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Making custom clothing for Team Sky with Rapha's Piers Thomas

Race clothing is battle armour for Team Sky’s “gladiatorial monks”; garments which, taken in their entirety, amount to a parcel of fabric no bigger than a saddle, but are all that separate a rider from the huge crowds who cheer him through races and which offer his only protection, such as it is, during inevitable, high-speed crashes.

It is imbued with tremendous emotional power, but unlocking it to boost the rider’s psychology lies in the nuts and bolts of stitches and seams, of sleeve length, and the efficiency, or otherwise, of a zipper. The most effective method of improving it is to remove the negatives, to make it “neutral”, rather than to attempt to enhance that which already works.

Piers Thomas has a fascinating approach to the business of clothing a professional cycling team, a stance he compares to that of a very wise four-year-old, but he is, by his own admission, “not necessarily your normal clothing designer”. A fashion graduate who spent part of his degree course cutting up mannequins and placing them in a wind tunnel in experiments with laminar flow, he began his appointment with Rapha by working alongside Team Sky’s carers at the 2013 Tour Down Under, observing the team from the inside. There is much to be learned amid the business of filling musettes, handing out bidons, and taking care of the laundry.

Piers Thomas inspecting Team Sky Rapha jersey Piers Thomas is Rapha's man for elite athlete innovation and responsible for clothing Team Sky

Want to know what makes an effective wet bag, for example? Don’t ask a rider, Thomas says – ask the carer, whose job will be to remove its contents and hand them to the man on the bike with the minimum fuss as his charge approaches the car, for example, in the 200th kilometre of a rain-soaked Milan-Sanremo. The athlete is likely to have thought no more about the bag since packing its contents in pre-season. Now he expects his race cape, overshoes, spare gloves etc. to appear on demand. He doesn’t expect to wait while the carer rummages among eight other seemingly identical sets. The bag is critical.

If your task, however, is to design lightweight, comfortable and efficient clothing, easy to put on and take off, that helps to maintain a constant core temperature in abnormal weather conditions – cold and wet or hot and dry – then the rider is an ideal source: he spends up to six hours a day in the stuff, after all. It helps, says Thomas, if the subject has an interest in clothing, though the need for access means that Sky’s most fashionable member, the modernista Wiggins, is not a member of his working group of riders, mechanics and carers.

Be aware, also, of the need to accommodate the rider’s principal concerns if you want his insights. “I learned fairly quickly to have a chair to hand if I was having a meeting with any of the riders, because within 15 seconds of coming into my room, a rider would be looking for something to lean on or to sit on,” Thomas recalls. “That’s just the way they are. It’s all about fresh legs.”

Tour de France 2014, Chris Froome crash, spectators looking onRace clothing is a rider's armour, Thomas believes - his sole defence, such as it is, against crowds and crashes. pic: Offside/L'Equipe

What might be described as the psychological effects of clothing, and what Thomas himself calls “tech-emotion”, is of huge importance, he believes. Expressed in its simplest terms, it is a philosophy that holds that a rider who believes he looks faster, will ride faster. Far fetched? Emphatically not, Thomas believes. The topic is a touchstone, and he speaks with gathering passion.

“I love textiles, and the values that they hold, and the energy that a seemingly dead fabric has. I’m also fascinated by the emotional value that clothing has, because of its history and legacy in fashion. You go to a Yamamoto show, and you get goose pimples. I love bringing those emotional values into play that clothing has that no other art form has, and it’s because of the intimacy, the feeling and the tactile nature of it all.”

If such esoteric talk seems divorced from bike racing, it has its foundation in the eminently practical nature of fit and fabrics, of the size of a pocket and the degree to which its movement is controlled by its attachment to the jersey; in the length of a sleeve and the function of a zip (Thomas has replaced traditional coil units with YKK’s Vislon: one which does not pull the fabric of the surrounding jersey when it is fastened or unfastened).

Ian Stannard racing in wet weather, muddy attireClothing must allow the rider to maintain a constant core temperature, whether on the sun-baked slopes of a Grand Tour climb, or amid the muck and bullets of a Spring Classic. pic: Offside/L'Equipe

This all sounds unsurprisingly close to an aggregation of marginal gains. Has Thomas found a natural home at Rapha, working alongside Team Sky with responsibility for ‘elite athlete innovation’? He has his own take on Sir Dave Brailsford’s now-famous aphorism. Superior performance is not always arrived at by enhancing the positives, but by removing the negatives. The happy state of affairs that results, Thomas describes as “neutral”. The Vislon zip, for example does not represent an entirely new way of fastening and unfastening a jersey; rather it removes the frustrations of its predecessor. “Even if it’s not a pleasure, it’s neutral,” Thomas concludes. “Neutral and subliminally positive – that’s the best we can hope for.”

