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« Profiling | Main | 1982 Custom »

Black shorts and retro style jerseys

There has been cycle racing almost as long as there have been bicycles. In the beginning bicycles were handmade and were expensive, cycling and cycle racing was initially a sport for wealthy young men. However, in the late 1800s the safety bicycle was invented, and soon mass production lowered the price, and made the bicycle available to the working classes.

Prior to the invention of the bicycle the working man could only travel as far as he could walk, he had no form of personal transport. The bicycle set the working man free, to travel and seek work outside his immediate area. It also set him free to travel outside the cities and into the surrounding countryside at the weekends.

All over Europe cycling and cycle racing became the sport of choice among the working classes. Cycle races were held on Sundays, after all working people had to work the rest of the week, which included Saturdays back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Sunday was for many their only day off.

Cyclists wore black, and especially black shorts, both out of respect, and so as not to offend those who attended church on Sundays. This tradition later became a rule of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) which is the world governing body for the sport of cycle racing.

For 100 years, racing cyclist both amateur and professional wore black shorts. It was both a rule and a tradition. Sometime in the 1980s that changed when the UCI allowed professional racing cyclists to wear different color shorts. This came about because professional teams are now often financed by multiple sponsors, and there was a need for more room for advertising on both the jersey and shorts.

Also technology and the modern fabrics that cycling clothing is now made from, lends itself to the printing of graphics and sponsors logos. In the old days jerseys were made of wool and the sponsor’s name was embroidered on.

So what does the casual cyclist wear for a non racing weekend ride. Many cycling clubs have their own matching jerseys and shorts, styled after the pro’s kit with the club sponsors name and logo. For others there a still plenty of plain black shorts that is still a good choice as it can be worn with practically any color top.

One interesting alternative is produced by Solo, a company from New Zealand that now has a worldwide distribution network in place. Solo produces very high quality “Retro” style cycling jerseys that are designed after the style of those worn by the Professional cyclists of the 1950s through the 1970s. The jerseys are not replica jerseys, and do not represent actual teams of yester-year; but rather are unique designs inspired by retro jerseys. 

Solo jerseys are a high quality garment and the price reflects this. Although the design is retro, the fabric is modern with the same easy care and sweat wicking qualities of any modern cycling jersey. The colors and designs are screen printed on, which makes them permanent and non fade.

Knitted collars and cuffs are a nice retro touch, and the jerseys have three rear pockets as is standard with most cycling jerseys, plus they have an extra zippered pocket for keys, money, etc. There is an elastic gripper strip sewn around the inside bottom edge of the jersey, that stops it riding up, and supports a load if the pockets a filled with food and tools for a long trip.

The 1950s to 1970s was an era when pro cyclists often had a single sponsor. Sponsors names had to be embroidered on, and designs created by sewing different color fabric together. The results were simple, but powerful designs which demonstrated less is more. Solo have done a fine job of capturing the feel of these designs. And of course the jerseys look best when worn with black shorts because that was what the pros wore back in the day.

Footnote: A poor man's sport

I recently wrote the above article as a product review for Answers.com. I reposted it here because I thought you might find the history of black shorts interesting, as well as helping the good people at Solo who are supporters of this blog.

A few weeks back when I wrote another article, I mentioned the slump in bicycle sales in the late 1950s and the 1960s due to working class people buying cars for the first time. One reader could not understand why that would affect sales of racing bikes.

Cycling, and cycle racing in the UK and the rest of Europe in the 1950s and before, was not like it is today. And it was nothing like the cycling scene as it is in the US today. Low income working class people rode bicycles as transport, it was how they got to work each day. A few raced on Sundays, but it was more a social thing, than a fitness thing like today.

Many owned one bike that they put mudguards on and rode to work on it all week.

On a Sunday they would ride to a race, (In the UK that would be a time-trial.) carrying their best wheels with tubular tires. (Picture left.)

The mudguards would be removed, best wheels would go in and they would race.

After the event the mudguards went back on, etc., and they would ride home. Many did no further training, other than ride to work and everywhere else.

Middle class people with a higher income, owned and drove motors cars, they did not exercise, or belong to Cycling Clubs. When the income of the working classes improved, they also bought motor cars and didn’t exercise, so they gave up cycling and cycle racing.

For many Cycling was never seen as exercise, it was what people did out of necessity. Joining a Cycling Club and racing on the weekends was a social outlet. Racing was easy because people were naturally fit.

It wasn’t until the US fitness craze of the 1970s, that sparked a second bicycle boom. Today, racing bicycle equipment is high tech and super expensive, low income people do not buy it. Cycle racing is no longer a poor man’s sport, and never will be again.


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Reader Comments (7)

Dave: I'd always heard bike shorts were black so you could wipe your grease-or dirt-stained palms on them after a roadside repair and not have it show. Anything to that?

Love the blog.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAViglucci

Thanks! In honer of this post, I went for a ride this afternoon wearing my Solo "Fremont Speed Shop" jersey and an ancient pair of Gore shorts (black of course)!. The Solo stuff is beautiful, well made, the customer service is terrific (ask for a few stickers when you place your order). and guaranteed, no one else is wearing it.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTimJ

Yes info appreciated. Got my first pair of black wool riding shorts in the late 70s. Loved them but the chamois wore out and then lycra became available.

I see that wool shorts and jerseys are still available. In fact bought wool jerseys for my sons a few years ago to go along with their friction down tube shifters. I may want to get another pair of black wool shorts some day but gee this stuff is getting expensive.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Dave, interesting that you should write: 'both out of respect, and so as not to offend those who attended church on Sundays', as this is something that I've long considered one of the reasons a large proportion of the non-cycling public ridicule cyclists. IE, lycra shorts, in particular those in colours other than black, are not only unflattering to many, but immodest in general; when off the bike at a coffee stop for example.
I've also noticed that over the years, cycling jerseys have become shorter which adds to the problem. Even the retro-styled ones as per your post while having the old style look, are relatively short. The reason I feel qualified to comment on this, is that I still own and sometimes wear a couple of jerseys that are 25 years old. They are two different brands, one wool blend and the other some sort of synthetic. They are just that bit longer, by about 2 inches, so cover a little more below the waist band of the shorts. Another advantage of the older jerseys is that by being just that bit longer, the (button up) pockets are easier to reach with my arthritic shoulder joints.
If only I could buy truly retro jerseys, with not only the style/colours but also the length of the originals.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul N

After slipping the chain or mending a puncture I've always wiped my fingers on my shorts and was glad they are black. Shorts should be black, socks white and the rest left to choice.

July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

Still not convinced by your automobile supplantation argument, although I certainly concede it was part of the slump of racing bike sales , Catalog listings and I would ASSUME sales of non-convertible-to-racing bicycles outnumbered race/commute bikes. Autos would make car-pooling to races far easier for many. Maybe the International Cycling History Conference publications address this topic for this era. I think social changes other than automobiles made for the differences. Television perhaps?

July 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChimpanzee

Hey Dave-

Interesting about the working class and how racing got started!

Comparing the cost of a quality steel frame made in the 70's, along with a '70's Campy Record goup (for example) - to the cost of a carbon frameset and modern 11 speed Record group - in today's dollar - would today's stuff cost way more?

July 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Katz
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