When the “safety bicycle” turned up replacing the big wheelers of the 1800’s, cycling became accessible for the first time. And before long, people were racing. Athletic competition often drives innovation and at the dawn of cycling as a competitive sport, most cycling clothing was wool. It was scratchy, and when it got soaked it fit like a saggy sack, but was faster drying and more comfortable than cotton nevertherless.
The first big evolution occurred when Armando Castelli, Italian tailor turned clothing manufacturer, introduced silk jerseys in the 40’s. Castelli was primarily making a functional improvement to help racers go farther, faster. Silk was much lighter and cooler and, as a side-benefit, took ink much better. Taking ink turned out to be quite important to the advancement of professional cycling, as big business discovered the value of turning racers into vibrant billboards.
Post WW2 chemists changed the world of cycling clothing with their inventions of polyester, nylon, and spandex. Fabric made from these new materials improved the way designers and manufacturers made sports apparel, including cycling clothing. By combining polyester with elastic, DuPont invented Lycra and by the ’70’s, cyclists had moved away from wool or silk and migrated to a new breed of synthetic fabrics that wicked like wool, were light like silk, but were aerodynamically skin-tight, and could be printed with vivid colors.
While road cycling clothing design has been dominated by the need to create fast billboards, mountain biking clothing has been dominated by references to other youthful sports. The first mountain bikers were outdoor-loving rebels. Flannel and denim were what they wore and it worked pretty well for bombing down Repack Road. When mountain bikes evolved and pedaling became plausible, early mountain biker’s choice of cycling clothing was more of what was already in the closet – surf shorts, climber shorts, cut-offs, whatever worked. Mountain bikers that had road cycling roots had a hard time giving up the functional benefits of non-flapping, non-snagging lycra with a chamois. They wore it much to their fellow mountain biker’s chagrin. Two camps emerged in cycling clothing for mountain bikers: lycra wearers on one side and “baggy” wearers on the other.
Scot Nicol bombs Mount Diablo. Photo by Everett Utterback courtesy of Ibis Cycles.
Somewhere along the way, true mountain biking shorts evolved with cut and features specific to the sport, like a stretchy liner with a pad on the inside and durable weather-shedding materials on the outside. But, references to the sport’s rebel, outdoorsy heritage are all but gone. Surf-, moto-, or tacticool-inspired pieces dominate the sport. Mountain biking has yet to grow a functional aesthetic all of it’s own. We’d like to change that.
We are on the cusp of a new wave of apparel for cycling – one where there is increasing diversity on many axes: in function, in style, and in quality. Rapha got roadies out of their wearable billboards, Assos produces revolutionary (and weird) stuff with a singular focus on function, and Giro is challenging what function and style have to mean on a bike. And there is us – trying to elevate what’s available in the mountain bike world. We believe it’s nice to feel like yourself on a bike. And for /us/ at least, we want something that is truly functional and built to last, but that looks good and carries over the outdoorsy ethos intrinsic to mountain biking.