If eyes are windows to the soul, then sunglasses are the net curtains or venetian blinds, offering protection, sanctuary, anonymity. These days they are the curse of the cycling photographer; sunglasses hide emotion, prevent intrusive camera lenses from recording what lies beneath, what is being endured. The mouth may be gaping, sweat pouring, but the eyes have it.
Lunettes – ‘little moons’ as the French call them – have become ubiquitous in the modern peloton; a vital item of a rider’s safety equipment but also of their identity and street cred. Riders are now synonymous with the sunglasses they sport – many are rarely seen without them. For some, the brand maketh the man.
The earliest known spectacles – the preserve of literate types like nuns and monks – emerged in the 13th century. Thus in locations where books were written, read and printed (such as Nuremberg), optometrists made a living. Early styles were handheld and only in the 18th century were arms or ‘sides’ added, commonly slipped into the folds of one’s wig. Centuries later the bespectacled still present a bookish air. Laurent Fignon’s nickname, The Professor, springs to mind…
Some 19th century styles of eyewear, such as ‘D-spectacles’, with side-visors, were used to conceal as well as cure ocular disease. These sorts of glasses were donned by passengers of the first locomotives: fast open-air journeys involving wind, sparks and, of course, steam – an early example of a more ‘active’ eyewear design, perhaps. Speed made (and makes) your eyes water and the grit stick – eyes weren’t designed for speed.
In the 1920s and ’30s the focus changed. New materials and a quickening pace of life, combined with the rise of advertising, saw specialist lenses and fashion-conscious frames hit the market. And in 1929, Edward Land patented a process for protective lenses using tiny, needle-like crystals. Two years later, Polaroid - the world’s first lens to polarise light – was announced to the world.
Polarised glasses were particularly good for reducing glare from the sea, sun, snow and the road and sunglasses quickly became de rigueur on the beach. More adventurous leisure pursuits such as motoring, aviation and skiing, though, required specialist eyewear. This demand meant the market blossomed and even in the early days of movies and mass media sunglasses became a highly marketable, celebrity-associated product.
Before more commercial brands of shades arrived, glacier glasses – developed for alpinists to protect against the sun’s glare at high altitude – were the sunglasses of choice. Adjacent to these were aviator or flight goggles. In 1937, Bausch & Lomb Optical – which had made protective goggles for pilots at high altitude between 1930 and 1941 – launched its ‘anti-glare goggles’ as the first true brand name in the sunglasses market.
Specialist cycle clothing of all kinds was rare for the early Giants of the Road, adapting from other disciplines, both sporting and everyday, being the order of the day. Macintoshes, running shoes, woollen swimming shorts and braces: all appeared in the peloton in one form or another.
Eyewear was no different. Wrap-around flying goggles were a far from perfect solution, being hot, sweaty and uncomfortable, but lasted well into the ’50s. Study photos of Grand Tour-ists from the ’20s and everyone sported a pair, usually ex-military stock from the Great War. That said, some soon realised that with slight adaptations goggles could become a fashion item. Working for a community of motorists and skiers who needed eye protection, Giuseppe Ratti developed smoked tints and housed them in rubber rims with elastic headbands.
Goggle-eyed pieces called ‘Protectors’, used by men such as the one-eyed writer and daredevil pilot, Gabriele d’Annunzio, set Ratti on his way, and in 1938 Persol (per il sol – ‘for the sun’) was born. Ratti was a creative innovator, designing space-age looking protective specs with vented side visors, yellow tints and flexible sides. The Persol 009 with four lenses (a lens at either side as well as front on) were used on early NASA space missions and were a pre-cursor to the wraparound lenses of later years.
One of the key inventions of Ratti’s company was the patented Meflecto sides (arms) with a flexible steel core running through small cylinders of metal or nylon. This gave an ergonomic, secure fit. Synonymous with criminal cool and Steve McQueen, who wore the 649 and 714 in The Thomas Crown Affair, these models had silica crystal lenses for successful solar ray absorption. Several riders in the 1960s adopted them, including Italian Nino Defilippis.
It was in 1952 that a man called Ray Stegman designed the Wayfarer, the all-time Ray-Ban classic. According to one author, wearing Ray-Bans creates “a coolness only to be described as delicious”. Whether this refers to the wearer or the onlooker is unclear…
So the tide was turning, and glasses were starting to be seen as a fashion item as well as a protective one. But the process wasn’t quite complete. One rider never seen without specs was Jan Janssen, the first Dutchman to win the Tour, but his bespectacled appearance was yet to be regarded as cool.
“In 1963 I was a young rider. I was able to ride Paris-Roubaix, my first big race, and get third. I came to the start and people asked [direteur sportif] Maurice De Muer: ‘What are you doing with a guy with glasses?’
