When I first started cycling, I used to go out on a Sunday morning with a group of varying abilities and economic resources.
Some of us were poor and some of them weren’t. In the depths of winter everyone had a basic bike, which was just as well as the Strathclyde weather can be rather brutal, but as spring approached the proper fast machines re-appeared – although only if it was promised to be dry and sunny, and that wasn’t too often before May had been and gone.
Poshest of all was one old boy’s Super Record-equipped De Rosa. Even when I’d spent all of the previous evening scrubbing bits of grey aluminium and every spoke with metal polish, my race steed’s brilliance was still vastly inferior to its deep Milano blue paint and yellow-filled cutouts. Chainset, gears, stem, seatpost and bar ends all carried the De Rosa heart, some engraved, some painted, all exquisite.
His bike was a thing of beauty and, it being Italian, we all somehow knew that it was special. I, for example, had learned from an early age that many of the good things in life came from there, mainly thanks to Glasgow’s finest chip shops and ice cream parlours being run by their expatriates.
Their shops were always busy, always well-staffed by a family of friendly faces who didn’t hesitate to ask if there was anything else you might want to go with your tub of raspberry ripple.
Our wealthiest group member clearly respected their cycling efforts too.
As I got into deeper into racing I discovered more of the peninsula’s culture and their glorious classical designs. They had a whole plethora of manufacturers producing bikes and kit that was highly desirable and beautifully finished. They had style. They had grace. And they had Sophia Loren.
Then I went there and found my glasses were as rose-tinted as the Gazzetta’s pages. Porca miseria. Or is it Dio? I never quite figured out which was more fitting for a bit of casual blasphemy.
Thankfully, everyday life still has a certain style and finesse to it: well-clothed, well-heeled and well-dined matters more than a few silly rules and regulations. And thankfully the great tradition of the beautiful Italian bike still exists too. They may be relying less and less on artisan skills and labour, but the presentation and desirability is still there. Makers such as Colnago, Pinarello, Bianchi, De Rosa, Bottecchia, Cinelli or Pegoretti get the details right: they understand that you buy a bike as much for how it looks as how it performs.
Most of them are involved in racing too and, I wish I could say, associated with classy, well-presented bike teams. But I can’t because lately the people that gave us jerseys like Molteni, Brooklyn, Del Tongo and Carrera have gradually descended into an abyss of neon ugliness.
Before you question my judgement, let me just say I know about these things. I had to suffer a Le Groupement jersey for a short while, arguably one of the worst pieces of cycling camouflage ever seen, and before that the clunky mess that was TVM’s idea of design. Compared to the elegance and simplicity of Peugeot or Panasonic, my declining years were just awful.
And so it is with the colour schemes of Italy’s cycling teams today. To call them bright, shouty, mismatched and garish would be doing them a favour. I’m trying to think when the rot started and a few abominations spring to mind, like Atala’s grey/blue pyjama stripes, or Malvor’s series of mistakes.
Things definitely went down a slippery slope of a sight for sore eyes when the process of screen printing became available. When fluorescent fashion happened, the Italians were lost, seemingly stuck in that time warp of Tutti Frutti TV and local discount signage.
There was a reasonable excuse for accident zone orange and emergency yellow when they first appeared, but now? We are supposed to be sophisticated consumers these days. You aren’t going to look cool and cutting edge in a Lampre top or the latest offerings from Vini Fantini.
Bardiani-CSF must have had a competition to get as many names and addresses on their jersey and then let the second and third place losers join in too. Please somebody tell them to stop it and grow out of the energy drink, ‘in your face’ look.
It may seem unfair to pick on those examples of bad taste. Perhaps it is. They are not the only culprits. The further down the ranks you go, the worse it gets. It’s a national disaster for the descendants of the Roman Empire. I’ve read the book about what they did for us and there’s no mention of a fluorescent legacy anywhere.
Once, you could stand in the Piazza del Duomo before the start of La Primavera and you could feel the history, the heritage. You imagined Coppi, Gimondi, Merckx and Moser had stood there before, and you dreamed that this could be your day to join the greats. In classic style.
Not outside a discount store with a closing down sale.
Originally published in issue 17.3