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Piers Thomas is the Team Sky Design Manager for Rapha. In the wake of Team Sky’s success in France, we caught up with him to discover more about working with the world’s top road riding team.
Tell us a bit about your design background.
I’ve been sewing clothes for 35 years, from making a two-tone felt cowboy jacket for my teddy bear, to making kites, backpacks and clothes and selling them to school friends. I grew up sailing, so sailing and sewing led my interest in combining technical sports and clothing.
Whilst I was still a student in London I flew out to California and got an internship with Patagonia. Then, I did some work with Max Mara in Italy, creating ‘transformer garments’, umbrellas that turned into raincoats, a sleeping bag that became a jacket, technical things but in this fashion zone.
I returned to Patagonia to be a designer. After working on all the various product categories for three years I became the technical watersports designer, making gear for fishing, surfing, sailing and paddling. Effectively a one-man design team for all those sports, one day I’d be in a focus group with surfers, barefoot up at Hollister ranch; the next day I’d be on the East Coast in my loafers, talking with a group of sailors. After a stint kite boarding in New Zealand I came back up to Europe.
Your work is very directly influenced by the individuals you’re designing for, the athletes. How do cyclists compare to surfers or sailors?
Each sport has its culture and history and that includes what people think they should wear and what they want to wear. There’s also the part technology has to play. Professional teams are very particular. In Team Sky’s case, it’s vital to know how each of the 27 riders likes their kit to both perform and also make them feel.
The riders spend a lot of time in their kit, a lot of time chatting and talking about it on training rides of six or seven hours. You give them a new product, the conversations get going and new ideas and thoughts start bouncing around.
When did you first come in to contact with the team?
Back in December, in Mallorca, before they started wearing our kit. I was there for a few days and then travelled up to Belgium with the Classics group. It was great, I could see the stark difference in conditions and how the whole team worked allowed me to look at what I’m really interested in, developing and innovating kit, fabrics, components and functionality.
Presumably some Team Sky riders are more kit orientated than others?
Absolutely. Some are very interested in clothing and want to get involved as every detail matters to them, while for others they are more holistic with their approach. I’ve worked with world champion ice climbers and surfers but I’ve never encountered athletes who are as totally focused on their whole body and mindset as Team Sky riders.
How can clothing make a difference in the cauldron of competition?
It’s a very quick, fast-paced life. When they are racing, they don’t (usually) wear many clothes. So socks, shorts and jerseys, a small amount of clothing, means a lot. Just like the hours and days and months of training building up to race day, there’s a huge amount of pressure on every stitch in the package of kit we give them. Every single, minuscule detail counts.
It must feel a bit like putting on a suit of armour?
I use the word ‘gladiator’. That’s how I see them and they are totally exposed out there. The pressures are as much mental as physical so every detail is important. It’s about making clothes feel like they fit, as well as ensuring they fit physically. It’s very important to have that ‘psychological fit’. I’ve literally been sewing jerseys the day of the race to make sure they’re absolutely perfect. Some of the riders are fascinated by this process, peering over my shoulder whilst I make adjustments. Their obsessions extend to the hardware, their bikes, components etc.
Given Team Sky’s schedule, from the Tour Down Under to Milan-Sanremo, do you need different kit for different conditions?
Prioritising for each race and season is very important. You don’t have 27 guys riding Grand Tours and the Classics. Not everyone needs everything, it’s very much a tailor-made relationship. As well as the differing lengths and temperatures of the races, there are also external pressures, from the press and sponsors.
So you’re not just a seamstress?
[Laughs] I think sometimes the riders think I am. I’ve mended boxer shorts and sewn buttons on polo shirts. I had to turn up one of the rider’s jeans the other day. Like his mother.
Sounds like you have a pretty good rapport with the riders.
Yes, but I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out in team hotels. Between training, recovering and seeing friends and family, they have very little time to talk with me so the time is precious. I’m sure some of them think I’m crazy because I want to take pictures of the thumb wipe on their glove after a race.
Do you ever get to ride with the guys?
They’re professional cyclists and I’m a professional designer. I’ve spent a lot of time in the team car but they need to get on with their jobs and I need to get on with mine. Hopefully we can both respect that so, in answer to your question, no.
Which pieces of kit are they most excited about?
Base layers. They’re important and in the past they didn’t have the same quality they have now. The jerseys and bib shorts also seem to have been very well received.
And which pieces have been particularly rider-led?
Something like the next generation summer mitts we developed after listening to the guys in Adelaide and Belgium, designing and developing those and getting them back out to Chris Froome. He wore them in the Dauphiné then came back and said, “Yeah, I like them, Richie wants some too.”
Has anything surprised you about their feedback?
What’s interesting is that most riders want simplicity. There’s so much we can work on from this point; we can raise the technology bar and the things we get from the team will, I’m sure, influence all the designers here at Rapha and find their way into products across the range.
Having your kit worn by the world’s top riders, the best athletes in the world, must be amazing.
Of course and working with Team Sky behind the scenes is a privilege. Failure is not an option.
- @brettrothmeyer nice cap drawing by the way!
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