De Muer told them: ‘He won’t be far from the winning podium.’”
Like the latterly successful glasses-wearing riders Laurent Fignon and Alex Zülle, Janssen’s obsession with eyewear was in part due to short sightedness. But, unlike the Frenchman and the Swiss, Janssen (pictured below) adopted tinted shades that gave him a counter-culture aesthetic as opposed to that of library-counter geek. The browline frames Janssen sported, using gold and acetate, were an evolution of the cat-eye style and wayfarer design.
Bausch & Lomb would go on to popularise this style as the Clubmaster, given extra street cred by American civil rights icon Malcolm X. Janssen however wore Provop, a French brand imitating an American design, and other frame styles, including American Opticals.
When considering cycling, it’s a nice coincidence that sunglasses were once referred to as ‘sun cheaters’. In the post-war era of amphetamine use and abuse, riders could literally be doped up to the eyeballs and the onlooker would be none the wiser. This was especially helpful at the Grand Tours, when riders who hadn’t slept through a night of speed-haze would arrive at the depart with their eyes revolving in their heads, pupils the size of saucers.
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, it seems that the use of sunglasses or protective eyewear in the pro peloton was less common. That was surely in part due to races now being run on properly surfaced roads – the days of the self-supported goggle-wearing ‘convicts of the road’ were on the wane.
But the fading popularity of eyewear was to prove short lived, thanks to the influence of skiing and a newly-emerging sport by the name of motocross. The ultimate winner was Oakley, but Carrera were the early runners.
Carrera was founded in 1956 by Wilhelm Anger, who took the name from the Carrera Panamericana five-day car rally in Mexico – the event which helped establish Porsche’s name in the motoring world. A technical, performance aspect set the brand on a path of innovation using thermo-plastics to create ski goggles and, in the 1970s, the firm introduced interchangeable lenses.
This ‘precision engineering for the eyes’ saw a collaboration with Porsche who designed the folding, wraparound and titanium frames. Carrera’s work was a big influence on the designs that arrived in the 1980s. The Carrera 5485, a one-piece shield, with big rivets, certainly would have influenced other later styles. At the same time Carrera were pioneering the transition from glass lenses to photochromic plastics. They developed ‘edge-to-edge’ vision for the burgeoning sport couture of the ski slopes but also brought German industrial design to what was essentially an item of clothing. This influenced a whole heap of oversized sport styles during the 1980s, crossing over into streetwear – particularly hip hop fashion (think Run DMC wearing Cazal frames).
Meanwhile with the acid house era of bike racing, the shape of frames became more geometric and the designs got brighter, weirder and more spectacular. Shades in the ’80s and into the ’90s took the fancy dress aspect of racing attire to new levels. But new approaches to how sunglasses were made also influenced these garish creations. New lens tinting techniques made you the complete super hero – or villain – and gave racers a new found level of idiocy – two-way mirrors for the cycling circus. But despite their innovation and level of influence, Carrera were to miss the cycling boat. As the sport boomed and the European domination of the biggest races loosened, new niche brands began to emerge.
For many the quintessential design of the ’80s was the Oakley Factory Pilot Eyeshades. The US firm had modest beginnings. It was founded in 1975 by Jim Jannard, who started selling motorcycle handlebar grips in California from the back of his truck. Naming the company after his English setter, Jannard’s firm went on to make goggles for motocross riders and BMX racers, the first model being the O-frame, a simple padded plastic goggle with a cylindrical lens.
Essentially Oakley did what AO and B&L did with the Aviator: took a goggle concept and turned it into a more versatile sunglass design. In 1984 Greg LeMond bought a pair of Eyeshades. He immediately called Oakley – makers of these alien accessories – to see if he could get some more lenses for his ‘trip to France’. Jim Jannard was more than happy to send some.
Mike Bell, sports marketing manager for Oakley, says that the cycling-friendliness of the product was crucial to its success. “People don’t like a strap, they interfere with helmets and caps. Our early designs included a second set of replaceable ear stems that slid in and which could wrap around the ears.”
In ’85 LeMond became an official Oakley athlete. So too did Australian Phil Anderson who, as Bell remembers, raced from February to October.
“Back then they were riding way more races than they do now and their contracts gave them bonuses for the one day events. During 1985 and ’86 Phil was getting some really good results, regularly finishing top five in the monuments.”
The early innovations Oakley made were based on motocross technology – they developed a tear-off system for Anderson to combat the mud, dust and rain from spring racing conditions. Looking through somewhat squinted eyes (or just without your glasses) the popular Oakley designs of today – Radars and M-Frames – are actually not that different to the browlines worn by Jan Janssen.
