Yellow bikes and custom kit: How brands gamble on their riders’ success

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Ever watched a Grand Tour and wondered how those yellow, green, polka-dot or white bikes seem to appear overnight, as if by magic? Or how, just days after a rider wins their national championships, they’re seen riding in a fancy new custom jersey? The immediate appearance of such kit and bikes is no coincidence, and the truth is that much of it is made well in advance, effectively on faith.

However, when you consider just how many riders compete in their respective national championships, and how many riders vie for the different classifications at Grand Tours, it makes you wonder: At what point does a team decide to have this gear ready? How does it happen? And where does it go if the punt doesn’t pay off?

To find out, we sat down with a number of WorldTour staff, including the mechanics of Chris Froome and Andre Griepel, as well as a team clothing liaison for Shimano.

Pre-made clothing

Bas Stamsnijder works for Shimano, providing the LottoNL-Jumbo team with the brand’s new S-Phyre range. Before that he was a brand liaison for Pearl Izumi, working with the BMC team. He explained to CyclingTips that Shimano (and before them Pearl Izumi) always produces custom kit for all WorldTour team riders competing in their respective national championships, regardless of how likely they are to win.

“Obviously we’ve already provided them with clothing at the beginning of the season, so we know all the nationalities and know all the sizes of the riders,” Stamsnijder said. “So basically in advance, like two or three months, we produce the champion jerseys in the right sizes in two or three kits to have ready on hand, because nothing is worse than a rider winning a championship and having to wait three or four weeks for a kit.

“So we just get them out straight after the win and then produce a big batch of apparel straight after.”

BMC’s Miles Scotson wasn’t a favourite to win the Australian National Championships, and yet, with the Santos Tour Down Under just around the corner, the team had Assos prepare a jersey in advance.

Stamsnijder confirmed that it’s not just the top few riders they’ll create kit for — rather it’s all of the WorldTour riders they sponsor that have kit made in advance.

“Nationals is always a very unpredictable race,” Stamsnijder said. “Most of the time in advance, you could say, ‘Hey that guy is going to win’. But for example, the Australian Championships this year — it wasn’t the biggest favourite that won. Of course [Miles Scotson] was good, he was strong, he won. Nobody expected that name for that moment. If that happens, it would be disappointing. We just want to make sure that we are prepared for every rider to become national champion. Because nobody needs to be shut out.

“Every design involves the riders, to make it a little bit more personal. Because we have so many Dutchies in the team with LottoNL-Jumbo, it’s going to be hard. So basically we talk to the guys, they say ‘We want this, we want this’, and we’ll make a design. They’ll accept it. All the national designs will have names on.”

Stamsnijder explains that if the kit is not used, it often goes back to the distributor of that country. “So for example for [George] Bennett, we produced the [New Zealand national champ’s] kit for him, we shipped it to the local distributor. So it’s not going waste.”

While Shimano produces national champion’s kit ahead of time, other brands don’t. Team Sky’s communication manager, Ben Wright, told CyclingTips that Castelli will produce national champion’s kits immediately after a win.

“We will sometimes work with Castelli on specific designs and sizing so that in the event that one of our riders wins a national championship, we are very quickly able to get them into their new kit. Castelli are great at quickly turning around specific kit for riders.”

Phoebe Haymes, press officer for BMC Racing Team, confirmed there’s no set rule in place for that particular team.

“Assos did have an Australian jersey ready for the Tour Down Under just in case [Scotson won], as there wouldn’t have been enough time to turn it around,” she said. “But all other national champions’ jerseys would be made after the rider won. For example, Stefan Küng received his Swiss time trial suit in time for the stage 1 time trial of the Tour de France.”

Stefan Küng at Tour de France.”
Stefan Küng’s Swiss TimeTrial was made after his National Championship win, just in time for the Tour de France.

Grand Tour jerseys

Grand Tours, including the Tour de France, also serve as an opportunity to create special kit for some teams. The creation of this kit is something of an industry secret, especially given race organisers often sell the rights to classification jerseys. Santini owns the rights to the classification leader jerseys for the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, while Le Coq Sportif owns the rights to the Tour de France’s maillot jaune.

