Without any doubt, for every professional road cyclist the year begins in a moment, one that contains equal measures of excitement, nervousness, anxiety and fear. This moment is not the first weigh-in after the exuberant and, dare I say it, decadent off-season, nor is it finding out who your teammates, directors or last-minute sponsors are. It’s far more important.
It’s the moment when the team battens down the hatches, a moment when all phones are banned and a verbal agreement kicks in: never to speak about what happens in this room until the embargo is over.
It’s the moment that the team kit is unveiled each season.
You could hear a pin drop, the tension in the air is palpable… and then it is revealed.
Sometimes there are yells of joy, cheer and whoops from your American teammates. Other times there are sighs of relief, or of ambivalence. But sometimes, there is an exhalation of deep disappointment, dislike and disdain.
This year, I was adamant for this anxiety to be a thing of the past, and as I was working with Castelli and Colnago on design, I knew I was in good hands. However, these are also heritage brands, so to speak. So I had to ask myself, what does heritage mean in cycling? And does that heritage hold you back from doing something truly innovative?
Well, here’s the story of my recent kit and bike for Unbound in 2022 and I’ll let you answer those questions when I’m done.
“So we looked to the flag of Kansas for inspiration.” Those were the words from Colnago that perhaps made me feel both nervous and excited. “Because there really isn’t much else Kansas seems to be known for besides corn,” I chimed in.
What could it be? What would the brilliant designers at Colnago and Castelli dream up for me for my Unbound bike and kit. We asked ourselves what was the era of cycling we all loved the most, and we all agreed that aesthetically it was the crazy early 1990s. So we started there.
Then we realised that not only was this our favourite era, there was also a design from the annals of Colnago’s past that we all thought of right away. The Art Décor Master Olympic! The chrome fork and stays, the fluorescent colours, the iconic ace of spades jersey rider hand-painted on the top tube. I mean. Come on. What’s not to love? So there we had it. The bike. An injection of life into a story of old, to combine modern performance and nostalgia whilst also giving tribute to the state of Kansas. We even found the state motto: Ad astra per aspera, which translates as ‘to the stars through difficulties’, which we also found quite fitting for a 200-mile race. We felt the story wrote itself for this bike, a story that can only truly come from its own heritage.
The kit from Castelli was no different. Initially we felt that the ace of clubs jersey rider to the master Olympic jersey painted on the top tube was a no brainer. So we started there. But we wanted to take it further. We looked back at the retro jerseys of the era and we thought: game on. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing and that’s just what we did.
We also took the colours inspiration from the state flag of Kansas, which we felt worked perfectly with the fluorescent yellows and orange, which sparked a feeling of 'Oooooh the 90s are coming back, and we love that'. But more than colour, we wanted to dig a little deeper. I've said Kansas was known mostly for corn (and flat open spaces), and we remembered Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz and thought, well, why not turn that into the ‘Wizard of Aus’? So, there we had it. With personal touches like our gold embossed NH89 logo and the Wizard of Aus theme, I think we made something truly shocking, truly cool and truly 90s.
This all sounds super easy though, and in the end, sure, it comes together effortlessly thanks to the master painters and kit production. But what I’ve found a new respect for is the actual process.
Sitting down and discussing artistic inspiration is something new to me. I’ve always been the rider that just gets his kit, wears it, and rides his bike. But this process is the culmination of a big learning curve. When many people sit in on a call, to speak about their ideas, their feelings, their memories, at the end of the call designers have to make sense of it all. And when you give them blurry concepts, or moods, or themes, their job is to digest it all and create a first version. I didn’t realise that the first version is often actually 3 or 4 versions, or even more.
And then you break down the elements of each design we like and they get morphed into something new. Another series of 3 or 4 designs. And the process goes on. Then finally, the idea is shown to a painter, or for the kit, to the creator who understands what is and isn’t possible with printing and cutting, so there we go back again to the design board to make something that can actually be made.
It looks simple, it sounds simple, but to get to an end product there are countless stages, conversations, compromises and then again, more changes. I had no idea. Design has been a language I’ve had to learn, but in the end, following this collaboration with Castelli and Colnago, I’ve never been more proud to ride in a kit or on any bike before.
So where does this leave us on the question of heritage? I think in this case heritage is what gave us the framework to create something new. To bring an iconic design to a new age bike. To rehash memories and a fondness for an era in cycling that was truly unique. Does this mean it’s truly innovative? Perhaps not, I don’t think that’s the point nor the goal all the time. Sometimes it’s just about making something beautiful for the sake of making something beautiful. Or to give life back to an old icon. Or to simply honour an era of colour and design. I’ll not try change your concept of what heritage means in cycling, I’ll let you decide that. But for me, it means freedom to lean into the old to make something new.
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