But it was the materials used by Jannard and his Californian friends that made the difference, plus the fact that lenses could be easily replaced. Rather than sunglasses, Oakley popularised the sun-plastics of the peloton. The company’s heritage in motocross gave them a headstart in the market: guys racing at 90mph with rocks flying off back wheels needed a good product. Polycarbonate lenses have a number of benefits over glass, safety being high on the list.
“Back in the day, polymer science hadn’t advanced enough to match the clarity of glass,” says Oakley engineer Ryan Calilung. “But glass was heavy, has fracture issues, but it was the best we had.
“Plastic had other issues aside from clarity; moulding tech was in its infancy, the industry hadn’t figured out how to mould thin lenses precisely. So you get all kinds of optical issues – fishbowling, headaches, eyestrain. Think of a pair of crappy safety glasses. That was the best in the ’70s. There have been many tech advancements in polymer science, material quality, moulding techniques, and also the science for adding coatings for scratch resistance.”
It was the English-speakers in the peloton who fast became the pioneers for Oakley’s new pieces of safety equipment-cum-fluorescent-war-masks.
“If you look at those typical Graham Watson photos circa ’84, ’85,” Bell recalls, “it’s just Phil and Greg wearing eyewear. There are a few other guys who wore casual glasses made from metal and acetate, and Nylon things like Vuarnet… Now all the top guys are wearing Oakleys.”
So it was Oakley, with a little help from their American, Canadian, Australian, Scottish and English friends, that made specific protective eyewear for cyclists de rigueur. It was a radical change when sunglasses were hardly a priority, as Tour contender Phil Anderson recalls: “Jim Jannard gave us Factory Pilot Eyeshades to try out in training and then to use in the early classics of ’84.
“It made quite an impact in the very beginning. They were seen as pretty radical considering the only others on the market were Ray-Ban Aviators. The early goggle-like Pilots created quite a reaction from the old school cycling fraternity. Riders were afraid to wear them initially because the styling was far from anything that had been seen.
“Greg and I were racing particularly well during this period and gave the eyewear plenty of exposure. The marketing team at Oakley held release until they were satisfied with design and production of the product. Greg and I rocked up to that year’s Dauphiné with a suitcase each full of them to distribute to riders. Slow the first day, but by day three, neither Greg or I had any left.”
Using riders to act as team liaison seems amateurish nowadays, but Bell remembers that things were very different in the early days of marketing sunglasses.
“In 1986 – the first year Greg won the Tour – it was only his family at baggage claim who met him at LAX. Then I went out to the Tour with him in ’87 [LeMond attended but didn’t compete: he was still recovering from the shooting accident that nearly ended his life]. I sent 300 sets of Eyeshades out ahead for about a dozen riders. That was a huge number for us, but about halfway through that Tour I had to get more shipped out.”
The customisable Blades released in 1988 kept Oakley ahead of the game. They too were pioneered by the English-speakers of the peloton, including Canadian Steve Bauer and Aussie Neil Stephens, whose hairdo really added something to the beach-bum ’80s style.
“In 1988, when we released Blades, that really opened the door,” Bell says. “When we turned up the volume on the aesthetic even more, people started wearing brighter colours, tints like splatter paint, lime green, all pretty cool. They looked great with a mullet.” Even Neil Stephens may beg to differ there…
But the more modular Razor Blades established the trend for special tints and custom colours and, ever since, Oakley has tried to make every pair special for their athletes. Matching glasses to kit, especially the leader’s jersey, is now expected and Oakley blazed that trail. “Every rider we sponsor is excited to open that box,” says Bell of the company’s care packages for the lucky few.
In 1989 a style named Mumbo was released and worn by such taste-makers as Viatcheslav Ekimov and the emerging American talent, Lance Armstrong. Oakley was dominating the cycling market. The cylindrical design of the Eyeshades and Blades was superseded by a lens shape termed ‘polaric ellipsoid’.
The ellipse shape allows for a range of movement: top to bottom and side to side – edge-to-edge vision. Bell realised that if the riders wanted them, the company was onto something very special.
“At that time we had the market to ourselves. Riders would say ‘I’ve lost my shades’ and I’d just reach into their back pocket for them and say ‘no you didn’t’.” Oakleys were the new currency of the peloton.
Fast forward to 1999 and M-frames, the rightful heir to the Eyeshades. Using the same ‘Unobtainium’ rubber from Jannard’s first product, bike grips, M-frames featured interchangeable lenses and great peripheral and downward vision afforded by the M shape. They are still worn in the peloton today, notably by Italian fashionista Filippo Pozzato. A big (perhaps the big) M-Frame wearer was Armstrong, arguably the most significant athlete in Oakley’s eye-popping stock. He was supposedly the rider to popularise slotting the sides of shades through the vents in the helmet. Now all Oakley designs for cycle sport are developed to navigate around helmet technology and the way riders move them about their head and anatomy, ensuring they easily slide into vents or the back of the neck for that cool pro look.
