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Words: Tom Southam
Health and safety is ruining the world. As anyone who ever spends more than two hours in a car with me will know, this is one of the topics that I get most bothered about. It really frustrates me how many simple things are being taken away in this weird paranoid fit of officiousness. And of late I have been mourning yet another loss – one of the most important pieces of the cyclist’s wardrobe – the cycling cap. La casquette, synonymous with decades of cycling and made timelessly cool for everyone else thanks to Wesley Snipes’ Colnago cap in ‘White Men Can’t Jump’.
It might not be apparent but the decline of the cycling cap is well underway; inevitable since pro riders lost the choice to not wear a helmet while racing. I’m not going to get too drawn into the helmet debate, as in a world where children are no longer allowed to play conkers without safety goggles I feel I am on to a losing battle.
I personally reserve the right to choose as to whether or not I wear a helmet when I can (i.e. training) the ‘you are setting a bad example’ doesn’t wash with me. I wore a helmet when I was a kid because I was brought up properly by my folks and did what I was told, even though my idols weren’t seen in dead in them.
The thing is, as I watch all my mates take to training in a plastic lid and because we have to race in them, all of a sudden the cycling cap doesn’t really have a place anymore. It’s all well and good that caps get worn to the start of races and while hanging around the sign-on. They will always have a place on the podium too, (although pay attention, if not worn properly they can give the impression that the rider is an illiterate who, while understanding that he has just ridden his bike fast doesn’t really know why he is on a stage and why all the people with cameras are looking at him).
The cycling cap needs to be actually ridden in, with purpose, to be kept alive. Despite looking so cool, it wasn’t just designed for posing. The cycling cap needs to be worn backwards at speed, with the peak turned up. Think back through the depths of your cycling memory, riders always looked so much faster with a backwards cap, it was a symbol of intent to speed. You can’t get much more aero and you could never ever look cooler than racing in towards a race finish in a backwards cap.
Dave Millar was, for a time, a great ambassador for the backwards cap. Think of his coolest wins, outsprinting Santiago Botero for a Vuelta stage win in 2001, his Tour stage win in 2002. Both scored with a backwards cap, and knowing Dave he would certainly have paid attention to that kind of detail when he woke up in the morning and decided, as he would, that he was going to win that day.
The cycling cap also needs to be worn forwards (peak down) up long climbs and during long hot days in the saddle. Think about the king of the perfectly placed cap, Miguel Indurain. His white Banesto cap sitting there perfectly still atop his steady head, a metaphor of his infallibility. Indurain wore his cap like a crown, it had an air of regency about it, unfaltering, cool.
His mid-nineties rivals all tried to equal his cap-wearing prowess. Laurent Jalabert did great services to the forward cap and was a real threat to Miguel when he did. One look, though, at how another pretender Tony Rominger wore his, way too low at the back, sometimes slightly wonky a la C.T.C, and you see the cap was also an indicator that he never really stood a chance.
I could go on and on about great victories and timeless images in cloth caps worn forwards and backwards for hours, but I’m not trying to hark back on a nostalgia trip. I’m just pointing out my tristesse about the fact that this once great and essential part of a cyclist’s attire has been robbed of its real purpose, without which it will surely not survive. The tighter and more ridiculous rules become about when we, as riders, are forced or expected to wear helmets (even for training) will reduce the cycling cap to little more than a rag with a sponsor’s name on it.
I have two memories strongly linked with my cycling story and the cycling cap. One is the first piece of cycling kit I ever had, and my prize possession for many years; a Vetements Z cap that my dad bought me at the first ever pro race I saw, a post Tour criterium in 1990. Greg LeMond was there in his yellow jersey and his team mate Ronan Pensec won. Such an impression was left on me that I spent the rest of the summer holiday without that light blue cap leaving my head. If my love of bike racing was born there, then my cap was a token of that love from cycle racing to me.
My second is much more recent, riding for Amore E Vita in my first Pro races, I remember the little touches that made me feel like a pro. Every morning on a race there would be a paper bag with our race food in for the day hanging from the bars, and every day our old-school Italian soignieur would put a fresh cloth cap in there. I just thought that was so cool. A fresh white cap to wear for the day, it was a little thing, but it’s the little things that make the difference.
The only downside being that, the very year I finally got to the level of races where I could race without a helmet, the rules changed and stopped me rolling out of the depart in my crisp and perfectly angled cap.
So please don’t let them die a lonely death yet. Buy cycling caps, wear them, let them breed – but not in captivity, ride your bikes in them (never backwards under your helmet though, good lord no), sit them atop your conscientious heads and enjoy your last symbol of freedom. As Joe Strummer would say, and I’m sure Johnny Green would concur, go easy, step lightly, stay free and “train in a casquette”.