How the Gabba saved Castelli
Everybody wants a Gabba, the professional peloton’s wet-weather garment of choice. But not everybody can have one. The story of Castelli’s comeback and the rain jacket behind it.
Edging out Christmas shopping, a long overdue visit to the dentist or the annual agony of a tax return, riding in the rain holds its own in the league table of procrastination. You can’t keep taking rest days when it drizzles, especially if you live in northern Europe: that could mean a fortnight off the bike.
Personally, I have always found myself at opposite ends of the preparation spectrum when the skies open. There’s the unexpected horror of a blissful summer’s day suddenly turning into a rainy squall, leaving me soaked to the skin in short-sleeve jersey and shorts, grimly trying to generate enough heat to reach shelter.
Awareness of the approaching precipitation is almost as bad. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially with the existence of weather apps that possess the memory of Deep Blue and can note the exact location, time and size of the next cloud dump. So I don enough layers and waterproofs to keep a deep-sea fisherman toasty. No rain is getting in, but no heat is getting out either.
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So, at any significant intensity on the ride, I become marinated in my own juices. Uphill, it’s a sweat chamber; down dale, I shiver and shake.
To top it all off, I always seem to end up looking like a prat: historically, it’s difficult not to. In past decades, the only options seemed to be day-glo, cagoule-type fare that made the hardened rider resemble a raver whose colours had run. In short, I’m a flapping, puffing, perspiration-soaked, blancmange-hued bloke wetly squeaking up a hill. Not fast, not fashionable, not fun. It’s almost enough to make me sack off riding in winter altogether.
Remarkably, professional riders have endured similar experiences — and they don’t have the luxury option of a day off. As bike technology progressed, rainwear seemed to stand relatively still—until recently. You could plot a 260-kilometre route on obscure back roads or order a coffee via your cycling computer at the next café (I might have made that one up), but you’d still get soaking wet or boiling hot if it rained. Aerodynamics, comfort and aesthetics all needed addressing. Step forward Castelli with their game-changing Gabba.
We visit the Castelli factory in late November—well, it’d be remiss to gab about the Gabba at the height of summer. If you’re wondering how a rainwear revolution could happen in sunny Italy, abandon all weather stereotypes ye who enter their home town, Fonzaso. The Dolomites rear up and the temperature drops as we drive through the north-eastern Italian countryside, past wood stacks and through early morning mist. Apparently, this place gets twice as much rain as London.
I was expecting something more futuristic, but the factory is a humble white building backing onto a bare vineyard with lines of blue solar roof panels. Fused eleven years ago, Sportful and Castelli share the building. One makes performance-based clothing, the other high-end racing cycling apparel, but they both back top teams like Tinkoff-Saxo, Cannondale-Garmin and MTN-Qhubeka in 2015. A little internal competition is healthy.
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We meet Castelli brand manager Steve Smith, who takes us for a morning espresso (well, this is Italy). We stroll down the main artery, which is dominated by a big glass window, looking out over a floor of 40 sewing machines and their attendant stitchers, busy working on samples for the summer 2016 line. You’ve got to look far ahead in this game. With the shop floor’s white walls, it feels like the incubator room at a hospital. We head to the office at the end of the corridor to chat with Smith and race performance director Andrea Peron.
Before we get into the Gabba, it’s important to understand how much Castelli’s fortunes had flagged before its time. Into the new millennium, the clothing company with the scorpion logo had lost its sting. It wasn’t working with any professional teams and was looking to be a Patagonia-type catch-all brand, far from the futuristic, racing roots Maurizio Castelli had put down in the ’70s when he took over from his father, Armando. He was a tireless innovator, introducing lycra to shorts design in 1977 and colours in 1981. Maurizio was an inspirational control freak, often walking through every part of the then Milan-based company before getting to his own office in the morning with his beloved German shepherd dog, overseeing every aspect of the place. He had to check each item of clothing before it was dispatched, be it destined for a top pro team or lowly club. Castelli’s death, after suffering a heart attack while cycling up the Cipressa in 1995, was a huge blow.
In 2003, the Cremonese family acquired Castelli. Having made a big success of underwear-turned-skiwear brand, Manifatture Val Cismon, they fused the ailing Castelli with Sportful.
