Picture an Italian cyclist in his natural habitat.
What fills your mind’s eye? In the background, a rolling Tuscan landscape, perhaps? A piazza, café, and table for one, the last bearing an espresso, a pair of impossibly stylish sunglasses, and a copy of La Gazzetta? The beautiful bicycle propped alongside is dressed in the finery of Campagnolo, naturally, but what is the rider wearing? And what type of sky frames your mental image? In short, what is the weather doing?
Perhaps we're alone, but our own happy picture of cycling in Italy leaves no space for wet weather. Bella Italia is a place bracketed in the English imagination as one in which to escape the ravages of our own climate, where cold and wet conditions are standard and clothing intended to defeat them is de rigueur, almost year-round.
Why is it then that Italian clothing manufacturers currently lead the way in producing the type of lightweight but rain-defeating garments that has made Castelli’s Gabba, for example, the peloton’s default garment when the rain comes down?
Castelli is not alone in producing comfortable but weatherproof clothing. Sister brand Sportful has its Fiandre range: the clothing pulled from the ‘wet bags’ of Contador, Majka et al, when Tinkoff-Saxo race in the rain. And Alé, a relative newcomer from the parent company of Italian heavyweights Cipollini and DMT, has hit the ground running with its Kimatik range, one in which Italian Pro Conti outfit Bardiani CSF is clad in wet conditions.
“I don’t want to give away all the secrets, but rain gear is going through a fundamental transformation,” Sportful’s Steve Smith explains. “Racing demands products that are lightweight, aerodynamic, and focused on keeping the rider’s core warm. This compromise is that the fabrics aren’t 100 per cent waterproof but are made to help keep a rider warm even when he does get wet, much like a wetsuit.
“Old style cycling rain jackets were direct descendants from mountaineering jackets, trying to keep the rider completely dry from the rain, but even a low level of effort would cause moisture to build up on the inside, making the cure worse than the disease.”
Alé and Sportful are in the vanguard of development for a new style of lightweight, but weather-proof cycle clothing
Alessia Piccolo, who owns the Alé brand, offers a simpler explanation for why Italian clothing manufacturers lead the pack in clothing riders for conditions not readily associated with the typical image of Italian cycling eleganza: “Because I am primarily a cyclist and I do not want to give up the pleasure of riding in all weather conditions!” she laughs.
Suits you, sir
Culture is one thing; design is another. A garment is largely the sum of two parts: tailoring and fabric, and it's critical to get both right if rain is to be defeated. Water will find a way where one exists, however small. How then do the Italians combine technical fabrics with a cut that keeps out the elements, while allowing the freedom of movement essential for professional riders to perform at their best?
For Piccolo, tailoring is also cultural. The phrase “Made In Italy” has real significance, she argues, especially for a company of a scale to keep the entire manufacturing process in house “from development to production”.
“We want to keep studying more and more tailored and technical solutions,” she explains, offering the neck and cuff of Alé’s Atmo jacket as an example, one she says boasts elastic seams with “high tenacity” threads. “Also on the bonded and taped seams, we had to do a lot of experimentation until we found the appropriate tape - thin and elastic - to have the best matching between tape and fabric.” Such attention to detail is impressive, extending beyond the cut of the garment to the materials with which it is constructed. Smith highlights Sportful’s selection of zippers (YKK’s Vision). “The zipper needs to be accessible with gloved hands, and slide easily,” he says.
Weather-proof clothing is a function of fit and fabric. Note the long-drop tail on Alé's Klimatik jersey, which is made from a water repellant fabric
Smith says that tailoring is not divorced from the selection of the fabric; rather, that the process of designing a lightweight, but weatherproof garment is holistic. “It’s actually refreshing creating these products because the function determines the design,” he says. The hems on the Fiandre No Rain bib-short, for example, are especially deep, intended to offer an unbroken interface between short and leg/knee warmers. This, too, is a balance, however: increasing the closeness of fit can be counterproductive. “Too tight and there’s not enough dead air space - read insulation - between your warm body and the cold outer layer,” Smith explains.
Cutting coats according to cloth
Efforts made through tailoring to beat the weather are wasted, of course, if the fabric is not up to scratch. Piccolo explains that with Alé, research is continuous. Where third party vendors are involved, the selection of the fabrics offered is based on the garment’s purpose. Alé’s arm and leg warmers, for example, are fashioned from a fleece-lined but breathable fabric with permanent DWR (durable water resistant) coating. “This means it is not simply applied on the finished fabric,” Piccolo says, “in order to have the greatest long-term performance.” The frustration of seeing any weather proofing aspect disappear after a few washes is something Alé is keen to banish.
One of the more pleasing aspects of what might be described of a new school of wet weather clothing is its comparative lack of weight - significantly lighter than the rain-soaked merino wool with which pelotons past would have coped, of course. Sportful’s aptly-named Fiandre Light WS jacket, for example, tips the scale at a claimed 295g - astonishingly light for a garment that will see off all but the heaviest conditions. The trade off from total waterproofing is more comfort, Smith argues - what he describes as a ‘sweet spot’. This happy state of affairs is achieved with a technical fabric based on the PTFE membrane that underlies Goretex.
Sportful's rain-resistant Fiandre shorts are made from the brand's No Rain fabric, and have deep hems to provide unbroken coverage between short and warmer
Such cutting edge fabrics, while yielding the weight savings described above, required a skilled hand, as Smith describes. “These lightweight fabrics are lighter because the face and ‘backer’ woven fabrics are incredibly light, making the three-layer construction come in as light as 70 grams per square metre,” he says. “Constructing [garments] with these lighter fabrics is more tricky because they’re more fragile, and the process used to make them stretchy also makes it very difficult to control for shrinkage.”
Something in the water
The challenges faced by clothing manufacturers in striking that difficult balance between performance and durability have increased in recent years, Smith concedes, principally “due to environmental concerns over fluorinated polymer water repellent finishes.” Put simply, pending legislation has impelled a host of fabric specialists - Gore included - to move to non-flourinated finishes, Smith says. The short-term loss for consumers, he admits, is greatly reduced water repellency while chemists crack the code of providing durability from the new, eco friendly finishes. Fabrics that once resisted rain for up to two hours now show signs of seepage after 15 to 20 minutes, he concedes. Is there brighter news ahead? “There are some new water repellent finishes coming in 2016 that look to get a better balance of protection for the rider and the environment,” he says, “but until then we’re trying to be clever with fabric choice and construction to keep your riding as comfortable as possible.”
Home and dry
We’ve come a long way from our Italian archetype, languidly sipping an espresso. Idealised images rarely stand scrutiny, but there is something reassuring in the knowledge that those who clothe the professional - and the amateur who chooses to place his or her custom with Italy’s cycling tailors - do so from personal experience of riding in the rain. Alberto and his colleagues are sure to be glad.