Rain or shine: Castelli’s evolving philosophy on apparel for all elements
Usually, cyclists hope it won’t rain before a bike ride. At a recent media event, Castelli product managers were hoping for the opposite. It’s why they chose to host it in the Ötztal Valley of Tyrol, Austria, 250 kilometers north of their headquarters in Fonzaso, Italy.
And though it didn’t rain, the question of variable weather perfectly encapsulates the philosophy of Castelli’s Rain or Shine (RoS) line, which is designed to be windproof and breathable for cool and dry days as well as nearly waterproof if you’re caught out in the rain. The RoS line is neither dry-weather nor wet-weather apparel; it’s both. It’s versatile.
The Rain or Shine classification isn’t new — it launched in the fall of 2017 — but the designation now includes one of Castelli’s most iconic pieces, the Gabba, which is marking its 10-year anniversary with a new fourth-generation model.
Prior to the Gabba, rain jackets were generally not aerodynamic nor breathable. They may have kept the water out, but that came with a cost; they generated moisture inside the garment. And they either filled up like a parachute, or flapped like a flag in a hurricane. Or both.
The Gabba, first designed in collaboration with riders from the Cervélo TestTeam, redefined the category. It was stretchy, breathable, windproof, and water resistant — and well fitted. The first version was used in the rain at the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. A week later, at Strade Bianche, Team Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha was asking Cervelo TestTeam riders how he could get “one of those jackets.”
And then there was the snow-impacted 2013 Milan-San Remo. By then, the Gabba had been in the pro peloton for three seasons, yet it was still a novelty; Castelli had sold less than 1,000. But as the weather forecast for La Primavera got worse by the day, riders from teams with other apparel sponsors began calling and texting their contacts at Castelli looking for the best rain jacket in the peloton. The day before the race, Castelli staff visited eight team hotels, clandestinely distributing Gabbas in garbage bags. At the start line, half the peloton was wearing Castelli, most with the scorpion logo blacked out; it was the kind of guerrilla marketing money can’t buy. To this day, Castelli’s marketing team takes great pleasure seeing non-sponsored riders racing in their products.
And while the Gabba is an innovative piece of kit with wide name recognition, its legacy has since largely been absorbed by Castelli’s Perfetto line. This comes down to legal reasons; Castelli pays royalties on every Gabba sold to a Dutch company that holds the Gabba trademark. When the Perfetto was first introduced it was a lighter alternative to the long- and short-sleeve Gabbas; now the Perfetto uses the same fabric and construction as the fourth iteration of the Gabba, which comes only in a short-sleeve model.
The trajectory of the Gabba ran parallel — and added to — Castelli’s resurgence over the past decade. For a company with a 140-year legacy and near 100% brand recognition within the cycling world, it’s shocking how close Castelli came to insolvency just 15 years ago.
Castelli’s changing fortunes
Castelli’s roots trace back to a Milan tailor, Vittore Gianni, which was founded in 1876 and provided custom clothing for football clubs AC Milan and Juventus, as well as the Milan Ballet. They then stepped into cycling, making wool jerseys and shorts for five-time Giro d’Italia winner Alfredo Binda. In 1939, Armando Castelli bought the company, which boasted Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi as clients. Armando’s son, Maurizio, was born in 1948, and in 1974 he formed the Castelli brand, personally designing the iconic scorpion logo.
Over the past 45 years, Castelli has been a pioneer in cycling apparel, first to produce Lycra race shorts, first to introduce sublimation printing onto jerseys and shorts, and first to designate thermal-specific apparel for pro riders. However the brand lost its leader and visionary in 1995 when Maurizio Castelli died of a heart attack while riding his bike up the Cipressa; he was only 47 years old.
According to Castelli brand manager Steve Smith, when Maurizio Castelli died, the company was “in a bit of debt.” It was taken over by a group of five partners; the majority owner was Antonio Colombo of Columbus and Cinelli. During the late 1990s, Castelli developed its Prosecco jersey material and Y-cut Progetto bib short, all while sponsoring the ONCE team of Laurent Jalabert and Alex Zülle. Castelli also began to expand into other sports, such as cross-country skiing. Internally, there was a difference of opinion on where to take the brand, so they brought in outside management to steer the ship.
