A study in jerseys: Cycling’s illustrious past charted in its uniforms

The sport of cycling is never completed without its fabled jerseys.

In some instances, the jersey is more recognisable that the rider who wore it.

As cycling has adapted to the modern era, so has their jerseys, instead swapping woollen turtlenecks for today’s luminescent skin-tight cycle suits brandished with as many sponsors as they dare try.

However, the jerseys that were worn to victory by some of the pillars of our sport, hold iconic status and act as reminders to a time when cycling was a purer affair, before the invasion of pedantic sport-scientists and other undesirables.

So, here are our six favourite jerseys from the bygone eras of cycling…

Bianchi

The Italian manufacturer, the oldest of its kind in the world, will always be inseparable with the golden age of cycling. The cycling royalty to have ridden for them and, of course, their celeste-coloured jerseys were all too used to seeing victory in the post-war era.

Felice Gimondi won the 1976 Giro d’Italia wearing his team’s celeste jersey, then accompanied by the equally beautiful ‘Campagnolo’ script on the front. 

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Fausto Coppi collected two Tour, three Milan-San Remo and four Giro wins whilst sporting the Bianchi knit. ‘Il Campionissimo’ being the first rider to take the ‘maglia rosa’ in Italy and then the ‘maillot jaune’ in Paris in the same year, fending off his great rival Gino Bartali on both occasions.

He soon cemented himself as a cyclist of legendary status in Italy and worldwide, with the image of a victorious Coppi being always paired with the Bianchi knit.

Another legendary rider Raphaël Geminiani regarded Coppi and Bianchi’s contribution to the sport highly. 

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“Coppi was the first to modernise cycling, with the help of the Italian manufacturers,” he once remarked.

“Bianchi bikes were beautiful, marvellous things, but there were also the jerseys, socks, gloves, sunglasses.”

It’s clear to see then that the Bianchi outfit were revered within the peloton for two reasons. Their cast of remarkable riders with equally remarkable achievements, as well as the effortlessly Italian style their riders oozed without fail, to the top of the Stelvio and back down again.

I guess which of the two you class as more important to cycling may depend on how much skin-tight lycra you currently own. Perhaps.

Molteni

No list of the greatest cycling jerseys would be complete without the rusty orange jerseys of the Molteni cycling team.

With the ever-attractive name of an Italian sausage maker plastered onto the front of their jerseys, Molteni riders collected 663 victories over 18 seasons in the sport.

Come 1971, Eddy Merckx had joined the ranks and in doing so, turned Molteni into an Italian team with a noticeably Belgian scent.

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‘The Cannibal’ promptly surrounded himself with fellow Belgian riders and team officials. For the 1972 season only one Italian, Giancarlo Bellini, lined up in Molteni colours. The rest? All Belgian.

Molteni will always be remembered within the pages of cycling folklore as a team of fearless attacking, great style and equally great sideburns (in the case of Merckx).

The 1971 Tour de France was an occasion the Molteni team displayed that with supreme prowess.

Bic rider, Luis Ocaña had created a 10-minute-wide chasm between himself and Merckx after a stunning display up the Col de Porte. Ocaña was certain to take victory in Paris.

That was until the Molteni team started their five-hour shift of premeditated continual attack.

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Molteni riders arrived in Marseille at such a pace that TV crews and crowds didn’t have time to set up to greet the riders over the line. Before the stage commenced, however, Merckx informed a Belgian radio presenter, “Follow me today, I’m going to batter Ocaña until one of us breaks.”

And it was this exuberance yet justifiable over-confidence that made Molteni feared amongst the peloton and in the process turned their jersey into an iconic symbol of cycling.

Ford France–Hutchinson

The French team, albeit short-lived, were not deprived of their own achievements during their two-year stint in the peloton.  

Spearheaded by the supremely talented Jacques Anquetil, whose achievements on the bike were as remarkable as his love affairs off it, of which there are many.

Would you expect anything less from cycling’s answer to James Dean?

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Anquetil, whose best-respected within the two-wheeled related conversation for his five victories at the Tour, should also be given for a double he completed a year after his fifth Tour victory.

And it was feat he achieved whilst sporting the pastel-coloured knitwear of Ford-Hutchinson in 1965.

Monsieur Chrono was possessed by whatever demented creature to race the Dauphiné Libéré, winning it, and promptly boarding a government-supplied private jet to make the 12am start for the Bordeaux-Paris. A one- day, 600k long time trial labelled “the race that kills”, no less.

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On a stomach of glace cherries, rognons de veau and white wine, mixed with a seemingly incompatible zero hours of sleep, Anquetil managed to take victory in this one as well. He arrived in Paris exhausted, crying and having rekindled a relationship between himself and the French fans.

One commentator remarking, “Little by little, all of France began to take a liking to this story.”