Stamsnijder says that agreements are made in advance for Shimano to have its riders in the gear they know, even if it’s with a different logo on display. Whether this is a typical approach is hard to say, as no other team we asked would confirm whether they used their own gear with another brand’s logo if riding in classification colours.

Wright told CyclingTips that Sky uses the classification jersey and skinsuits provided by the race organiser. (Of note: Sky clearly uses Castelli bibs with classification highlights, as seen at both the Tour and Vuelta).

Despite the permission required, planning for a Grand Tour is perhaps easier than a national championship. Speaking about the Tour de France, Stamsnijder explained that Shimano prepares all four possible jersey colours in all sizes required by the team (typically ranging from from XS-L). These sizes are doubled up and according to Stamsnijder, if all goes well, the soigneurs are kept busy with laundry each day.

Helmets and accessories

Winning gear in the Tour de France
Most teams have smaller items, such as classification helmets, ready to go.

Watch a stage of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia of Vuelta a España and you’re sure to see a classification leader covered in livery to match their current position. Beyond the jersey, it’s typically the helmet that’s first to be matched, even if sometimes it’s just stickers. Speaking with a number of WorldTour mechanics, it seems many teams follow similar protocol and superstitions with such special product.

Steven Van Olmen, a mechanic with Lotto-Soudal said: “We have yellow helmets for the whole team due to team GC. King of the Mountains helmet, green helmets — it’s all in the van.”

Craig Geater, one of the key mechanics with Orica-Scott, explained that the Australian-owned team runs a similar operation. “For example with the helmets, when they won the team classification in the Tour, Scott had already made the helmets. They took green helmets also. We already had them (in the bus).”

Rune Kristensen, head of QuickStep Floors’ service course (and formerly of Tinkoff), shared a similar sentiment: “Helmets we have around, it’s hidden in the truck. We had small things like handlebar bar tape, but you only bring it out when it’s needed. It’s cycling — there’s lots of superstition. So you don’t take it out of the boxes. If the gear doesn’t get used, it goes back to the sponsors.”

Geater revealed that while most of the unused gear does end up back with Orica-Scott sponsors, some of it gets kept for the following year. “Obviously there have been cases where we’ve taken stuff and haven’t gone as well as we’d like and so the stuff remains unused. Normally at [that] point it goes back to the sponsor. Occasionally it gets kept at the service course.”

Tom Dumoulin Oakley
Tom Dumoulin in pink and with matched eyewear for the Giro.

Not everything is pre-planned by the teams — often it’s the sponsors working on their own. Accessory brands such as Oakley have been known to bring special colourways to their athletes the morning of the race. Kristensen, speaking of his experience working with Peter Sagan last season, gave some insight on this. “With the case of Peter’s green LOOK pedals, these were dropped off as a surprise as they were needed. We got it after the stage (from LOOK).”

Stamsnijder said Shimano also has gear ready to hand riders as required.

“We prepare limited quantities of eyewear in every colour of every classification before the race starts,” he said. “A matching pair will be given to the rider when he takes a classification jersey. When the occasion presents itself and we are lucky enough to be supporting a possible Grand Tour winner, we prepare Shimano shoes in the colour of the leader’s jersey … we also prepare classification-coloured accessories like gloves and socks to match the jersey.”

Gary Blem, Chris Froome’s mechanic, revealed that in Sky’s case, they normally leave it up to the brands to provide the product. “Brands bring nearly everything as required,” he said. “We do have some yellow bartape (in the truck), but typically we get the things at the Tour last minute.”

Those Special Bikes

While bikes to match a national championships win typically take a few weeks to organise, what about the colour-matched bikes that seemingly appear overnight when a rider grabs a Grand Tour jersey? You might think that they’re pre-built and hidden in a box in the team truck. While some teams do work that way, superstition and limited space means that’s not always the case. And of course, sometimes the unexpected happens.

Van Olmen told CyclingTips that Lotto Soudal turned up to the 2014 Tour de France with a green frame hidden in a box for Andre Greipel. But the team had not planned on Tony Gallopin riding into yellow on stage 9. Apparently, with Ridley HQ being so near, the team was able to have a frame painted up almost immediately and then someone from Belgium drove across the border with the frame before the paint had even dried.

