Earlier this year in a London café, a man walked in carrying a scarlet red Mercian, hung it on the bike rack, and ordered a coffee. I know this, because I had been watching him wheel the beautiful frame past the window a few seconds earlier.
After finding a seat, he placed a battered old box on the table, the contents of which I knew even before I had chance to peep across as he removed the lid. It was just over a foot long, just under half a foot high, and a distinctive shade of blue with three white stripes running diagonally across the box. There was a pair of adidas shoes inside.
The only thing that was unfamiliar about the box was the name of the shoe model printed on the side – “Eddy Merckx Competition”.
Intrigued, a quick search of eBay produced a handful of results, but not much information. Google was only slightly more illuminating, a few blog posts and forum discussions, mainly featuring memories of attaching cleats with hammer and nail.
To learn more about the shoes, and the world of athlete endorsements in the 60’s and 70’s, I spoke to Nelson Madlangbayan, a cycling product manager at adidas HQ in the German town of Herzogenaurach.
As well as providing the images of some of the cycling shoe models still in the adidas Archive, he explained that adidas had been producing cycling equipment for at least a decade before sponsoring Merckx. “The earliest cycling shoe we have in our archives is dated 1960, based on the original adidas Spezial. A lot of the sport-specific shoes that were produced were all based on the Spezial model, with various features added to match the demands of that sport.” In the case of the cycling shoe, this meant a solid toecap, further leather reinforcement to the sides of the shoe, and a firm sole.
Nelson went on to explain that aside from the shoes that they still have in their archives, details of this early involvement in cycling are difficult to come by. There are photos of cycling jerseys featuring the trefoil and three stripes (as would later be seen on the shoulders of Merckx’s World Champion’s jersey), but no record of their production.
What is certain is that the brand’s first endorsement in the peloton came from Rudi Altig, who began racing in adidas shoes in 1967, the season he wore the rainbow stripes. Merckx switched to adidas at the same time he moved to the Molteni team in 1971, and judging by the photos of his teammates, brought suitcases full of the shoes with him.
“There was a relatively large market for pro-level cycling shoes in France, Germany and Belgium at the time” explains Nelson, “so it was an era that was quite aggressive on product seeding – many of the brands were just trying to get as many athletes as they could wearing their shoes. The equipment would be brought out to the teams, and they’d convince the teams to all wear the shoes. Apart from the stars of the sport, there were no real sponsorship contracts to speak of, it was just a case of supplying the equipment free of charge.”
As well as being handsomely compensated for wearing the three stripes, stars such as Merckx also received bespoke fitting shoes produced by a traditional cobbler at adidas workshops in France and Germany. “There was a great level of craftsmanship that went into each shoe – customizing the height of the heel, the stiffness of the sole, working the leather to get the best possible fit. A lot of this athlete specific fitting was way ahead of its time”.
adidas continue their involvement with cycling to this day, applying the same principles of meeting the exacting standards of their star athletes. They provided Team Sky’s kit for the first three years of the team, a partnership that culminated with the three stripes on the shoulders of Bradley Wiggins as he claimed the top step on the Champs-Élysées in July 2012.
The brand has supplied the kit for every Olympic GB Cycling Team since 1992, where Chris Boardman claimed the gold medal in the Individual Pursuit. In the lead up to the 2012 Olympics, Boardman was on the team of “secret squirrels” tasked with eking out every last drop of marginal gain, plenty of which came from the extensive research and development facilities at adidas.
This development has lead to the latest incarnation of the adidas cycling brand, adizero. They have employed the adizero maxim, “everything that is essential, nothing that is not”, to create the lightest cycling equipment in the world. The adizero jersey was released early this year, with more cycling clothing currently being put through its paces in the adidas Innovation Team Climate Chamber and scheduled for public consumption in 2015.
New clothing has led adidas to search for new heroes. Laura Trott is the star name among the brand’s current roster of sponsored cyclists, a partnership that is set to continue as she attempts to build a palmarès as illustrious as the Cannibal himself.