The Cycling Cap

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.

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24 comments

  1. Jonathan

    My 65km round-trip commute heads into the sun both morning and night. My cap is a life-saver, though combined with the afternoon heat of the Australian summer my head overheats badly. Still, I’d rather see where I’m going than not sweat.

  2. Randomactsofcycling

    I agree with all the sentiments above. However a cap is only PRO when worn appropriately.
    And an RKP cap with a red kite for brim would be tasty.

  3. Doug P

    The cycling caps of old capture the essence of old school Euro cycling perhaps forever lost; the working class nature of the sport as it was.
    Let’s get those RKP caps going, I’m down for one of those!

  4. Marco Placero

    Thanks Padraig for a pleasant read requiring minimal brain wattage but causing maximal warmth. Like your trophy capo story.
    Caps for senza casco soloing this time of year have brims you described and are a bit poofy on top but stiff enough to hold a peaked shape. Something to do with the cut.
    The Panache cap fits almost perfect. I found another Italian job with Swobo print that accomplishes these needs too. Gotta say I like a bit of ticking if it’s subtle and the right colors.
    1970s riders wore their caps bent Pro. Check out Thevenet’s signup in Hell.

  5. Brent

    It may be my favorite piece of cycling apparel. And it is, for me, the best way to manage riding in the rain. Most of the people I ride with don’t get it…
    It also looks good while having a post ride café.

  6. Jim Morehouse

    I haven’t been without a cycling cap on my head while riding since 1973. In the winter, I wear one with ear flaps Belgian style, but they’re not made from cotton. Back in the day they were made from wool. The best ones made now are made in Vancouver, BC, Canada by galstudio (see cyclingart.blogspot.com), in my humble opinion.

  7. sophrosune

    I like the aesthetic of cycling caps and their practicality. But the key to me, as it is for any bit of cycling kit, is that it fits you properly. Unfortunately, the cotton caps you refer to here were often only produced in “one-size-fits-all” sizes. In other words, they never fit me with my rather large head. I am grateful for those brands that figured out that not everyone has the same size head and now I don’t have to get mid-ride headaches from a cap that is crushing my skull.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for the enthusiastic comments. An RKP cap had been on my mind, but rather back burner. I’m turning up the heat.

      Brent: A cycling cap has saved my from sitting at coffee and showing off my helmet-head-caveman-fright wig on many occasions.

      Sophrosune: You bring up an important point about sizing. I have a tiny cranium for a man my height and yet I sometimes get that mid-ride headache. It’s a definite frustration.

  8. Charles Cushman

    My joke with my friends is that I ride so that I can wear a cycling cap. I love the simple ones which seem very hard to find in most stores.

  9. Touriste-Routier

    I have a “pea” head, so the old style Italian made APIS caps always fit me well. Unfortunately the trend towards larger caps doesn’t work for me. The once simple cycling casquette has turned into something that looks more like a poofy train engineers hat on me. With these new ones, if I wear them under my helmet, I get a head/neck ache.

  10. James

    I use a newer Castelli hat because it’s a bit larger than your run of the mill cycling hat (read Fat head!!). I use my hats whilst commuting during the winter. They are the only effective way to keep the rain out of ones eyes. Also, I agree with everyone else on an RKP hat. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to each and everyone one of you!

  11. WMdeR

    >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.

    Dear Padraig,

    Thank you for the appreciation of this simple bit of gear.

    The traditional cycling cap is just about unimprovable, and retains its value, even in the Styrofoam Era. Thus its endurance in our neophilic sport.

    It is cheap and fungible. Perhaps a liability?

    It is a touch warmer in the winter and (once soaked) cooler in the summer.

    Set with the brim up, it keeps the helmet from blocking one’s line of sight on long descents tucked into the stem.

    It is indispensable in the rain if one requires corrective lenses, and helps at night whether one wears glasses or not.

    It absorbs sweat and doesn’t direct it into one’s eyes as it gets saturated (unlike polyester sweatbands and their brimless siblings), as the sweat wicks onto the brim of the hat and drips from there.

    They hide the bald spot from the sun, and the wild hair from the barista at Amante.

    The traditional ones don’t cause (me, anyway) headaches.

    They’re not perfect (fading, though the faded cycling cap is one of those patina items that may actually improve on the original; shrinking; inconsistent sizing; plastic bill stiffeners that crack and deform when washed), but they are worlds better than the attempts to update them have been to date. Think of headsweats, hi-tech caps that don’t have flippable short brims, hats with all-elastic headbands that cut off what little blood is available to the head, etc).

    What’s not to love in the $7.00 (or in your case free for the effort to chase its owner down)?

    Thanks again.

    Cheers,

    Will
    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

  12. Howard hesterberg

    Takes me back to the 70’s and seeing the cool style the pros wore.caps never looked that cool on me. That perched up high(b4 helmets) look I could never manage, big head and all. I do enjoy the couple caps that do fit, dry days bill to the back, wet days front. And yes new riders don’t get it and I’m sort of glad, you had to be there.

  13. rich_mutt

    i actually prefer a cotton cap. it seems to absorb sweat better than the poly ones i’ve worn. maybe i just haven’t tried the right “new style” technical cap.

  14. Robot

    I have about a dozen caps, most of them cotton, all of varying quality. Fit can be random, and brim material is key to success. Plastic brims blow. They hold up better in the wash, but they go all wavy and screwy eventually. My favorite cap is actually wool. Warm in fall. Cool in summer. Dries fast. Won’t hold stink.

  15. Michael

    Ditto sophrosune’s comments on size. I wear one of the technical-material versions only because it stretches to fit my XL head!

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