“One vision was best described as a Patagonia for cycling — this semi-luxury, travel-based lifestyle,” Smith said. “If you think about that for a second, it’s not exactly a bad idea for a brand, someone actually took that idea and ran with it. But to me, it’s an asinine idea for a brand that had written the history of cycling in terms of racing and innovation.”
By 2003 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Manifattura Valcismon, parent company of the Sportful brand — which had, coincidentally, begun in cross-country skiing — saw an opportunity. They bought the Castelli brand and moved the offices from Milan to Fonzaso, in northeastern Italy, near the Dolomites. A few employees came along, but for all intents and purposes, by 2005 it was a complete overhaul.
What’s remarkable is not just how Castelli survived and went on to thrive, but also how few people on the outside realized how close the seminal Italian brand had come to financial ruin.
“I think a big part of the reason why people didn’t realize Castelli was going through a rough patch was that shops stopped ordering stuff,” Smith said. “The shops mercifully shielded you from some of the product missteps. It’s kind of funny, a brand can kind of disappear from the shelves for a few years before you really notice it. During the rough years, maybe the brand image didn’t get as damaged as much as the top-line sales that we saw. I’d like to say that it was a brilliant strategy that brought Castelli roaring back, but all we really did is go back to what Maurizio Castelli tried to do — innovation, performance, design. And then we tried to market it a little bit by telling people what we were doing.”
Castelli returned to the pro peloton first with Saunier Duval in 2007, and then with Cervèlo TestTeam in 2009 and 2010. That squad folded into Garmin-Cervélo and ultimately became Cannondale-Drapac, which Castelli sponsored from 2011 through 2016.
Those relationships helped develop aerodynamic pieces such as the San Remo Speedsuit, a skinsuit used for all-day racing inspired by Heinrich Haussler’s loss by three centimeters after nearly 300km of racing at the 2009 Milan-San Remo; Johan Vansummeren wore a San Remo Speedsuit to victory at the 2011 Paris-Roubaix. Body Paint shorts and jerseys evolved into the Body Paint skinsuit, which Ryder Hesjedal wore to a 16-second overall victory at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, while just last year, the UCI ruled that Castelli’s dimpled Aero Skinsuit 4.0, built for time trials, was illegal due to textured patterns on the upper arm and shoulders designed to act as vortex generators.
Castelli is now on its sixth version of the Aero Race jersey, and since 2017 they’ve been working with Luca Oggiano at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, one of the world’s leading experts in clothing aerodynamics, who advises on fabric selection and skinsuit construction.
In addition to a staggering range of men’s and women’s road options — their line includes 10 different base layer options, 10 different winter gloves, and eight different types of shoe covers — Castelli also offers pieces for the triathlon, indoor riding, and gravel markets. Over the past 15 years, Smith said Castelli’s revenue has increased twelvefold; they’re now selling somewhere around 2.2 to 2.5 million pieces of apparel per year.
Some of that revenue is going toward its sponsorship of Team Ineos, which began in 2017, meaning that over the past three seasons, Castelli apparel has been worn by the winner of all three Grand Tours.
“When the opportunity came in 2016, the card we had to play was on the innovation side,” Smith said. “I think what we brought to it was that pure focus on pros’ needs, but also that creative ideas of identifying new opportunities, and new problems to solve. It seems that was very key in their decision making. If you identify a problem then it’s easier to find the resources, the knowhow, to solve that problem. It’s getting to that problem that’s a little bit harder.”
Smith also told a story of how Team Sky management made its final decision among two finalists to be the new apparel supplier. Each company had to provide a full kit, head to toe, of what they would supply to pro riders, in two different sizes. Team management circulated that kit around to a few of the riders, as well as to directors who were former pros, and asked them to go ride it. The final call was based not on the financial offer, which was substantial, but rather on what the riders and staff wanted to wear.
“No other team has the luxury of operating like that,” Smith said.
Castelli is also the apparel sponsor of the Italian federation, and their Rain or Shine line was on display at the recent Yorkshire Road World Championships, worn by both sponsored and non-sponsored riders. Gianni Moscon, who finished fourth and rides for both Ineos and Italy, wore a sublimated Perfetto Long Sleeve. Julian Alaphilippe, whose trade team and national team both use different apparel sponsors, could be spotted wearing a Gabba with blacked out logos under a French national team’s vest.
