I love cycling kits. I collect vintage jerseys, and have a predilection for the bizarre. When the news dropped about the new EF Education First kits, specially designed for the 2020 Giro d’Italia in collaboration with British skateboarding company Palace, at least five people tagged me on various platforms, and boy, am I glad they did. The kits were unveiled on Rapha’s Instagram stories yesterday, and the videos are a delight to watch. “Oh my god,” comes the voice of one rider, followed a few seconds later by a “What the fuck.” Laughter fills the room. “That’s unreal,” another rider says, pulling the jersey out of the box. It’s a flourish of trippy, mismatched prints and big logos—Palace’s illuminati-like triangle insignia in the top-right corner, its duck logo beckoning from the corner, his face promising nothing but good times and chill vibes, the team’s traditional EF beneath in blue. At the end of the video, the time-trial helmets are revealed. They’re a comical, Halloween-mask version of the duck logo’s face. “We come in the peloton like quack quack quack,” one rider says. Everything clashes. It’s glorious.
At first I didn’t know how to react. I made a joke on Twitter referencing the “graphic design is my passion” meme. However, within minutes, the kit had already grown on me. By the time I saw the Instagram stories, I was convinced: Actually, this look is sick as hell.
Wait until you see the TT helmets..... pic.twitter.com/K7q2MgWjD8
— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) October 1, 2020
First of all, putting together an outrageous kit is a brilliant PR move on behalf of EF, whose title sponsor, Education First (a travel company based around language learning) has suffered in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak. While there’s nothing official regarding the future of the sponsorship, the financial blow to the company has become somewhat of an elephant in the room. A new kit in collaboration with one of the best-known names in skateboarding culture is definitely a welcome departure from Twitter rumor mill speculation over the team’s finances.
Part of the genius lies in the collaboration itself. Palace is a huge name in skateboarding, and though I’m not a skateboarder, its outrageous graphics frequently end up on my home turf—design blogs. It’s a smart choice, considering the brand has had success in collaborating with other sports, such as soccer and tennis. As Cam Wolf said in a GQ article about the kits: “Palace seems to choose its sports collaborations very deliberately. What tennis, soccer, golf, and cycling share is that they are often prestigious, historic, and very tradition-minded pursuits…The brand seems to want to muddy that up—Palace is the kid who crashes the country club and spray-paints a dick on the wall.”
It also makes so much sense for a cycling team in the Year of Our Lord 2020 to collaborate with streetwear and skateboard brands, considering how much consumer culture plays a role in those arenas. Unlike other sports like soccer or football, it’s still considered somewhat cringey to buy a full replica pro cycling kit, something I find rather unfortunate, because the sale of team kits and other paraphernalia is one way that teams could expand to reach different audiences and put more distance financially between themselves and their sponsors, thus making them more independent and structurally insulated from the ups and downs inherent in corporate sponsorship.
EF said of the design on Instagram: “Cycling is a sport renowned for its unrivalled beauty, but often blighted by a blind adherence to tradition. From questioning the chaotic calendar to highlighting new heroes within the bunch, it is our aim to disrupt the status quo in the sport we love.” While it’s true that the kits will certainly be unique, the idea that they are somehow earth-shatteringly innovative or unprecedented falls a little flat. The EF/Palace kit is simply the latest in a long tradition of outlandish novelty kits, and both its aesthetic and its design ethos have roots in the graphical language of 1990s cycling. We’ve grown so accustomed to the muted colors and slick logo integration of today’s kits, that anything even remotely loud (such as the pink EF kits the team wears most of the year) feels inherently disruptive.
However, in the 90s, it was a different story. Who could forget the era that saw the hallucinogenic rainbow puzzle pieces of Mapei; the ironic, denim-look overall kits of Carerra; Mario Cipollini’s Saeco muscle-print skinsuit; and, of course, Marco Pantani, his bandanas, his embroidered pirate seat, the absolute clash of the Mercatone Uno, Bianchi, and Girmi logos layered like stickers atop swooshy blotches of yellow and celeste? EF’s kits also have their aesthetic origins in the graffiti-and-comic-book influenced Team Z Vetements Enfants jerseys famously worn by Greg LeMond in the early 1990s. Bringing in loud, clashing colors and popular streetwear elements is also something EF didn’t invent. One easily recalls the dayglow pop of Descente’s 90s offerings, as well as the collaborations kit-maker Sugoi did with street artists like Joe Average and Keith Haring during the same time period.
Even if they have their roots in an earlier design language, the EF/Palace kits will still seem dashingly unique in what is otherwise a rather bland-looking peloton, and regardless whether you like duck-themed time trial helmets, I definitely think this is a good thing. For around a decade now, cycling kits have become more and more demure—aiming less for loudness that seemingly shouts the sponsor’s name from the heavens and more for a sleekness and technological finesse that just so happens to be branded. (The best example and end logic of this can be seen in the kits of Ineos Grenadiers.) Whether this is part of a larger design shift toward minimalism, the sport’s techno-fetishism, or cycling’s self-consciousness around being seen as dorky, the result is, frankly, boring—especially when you contrast the men’s kits with the far more adventurous and colorful kits found in the women’s pro peloton.
Cycling has always been far too self-serious, and anything that breaks that mold is a welcome change. (This partially explains why boisterous, emotional showmen like Marco Pantani and Julian Alaphilippe become so widely beloved.) At the same time, cycling is also a deeply unserious sport full of moments of humor and emotional rapture that make up the basis of its fan culture—as seen in large European rider fan clubs, corny theme songs and music videos made for individual riders, the way people act on the side of the road in the Tour de France—but also, in the age of social media, the greater openness riders have about their lives. In the 1970s, the idea that riders would share video clips of themselves hanging out on the team bus, dancing in bunny costumes, and swearing at the sight of duck time trial helmets would be unheard of. Up until recently, cycling had an image of unbridled tough-guy machismo, which came at the expense of riders not really showing people the depths of their personalities. Introducing a little bit of humor into the sport has helped humanize it, and, to me, that’s a very good—if not outright healthier—thing.
To me, the EF/Palace collab is a step forward for cycling. My hope is that it’ll usher in a new, much more exciting era of kit design, one that helps rectify the self-consciousness cycling has about itself, one that sells jerseys, one that makes outsiders look at cycling clothes and finally find them—dare I say it—cool. But even if it doesn’t, I for one am looking forward to seeing a flock of cartoon ducks careening down those narrow, Italian streets come Saturday.
Kate Wagner is an architectural and cultural critic whose writing can be found in a variety of publications including The New Republic, The Baffler, and The Atlantic. She is the founder of the blog “McMansion Hell,” and rides, with utter devotion, a 2000 Bianchi Volpe.
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