NOPINZ: Faster in the skin you're in
They made their name revolutionising the humble race number, moving from a dining room table to a Tour de France debut in a matter of months. The homespun story of Nopinz, whose aero skinsuits and accessories are helping top racers, casual riders and Strava junkies to big gains
The Nineties hit Brimful of Asha plays on the radio as Nopinz’s first two employees take me round their HQ. Their kit is designed, screen printed, cut out, stitched together and sent out here: pleasingly hands on. Despite the lively music, at some point between the designers’ station upstairs and the seamstresses, it all gets a bit much for Albert. He lies down for a pat on the head and a little snooze. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Albert is a spaniel.
Little wonder he needs a rest. This company and its speed-enhancing apparel has come a very long way since owner Blake Pond launched it from his dining room table in 2014. Geographically, at least, its base has barely moved a matter of miles. Nopinz’s products are proudly made in Britain, 200 miles from London in the south-western county of Devon.
The company occupies a couple of units in an industrial estate in Barnstaple. Clients range from individuals and cycling clubs to the very best in the world. During my visit, one Nopinz designer is finishing artwork for a Movistar rider; before big events like the Tour de France and national championships, there’s a surge of racers getting in touch wanting little gains. Their tagline “tailored for speed” isn’t mere marketing; what’s good for the pros is desirable for everyone else.They’ve often had to be hush-hush about their WorldTour connections, but the signed jerseys around the place are testament to how their watt-saving solutions have helped the likes of Alex Dowsett, Team Ireland and a certain Primož Roglič. “When he lost the  Tour de France, we put his jersey in the bathroom,” Pond says of the Slovenian, tongue-in-cheek. A keen time-trial racer, Pond’s company-forming idea came to him in 2011.
Race numbers: every bike racer puts them on for identification, but they are an anachronism in a modern sport always in search of infinitesimal improvements. You can have teams shelling out thousands for wind tunnel tests and altitude training stints, only for their champions to perform daily contortions before a race, having their numbers pinned on inexactly by team-mates. Time-consuming and wasteful of watts, not to mention painful when accidentally getting stuck with a pin. And it damages precious kit: after one local event, Pond came away frustrated, with holes in his brand new skinsuit after pinning race numbers on. There had to be a better way, he reasoned.
He drew up an idea in a sketchbook for an adhered number onto a skinsuit and devised a self-explanatory company name: Nopinz. The idea lay dormant for two years until Pond set out to make it a reality, encouraged by triathlon coach, friend and first investor, Joe Beer. The process of going from drawing board to market was nerve-wracking, with a fair bit of trial and error. Inspired by medical gauze, the stick-on number – the SpeedWallet – got its public debut at the British national 10-mile time-trial in August 2014.
Like the product itself, the idea quickly stuck with racers. Pond was more nervous about his brainwave’s first big race than his own competitive effort. “If it went wrong, there was no Plan B. I’d spent everything I could on it,” he says. A colleague at the start line was re-sticking any numbers that looked in danger of peeling off, just to make sure. Good impressions guaranteed – and Pond bagged a top-10 finish.
Pond realised a see-through wallet would work even better and made the SpeedPocket, a 4-way stretch memory plastic pocket tailor-fitted to a racer’s skinsuit flank. Then, it was down to him to make it happen, learning the ropes into the night at his Devon dining room table. He hunted down the right materials, set up their early production process and learned to sew. Just as well: there’s no room for error when taking a roller cutter to customers’ cherished skinsuits for pocket attachment.
Quickly, the big names came calling. LottoNL-Jumbo, the forerunner to the current Jumbo-Visma team, asked to use the SpeedPocket at the 2015 Tour de France. Pond flew out to the start in Utrecht with a rucksack full of converted skinsuits, mingling with Peter Sagan and Ivan Basso in the hotel restaurant. He was too starstruck and nervous to eat. “I remember thinking ‘this has come a long way in eight months. This small idea is already starting to snowball,’” he says.
