pioneered sublimation printing, enabling myriad colours and detailed designs to be transferred to jerseys, hastening a new age of professionalism and all-important sponsorship dollars to the sport.

It’s interesting to note how much we don’t know about the history of cycling clothing. The comfortable, if not entirely practical, bib and brace design has a mysterious past. We know that racers used to hold their wool cycling shorts up with suspenders to avoid further chafing or digging around their middles during rides, but it’s uncertain when shorts and braces became integrated into the bibs we know and love today.

Other sports – notably skiing – developed similar bib and brace designs in the 1970s and ’80s, and it could well be that cycling adopted the idea in tandem, particularly because many outdoor gear manufacturers created garments for both industries.

Synthetic fabrics like Lycra proved perfectly suited to cycling, combining the best features of natural fibres like wool, silk, or cotton. They can be printed in vibrant colours and in detailed designs, they keep cool, stretch for an aerodynamic fit, and they’re lightweight – all at once. While cyclists were quick to adopt everything that was new and wonderful about these synthetics, one aspect of their kit remained the same as it had for decades: the all-important chamois.

Goodbye goatskin

Everyone who remembers the 1980s will understand that this decade really was go-time for synthetics and new materials. Just as power-to-weight ratios drove down the weight of bike parts like saddles (also driving down their comfort), foam and soft synthetics were combined, at first stitched into a very basic pad, and later developed into the layered, high-density, contoured, and softened chamois we know today. At the same time, ‘chamois cream’ evolved from a softener for the leather itself, to an anti-friction balm to reduce rubbing between skin and synthetic cushioning.

But what about women?

The evolution of women’s cycling clothing has followed a different cultural trajectory. The rise and rise of the bicycle at the turn of the last century contributed a lot to the early emancipation of women, giving them freedom to travel alone, but also restricting them to garments like floor-length skirts and tight-laced corsets. The Rational Dress movement of the late 1800s promoted compromises between modes drapery and the practical demands of bifurcated physical activity. Bloomers (long, loose trousers with a shorter skirt worn over the top) were widely ridiculed, but also an early step towards the sartorial equality women enjoy today. Thanks to the bicycle.

For ladies interested in cycling seriously, there was scant separate development of women’s clothing throughout the 20th Century. Female bike riders racing from the 1940s through to the 1970s dressed in the same wool, silk, leather, and later, Lycra clothing as men. Women’s cycling wasn’t an Olympic sport until 1984, a mere 88 years after men’s cycling debuted at the modern Olympics in 1896. But once it was, competitive demands and increased recreational participation drove innovation, and by the early 1990s women’s specific cycling kit in different cuts, sizes, and with different chamois designs, finally made its way to market.

Today, manufacturers recognise the immense influence of the women’s market, and in recent years have been reversing how the traditional engineering of cycling clothing still reflects its male-dominated past. Halter-neck bibs, for example, make nature stops easier, while entirely different lines of shoes, gloves, and other accessories, cater for differences in women’s body shapes and sizes.

Now, and into the future

In recent years, demands for marginal gains and market share have driven cycling kit to new levels of sophistication. Wind tunnels push clothing manufacturers to eliminate each and every drag-inducing wrinkle, and digital production methods provide the precision to colour, cut, and contour. At the same time, great schisms have split cycling into disciplines with vastly different dress codes – from baggies to skinsuits – adding complexity and depth to the choices that we encounter in the bike clothing market today.

Current research and development indicates that cycling clothing is entering a new phase of complexity, from wearable technology (imagine your jersey could monitor your heart rate, and your shoes your power), to the integration of much-needed safety features such as crash protection (like Scott’s road rash-proof Pro Tec bibs). There is even the growing ubiquity of subtle, but effective, hi-vis reflective strips. New levels of breathability, water-resistance, adaptability, and defence are coming, so that our clothing is likely to keep us safer and more comfortable, all the while staying true to its wool and leather roots.