Why black is the new black; the rise of dark team kits in the peloton

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You can have any colour as long as it’s black. Henry Ford was talking about cars and not cycling jerseys but, over one hundred years on from that famous quote, it appears that some cycling teams are taking things literally.

Consider the multitude of black and dark team kits in evidence this season. Many teams have retained or tweaked their colour schemes from last year; this list includes Sky, IAM Cycling, Movistar, Lampre-Merida, Pro Continental squads Colombia and Cult Energy.

Meanwhile Cannondale-Garmin, Giant-Alpecin and Bora-Argon 18 have all moved towards a darker appearance than last year, with black featuring prominently. Continental teams such as Active Jet also use a similar colour scheme.

Only Trek Factory racing and MTN Qhubeka have toned things down, with both adding a lot more white. The former has chosen this colour for the shoulders and upper chest, while the latter has added vertical white stripes, thus adopting a distinctive new look.

Still, aside from small bits of colour, both designs are monochromatic and continue what seems to be a move away from the more flamboyant and lurid looks previously visible in the peloton.

For many years cycling was known as a sport splashed with colour, each team apparently trying to outdo the others in terms of identity and visibility. The push to flog the products and services of the sponsors ramped up the competition for airtime and recognition, and gave the bunch a sort of ‘explosion in a paint-factory’ effect.

That’s all changed now. Some very bright jerseys remain, but with ten WorldTour and Pro Continental teams going for a very dark appearance, many observers have commented on the development.

What’s the trend all about? Is it simply fashion, or are there other factors at play? And, whatever the reasons, are there drawbacks to the apparent march towards the kind of peloton that Henry Ford might have identified with? We spoke to most of the teams concerned to gather their thoughts.

Where the modern trend began:

Before getting into the situation with the current peloton, however, let’s wind back the clock to 2009 and the debut of a team that played a big part in the current movement.

The Cervélo Test Team was set up with the goal of revolutionizing the way things were done, with industry companies combining to fund the project and to use the riders as test subjects.
Gerard Vroomen was one of those involved in setting up the squad and was clear that in addition to acting differently, the team should look different as well.

“To me, a jersey has three functions,” he told CyclingTips. “It has to represent the sponsor. It has to stand out in the peloton so you can actually see it in a race. It has to be something people want to buy so they can represent your team when they ride themselves.

“This also helps with representing the sponsors, as in my opinion logo visibility in races is overrated while logo visibility every time those 100,000 fans who bought the jersey pull it out of the closet is underrated.”

He notes that black, red and white are traditional Cervélo colours and that, as no other teams were using black kit at the time, the look stood out in the peloton.

Fast-forward six years and that is no longer the case.

Sky was one of the next teams to adopt a dark look, making a debut in 2010 and featuring a black jersey, white lettering and a distinctive blue stripe. [Note: that first jersey had a mainly white back, but this was modified in 2013 when Rapha came on board as clothing supplier].

The colour scheme was one the team says was deliberate.

“Our ambition from the start was to stand out from the peloton and there were very few black kits out there at the time,” a spokesperson said. “Our kit, with its iconic blue line, is now widely recognised and has proved to be very popular with cycling fans.”

Movistar became title sponsor of the former Caisse d’Epargne team – itself another dark-coloured squad – the following year and said that the kit has been designed by its title sponsor. “As long as we continue under Movistar sponsorship, we will normally continue with this colour,” said Juan Pablo Molinero, marketing and communication director.

“In our case, the brilliant “M” gets more and more visibility when the background is darker. So that was the reason to decide on this colour.”

As for Colombia, it came into being the following year and also went for a dark look. “The team has worn black ever since its inception in 2012, when honestly black outfits were not as widely popular as they are in this moment,” said team spokesperson David Evangelista.

“While certainly adding some different and more colourful touches in 2015, we opted to withhold a colour scheme people are now used to identify us with.

“The reason why black was chosen in first place is the name Colombian riders are known around the World – the Escarabajos, the beetles, due to their ability to climb even on the steepest gradients. Since we are an all-Colombian team, this was the inspiration to choose black as our main colour.”

Joining an increasingly prevalent look

So what of the newer teams who have gone in the same direction? According to Giant-Alpecin’s press officer Geert Broekhuizen, a good fit with the sponsors’ brand identities was one consideration when the 2015 kit was being designed.

“We were also able to maintain our Keep Challenging DNA visually captured in two stripes,” he added, referring to the two vertical white bands on the jersey. “We also think it looks fashionable.”

Bora-Argon 18 also expressed similar sentiments. “Our jersey colours were defined by the company colours of our two name sponsors,” said general manager Ralph Denk. “Bora and Argon 18 both have black as a main colour. Argon 18 adds the red to it.”

Asked about the apparent fashion for black jerseys in the peloton, he said that this was not a consideration.

As for Cannondale-Garmin, Soren Jensen of clothing partner Castelli said that the team originally wanted to maintain an all-green colour, much like the colours of the former Cannondale team.

However consultations between the team and that clothing company eventually led to the decision to have a predominantly black jersey; according to Jensen, this is a very classic, clean look.