“We like to tell the Gabba story because it’s what we would do every day if it was that easy — listening to the pros, finding some specific need that’s not being met, and, in the case of Gabba, inventing an entire new product class,” Smith said. “Here’s a product that so many pros go out and buy because it becomes an essential tool to do their job. The magic of the Gabba is that it’s a product that works for the pros and also for so many of us.
“For pros it’s a cold-weather, rainy-weather piece, but for me it’s for cool weather on days where you would totally overheat with a jacket. I usually use mine in the dry, while knowing that I could wear it in the rain. It’s been phenomenal in terms of telling the message of what we’re trying to do, and the sales have been pretty good as well.”
Rain or Shine
The concept behind Castelli’s Rain or Shine line is straightforward enough. Riding in wet conditions isn’t always an all-or-none affair. Sometimes rain begins midway through a ride. Sometimes clouds threaten, but never open up. Sometimes it rains for an hour and then the clouds roll away. With the RoS line, Castelli has made clothing that works well in dry conditions but also has a high level of water protection, so if you are caught out in the rain, you’ll stay dry inside.
That concept is straightforward enough; the nomenclature around Castelli’s RoS line is not. The Rain or Shine designation describes a characteristic, but it is not a product family. The Gabba has been absorbed by the Perfetto, except in the case of the short-sleeve version. Most Perfetto pieces are given the RoS designation, but not all are.
Oh, and Gore-Tex changed the names of their textiles for the Winter 2019 season. The Gore-Tex Windstopper X-Lite fabric, which has been used in every iteration of the Gabba, has been replaced and rebranded as Infinium Windstopper fabric. And even within the Infinium range there is Gore-Tex Infinium with Windstopper Technology as well as traditional black-label waterproof Gore-Tex fabrics with relaxed rules around seam sealing that are also called Infinium.
Long story short, the new lightweight Infinium Windstopper fabric used on the Perfetto and Gabba is focused on drier conditions, with a focus on protection from wind and cold rather than rain. It’s water resistant, not waterproof.
Within the Infinium Windstopper fabric, an ultra-thin protective membrane is laminated onto the inside of a lightweight textile; the outer fibers are given an improved Gore-Tex C6 durable water repellent (DWR) treatment, lowering the surface tension so that water beads up and rolls off. The three layers work together to keep the wind and rain out while allowing moisture from sweat vapor to escape. A finer textile knit smoothes the face of the fabric, allowing the DWR to work as well as possible. The DWR also helps maintain warmth in cold conditions, and prevents a rapid drop in skin temperature if the textile ultimately wets out. The result is a water resistant, windproof, stretchy and very breathable fabric.
In actuality, there are two Gore-Tex Infinium fabrics exclusive to Castelli, the front-facing 205, which is water resistant with two-way stretch and a brush of fleece inside, and the lighter rear-facing 203, which has four-way stretch, but is not insulated. Truly, though, insulation is limited; these mid-weight pieces are intended to block wind and rain. In moderate conditions, Infinium pieces can be worn over a light base layer; in cold conditions, they work well on top of a heavier base layer or thermal jersey.
Infinium isn’t the only water-repellant fabric Castelli uses. They now have three types of NanoFlex, its name for non-membrane water-repellant fabric that features an outer coating of tiny, silicone fiber nano-filaments applied to their brushed fleece Thermoflex fabric. (Nano-filaments plus Thermoflex equals NanoFlex.) There’s NanoFlex 3G, the stretchiest of three, used primarily on bib tights, knickers, and shorts. There’s Nano Flex Xtra Dry, which is warmer and offers better wind and water protection, but less stretch. And there’s Nano Flex Light Woven, the lightest and most packable of the three.
Within the Perfetto family there are the Perfetto and Perfetto Light monikers. Perfetto, which uses the 205 Infinium fabric on the front and the 203 fabric on the back, includes a convertible jacket, a long sleeve jacket, and the Gabba short sleeve. The Gabba is simply a short-sleeve Perfetto with a different name; unzip the sleeves from a Perfetto RoS Convertible Jacket and you have a Gabba.
There is another short-sleeve Perfetto, called the Perfetto Light, which uses the 203 fabric on the front and Nano Flex Light Woven fabric on the rear and is meant for warmer conditions. The Perfetto vest also uses the same 203 front and Nano Flex Light Woven fabric rear as the Perfetto Light.
Yes, it’s all very confusing.