Custom fitting is the ultimate expression of the philosophy. Take the trouble to consult Sky rider ‘A’ on his preferred sleeve length, and he will not spend a season adjusting a jersey that fits his team-mate perfectly – though the differences between riders are not as great as might be imagined: willowy Wiggins and the seemingly more compact Geraint Thomas have a similar ‘girth’, when at race weight, Thomas confides. The major clothing items are produced in five size sets, but it is garment length that accounts for the greatest difference.

“In some instances, they want to wear their garments differently when they’re racing to when they’re training,” he continues. “Some of the guys, like Bernie Eisel, will have different sized training jackets to racing jackets, because they’ll wear different things underneath them.”

Piers Thomas tailoring Team Sky garmentThomas's focus will shift next season from the cutting room to the wind tunnel

Thomas has worked with elite athletes in other fields: world champion sailors, surfers, and ice climbers.  Those who excel in different sports are not the same breed, he maintains, despite a shared will to win. The existence of the professional cyclist, appears to baffle Thomas. “I’ve used the phrase before: ‘gladiatorial monks’. Their life is incredibly monastic,” he says.

“The other thing that I find fascinating is when you look at the scale of the kit that they wear when they go into battle: a pair of socks, a pair of bib-shorts, maybe a base layer or just a jersey. It’s a really small package. You could probably roll it up into the size of a saddle. And that’s their armour, in front of huge crowds. They’re really exposed, they come off the bike… The amount of attention that that very small piece of armour gets is incredibly important.”

The stated ambition of any clothing manufacturer who supplies a professional cycling team is to improve the product supplied to the consumer. Connecting the two in a process that Thomas describes as a ‘red thread’ can be a challenge, given the enormous physiological differences between the man in the peloton and the man on the street.

Thomas offers the example of rainwear. “It’s very hard to determine sometimes whether wetness [in the rain] is due to overloading of sweat, or rainwater coming through, because elite riders are different to you and I – they sweat heaps. The purity of their bodies is actually staggering.

Geraint Thomas post race in Team Sky jerseyAt race weight, Geraint Thomas and the seemingly more willowy Wiggins are the same girth. The work of Rapha's fitters tends to focus on garment length. pic: Offside-L'Equipe

“That’s where it’s interesting with tying in what the team needs and what a consumer needs, because as much as you could have them in exactly the same conditions, the body inside is different, and actually the expectations in terms of receipt of product is different too.”

Thomas describes the improvement of sporting performance as “a journey without end”. He has worked alongside Sky for two of the team’s five seasons and shares in the collective thrill of its success, though admits that his satisfaction lies in different areas to that of the rider, the team staff, or the viewing public.

“I’m stoked to see how the team is doing, but to be honest, we could be watching the same screen and I’d be looking at totally different things,” he says. “If you like, ‘my’ victories have been different. Some of the riders think that they’re wearing the best kit in the peloton now, and that’s huge. To get that respect from the riders is great.”

Bradley Wiggins in British Champion Team Sky time trial uniform on bikeClothing suppliers to road teams are increasingly focussed on aerodynamics. pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWPix.com

The 2015 season kit, on-bike and off-bike, has been delivered to Team Sky’s Belgian service course for distribution to both riders and support staff. Thomas’ attention has already turned to 2016. Work on its new focus – aerodynamics – began in July of this year. It’s a project that Thomas describes as “much more founded in hard data and aerodynamic research.”

Received wisdom holds that clothing offers the greatest bang-for-buck in the search for aerodynamic improvement. The investment required in bicycle development to reap the same reward would be many times greater. “There are some really interesting gains to be made there, because the past work has been so track-focused, rather than road focused,” Thomas notes.

Another stop emerges on the horizon of this “journey without end” – the wind tunnel. For Thomas, dismemberer of mannequins while a student at Kingston, there is a certain serendipity to this latest turn of events. A childhood spent making stunt kites from spinnaker fabric will have taught him much about air currents too, no doubt. Nothing learned is wasted. Team Sky may come to value Thomas’ youthful experiments as much as his professional achievements.

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