You Know You’re an Old School Cyclist When … #31

You Know You’re an Old School Cyclist When … #31

You know you’re an #OldSchoolCyclist if you still have scars on your nose from the short metal zippers on wool jerseys.

As certain retro-nouveau clothing brands never tire of reminding us, wool jerseys are shaggy bundles of all-weather awesomeness. Sweat-wicking, breathable, cool in summer, warm in winter, we all know the drill.

But you’ll notice a decided lack of wool jersey endorsements from people who actually had to ride and race in them back in the day, season after season.

Truth is, wool really does work well over a wider temperature range than modern jerseys. Which is great, if you only own one jersey. And no arm warmers. And carry nothing balled up in your jersey pocket. What they don’t tell you is how old-school wool jerseys hung off your body once they got good and wet, and how they made you smell like a wet dog even after you’d changed out of them. And then there was the zipper.


Marc Demeyer01

The zipper on an old-school jersey—the cerniera, to poseurs—barely extended past your collarbone. Maybe zipper stock was expensive in those days, and that’s why they were so short. Or manufacturers just wanted to save weight, because they were heavy, too. But for whatever reason, zippers on wool jerseys were big, coarse, brass monstrosities with teeth as sharp as hollow-ground straight razors and just as dangerous. So you risked grievous bodily harm every time you pulled one over your head. Or back off. Plus you smelled bad when you were done.

There was a short-lived attempt in the late ‘70s to replace wool jerseys with a new material, polyester, which had the advantage of smelling bad even before it got wet. Sort of a time-saving feature. Plus, since poly doesn’t wick like wool, sweat clogged the jersey pores and trapped heat, making hills more challenging because you carried your own personal sauna with you all the way up. During the descent, the breeze cooled you normally until the insulating sweat evaporated. Then it froze your ball bearings off, as Old Schoolers used to say, when the wind whistled through that open-pore jersey material. In the end, the main benefit of poly jerseys was that they made wool look good in comparison.

So if you want to look really Old School, don’t just buy one of those retro-edition jerseys. Give yourself a couple weeks before you show it to your riding buddies. While you’re waiting, poke some holes in random locations so it looks authentically moth-eaten (ProTip: use a soldering iron to simulate cigarette burns). Try it on. Sharp, right? But wait; we’re not done yet. Roll around in the mud a bit with your new jersey on, then ride with it in the rain for a week or so. Do not wash. Finally, stow your new/old jersey it in a Ziploc bag at room temperature a couple days before showing up for the Saturday Morning Ride. You’ll look as Old School as Walter Godefroot, and smell every bit as authentic. Just watch out for that zipper.

(Chapeau to Bulissimo for the original concept)

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  1. Hoshie99

    My father, a minor league baseball player for a brief time, used to say: “the older you get, the better you were.”

    Same with cycling jerseys apparently.


    1. Pat O'Brien

      Careful, Scott. I would love a lugged 853 frame, even if the zipper was short.

  2. Stephen Barner

    Wow. I had forgotten the nose scratches as I would struggle to get the jersey off. Thanks for the memory, but you forgot to mention the way the front pockets would scoop up the wind and pull against their buttons. That and how your mom could turn your wool jersey into doll clothes just by tossing it into the drier.

    1. Rick

      Ha! Thanks, Stephen! With the addition of the neologism “instaboobs,” you are now in OldSchoolCyclist #762. Assuming you’re willing to let me use it, how would you prefer to be credited?

    1. Author
      Rick Vosper

      Oh man, there’s about four in the archives about wool shorts. And tights. But the comments all seem obsessed with itchy stuff. Whassupwiddat?

  3. August Cole

    Wool arm warrmers… Had a pair given to me by a coach, which I think he used in Europe decades before. Old school cred. Got a lot of miles out of them before I admitted … These real, really itch. DeFeet fixed that one…

  4. Rick

    Steel frames, front pockets, spoke lengths, we got ’em all. If you like this stuff, there’s a daily (!) short-form version available on Twitter from @rick_vosper. Or just go to #oldschjoolcyclist for all 721 of ’em. And counting.

  5. Michael

    I don’t remember a zipper problem. I had a big problem with shrinkage. My wife & son got a lot of jerseys they reslly didn’t want !!

    1. Author
      Rick Vosper

      Wow. Maybe we had different manufacturers (I had a lot of MOA Sport), but see comments from other readers.

      The problem was that the zippers were so short, they inevitable contacted your nose when putting them on or taking them off.

  6. SHG in Austin

    Yep, I vividly remember the smell of those damned wool things after a long hard race in South Florida. The day Assos came to town I NEVER EVER put on any wool cycling anything ever again. Tells you how old I am I guess but man did those jerseys stink!

  7. BLMuzzy

    I found the trick to pulling the jersey overhead was to first pull the zipper up into my open mouth, then pull the back over my head. I have a couple wool sweaters and like them just fine for street wear. But these days my old wool jerseys live in a box and only come out for show and tell. Yes, wool was king 40 years ago. But that’s because the other options were cotton, silk, and burlap.

    1. Author
      Rick Vosper

      Hey, Bobby Lee! We need to get together and swap OldSchoolCyclist stories.

  8. cowtownclyclist

    Wool has a place. On an extremely hot or wet day I still prefer polyester for the sag and because it dries so much quicker, but I can wear my new school merino wool jersey for a 200 km ride and it still doesn’t stink (I might, but the jersey isn’t the problem) or itch the way my fancy high end poly ones do after 50 km. I am not retro grouchy enough to ever own anything with a metal zipper, can’t imagine why anyone would ever do that no matter how authentic it looks.

    Now what about Brooks saddles?

  9. slappy

    I wear it all, especially sweet were the hand me down purple and gold spandex arc-en-siel kits i used to wear in RI when broke in college. Now i do get the hand me down wool front pocketed jersey’s gifted to me and i wear ’em on special occasions
    For the record though, contemporary merino wool jersey’s don’t itch, so that’s nice, check out Oregon cycle wear, Ibex, Icebreaker, of course the big red s Ripoff&Duplicate department has em as well; merino jersey’s are sweet. The Durango Devo Explorer’s kids program has team Merino jersey’s because the kids are going on multi day bike packing trips and they never want to change anyway, perfect for that. That and riding above treeline where you never know when the hail is gonna come outta nowhere. .
    Aaanyway just keep wearing that adorable white assos kit so no one gets the wrong idea. .

  10. David Wallace

    Hi —
    I will be very grateful if you would be kind enough to tell me where I can see more of these “Old School Cyclist” columns. I enjoyed this one (about wool jerseys) very much. I still wear wool jerseys and wool tights (i.e., shorts).
    I have Sergal and MOA Sport jerseys, and I have never experienced any itching at all from any of the wool stuff I have worn.
    I will also mention that I have been riding my Cinelli for 57 years (it was made in 1958) and it is still a great bike. I must be a Retrogrouch, because I really do prefer steel bicycles, Brooks leather saddles, Campagnolo pedals with toe clips and leather straps, and, of course, tubular tires. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm for bicycles that are made of compressed soot and petroleum derivatives, and I just don’t enjoy riding them. Also, they don’t hold up very well or last very long.
    By the way, I don’t use Facebook or Twitter, so if I can get these columns by email or somewhere on the web (or even by postal mail!) I would be very pleased.
    Thank you very much.

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