The mechanics woke up early to the frame, and three of them worked to get it built up before the next stage started. You can read more about that particular story here.

Thomas De Gendt's special bike2016 TDF
Thomas De Gendt’s special bike didn’t stay in the van during the 2016 Tour de France.

So what happens if a custom-painted frame isn’t required?

“If they don’t get used, they go back to the factory,” Van Olmen said. “Not sure what happens from there.”

Kirstensen says things are run a bit leaner at QuickStep Floors. The team keeps an eye on where the results go and then prepares frames one or two days before they might be needed.

Speaking with a number of other leading teams, it seems some pre-plan based on team goals, while others either avoid painting frames ahead of time due to superstition, or have painting facilities nearby that they can call on at the last minute.

Froome’s many bikes

One team you might expect to have a yellow bike ready at the Tour de France — or a red bike at the Vuelta a España — is Team Sky. But as Gary Blem, Chris Froome’s mechanic revealed, that’s just not the case. Sky does keep a staggering number of bikes in the truck for Froome — “Two for the flat stages and two for the mountain stages” — but one matching the leader’s jersey isn’t one of them.

Speaking in the context of the Tour de France, Blem explained how Froome’s colour-matched bike comes to be, and why it’s never seen before the last stage.

“As the Tour progresses, and he goes into yellow, we don’t want to put a lot of yellow on the bike at first — it’s only early days and the Tour is quite long. And Froomy tends to get the yellow jersey early,” Blem said. “It causes a lot of havoc for us. Initially, we’ll just use a yellow sticker and start to decorate the bike slowly like that.

“For every day he stays in yellow, we’ll do something small, maybe yellow bottle cages and progress like that. Normally we’ll also go to a yellow saddle, but Froomy really preferred the saddle he was riding and didn’t want to change it. Fizik had a yellow saddle for us though.

“Once he’s been in yellow for a week, we’ll then get a frame from Pinarello that’s been painted that way for him from the factory. They’ll ship it to our next hotel and I’ll build it up.

There’s a surprising amount of weight in paint.

“What we do is try to limit the amount of paint on the bike. The more colours you use, the heavier the frame becomes. You’ll see initially it’s only a little bit of yellow on the bike, perhaps only a yellow stripe. However, once he gets to Paris, it’s a full yellow bike. It’s a flat stage and the bike will be heavier due to this paint.”

So why doesn’t Sky have a full yellow bike sitting in the truck, ready to go for the last stage?

“Pinarello believe you’ll jinx it if you carry a bike in the truck as a just-in-case, so it’s always shipped the night before,” Blem explained. “We get the full yellow frames only the night before Paris, and we finish building them about 1am in the morning. It’s nerve-wracking though, cause they’re on display for the whole world to see. So if you make one mistake, it can be a disaster.”

By the looks of it, a similar strategy was employed with Froome’s Vuelta win. A red bike painted to match his general classifications jersey only made an appearance on the very last stage.

Chris Froome in red gif
Just days apart, Chris Froome on his way to winning red at La Vuelta. The red bike only appeared on Stage 21.

Blem revealed that building up bikes at the last minute is a stressful experience.

“Basically it’s the night before, it’s always a last minute thing,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll see on TV a rider in a jersey, maybe green, yellow or whatever and they have a problem with their bike. It’s because it’s a brand-new bike — it’s never tested. So you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s nerve-wracking in that sense. But we seem to have it dialled in.”

And they need to — team mechanics need to build quite a few bikes for Froome over the course of Grand Tours.

“I think we built nine road bikes for him in the [2016] Tour,” Blem said. “And then, also you need to remember the TT bike [for stage 18]. We made a few small changes there. Nobody really wants to jinx it though and make it full yellow. It’s all progression.”

Froome’s TT rig for stage 18 of the 2016 Tour sported a few yellow flourishes.

National champions kits, leaders’ jerseys, custom bikes and other gear — these little flourishes take time and planning, but they add to the colour and excitement of the sport. While creating dozens of kits or custom-painting frames that may never see the light of day might seem like wasteful or like a gamble, it’s likely just a drop in the ocean compared to what brands typically spend in order to make themselves visible.

And besides, when that gamble pays off, it pays off big, attracting plenty of extra attention for the brands involved.

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