Every one of those five Infinium Windstopper pieces has several design elements in common — they all have two rear pockets (easier to access with gloved hands) with a pump sleeve, they all use the durable YKK Vislon zipper, they all have a dropped tail with reflective panel, and they all come in the same five color ways for men, and four color ways for women.
The three pieces intended for colder weather feature waterproof tape across the shoulder and sleeve seams, for extra rain protection. Of those pieces, the Convertible and Long Sleeve feature side-zip vents; the Gabba does not. Black Perfettos and Gabbas have reflective seam taping at the shoulders for front reflectivity.
The Perfetto RoS Convertible Jackets costs US$260 and the Perfetto RoS Long Sleeve costs US$230; both see a price increase of $30 over the previous model. The Gabba RoS costs US$200, a price increase of $20 over the third iteration.
Meanwhile the Perfetto RoS Light and Perfetto RoS vest — intended for fall and spring conditions — have seen more substantial jumps in price due to the Infinium fabric, which replaces the previously used Windstopper X-Lite Plus. The new Perfetto RoS vest costs US$180 — $50 more than the previous model, which last year I called “a reasonably priced piece of gear that would have a well-deserved position in any cyclist’s wardrobe.” It’s still an awesome piece, however that price has become a bit less reasonable. The Perfetto RoS Light now runs US$190, $40 more than the $150 for the Perfetto Light 2 Short-Sleeve Jersey.
WHICH ONE TO CHOOSE?
If you’ve never ridden in a Gabba or Perfetto, they truly are remarkable pieces of kit. They perform as claimed in both wind and rain. Fit is true to size but snug; do try them on before purchasing. If you’re not lean like a pro racer, you’ll want to consider sizing up.
On our morning climb up the Timmelsjoch, a 22km climb which tops out at 2,461 meters at the western border with Italy, I wore the Perfetto Light jersey over a Prosecco short sleeve base layer with Nano Flex 3G arm warmers and the Omloop Pro bib short. I was a bit cold at 8:30am during the 15 minutes spent milling around outside before we rolled out, but perfectly warm once we got going.
For the descent, where it was 5C (41F) and windy at the top, I layered up with Castelli’s excellent Idro jacket, constructed with Gore-Tex Shakedry, as well as the Perfetto RoS gloves, which also use the Gore-Tex Infinium fabric. (Side note: The Idro works well in both wet and dry conditions, so why, I asked, is it not designated as a Rain or Shine piece? Short answer: It was around before Castelli came up with the RoS concept.)
Needs vary by location and climate, but of these five pieces made with the new Infinium fabric, the Gabba and Perfetto Light offer the most versatility per dollar; mated with a pair of Nano Flex 3G arm warmers, they offer protection without the commitment to long sleeves, which can result in overheating.
It’s for this reason I’d have a hard time recommending the Perfetto Convertible Jacket. While it’s a clever design — the zipper is now located above the elbow, rather than at the shoulder — I’ve owned an earlier iteration for several years and never really embraced the zippered sleeves.
For one thing, the sleeves require dexterous zipping and unzipping; you might be able to remove one without taking off the jacket, but good luck trying to put one back on using just one hand. And it’s hard to justify the expense against similar torso protection with a Gabba or Perfetto Short Sleeve combined with more versatile Nano Flex arm warmers. That’s not to mention the possibility of losing one of the convertible jacket’s color- and left/right-specific zippered arms; Castelli didn’t have an answer on how a lost arm might be replaced, so you’d want to be sure it’s firmly packed in your pocket.
If I had to pick one of these pieces to recommend, it would be the Gabba. It keeps the torso warm and mostly dry, while offering versatility. If I were to recommend two pieces, I’d go with the Gabba and Perfetto Vest — along with the Nano Flex arm warmers, of course. If you live in a colder climate, the Perfetto Long Sleeve makes sense; if you live in warmer climate, you’ll want to instead consider the Perfetto Light.
‘Favorite Castelli piece ever’
The focus of the media event in Austria was on the Infinium RoS pieces, but they aren’t the only products in the overlapping Perfetto or RoS lines. There’s the US$250 Nelmezzo RoS — Italian for “in the middle” — which utilizes the water-repellent-but-not-windproof Nano Flex Xtra Dry fabric; it’s warm, and breathes well, but won’t keep the wind out.
