It’s not about the jersey
I’m lucky to have many cycling photographs hanging on the walls of my office. It’s probably no surprise to you that they depict the great riders, races and significant moments in the sport, and it’s no accident either that they are all beautiful, evocative and inspirational. They are all the things we amateur road riders dream of. But what is it that draws me to the pictures? There has to be much more to it than enthusiastic aspiration. My photographs feature some of the most prolific racing jerseys of the sport and yet, I wonder, how important are the jerseys to the image? Especially as they are an eclectic group and don’t include the more recognisable jersey designs that have become classics, such as Molteni, Faema or Peugeot. The one thing that all these pictures contain is a cycling hero, the rider who stands out from the peloton – a character with more pull than the team sponsors, more panache than the domestiques and more presence than the journeymen pros around him.
I’ve come to realise that the jerseys in my favourite cycling photographs are simply inseparable from my favourite cycling heroes. And I’ll go further still: all the jerseys that come to my mind most readily are the ones that actually embody the character and reinforce the key attributes of what makes the hero. Some examples from my photo wall should help. Starting with the French national jersey, a simple tricolour affair, but forever entwined with my memories of the proud nationalist Bernard Hinault – always happy to cock a snook at the world around him, yet conscious of tradition and carrying the hopes of a nation.
Or take Andrei Tchmil in the Lotto jersey of the mid ’90s – splattered with mud, more Belgian than the Belgians around him. The jersey isn’t pretty, but it’s as blunt, gritty and down-market as the cobbled climbs of Flanders. Or Andy Hampsten and his late ’80s 7-Eleven jersey – they were made for each other. Refreshing, positive and other-worldly, they both took on the traditional cycling nation, signaling the dawn of a new era for the sport. You could even extend the analogy to their Huffy-stickered Serotta bikes.
Forget my nostalgic pictures if you like. Look at more recent history and it’s still true. Jan Ullrich and the Telekom jersey – both powerful, impressive and well endowed on the outside, but perhaps more fragile underneath. Of course, Jan looked better in the 2003 Bianchi jersey, but that always felt like a dream to me, a brief flash of misplaced hope amid Lance Armstrong’s onslaught. Speaking of Mellow Johnny and his US postal jersey, could they both have been any more corporate, direct, American?
I once owned a Mercatone Uno jersey. It was awful. Made by Biemme with ugly gold and black designs and pirate motifs on the back, it was the worst case of late ’90s Italian excess. I bought it because I loved Marco Pantani. And there’s the rub. It’s not the race, the exploit or the jersey that connects strongest with me (and maybe you) – it’s the rider. That’s one of the best things about road cycling – it puts you in touch with what’s real. We connect with the great heroes because in their eyes, and in their struggle, they reveal something important about us. Marco’s was the first and last trade jersey I ever owned.
Fast-forward to road racing today and professionalism and technology have taken over. With few exceptions, the riders are automatons, connected by race radios. Is it any wonder their kit all seems so forgettable this season?
So I don’t have pictures from recent years on my wall. I’m happy to stick with my picture of Hinault. He is a pug-nosed 23-year-old in the tricolor jersey, chin in the air and his chest puffed out while leading the entire peloton on a strike against the race organisers and the split stages that blighted the 1978 tour. What would we give for a hero, and a jersey, like that today?
Simon Mottram is the co-founder and chief executive of Rapha
It’s not about the jersey