At that point, Nopinz was no longer quite one man and his dog – there were three seamstresses also involved. The logical next step up was integrating their product and selling their own skinsuits. The first one developed in-house was the Tripsuit, another milestone product for the fledgling company. It’s fed into the latest iteration, the Flowsuit, developed via 18 months of computer modelling, track and wind tunnel testing.
Considerable research goes into their suit design, pinpointing the perfect seam positioning and best blend of material. And if they can’t find the right one, they design and manufacture it themselves: that’s how their signature SpeedScalez fabric came into being. Nopinz also offer performance kit that doesn’t cost the earth – their Pro-1 flagship aero jersey is £80 – and their strategy is simple: deliver exceptional work and customer service, then let word of mouth do the rest. That positive talk has spread through cycling circles. In their principal market, the United Kingdom, over 300 clubs are signed up. Turn up to any time-trial and most competitors are wearing Nopinz kit.
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In the WorldTour, several leading teams have been customers, albeit under white label secrecy, including AG2R. Romain Bardet wore their Tripsuit and overshoes on the way to third place in the 2017 Tour de France. Having requested a cooler version for the blazing heat of the race’s penultimate time-trial, he saved his podium spot by a mere second. Merci, Nopinz.
An official deal was a logical next move. They had been fitting pockets for a few years for past iterations of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux. When the Belgian team gained WorldTour status at the end of 2020, they signed up Nopinz as their aero partner for time-trial suits, accessories and road suits. Taco van der Hoorn also personally paid for pocketed suits to wear in road stages, catching the eye during his rousing stage 3 win in the 2021 Giro d’Italia.
Many of Nopinz’s products are expressions of Pond’s practical, hands-on nature. “I’ve always been a bit of a problem solver,” he says. The latest came along as an unintended result of the pandemic. While burning up on his turbo trainer during yet another enforced indoor session, Pond devised the SubZero kit. Taking some inspiration from the warm-up vests worn by pro cyclists, it aims to alleviate the problem of overheating with easily changeable ice packs going into FreezePockets on the upper-mid and lower back jersey areas. The idea is to keep a rider’s core temperature lower, cause fewer cardiac drifts and ensure better performance for e- racers or turbo regulars alike.
Whether worn in the sanctity of one’s pain cave, British time-trials or major international races, Nopinz’s offering and popularity keeps growing. “To be honest, it’s escalated a bit from what I originally thought it was going to be,” Pond says. With a large customer base, especially in the United Kingdom, they’re looking to offer something not solely based around performance and develop new ranges. “My brain’s always going, trying to think of something new,” Pond says. After their cool SubZero solution and improvements to the humble race number, surely the next novel Nopinz idea will be no sweat.
Taco van der Hoorn: Mr Aero
Image credit: Luca Bettini/AFP via Getty Images
Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux racer Taco van der Hoorn is aero personified. He has a Graeme Obree poster on his living room wall and has been wearing skinsuits and riding 38cm handlebars in road races since adolescence. “Everything that’s new is scary for people in general, so I always had a lot of comments about it,” he says of the traditionalist reaction.
And he’s a Nopinz wearer, of course. A stickler for those little gains, Van der Hoorn bought their aero arm warmers and road suits at his own cost and wore them most days at the Giro d’Italia. “I was feeling they were really fast suits and well-developed, investing was not a problem for me,” he says.
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Quite an endorsement, and when stage three of the 2021 Giro d’Italia to Canale rolled round, Van der Hoorn’s victory was on brand for Nopinz. After a day-long breakaway, saving his energy and judging his effort, he won by four seconds, showing that little watt-saving wins can make all the difference. There are few more beautiful sights in pro cycling than a joyous, disbelieving underdog, crossing the line just in front of a marauding bunch sprint. Perhaps other top racers will be parting with their cash in the future too – or asking Taco for tips. “I have some more aero secrets, but I’m not going to share everything,” he says. Spoilsport…
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