There’s a US$70 Perfetto RoS glove and a $65 Perfetto Light glove. Both use Infinium Windstopper, so why is one Perfetto designated RoS but not the other? The Perfetto RoS uses fleece-lined Infinium Stretch Warm fabric, the Perfetto Light uses Stretch Light fabric.
“We pulled RoS from the name of the Perfetto Light Glove because Gore had some problems in bringing the DWR to this fabric,” Smith said. “And while the membrane is the same as the Perfetto RoS Glove, not having the DWR dramatically degrades the water protection, so we didn’t feel Perfetto Light Glove earned the RoS label.”
There’s also the US$350 Alpha RoS jacket and $250 Alpha RoS Light jacket, full-on insulated winter jackets which use Gore Windstopper 150 membrane fabric with a DWR treatment. The Alpha RoS is meant for extreme cold and uses the Windstopper 150 throughout; the Alpha RoS Light is built with the water-resistant non-membrane Nano Flex Xtra Dry on the back.
Castelli refers to the construction of the Alpha RoS jackets as “functional waterproofing” — they don’t guarantee no drops of water will enter, but they feel it’s the best offering to keep a rider warm and dry across the widest range of conditions. Both jackets feature two-layer construction, with an internal thermal front liner that can also be zipped down for added ventilation.
Another way to view the Alpha RoS Light, Smith said, is to think of it as “a thermal jersey with front wind protection,” adding, “if you did an informal survey of Castelli staff of their favorite Castelli piece ever, Alpha Light would be the winner.”
And there’s a whole line of bottoms. The Tutto Nano bib tights, bib knickers, and bib shorts use the stretchier Nano Flex 3G fabric and offer excellent wind and rain protection, but are not designated as RoS. The US$240 Nano Flex Pro 2 bib tights and its unusual-looking cousin, the US$180 knee-length Nano Flex Pro 2 Omloop bib shorts, both use Nano Flex Xtra Dry fabric and carry the RoS designation in Castelli’s catalogue, though not on its web site.
“Some day in the future, every garment we make will provide significant rain protection and we can just drop the nomenclature,” Smith said. “But we’re in that transition phase and RoS describes a feature or performance level or characteristic, not a product family. It’s a little bit like back in the nineties when you’d draw attention to a fabric with wicking or moisture management, but now you don’t because every garment does it.”
WHAT NEXT FOR CASTELLI?
Over the past decade Castelli has made significant strides in aerodynamics and moisture protection. So what’s next?
While Castelli will always have one foot firmly planted in high-performance road apparel, the brand is now dipping its toe in the emerging gravel space, as well as reconsidering how protection can be incorporated into race kit.
“With protection, it’s kind of a strange thing,” Smith explained. “As road cyclists, there’s something wrong with us or we wouldn’t be out there taking our chances with traffic. We know that accidents happen, but we’re convinced it’s going to happen to the other guy, so our tolerance for inconvenience to get protection is pretty low. Helmets are a good example; so many people weren’t wearing helmets when they were heavy and hot. When they got good enough that they didn’t really bother you to wear one, people adopted them pretty quickly.
Coming in the spring is a new Unlimited “all-surface” line, which features muted colors, stronger fabrics, and extra pockets. Among the Unlimited line are $150 bib shorts that feature pockets on the side of the legs, as well as double layered fabric on the hips, a design they’re calling Protekt. The same concept is utilized in a high-end, pro-level road short called the Free Protekt, using the components and construction from their Free Aero Race 4 Bib short.
Castelli says the short was initially made specifically in response to a request from Chris Froome to help protect him through the first dangerous stages of the Tour de France. Froome wanted something to reduce road rash in case of a crash, so Castelli reverted back to an old trick familiar to track riders of doubling up on shorts, understanding that Lycra slides best against more Lycra. Externally, they’re calling it Protekt; internally, they’re calling it “MIPS for the hips.”
“It’s not really padding, so you might get a bruise, but if you can avoid the scratches and the raspberry, that’s already a good start,” Smith said. “Obviously that’s a nice idea for a crit racer as well, so we’ll need to roll that into our some of our road skin suits so you can take chances you would have never taken before.”
Taking chances — that seems to fall in line with Castelli’s ethos as a brand, which values innovation and performance above all else. Sometimes, as with the Gabba, it’s a victory. Other times, as at the beginning of the naughties decade, it’s more like bruises and scratches. But lessons are learned along the way, serving as reminders as innovation and tradition meld into one.