These days, most winter weather cycle clothing is simply an extension of the cyclist’s summer wardrobe; aerodynamic, breathable, insulating, waterproof, windproof, adaptable and stylish. But not that long ago, staying warm and dry was a much more rudimentary business, a battle against the gods of ice, wind and water while the gods of style often turned a blind eye.
Cycling’s previous generation had to make do with basic equipment that in some instances had barely changed in hundreds of years. Using ski gloves, ladies’ tights, grappa, spicy embrocation and deep sea diving equipment, training in the extreme cold and rain was a Heath Robinson feat of human endeavour more than a pure athletic pursuit. Racing got even tougher.
“A lot of the old school race directors would ask how you could race with leg warmers on, saying it wasn’t done,” recalls Allan Peiper, pro in the 1980s and now performance manager with BMC. “I remember stories of Jean-Luc Vandenbroucke not giving his riders a raincoat ‘because you had to be tough’.
“I also remember riding Roubaix in ‘83 and seeing Bert Oosterbosch crash and go under the water, it was that deep, and I’m not kidding you. That was just the way it was and you adapted to your environment.”
Amidst this old school environment of ‘ride your bike and don’t cry’, team issue cold weather gear often comprised nothing more than the odd woollen accoutrement and a thick jacket. Lycra came in one type – thin – and most other available raw materials began life in a field. Cyclists had to get inventive.
Riders would wrap themselves in extra bits of wool, shove towels down and around anywhere that needed an extra bit of warmth (generally necks and crotches), make their peace with sensory deprivation of balaclavas and seal themselves up in the sort of waterproof that could have been offcuts from the factory that makes Uncle Ben’s. The one common denominator was the woolly hat.
Peiper remembers buying his own pair of ski gloves to keep his hands warm on freezing cold training laps of the Flemish main roads that the gritter van had reached. He was fortunate to eventually receive a team issue version of the ‘game changer’ in winter weather gear: the Descente one piece thermal suit. Over in the club runs of the United Kingdom, John Herety, now team manager with JLT-Condor, was investing in the same outfit.
“It came with a hood, three pockets in the back, loopholes for your thumbs” he remembers fondly. “It was £120 back in 1982-83 and that was a fortune for anything then, but I suffered so much in the cold that it was well bought.”
Only those riders with a couldn’t-care-less insouciance – or those who could warmly embrace the absurdity of it all – could ever hope to look stylish in winter. That said, there is an undeniable class to those Belgian winter hats apparently designed to keep the tops of ears nice and toasty and the various attempts at attaining ‘luft’ with thick woollen beanies (no doubt propped up by immaculately coiffed hair).
However many British riders would still head out with pairs of ladies’ tights under plus fours and long socks, the theory being that they would keep the mud off woollen shorts and save on washing and drying.
“We also had the first of the diving wear, those overshoes made of neoprene,” Herety remembers. “The first generation of those were so thick, it was almost a challenge to put the things on in the first place. Cyclists went into deep sea diving shops to get them. They weren’t cheap, and I ended up buying a pair of deep sea diving gloves too.
“I couldn’t grip the levers because they were so straight, and the neoprene so thick, that you couldn’t bend. It was basically just two pieces of rubber sealed together.”
“Thick, fat, and really f***ing hot”
With ubiquitous shoestring budgets, northern Europeans could seldom escape overseas. Back then, the notion that pros would be one day be hooking up their telephones to race each other in winter via screens in their garages would have been dismissed as a futurist pipe-dream.
Macho culture was the only coping mechanism, and its hidden chemical weapon was a primitive embrocation cream made by a company called Cramer which Peiper recalls as an oil-based, water-repellent “nightmare.” It was scorching limbs across the Channel, too. Well, with names like ‘Red Hot’ and ‘Atomic Balm’, what else did they expect?
“You’d get to a café and all of sudden you’d be in agony with your knees on fire,” remembers Herety. “You’d put too much on, it hadn’t worked when you were riding."
Despite the machismo, Peiper remembers fellow riders’ tears on the Passo Gavia during the frigid 1988 Giro. While Andy Hampsten rode off to a memorable victory, Peiper remembers the gruppetto stopping in dribs and drabs by a burning petrol drum fire. Those days his only extreme weather protocol was to have his ski gloves removed and replaced by Italian army gloves and get told to carry on.
“Those days are embedded on your mind,” he reflects. “How are you gonna tell kids about it now? They race hard, but those stories are what made cycling.”
Herety adds: “You look back at pictures and you think, ‘what the hell were we doing?’ We were bloody idiots.
“It was extremely macho, but it was fun. Fun but dumb. There you go, there’s your headline.”