Having joined a few years earlier, former Nike Europe employee Steve Smith was one of the men tasked with helping to restore Castelli’s lustre. The Portlander had fallen for the exotic Italian brand as a teenager and remembers saving three weeks of salary working in a warehouse to buy his first jersey—a Castelli Renault-Elf number, Greg LeMond’s team.
“I was that kid who spent all day, every day, out in the summer on my bike and loved it. For graduation to high school, after years of begging my parents, I got an actual road bike—10-speed, we called ‘em back then,” he says.
Touches of Italianate cycling culture were already creeping into Smith’s life. A Basso Bikes importer did a deal with the young man’s racing club, so he bought several frames at $280 a pop. “I had Campagnolo Super Record components; every box said “Campagnolo, Vicenza, Italy”—and now I live in the province of Vicenza. In fact, my house is on the same street as the guy that runs Basso Bikes. What are the chances of that? It was fate back then and I didn’t realise it.”
Smith jumped at the chance to revive the sleeping giant. “It was quite a mess at the time, suffering from years of neglect. The products were completely mis-positioned,” he recalls.
According to the American, Castelli were listening too much to cost-cutting sales reps and missing a simple ingredient: cyclists. “If you have nobody that rides, you wouldn’t even realise what you need to do. You look at the design and sample on your fit model, then you go to the market with it. But you don’t get proper product when you do that,” Smith says.
Now the place is crawling with cyclists, like Andrea Peron, a pro for 14 years, product manager Stefano Giraldi (pro for eight and former adversary of Mario Cipollini) and global marketing communications executive Søren Jensen. Don’t think they’re slowing down either: Smith and Peron were part of a group that cycled from the Eurobike industry show back to Castelli, a 470-kilometre leg-loosener last year.
“There’ll be times when we ride a prototype at lunch, do the feedback, make up another one and ride it in the evening,” Smith says. The American comes across as a ball of energy: as we talk, he subconsciously turns a yellow tape measure over in his hand.
Smith also polled key people in the organisation—employees, retailers, distributors—about what Castelli meant to them. The overwhelming response was that they still saw it as a race brand.
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In 2006, they decided they had to return to the ProTour. “There were teams that wouldn’t even take our call,” Smith says. He is grateful to Mauro Gianetti for giving them a chance to back Spanish-registered team Saunier Duval. They introduced the first aerodynamic racing jersey in 2007, but few figures outside the sport noticed. Even within the team, David Millar was the only rider to regularly wear the garment as other riders didn’t believe that it made a difference. Convention is a difficult nut to crack.
The next sea change came on Bastille Day 2008. Smith remembers sitting anxiously outside a café, waiting for his sandwich. Riccardo Riccò’s Tour stage brace had just been followed by a positive test for EPO. His phone rang; it was Gerard Vroomen with a brave new project. Were Castelli interested in backing his fledgling Cervélo TestTeam?
It was a risk that paid off handsomely. The departing Saunier Duval hadn’t been focused on the spring Classics, whereas Cervélo wanted to impress from the off to gain wild card entries for the Tour and Giro.
What’s more, this team was straining at the leash of innovation. They had Castelli’s jerseys, aerodynamic Cervélo bicycles and Zipp carbon wheels. “Add up everybody’s savings, they could have been as much as 25 Watts faster than everyone else, which is pretty remarkable,” Smith says. (The average normalised power for a professional cyclist on a 160km stage is around 275W.)
In using a professional team as a test bed for their products, Castelli was at the head of the curve too. The time was ripe for their rainwear revolution.
It was an inauspicious start for Castelli. Cervélo TestTeam ended up buying a rival’s rainwear products for that February’s rain-drenched Tour of California as the company’s offering proved to be inadequate. In August 2009, they held a long-anticipated focus group for cold and wet-weather clothing at the Brixia Tour, when they “finally got the right group” together: Norwegian Gabriel Rasch, Marcel Wyss from Switzerland, Belgian Serge Pauwels, Britons Jeremy Hunt, Dan Lloyd, Roger Hammond, and Irishman Phillip Deignan. Notice a common denominator? They’re all from cruddy-weather countries.