While Oakley’s range has evolved and expanded (they now make a number of special products for the military) the basic concept, materials and function first presented by the Eyeshades and Factory Pilot lenses can still be seen in the most popular styles today – Radars, M Frames and Jawbones.
Oakleys are everywhere. From the cricket pitch to the Pentagon, they continue to dominate the sports eyewear market. As marketing endorsements go, donating 55 pairs of Radars to the Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 was a masterstroke. The world watched as they emerged, one at a time, eyes protected from the sun’s glare by you-know-what. Genius.
Oakley might dominate the cycling market, but they do not stand alone and nor are they alone in placing their product on famous faces. ‘Technically cool since 1985’ is the slightly clunky yet pleasingly Euro tagline of Rudy Project, based in Treviso alongside Pinarello. Oakley may have had the English-speaking riders covered but Rudy sought out the best Italian, Spanish and Belgian stars.
Rodolfo ‘Rudy’ Barbazza developed his sunglasses business through the world of motorsport, working with bootmakers Sidi and suspension fork company Marzocchi. Noticing that sports other than moto GP were missing these crucial accessories, Barbazza had a “desire to experiment, use intuition, to use colour for an object that had always been monochromatic…”
But when it came to promotion, Barbazza took a well-trodden path: “I simply understood that for a company with a ‘good’ product, the choice of what we today call celebrity endorsement was a strategic one.” And the more colourful and distinctive the designs, the easier it is to ‘get the glasses on the podiums’.
Rudy’s son and heir, Simone Barbazza, suggests that “sponsorship is in our DNA”. Riders are supposedly involved in lab tests of the designs, although you do wonder how far personal contribution from riders actually goes. But do bike riders sell sunglasses? Undoubtedly.
Cycling’s stars became synonymous with their chosen brand of eyewear. Bernard Hinault clearly couldn’t be seen to emulate teammate and arch rival Greg LeMond and other English-speakers. After his Ray-Ban mishap, the Badger became an early exponent of the Rudy Project Performance shade, as did a young Italian named Gianni Bugno.
The brightly-finished thermo plastics, space-age materials such as ‘Kinetyum’ and ‘Quick Change’ lenses, position Rudy Project as the European equivalent to the US company even more obsessed with endorsement and product distinction.
Italian ski-wax manufacturer Briko, meanwhile, struck gold when they sponsored Italian slalom skier and flamboyant playboy Alberto Tomba. So it was natural to take a similar approach to its launch in the cycling market – seducing the great and good of the Italian peloton. Briko broke the mould for frame design and with some pretty crazy insect-like creations they approached cycling from a completely new angle, and it worked.
Briko’s Thrama lenses arrived in 1989. The lenses they developed in the early 1990s were a bit of a departure for riding vision, with better filters and even more flamboyant tints and treatments than the competition, especially the HPS Spectrum. Fundamentally, despite some rather awkward looking styles, they were supremely comfortable (Pantani’s Stingers still get the 1 nod of approval for comfort). And this is all-important – feeling like you haven’t got them on should always be a priority with sunglasses.
With massive global sports such as Formula 1 and golf now giving the sunglasses manufacturers maximum exposure, cycling seems small beer in comparison. What cycling does give, however, is a lot of ‘bang for your buck’ for sponsors: hours of TV coverage where the camera is trained directly on the product, whether worn, stowed behind ears, the back of the jersey, on top of the head, or slotted through a helmet.
Shades are rarely out of sight. And sponsor an outrageously talented athlete like Mark Cavendish and you have a winner, crossing the line on Bastille Day at the Tour in 2009 so far ahead of his rivals there was time to remove his unique Oakleys and show them off for the cameras.
Tacky? Maybe. Professional? Definitely.
Few riders have rejected the benefits of eyewear in recent decades. One who famously did was Sean Kelly, the whites of whose eyes can just about be seen, surrounded by Flemish filth, in some of the most famous Classics photographs of all time.
“Riders in sunglasses can’t see where they’re going,” the taciturn Irishman claimed after one crash. Kelly won Paris-Nice, the ‘race to the sun’, four times. No shades were worn, although he was occasionally seen sporting glasses at times in his career. Clear ones…
“Now go out and get yourself some big black frames
With the glass so dark they won’t even know your name”
Cheap Sunglasses, ZZ Top
Many thanks to those who helped us with finding glasses for this feature especially avid Renault 4 fan and bike collector 54, David Spires from Oakley, 298 from the José María Jiménez fan club, Andy Hill from the Mapei Appreciation Society and Sam Gordon.
This article first appeared first in issue 32 of Rouleur.