The bicycle is progress. From its ability to take us places to the improvements engineers and craftsman have undertaken to improve our performance and experience, it advances us in mind and body.
Commercially speaking, that progress has come with an inflationary black eye. Ten years ago it was hard to spend more than $5000 on a bike but today almost none of the guys I ride with throw a leg over anything worth less than that.
From shifters to frame material, everything is noticeably better than the stuff we used when we were all Freds. And we were, each of us. Well, there’s one exception.
Despite the proliferation of new cycling caps made form polyester (making them easier to clean and keep new-looking), The cotton twill cap that graced the stunning crania of Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi and Jacques Anquetil has yet to go the way of the Dodo. It’s fair to ask why. If everyone stopped making cotton cycling caps tomorrow, would we rue the loss? We’re not talking old-growth forest or snail darter. If tomorrow every cycling cap for sale were made from polyester, we wouldn’t suffer.
There’s no piece of cycling gear more out of step with the rest of our kit or equipment than the cotton cap. Cotton is the anti-technical material. It is to Merino wool what artificial chocolate is to candy. A crime.
It stains. It gets wet and stays wet. It shrinks. Its dyed colors fade. Its threads go bare. And those are its more charming dimensions.
And yet, I’m glad that that we still have this vestige from an era of cycling that can only otherwise be reached through YouTube, books and eBay. I’ve been given a few of the new “technical” cycling caps, and while they share some of the same materials as mutts and skullies, they lack the romance.
There is no parity among cotton cycling caps, however. Some features play better than others. In discussing this one day with a friend who’s been racing since I was in puberty, he confirmed my beliefs about what constitutes a PRO cap.
First, it should be a four panel design with the two side panels taking the same color, while the front and back can either be the same or contrasting colors. Alternatively, it can be all one color. The brim should be short; a cycling cap is not a baseball cap wanna-be. A 2 1/4” brim is more in keeping with what was worn back in the day. A 2 1/2” brim catches in the wind and can be blown around (or off, if you’ve gone sans casque). Extra style points if top and bottom of the brim are be two different colors. And finally, no ticking.
This isn’t to say I don’t like the others; I’ve got the Campy cap in a few different colors with ticking, but those caps that most recall what was worn by the legends are all, shall we say, of a piece.
The cap shown here epitomizes for me what I both love and hate about the cotton cap. I picked it up on the road one day on a climb outside of Florence, and I’m not talking Alabama. I’d been setting what I believed was a firm tempo on the climb when suddenly these two elves rode by, chatting. They were in their early 20s, were maybe 5’ 6” and 125 lbs. They said ciao and vanished in a super-hero instant.
A kilometer later I came upon the cap that had been perched Miguel Indurain-style on one rider’s head. I scooped it up Dave Stoller-style as I rolled by and then stuck it in the big ring to try to return it.
I crested the climb only to see the two riders drop into the descent. As this was where my friends were to regroup I missed my chance. It took a second before it occurred to me to adopt the cap. Well-worn and worse for it, it’s my favorite cap, in part because it came from an actual PRO.
That a cotton cap can be anything other than a liability when wet may be a minor miracle, like a Suburban getting 50 mpg, or Dick Pound saying something reasonable. But when I’m riding in the rain I usually leave the glasses at home and just rely on the brim to keep the rain out of my eyes. And in keeping the wind out of my hair I stay warmer than I have a right to expect.
Until I see something different on Philippe Gilbert’s head, I’m sticking with this.