“We spent the first 45 minutes talking about traditional rain jackets, incremental improvements on the Pocket Liner,” Smith says. “We’d actually already made a first-round sample of it. Gabriel Rasch disappeared up to his room and came back down, talking about fit... Gabriel is quiet, we’d gone through eight months on the team and never gotten much past ‘hello’.
“I’ll never forget it,” he says, laughing. “He pulls this thing out, it’s his hacked-up Pocket Liner Jacket. He’s taken this almost coarse twine—it’s not sewing thread — and stitched to take some length from the shoulder with a needle. It was a total hack job.”
Rasch took out his old gilet from Crédit Agricole with blacked-out logo—plastic, fully waterproof but not breathable—and explained it was what he wore if it was raining but not particularly cold in order to avoid overheating.
This was the seed of the Gabba. Smith could immediately see potential improvements: they could cover the arms to keep water from coming in. And wouldn’t it be better if it was breathable, more aero and had pockets on the back? Rasch agreed.
Eureka. For years, cycling rainwear had been inspired by mountaineering and commuting, where not allowing a drop of water in was the priority. “But you commute to work, you don’t race to work,” Andrea Peron says. Obviously he hasn’t seen the A3 bike lane into London at half-eight in the morning.
Smith realised that letting out the humidity created by racing was crucial; a little rain getting in wasn’t a big problem. Using the team jersey as a starting point, he advised product developer Sonia Vignati and Castelli’s pattern-maker Stefano Sartor to make a pioneering short-sleeve rain jacket, protective against wind with a thermal effect, keeping the rider warm and aero. It would be teamed with Castelli’s recently-devised, water repellent NanoFlex arm warmers—Robin to the Gabba’s Batman.
The key words that Smith imparted: “There’s no way we’re ever gonna sell any of these, so don’t waste any time on it.” He laughs at the recollection. “A bit of clairvoyance on my part.” To him, it seemed this could take off with the team, but not the public.
The fabric and fitting were key. They had a head start on the former—Smith and Vignati had already been exhaustively researching with clothing giant Gore for two years, trying to eke out more breathability and stretch. They settled on Windstopper X-Lite Plus, which helps lend the Gabba its sleek, wetsuit-like appearance. It had to be put through a stabilisation process so that there’d be no shrinkage.
Smith rustles around in the clothes rack behind us and emerges with the first Gabba prototype, made in autumn 2009. It’s little changed from the current version.
Then, it was a case of tweaking: riding prototypes in the morning then pedalling onto the sewing room floor to give the stitchers an on-the-bike demonstration of what needed changing. With the Croce d’Aune—scene of Tullio Campagnolo’s quick release lever brainwave—and Monte Grappa close by, Fonzaso is a surprisingly idyllic testing ground too. “We actually get twice as much rain as you do in London, though it’s a little more concentrated,” Smith says.
In one downpour, they realised water would run down the back and fill the pockets, so small holes were added. They put a waterproof fabric logo on too, which proved problematic. After the first few pieces were released, Gore threatened to sue Castelli if they didn’t recall the Gabbas. “They freaked out. If we start calling out the water-repellent, water-proofness of Windstopper, then how are they going to position their [Goretex] brand?” Smith says. Castelli agreed and made a heat transfer Gabba piece to put over the logo, so they didn’t have to throw away their existing garments.
Of course, it wasn’t actually called the Gabba yet. Castelli’s working title was the Aero Rain Race Jersey, hardly likely to roll off the tongue and into the peloton’s hearts and parlance. Seeing as the Cervélo riders were already calling it the Gabba—Gabriel Rasch’s nickname—the company followed suit.
Six months after Rasch’s rough idea, the Gabba was given to the Cervélo team before the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “I was surprised they got so excited about this kind of weird piece,” Smith says. “I gave one to Heinrich Haussler and, my favourite line ever, he turns and says ‘Let’s just hope it rains on the way to Gent tomorrow. Because we’re gonna go on the front and drill it.’ I’d never heard a rider says ‘let’s hope it rains’ before, it was awesome.”
It didn’t pour, but the following day was a wild Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne through Storm Xynthia. Twenty-six riders finished and Cervélo were to the fore. Gabba-clad hard men Dominique Rollin and Thor Hushovd finished fifth and sixth.