The small French outfit brought home a victorious Lucien Aimar after his 1966 Tour de France win. The team, a subsidiary from the Ford Motor Company, also managed three stage wins at that year’s Giro before disbanding.

Folding after two years, the team left the sport with great stories to its name as well as enriching the wardrobes of cycling’s dedicated followers of fashion.

Flandria

The ‘Red Guard’ were feared during their 20- year life in cycling. They were the first team to have an ethos of building a team around multiple star riders.

The thinking before, and even after Flandria left, was to build a team around one top rider with his loyal gregario around him. Other trailblazing acts like being the first to fit Japanese Shimano components, resulting in a really rather nice jersey for their 1973 season, showed the Flanders team weren’t afraid to be different as they cemented their place in the top three teams during the 1970s.

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The Belgian team were also one of few to venture into the confectionery market for sponsorship.

British-based ‘Mars’ was looking to launch their Mars Bar in the land of chocolate, hence a partnership between Flandria and Mars was created and another rather nice jersey in the process.

The partnership soon became fruitful. Roger de Vlaeminck took home Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the 6th Stage of the Tour in the 1970 season wearing his team’s jersey with the Mars Bar name plastered over the front of it.

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Joop Zoetemelk finished runner up in that year’s Tour wearing his Flandria-Mars jersey, in the wake of the ever-prevalent Eddy Merckx in Molteni orange.

The team also dominated in the Classics, amassing 70 victories including Marc Demeyer’s victory at Paris-Roubaix in 1976. It’s a victory forever immortalised in Jorgen Leth’s film A Sunday in Hell in which the grit of those in Flandrian red is a constant feature.  

Nivea–Fuchs

The little-known team, overshadowed by the giants of the cycling world from the 60s and 70s, was once the team of the great rider Fiorenzo Magni. The Italian was instrumental in adapting the sport and implanting traits now seen as essential for success in the modern age.

The team was formed after the Ganna cycling team, who created the first winner of the Giro in Luigi Ganna, disbanded in 1953. In the same vein of unorthodox, seemingly unrelated sponsors, the fledgeling team was able to get cosmetic company, Nivea, to sponsor them for their two-year dip into cycling.

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It was to be the first time a company from outside the biking world sponsored a team, a partnership whose jersey would go on to be worn in one of the most iconic images of cycling in history.

Magni racked up a worthy list of victories during his time in the sport. A time when the peloton in which he rode included such pillars of cycling as Coppi, Bartali, Geminiani. A time in which cycling was the order of the day for Italian newspapers, not football.

He was a three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders and Giro and it was during his pursuit for a fourth Giro win in 1956 that would make him the subject of a picture that would transcend cycling. The pursuit ended fruitlessly for Magni, but he may be excused given what became of his Giro during Stage 10.

He fell during the descent out of Volterra and broke his collarbone. But this was Magni, a man of 1950s grit and courage, and so pulling out never occurred to him. Instead, he wrapped an inner tube around his bars so he could bite into it, therefore relieving the pain from when he tried to pull up during climbs.

Magni finished second that year, an astonishing and nowadays unheard-of feat of personal determination, given he also broke his humerus on Stage 16 but kept pedalling until Milan came into view seven days later.

Automoto-Hutchinson

Another small team, who rose to prominence during the interwar years, but with a story no less insignificant that those from teams that have gone after it.

Its most successful year points-wise was 1925 with a tally of 10,279. That year, riders such as Lucien Buysse, Joseph Van Dam and Ottavio Bottecchia wore the purple turtleneck long-sleeved uniform of the French Automoto team, complete with mustard yellow lettering of tyre manufacturer Hutchinson.

Buysse won the 1926 Tour de France while Bottecchia also had two Tour titles to his name by then. Victory in 1924 meant he was the first Italian to win the race in only his second Grand Tour.

A 1925 Tour win followed but within two years, he was to be found dead on the side of the road, his skull cracked.

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Bottecchia only realised he had a talent for cycling during service in the First World War. He escaped POW camps three times, all on two wheels. He managed to reach safety because the guards simply couldn’t keep up with his pace on the bike.

He went out on a training ride in June 1927 and was found dead on the side of the road with a fractured skull and multiple broken bones. The most likely story to commentate over his sudden death (he was leading out the peloton at the 1927 Giro the day before) was that he was killed by Mussolini supporting fascists. He was, after all, an outspoken anti-fascist.

His affairs off the bike were rather bleak. His youngest daughter died at the age of seven in 1921 and his brother was also fatally run over, a month before Bottecchia himself was found dead.

The life of one of cycling’s earliest superstars and one of few riders with a political conscience could be summed up rather well by a comment made by French writer, Bernard Chambaz.

“The unpleasant hand of destiny fell upon his shoulders… Dark thoughts and a presentiment with the future haunted him.”

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