Monday, November 1, 2010

The death of the cycling cap

As early as the 1950s, journalists the world over proclaimed that jazz was dead. Today, we know that those journalists were largely wrong, but we know that they were wrong due in great part to the fact that jazz stubbornly refused to die. Aside from only a handful of innovative performers performers, jazz (like any good movie-grade zombie) has managed to walk around in an everlasting moribund state. The turning point at which jazz became one of the living dead, by the way, was when Miles Davis grew out his hair, bought a red horn, and decided to wear eyeglasses that could make 1980s cyclists and broadcasting legend Harry Caray cringe. So in reality, jazz never really died, and it most certainly didn't die before the likes of Coltrane, Davis and even Cecil Taylor produced their greatest works.

With all this in mind, it's always a risky proposition to put forth the argument or mere thought of something (other than a person or roadkill) having died. As such, even though I'm only in the first paragraph of this wonderful essay, I will now back off from the title I have given it. Cycling caps are not dead....but I would argue that they are walking around aimlessly, nearly dead, and are a mere shell of their former selves. They are, in my opinion, the embodiment of the cinematographic tour de force that was Weekend At Bernie's. So like Bernie in that movie, cycling caps are not quite dead, but they're somehow hanging on for dear life...and a few of us who still believe in them are like the main characters in the movie. We continue to cart ol' Bernie around and pretend he's alive. While we're on the subject of Weekend At Bernie's, did you know that the movie has spawned the latest dance craze? Well it has, and when I say "dance craze", I mean that at least one person made a video and uploaded it to Youtube. You can see it here if you wish. With this introductory and explanatory paragraph out of the way, let's move on to the festivities.

The rules (of cycling)
This summer, I received an email from a friend who knows nothing about cycling. He was asking me a basic question about the sport. No, he didn't ask me why Cinelli still exists, or why French teams still even try. His question was more specific. He wanted to know my thoughts regarding the Andy Schleck/Contador episode at the Tour, where Schleck lost time to Contador due to a mechanical malfunction/user error/whatever. In response to his email, I merely said that cycling was a sport full of unwritten rules and traditions, and that these rules and traditions absolutely had to be followed...unless it was one of the times that they didn't have to be followed, or simply weren't followed. In response to my brief, but wonderfully poetic insight, my friend commented just how paradoxical it seemed that the sport was so insanely focused on tradition, while still remaining willfully obsessed with cutting-edge technology and its advancements. Professionals want the lightest, stiffest most advanced equipment (or at least that's what their sponsors give them), but fans also expect them to know and respect certain traditions of the sport. Above all of Armstrong's crimes in the eyes of many, his lack of knowledge about cycling's history was certainly up there as a major offense. This fixation on history and tradition transcends merely knowing about events, races and figures in the sport. It goes we goes into team sponsors, race routes, climbs, equipment, rivalries, training methods, clothing materials and manufacturing techniques. It's perhaps for this reason that many obsess over small things. Like cycling caps.

"The Way We Were":
Two cycling caps, one headband, and a Colombian on the Tour's podium.

The way things are:
Three baseball caps and an American on the Tour's podium.
(I tried very hard to think of another Barbara Streisand song title to use in this picture's caption. In doing so, I was relieved to find out that I only know one Barbara Steisand song title.)

In defense of the cycling cap
At an amateur level, many obsess with the history of cycling, and angrily look down upon those who recently bought a Trek Madone. Knowledge of the past (minutiae in particular) is a highly regarded trait in the upper echelon's of cycling fandom. I know that most of you didn't know until my ast sentence that there is such a thing as an "upper echelon of cycling fandom", but since I write this blog, I get all kinds of newsletters and chain I'm in on that type of information. It's within this and even slightly less obsessive strata of cycling fans that many will focus on a certain rider, they will hyper focus on steel frames, or wool jerseys, or plastic bikes or whatever they prefer.

In the end, we all have our favorite races, teams, and eras. Perhaps the first professional we were fond of, the first team we cheered for, or the time at which we were introduced to the sport. Most of us have our minds set, and little will change the way we see things.

My admission
In the past, I've mocked some cycling fans for the manner in which they fawn over tiny details of the sport. I've mocked those who refuse to live in the here-and-now, and will go on and on about this and that type of vintage equipment and the way things used to work. I have rightfully stated before that some people's obsession with the sport's past and its equipment can border on insane (and clearly mirrors the oddity that is Civil War reenactments and LARPing). But things will change.

Much in the way that Richard Marx conquered all of our hearts by admitting his humanity (and thus his vulnerability) in his sonic masterpiece "Right Here Waiting For You", I too will now reveal myself to you (in a figurative sense, and not in a literal sense...since I still have a pending case for unknowingly "revealing myself" to a family of four during a mid-ride bathroom stop some time ago). My stunning revelation today is this:

I stubbornly and perhaps foolishly miss the use of cycling caps, particularly at the highest levels of the sport.