While the team fell in love with this sleek piece, suppliers and Castelli sales reps were downbeat, Smith says. “I remember presenting the sales meeting, people were like: ‘We’re supposed to get excited about this? C’mon! How are we gonna sell these things?’” Rain jackets had been a certain way for decades. The public seemed to agree; they sold 700 Gabbas in the first season.
As Castelli joined up with Garmin-Cervélo in 2011 and the long-sleeve Gabba followed, word was spreading round the bunch. Rival riders soon began asking for them. At first, Castelli refused: it was a competitive advantage for the American team only.
Nevertheless, they started to be seen on other riders, whether training, on start lines or in the thick of the action. They’d buy Gabbas and use marker pens to crudely black out the Castelli logo on the chest. It was a seductive potential advantage offered—as much as 40 watts at 30mph, according to Castelli. Criticisms were few and far between, the chief one being that it was an overly-tight fit for riders used to their flappy old fare.
Most of the bunch has now worn one. “Throw out a name,” Smith says. Wiggins? Ridden it. Apparently, Sir Brad called up Peron ahead of a particularly dismal day to Treviso at the 2013 Giro, requesting a bunch of neutral ones for Team Sky. Classics king Cancellara? “I said to him at Flanders: ‘Fabian, I saw you had a blacked-out Gabba, you could just call for a neutral one.’ ‘Yeah, but I didn’t want to bother you,’ he says. This is the kind of gentleman he is. He was like ‘It was two days before the race and I saw the weather forecast, so I just went to the local shop and bought a couple.’”
Thomas Voeckler even bought Gabbas personally for the entire Europcar team at shop price. The requests were getting silly, so race performance director Peron started going round team buses at races, discretely doling out the coveted contraband.
Gabba Gabba Hey
“Seventeenth of March, 2013: the day that everything changed,” Steve Smith says. As Milan-Sanremo was hit by freak snowfalls and freezing conditions, there was no more hiding the fact most of the bunch was wearing Gabbas and no clearer evidence of its quality. Even eventual winner Gerald Ciolek kept his on until the finale. “Till then, the pros were using the Gabbas but they’d take the stuff off before it really came on TV, the finale… It hadn’t really caught the public imagination until then that there was basically an entire peloton in Gabbas,” Smith says.
The funny thing about the Gabba’s ubiquity that day is that the piece is intended for less inclement weather. “I was actually worried watching on TV, a lot of the guys were under-dressed. The Gabba was not made for those conditions,” Smith says.
Having a large portion of the WorldTour bunch in Gabbas was a coup for Castelli, but a sore spot for their apparel rivals. Whereas Nalini and Santini used to be the big daddies of cycling clothing in the ’90s, there are now 16 different suppliers for the 17 WorldTour teams, all providing similar products, all adamant that theirs is the best and, most importantly, that contracted riders must wear their kit. The Gabba monopoly made a mockery of their marketing, and the top’s popularity continues to ruffle feathers into 2015. Word is that apparel sponsors are forbidding riders from wearing the Gabba this season: too bad if they get cold.
Milan-Sanremo 2013 would ignite sales — from 700 in its first season to roughly 7,000 now — and Castelli were fortunate that the rest of the spring, from Gent-Wevelgem to Flanders to the Giro, was run off in drab conditions and deluges, meaning Gabbas galore on the telly — invaluable marketing. Consumers invariably want what the pro cyclists wear or ride. Castelli employees were probably doing rain dances to keep the downpours coming.
The Gabba is arguably the best-known rain jacket, but Castelli’s rivals rapidly attempted to catch up with their own versions or copies.
“It’s not a good thing that they tried to imitate the Gabba, but nobody could make exactly the same one,” Peron says. “There was one WorldTour rider who pulled up a competitor’s Gabba imitation and said ‘look, it’s not exactly the same Gabba.’ It was just silicon inside — totally unbreathable,” he adds, laughing.
Surely it costs a lot of money to devote so much time, research and energy as Castelli do? “In these pieces, budget doesn’t come into it,” Smith says. “Last summer, we’d been in the wind tunnel a couple of days, but we didn’t quite get everything done. I said ‘Dario [Cremonese, Castelli vice-president], is it all right if we spend another day and that money?’ He said ‘Of course it is, this is who we are, this is what we have to do.’