Laurent Guyot of IAM Cycling said that the company backing the team has had a dark blue logo since 1995, thus explaining the jersey colour the team has employed since being set up. “Other than that, the main factors were to do a kit which was IAM in the spirit, namely different, sporty, classy, Swiss, simple and efficient,” he stated.

“Also, to do a kit that people want to wear…all the people, from pros, staff, fans and cyclists.”

Is black too stealthy?

The big question, though, is if viewers of the sport will be confused by the proliferation of dark kits. Teams like Euskaltel-Euskadi were so identifiable as their team colours were so distinctive. It was extremely easy to pick out the orange jersey in the peloton, and ditto for the blue of the Astana team and red of BMC Racing.

However, with so many teams donning dark colours this season, there’s a clear recipe for confusions.

According to Eurosport TV commentator Declan Quigley, this is a real issue.

“I wonder if the design departments for teams often just create their race clothing concept in isolation without taking into account how they will appear mingled in among the other squads in the peloton?” he said to CyclingTips.

“As a commentator you become attuned to very subtle differences and your full focus is on the dynamics of the race, so it affects us less.

“But for the casual viewer, who might be dipping in and out of a long road race TV broadcast while doing other work, or coming to the sport as a new fan, I think it can be confusing and is surely counterproductive for teams looking to create distinct brand awareness.

“What looks great on the computer screen in the design phase and at the team launch often blends into a crowded bunch filled with variations on a current fashion theme.”

He said that the problem is not just limited to team kits; in fact, he explains, it is even more difficult to identify riders when the weather is bad.

He said that many teams use jackets which are either Castelli’s highly-regarded Gabba model, or are inspired by them. Most of those are black and while they may have some team branding on them, that is subtle and hard to pick out.

“I think the UCI needs to work hard to ensure that teams are wearing distinct and easily identifiable colours at all times during an event.

“Fundamentally, cycling needs to make it easier to be a fan without destroying the heritage of the sport. I’m not suggesting shortening Paris Roubaix to 100km, merely making it easier to pick out your favourite bike rider in the bunch.”

Going a different direction

In contrast to some of the other squads mentioned above, two teams have backed away from the mostly black look they sported in 2014. Both Trek Factory Racing and MTN-Qhubeka have added considerable amounts of white to their current kit.

CyclingTips understands that those changes were both heavily influenced by the desire to make sure the squads stood out in the peloton.

“We try to design the whole rider at once,” said Joe Vadeboncoeur, Trek’s vice president and Global director of product development. “More white, more red [for the bikes – ed.] equals more visibility. Kept it classy, like last season. We considered the whole package at once: head to toe on the rider, the bike included.
“Our goal is to showcase the sponsors of our team, have the fans and our staff be able to see the riders in the peloton, and to make a kit that any fan would be proud to wear. It also has to look fast, this is racing after all.

“It’s also what the whole package looks like hunched over in a riding position, and as a team all together. The all white tops and helmets this year is striking and is super visible.”

As for MTN-Qhubeka, the team’s PR and Marketing manager Veit Hammer said that having an easily identifiable kit was also a priority.

“The main intentional that we had in choosing a colour scheme like that was we wanted to have an outstanding design,” he said. “In the end it has ended up being different than all the dark kits.

“We think last year’s kit was outstanding too with the yellow hand on it, but wanted to have something even more outstanding.”

So, the big questions; is Quigley correct, and have the other teams made an error?

The season is young and the answer to that question will likely become more clear over time. For now, some teams insist that there are no real issues for them.

Both Sky and Movistar believe that the small design touches on the jersey help ID them. Giant-Alpecin also echoes this, as does IAM Cycling.

However, Quigley’s comment suggests that a confusion can exist. If a TV commentator can have complications in trying to identify riders and teams, others will also be put in the same position.

Jensen admits that there is the possibility of confusion. “I think it could be an issue having everyone black,” he said. “Especially Garmin now and Sky and that new Bretagne…they are very similar.”

As for Denk, he is very open in speaking about his own team.

“We are very concerned about the confusion in the race. We just got the proof at the Mallorca Challenge where we barely recognized our riders and not even all black-wearing teams were at the start.
“Particularly the other black/red combinations give us a hard time. Unfortunately we don’t have a solution for this. As said, we stuck to the sponsors’ colours and didn’t have any other options than black and red.”

Vroomen is typically straightforward in his assessment. “It’s bad for the fans and ultimately bad for the teams,” he said. “But it’s not surprising. Teams are all quite similar in the way that they think and behave. So it’s no surprise their jerseys are as well.”

He is critical of the UCI for not allowing teams such as IAM Cycling and MTN to have personalised rider kit. He also points out that the teams who have not given in to the trend will be rewarded with greater visibility.

“As anywhere in life, it’s the quirky ones that stand out,” he asserted. “Europcar, FdJ, MTN-Qhubeka.”

Given the potential greater visibility their sponsors will have in an otherwise dark peloton, the companies backing these teams could end up with a much bigger return on investment than some of the other teams. This could in time lead to a move back towards a more colourful bunch. Fashion is cyclical, after all.

For 2015 at least, though, it seems the peloton’s designers will continue to be influenced by Henry Ford’s thinking. Perhaps too by the Rolling Stones, given the apparent urge to Paint it Black.

CyclingTips will publish a follow-up piece soon on this, looking further into the reasons for the current trend.

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