There you have it. I have bared my soul to you. I have put my cards on the table. I have opened up to you in a manner that would even leave Richard Marx gasping in disbelief, but can you blame me? Like many others, I started following the sport during the 1980s, 1985 to be exact. It was my brother who peaked my interest in the sport, and soon we were waking up at dawn to listen to the Tour de France on his small alarmclock radio during that summer. Before long, Colombian television began broadcasting major races, and the aesthetic qualities of cycling at that time were permanently ingrained in my mind. While I don't miss certain aspects of the sport as it was then (like the pastel colors preferred by some teams in the late 80s), there are other things that I often think about. I suppose it's no different than the way we fondly remember certain aspects of our childhood. Those were simpler times, or perhaps they were better times...or maybe they were just other times. Whatever the case may be, I still can't watch soccer matches today and not be enraged by the fact that referees wear any color other than black. Goalies wear short sleeves now too. It's all gone to hell. In the realm of cycling, I miss little things, stupid details that haven't really changed the sport. I miss the cheap "LONGINESS" on-screen graphic that would flash on screen as a stage winner rolled across the finish line.

I miss the commentary that was done by reporters on motorcycles during races, and I miss the interviews they conducted by reaching their microphone into the cars of directeur sportifs as they drove through freightening descents in the Alps. I miss seeing riders reach for their downtubes in order to shift, but not because of some technological reason. I just miss it because it's what I saw when I was a kid. Most of all, I miss the common use of cycling caps, and fear for their death. I particularly miss cycling caps, because they've been largely replaced (off the bike) by their evil and uncool cousin...the American baseball cap.

Et tu, Mauricio?

Yes, yes...I know that some cyclists still wear them.

I know that the decision to wear a dumb baseball cap on the podium is probably driven by availability or the sponsor's wishes. Here I am, thinking so much about a stupid cap, when in reality professionals merely wear whatever they are handed as they go up the steps to the podium. Professional cyclists merely use what they are given, and I don't imagine that any of them sit there in their hotel rooms pondering the past of headwear within the sport. This is something everyone should keep in mind when modeling any choice or behavior based on what a professional does...since he MUST use and wear what he is told to use and wear. It's his job, so be mindful of this during your daily professional worshiping ceremonies.

I know that my overly sentimental nostalgia is foolish. I guess I too am stuck in the past, but I can't help myself. Period-correct cycling is silly, as is some people's complete fear of change and/or technology...but I guess I have some of that in me. Helmets, along with other factors, have made cycling caps a rarity in today's professional landscape (but I don't dislike helmets...go figure). Most of the amateurs who wear cycling caps these days, do so in a perplexing manner. They are "urban cyclists" (for lack of a better term), and they mostly wear them off the bike, while at the same time mocking other cycling-specific attire. So in an unusual turn of events, I suspect that it's these individuals who are keeping the cycling cap industry afloat. Who would have expected such a thing back in 1985?

The beginning of the end. The on-ramp to the apocalypse.

I should mention at this point that I don't really mind any kind of person wearing a cycling cap, and don't really care how or when they wear it, but it's an unusual situation to be sure, since its primary intended use is seen less and less these days. For better or worse, cycling caps have become novelty items. They are sponsor giveaways, "retro" or "vintage inspired" items, and hand-crafted goods sold as fashion accessories. They are, in the eyes of many, nods to the past. As technology and pseudo-improvements creep into every single aspect of the sport (even water bottles got a substantial redesign this year), how much more low-tech can you get than a cotton cycling cap?

A rare case of cycling cap/baseball cap co-mingling

So at the risk of sounding a bit Jobst Brandtsian, I willingly admit that I miss the way things were. I miss cycling caps. I have no scientific data to prove how much better cycling caps worked at any particular task. I know that they were largely used as another place to put a logo. I know that they didn't improve ride quality, and I'm not sure I'm ready to debate anyone about the pros and cons of their use. I simply miss cycling caps because I do, which is the same reason why I look back fondly on my youth from time to time....because I do.


  1. Best use of a cycling cap remains under the helmet during a rain storm. For that, a baseball cap can never take its place.

  2. i'm glad you are bringing attention to this important issue, bro. i keep it real. my cycling hat collection grows by the week. now that i said that, i'll read the post and comment again.

  3. i tweeted about this a few weeks back. i was watching the 1986 Vuelta and it made me hate helmets.

    i'm with you, 80s cycling just seems more "real". more "epic". silly nostalgia, i guess, but still hampsten, kelly, fignon, hinault, duclos-lasalle, et al feel more awesome than armstrong, boonen and even contador. about as awesome as cancellara and voigt, tho. sooo, thx for posting pics of chiapucci and zoetemelk! awesome dudes.


  4. Thanks for using the term "Jobst Brandstian", but shouldn't that be "Brandtsian"? Otherwise keep up the excellent work.

  5. I can't ride without a cycling cap on. Whenever I find myself hurting on a climb -- which is every time I find myself on a climb -- I use the cap's bill to shield my view of anything past about five meters in front of me, so I can't see how much further I have to go.