“Looking at the big picture, we need to keep this brand — both brands — at the absolute cutting edge.”
Impressive-sounding marketing from Smith, but the Cremonese family must have very deep pockets.
After lunch at a local pizzeria, Castelli’s global marketing communications executive Søren Jensen gives us a tour. We walk in through the back entrance, passing the electric scooter of Giordano Cremonese, the Sportful head honcho. Old sporting injuries have made it a better option for transport as he approaches 80. However, Cremonese’s need for speed remains — word has it the boss likes to treat the corridors around here like a time-trial course, slaloming round corners while keeping a keen eye on the inner workings.
We slip through a number of the frosted product doors off the main corridor, emblazoned with signs like “pattern engineering” and “graphic design”. Out through the corridor, a hefty printing machine whirrs, and clicks, producing a huge printout of a Tinkoff-Saxo jersey. The garment is made on the computer and printed off here; once a batch is ready, they are rolled up together and sent off to factories in Hungary, Romania or Bosnia-Herzegovina (well, it’s still better than the Far East). If they’re making samples in-house, they will use the sublimation printer through the shop floor, heated to a sizzling 220 degrees Celsius, to transfer the colour onto clothing.
Jensen tells a good story to illustrate the relentless perfectionism at work here. In the spring of 2012, Castelli sent fabrics to Garmin director of sports science, Robby Ketchell, to test in his homemade wind tunnel in Boulder as they worked on a new skinsuit ahead of the Giro.
The Italian company was similarly meticulous: they found a super-fit Italian amateur cyclist with the same body height and body shape as Ryder Hesjedal, and had him test the first 23 prototypes. Not 22, not 24, but 23. Well, you have to be precise in this game. “It doesn’t take much to fuck up the fit. When everything is so tight like the Gabba jersey, if you stitch it one centimetre too loose, you feel it right away when you put it on,” Jensen says. Hesjedal came to the wind tunnel, saw the gains and conquered the Giro months later.
Is the age of the Gabba over? Far from it. “We still have teams asking; after the worlds we had an offer from BMC for 50 pieces. In the end we were thinking maybe we should say no [to teams] because there’s so many brands, from Vermarc to Giordana and Santini, that have copied the Gabba. Craft even won a Eurobike Award with their copy of it in 2013,” Jensen says.
Castelli, the company whose calls went unanswered by a host of big teams just eight years ago, are hot stuff again. Jensen claims at least five WorldTour teams asked them to provide clothing in 2015; apparently, some didn’t even want money. However, Castelli are committed to focusing solely on Cannondale-Garmin and MTN-Qhubeka so they can provide appropriate service.
How does the future look for these Fonzaso front runners? “We are working on some race equipment for the nastiest conditions, for when it’ll rain all day. But even those pieces have been more inspired by what the Gabba has done rather than that old-style rain jacket that’s just a modified mountaineering one. You can train but not race in that. The Gabba is going to influence everything,” Smith says.
Beyond that, Smith and Castelli are creating a range envisaging how clothing will look in 2026, the company’s 150th birthday. Smith hopes they will have solved breathability issues and improved aesthetics; there could even be one garment that is effective in dry, wet and windy conditions. “So when deciding how to dress in cool weather, you don’t even look to see whether it’s gonna rain or not,” he says.
Planning another runaway success story like the Gabba is difficult: it was unexpected and underground, slowly built on rider word-of-mouth and the kind of racing exposure money can’t buy.
While no rider is ever likely to be as enthusiastic as Gene Kelly about pouring rain, the Gabba has helped to make it a more comfortable and slicker experience. The stir created in the cycling apparel world is good for all riders, as it kickstarts more advancement in foul weather garments.
Ultimately, Smith isn’t worried about the next move of his rivals. “By the time someone figures this one out, we’ll be on to the next thing. It’s kind of a risky strategy as a company,” he says, smiling. “To some extent, we’ve definitely made life as a cyclist better for everybody. That’s our mission, what we wanna do. Even if we do get copied a little bit on this, we’re gonna keep innovating and hopefully everybody’s happier.”
This article was originally published in issue 53 of Rouleur.