How Milan-San Remo transformed Castelli’s Gabba jersey

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It was over dinner at La Trattoria after a scorching hot day of stage 3 of the Tour Down Under when we settled in for a long night of socialising with one of the men in charge of Castelli, Soren Jensen. As I began asking about how their famous Gabba jacket came to fruition I never expected such a story to be told.

How it began

“It began in August 2009 when a focus group of Cervélo TestTeam riders (Gabriel Rasch, Marcel Wyss, Serge Pauwels, Jeremy Hunt, Dan Lloyd, Roger Hammond, and Philip Deignan) worked with Castelli’s engineers to develop and improve clothing for cold and wet conditions. During one of these sessions, Norwegian rider Gabriel Rasch took out his hacked-up Castelli Pocket Liner rain jacket with the arms hand sewn on at the shoulder. “The jacket was fully waterproof but not very breathable or aerodynamic,” Jensen explained. “It was what he wore if it was raining, but only in cold conditions to avoid overheating. This was the start of the Gabba jersey project.”

With this idea the design team at Castelli set to work, aiming to bring a more professional approach to the garment. A few months later, the Castelli Speed and Research Lab came up with the first prototype, a foul-weather version of the form-fitting Aero Race Jersey. With a miraculous lightweight, stretchy, windproof and water-resistant Windstopper fabric, developed by Castelli and Gore, combined with a fleecy and water-repellent Nano Flex fabric insert under arms for breathability, and the Gabba Jersey was born.

Fabian Wegmann, one of the riders that helped develop the Gabba jersey.

But it was far from being an immediate success. When the Gabba was released in the 2010 winter range by the end of the year they had only sold a small number of the garments. They didn’t expect it to be a massive seller, but the feedback from the professional team gave them confidence in what they’d developed. It was to be a slow burner but they knew there was a market for such a product. To Castelli’s amusement, that market ended up being rival pro teams who wanted it, no matter what.

Jensen continues, “On a cold, and windy Wednesday morning in February 2010, the nine riders of the Cervélo Test Team focus group spent a couple of hours training on the parcours of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and it was surprising to see how the riders got so excited about the jersey.” The standout comment, of the day belonged to Classics hardman Jeremy Hunt, “I’m pretty sure they’re all gonna copy it.” And Hunt was to be proven right.

Thor Hushovd wearing a first generation Gabba at the 2010 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

In 2011, with the Cervelo Test Team coming to an end, many sponsors, including Castelli, partnered with Garmin-Cervélo. Even with Castelli only sponsoring one WorldTour team, it wasn’t long before word spread around the pro peloton. Riders on rival teams soon began asking for the Gabba. Jensen and other staff at Castelli would receive random phone calls asking if they could get a jacket made for them. At first, Castelli refused as Jensen explains, “it was an advantage for the Garmin-Cervélo team only. Nevertheless, we began to see other riders on the start lines in blacked-out Gabba jerseys.”

The uptake soon gathered momentum. Each Classics season a few extra would be spotted in the peloton and before long most of the pro peloton had one. Riders from teams such as BMC, Omega Pharma, Sky, IAM, FDJ, AG2R, in fact, most of the WorldTour and Pro Continental teams bought Gabbas personally at shop price or directly from Castelli. But eventually, Castelli gave in. When asked as to why they caved and started saying “yes” to producing for others, Jensen explained, “the cycling world is like one big family, and we have friends on most teams, so it was kinda normal for us to help everyone.”

“Perfect” weather for a Gabba! The 2013 Milan-San Remo in all its grim glory.

The 2013 Milan San Remo

Snowfall, rain and freezing conditions hit the 104th edition of the epic Milan-Sanremo. For those who watched the race that day, it’s one that is forged in everyone’s mind. It’s also the day that serendipitously showcased the Gabba to a wider audience. With weather conditions that resulted in a mid-race transfer, the Gabba came into its own. And it wasn’t seen on just the backs of the Garmin-Cervelo team, the sheer number of Gabbas in the peloton caused a stir in the cycling press.

It’s rumoured that Thomas Voeckler purchased enough for his teammates for the race, at full retail price. When quizzed Jensen doesn’t admit or deny the story, but his chuckle gives away the answer.

Many other riders were spotted that day in the jersey. Cancellara and eventual race winner Gerald Ciolek being two standouts.

A spy shot of Cancellara wearing his bought Gabba at the infamous Milan-San Remo and an unbranded Omega Pharma-Quick Step Gabba.

Riding the wave of organic promotion that arose from keen-eyed fans, the media picking up on the news of the universally used jersey and other brands not having a competing product in 2014 Castelli released the “pro edition” Gabba. The back jersey came in a fancy box, exactly the same as the standard Gabba, but with the inclusion of a black marker.

Ag2R and FDJ riders were just a few who became handy with a black marker.

A design classic

It’s not hard to see how the Gabba is a game-changer in the world of technical apparel design. It can arguably be placed alongside innovations such as such as the Oakley Eyeshade, Look pedals, Mavic Helium wheels, or low-profile tri bars.

The Gabba caused a stir in clothing design which resulted in other manufacturers to rapidly attempt to emulate the jersey with their own versions. Some managed to get close, others not quite so with riders still choosing to use the “Pro Edition” black Gabba with its iconic Scorpion logo scribbled out. Certain teams reached out to Castelli, asking for unbranded team issue coloured Gabbas. The materials in their team colours needed to be purchased in minimum quantities, so they sold the extras as unbranded but in different colour variations to their public. The early Gabba colours give away which teams were using the jersey. Nearly 200,000 Gabba jerseys have been sold to date.

You’ll noticed many other apparel brands using similar fabrics and similar cuts to the Gabba. The fabric wasn’t exclusively licensed by Castelli or anything like that. It’s listening to what riders wanted and a simple curiosity about discovering new fabrics that already exist that leads them in directions such as this. Over that meal and a few glasses of red in Adelaide, Jensen revealed some more future developments nearly ready to be released, but we’re sworn to secrecy.

The jersey even made an appearance on the back of a few riders including Alejandro Valverde (pictured) at the Elite men’s road World Championships in 2013.

The brand admits that there were some lean years prior to the Gabba boom. Most of the late 90’s to mid-2000’s weren’t the best years for the brand. Their heydays prior to this saw the Italian brand lead the way in other eras including inventing the lycra cycling shorts in 1977, introduced the first coloured shorts in 1981, began sublimated jerseys, and the first windproof jersey (worn by Bernard Hinault) in 1982, all of which were milestones in clothing design.

Some brands find someone else’s story and put it on the inside on a label, and other brands such as Castelli with their 141 years history weaved into the fabric have no need tell stories. When you live it, the stories tell themselves.

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