    But what I miss most about cycling caps is how they used to be worn...not totally pulled down on top of the head, but kind of resting on top of the head with space between the head and the cap. So fresh. Kind of imbues the rider with an aire of insouciance.

  6. "I use the cap's bill to shield my view of anything past about five meters in front of me, so I can't see how much further I have to go." <-- hahahaha!

  7. Do people in other sports feel the same way about vintage equipment? Are there tennis players who swear that their wooden racket has more "soul" and a smoother swing? Does anyone show up for amateur baseball events in enormous bloomers?

    Your post has got me wondering.

    (I know some surfers use vintage-type equipment, but that's not really a sport.)

  8. Mr Old Hipster,

    I'm not sure...but I saw skiers in Colorado once who seemed to be using old or vintage equipment, and this was in a fancy place where common-folk skiers would even be allowed. Still, I think its a rarity within sports. Maybe some golfers think its cool to tuck their pants into their socks, but I don't think they use vintage clubs.

    Re: "brandtsian", I made the change. I think you're right.

  9. Thanks for bringing up this important issue - I too have noticed the transition away from the traditional cycling cap in the pro peloton for some time. Luckily they are still fairly common locally. Even so, each time I loose one due to malformation following one too many wash cycles, or through decomposition due to an overabundance of sweat I despair that one more link to the past is gone.

  10. I can see the cycling cap making a come-back. It's just a matter of time. Who knows, maybe this post will be the catalyst.

  11. I love my cycling caps, always wear one under my helmet, for the visor, and the sun protection for my thinning thatch.
    Bandanas and headbands are made from hi-tech fabrics, but why haven't caps "evolved" with the times I wonder?
    And why, when tennis no longer uses wooden racquets, does baseball still use wooden bats?

  12. I wear one just about every day to keep from getting a sunburn through my helmet vents. Light wool for 3/4 the year, heavier in the 1/4 of the year we call winter here in SoCal. Love the Walz ones.

  13. headbands - these are still a necessity for some of us heavy sweat types. Cycling caps work ok, too but are hotter. Please comment about how stupid Headsweat covers look with the tie down the back like you are some sort of Pirate.

  14. Come now, don't you ever watch the winter races? Now that the AToC is in May we don't get to see as much rain-riding as in the past (only Roubaix every couple years, it seems), but you see cycling caps all the time in the pro ranks in the rain!

    What baffles me is that most cycling caps continue to be made of cotton and it's dang hard to get one made out of something that breathes well.

  15. You want to witness widespread cap use? Come visit the Pacific Northwest. They are invaluable from about now until June.

    Scott Pendleton - challenge brand are light and synthetic.

    In respect to jazz: everything decent was murdered in the 80's and reanimated in '88. but what about art ensemble of chicago, ornette, sonny rollins, john zorn, sonny sharrock? sure, it aint Blue Train...
    Sonny Sharrock '91 with Ask the Ages. Jazz.(

  16. I personally look stupid in a cycling cap as my ears stick out, but purely on an aesthetic level I want it to work as it looks cool as

  17. Mike,
    I'm with you regarding zorn, rollins and ornette...but for my hilarious point, i simply wanted to reference Miles' crazy years. Hell, I actually like a lot of his fussion stuff, and I even once paid three whole euros to see Chick Correa play in a Parisian park. There's always Cecil Taylor too!

  18. rapha has a new cork rap for your head
    or an 80 dollar hat

  19. The problem, you see, is that the cap worn under the helmet makes one look remarkably like the Great Gazoo. I'm too lazy to make a link. Far from a desireable "aire of insouciance."

    "Bravo," Bravo.

  20. Just as the baseball cap, and its evil twin brother, the long-bill kind, have evolved for the player to see that flying ball, the cycling cap is de rigeur equipment for the cyclist.

    I'm not afraid, Lucho, I'm damn proud to wear the cycling cap as a true gearhead. If folks find it dorky, so be it; I'll just flip the bill upward in a salute to the pros, to old school, and shifters on the steel downtube.

  21. In the eighties I used to wear it backwards climbing enjoying the serene beauty of it. I love the classic cycling cap and and put it up on the pedestal to be admire.

  22. I like cycling caps. I would like to have one with a detachable propellor, like Elroy Jetson.

    Speaking of cartoons, when worn under my helmet, my ear-flapped winter cycling cap makes me look like a shorter and, not to brag*, more buff Purple Pieman from certain unsettling angles.

    * OK, I'm bragging. I am totally buffer than the scrawny and ineffectual villain in a 20 year old cartoon made for little girls. Can you smell what the Pieman is cooking?

  23. You're not the only one who misses the 80's and Longines. I occasionally catch baseball games from the 80's and think how much better the skinny, coked-out heroes of my youth are than the obese, roided-out players of today.
    I used to work with a guy who grew up in the 50's and 60's when, apparently, every major league baseball stadium had a Longines clock at the top of the stadium and every kid had a story of his favorite player hitting a towering home run that struck the clock.
    Anyway, I recently discovered this blog and have been working my way backwards through the archive. Great stuff! Keep it up!
    And I wear a cycling cap whenever I can.


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