A brief history of cycling sunglasses
Sunglasses have evolved from a humble yet essential piece of protection in the cyclist’s kit bag to an expensive fashion statement. Dave Everett and Wade Wallace look back through the archives to find some of the more memorable and outlandish examples of cycling-specific eyewear that we’ve seen in recent decades.
The first use of sunglasses in sport dates back roughly to the turn of the 20th century. Long after God invented bicycles was the creation of dirt, grit and flies. Man found it necessary to shield the eyes from the ocular problems that could occur from such things.
The flying goggles and eyewear that were donned in the early days of ‘fast-paced transport’ were adopted by cyclists who were tackling the then-unpaved roads. Large ex-military flying goggles made of glass and leather were the choice of such early tour champions — riders like Octave Lapize, Phillippe Thys and Ottavio Bottecchia all could be seen racing to victory in such eyewear.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that eyewear that we’d now recognise as sunglasses was first used in the peloton. Until then the flying googles were still used but modified — rubber replaced leather and frames became lighter.
Persol and Ray-Ban were at the forefront of lens and frame design at this time and sunglasses had become fashionable as film stars made them popular.
With new materials being used — such as nylon and silica — you’d think that glasses would have been on every face in the peloton. The champion of champions Fausto Coppi used the lightweight and popular Aviator; being Italian he pulled off the film star look without a problem. But he was one of only a few in the peloton at this point.
The flying goggles look was slowly disappearing from the peloton and, partly due to roads becoming better paved, cyclists were seen using sunglasses.
There were several riders that still went against the grain though. Dutch Tour de France winner of 1968 Jan Janssen was one. His reason for wearing glasses was not to look cool or to keep the grit out of his eyes, but because he was short-sighted.
Even through the 1970s and into the 1980s, it was largely only the guys who needed proper spectacles that were seen racing in them. Laurent Fignon, or “The Professor” as he was nicknamed due to his spectacles, was one of the few. Right through his entire career, from 1982 until 1993, he could be seen sporting his rounded spectacles.
It wasn’t until companies like Carrera started developing skiing goggles that things got exciting. Since 1956 Carrera had been making glasses but the inclusion of thermo-plastics and interchangeable lenses helped with the boom of cycling-specific glasses. It was one guy and his dog that really changed the face of sports optics though. The man was Jim Jannard and his dog was called Oakley.
Jim started out in 1975 by making and selling motocross and BMX grips. After success with grips he turned his attention to goggles for MX and BMX. Then in 1984 the start of what we can now call performance eyewear hit the market. That was the time of the Oakley Eyeshades.
While some riders were using aviation-type glasses, Greg Lemond debuted the Eyeshades. He’d purchased them himself then later, before the Tour de France, he contacted Jannard to get a few extra lenses. From that point on Oakley became a firm part of road cycling culture.
In 1985 Lemond and Phil Anderson were the first official Oakley athletes in the peloton. The huge lens and bright colours stood out and with prototypes such as the rip-off lenses that Anderson used in Roubaix it wasn’t long before they grabbed people’s attention.
Come 1987 and half the peloton was wearing Eyeshades. The Tour that year saw riders harassing Jim for a pair — they were a must-have item.
Oakley weren’t the only ones at this point attempting to break into the cycling and sports scene. New brands were popping up to take on this market. Briko and Rudy Project and even French manufacture Look all had a background in snow sports, and they all entered the sports glasses market. Some succeeded while others fell by the wayside.
People didn’t just want to look the part and to have quality optics; they wanted to be part of a brand. Along with either being a Campag or Shimano rider you were now either Euro chic or American cool dependent on your eyewear choice.
Development rolled along pretty quickly from this point thanks to the introduction of new lens tints, interchangeable lenses and new frame materials. Briko entered the market with insect-eye-inspired designs while Oakley developed the integrated prescription lens on a curved surface. This meant the likes of Alex Zülle, with his bad eye sight (and poor descending skills), no longer needed to look quite like the librarian of the bunch.
Back in the early 1990s, if you thought yourself a sprint ace or Classics contender you’d probably be going for the Briko Shots — a multi-coloured and swivelled-armed affair. Franco Ballerini and Mario Cipollini made them look cool, even with the latter’s lion’s mane.
If you weren’t the build of a sprinter you could always look towards Marco Pantani and his stylish Briko Stingers.
Not a fan of the Italians? Prefer a bit of old-school German? Best to choose the Rudy Projects Noosa. Behind the lens you could hide the pain of pushing a huge gear just like Jan Ullrich.
But Oakley has always been the brand in the front seat with regards to style, development and advertising. Sometimes they got it seriously wrong though — just look at the Over The Tops from 2000. Were they simply a marketing stunt or was Oakley genuinely trying to change what sports sunglasses could look like? Who knows. Either way they suited their name but never stood the test of time.
Lance and his army were the pin-up boys for Oakley in the mid 1990s and right through until they all retired (or got bust). M-Frames were the item all self-respecting cyclists wanted to own. Or if you were a hard-man, the Racing Jackets that George Hincapie seemed to have 1,000 pairs of in fancy paint jobs were also a good option.
Huge brands like Specialized and Giro attempted to enter the dog fight of selling glasses, but found it far to hard to get a large enough market share to warrant continuing.
Of course, we’ve seen some interesting (and sometimes questionable) developments in sunglasses in recent seasons as well. Ryder Hesjedal made waves with his Poc glasses in 2013 and whether you love or hate them, you have to admit they got people talking.
Earlier this year Oakley released its Heritage Collection to celebrate 30 years of making sports eyewear, with Eyeshades, RazorBlades and Frogskins among the models to make a return.
Other notable brands in the modern pro peloton include the Zero H+ shades worn by recent Vuelta a Espana winner Alberto Contador:
And the new Bolle 6th Sense (not yet released to the public), as sported by Simon Gerrans in Canada recently:
Another yet-to-be-released model is Oakley’s Jawbreaker, a successor to the ever-popular Jawbone. The Jawbreaker has seen a few public outings this year, including in Mark Cavendish’s short-lived appearance at the Tour de France:
And for something a little different, look no further than Giro’s Air Attack aero helmet which has a magnetically attached “optical shield”:
Lens shapes, optical clarity and frame materials have all been refined and developed in recent years. But what can we expect next? It would seem sunglasses are going high-tech.
You can already buy glass with built-in cameras, perfect for filming crazy car divers in action, chopping you up. Could we see this technology develop to the point that we’re able to watch races from the point of view of the riders? It’s hard to see why not.
We’ve already seen the release of the Recon Jet glasses, which feature a heads-up display and can show you speed, distance and cadence all right in front of your face. Google, too, has its Glass project, which will make it possible to have all the whizz-bang tech of an iPad within sight at all times. Maps, how to swear at the Italian driver cutting you off, the number of kilometres until the nearest coffee shop — a whole range of data will be available to us, all via our eyewear.
But is this what we want? Or do we just want a good looking set of shades so we can look the part when sipping our lattes or suffering in the bunch? I guess that’s down to personal preference, but either way, the long and colourful relationship between cycling and sunglasses certainly isn’t going to end any time soon.
What have we missed? And what are your favourite cycling sunglasses of all time?