“Seventeenth of March, 2013: the day that everything changed,” says Castelli brand manager Steve Smith.
When the 104th edition of Milan-San Remo was hit by freak snowfalls and freezing conditions there was no more hiding the fact most of the peloton was uniformly clad in a distinctive sleek, black jersey. The race’s eventual winner Gerald Ciolek kept his on until the finale, spurning team-issued rainwear in favour of the jersey that had come arrived, almost out of nowhere, to emphatically reinstate Castelli at the forefront of road race apparel.
In the months previous to the race, the Gabba had been something of a dirty secret in the ranks of the pro peloton. Whilst officially contracted to wearing sponsor-issued kit only, more and more riders were seeking out the Gabba on the sly, crudely blacking out the red Castelli logo with marker pens in a bid to placate their teams.
Fabian Cancellara had bought one for himself before a particularly grim Tour of Flanders. Thomas Voeckler ordered a set of Gabbas for his entire Europcar team at shop price. So popular was the jacket that performance director Andrea Peron started going round team buses at races, discretely doling out the coveted contraband.
Inextricably wrapped up with the underground, runaway success of the Gabba is the changing fortunes of its producer, Castelli. Coming into the new millennium, the clothing company with the scorpion logo had lost its sting. It wasn’t working with any professional teams and was looking to be a “Patagonia”-type catch-all brand, far from the futuristic, racing roots Maurizio Castelli had put down in the 70s.
Portlander Steve Smith was one of the men tasked with helping to restore Castelli’s lustre. “It was quite a mess at the time, suffering from years of neglect. The products were completely mis-positioned,” he recalls. When the company sought a return to the pro peloton, they found “there were teams that wouldn’t even take our call.”
The changing of the tide can be traced back to four years previously. In August 2009, they held a long-anticipated focus group for cold-and-wet weather clothing at the Brixia Tour, attended by the pro rider Norwegian Gabriel Rasch, along with a Swiss, a Belgian, a couple of Britons and an Irishman. The common denominator? All hailed from cruddy weather countries.
Rasch took out his old gilet from Crédit Agricole with a blacked-out logo – green, plastic, fully waterproof but not breathable – and explained it was what he wore if it was raining but not particularly cold in order to avoid overheating.
For years, cycling rainwear had been inspired by mountaineering, where not allowing a drop of water in was the priority. What this meant when applied to racing was a peloton of overheating riders sweating into their rain jackets – by which point the garments waterproofness became irrelevant. Rasch’s idea planted the seed.
Smith realised that when it came to full-bore racing, a little rain getting in wasn’t a big problem – it was letting the humidity out, whilst maintaining an aero fit that would save racers precious watts. Collaborating with textile giant Gore made that a objective reality when they fashioned the Windstopper X-Lite Plus, the innovative material which lends the Gabba its sleek, pared-back profile. It might have been Rasch who provided the initial spark, but it wouldn’t be the only contribution he would make; his own nickname ‘Gabba’ became attached to the jersey for good.
Six months after Rasch’s rough idea, the Gabba was given to the Cervélo team before the 2010 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “I was surprised they got so excited about this kind of weird piece,” Smith says.
“I gave one to Heinrich Haussler and, my favourite line ever, he turns and says ‘let’s just hope it rains on the way to Ghent tomorrow. Because we’re gonna go on the front and drill it.’ I’d never heard a rider says ‘let’s hope it rains’ before, it was awesome.”
As Castelli joined up with Garmin-Cervélo in 2011 and the long-sleeve Gabba followed, word was spreading round the bunch. Rival riders soon began asking for them. While the 2013 Milan-San Remo lit the touch paper, it was helped by a persistently wet Spring. From Ghent-Wevelgem to Flanders to the Giro, all were run off in drab conditions and deluges meaning demand for the Gabba grew and grew.
Castelli, the company whose calls went unanswered by a host of big teams just eight years ago, are now hot stuff again. Castelli’s marketing executive Søren Jensen claims at least five WorldTour teams asked them to provide clothing in 2015. Apparently, some didn’t even want money.
From being something of the sleeping giant of Italian cycling gear, floundering in its attempts to diversify, the Gabba refocused the brand on its roots as a racing specialist.
Now it’s other brands that look to Castelli for the way forward – trade shows are now rammed with barely disguised Gabba-imitations. Smith, however, isn’t worried. “By the time someone figures this one out, we’ll be on to the next thing.”
This is an edited extract from issue 53 of Rouleur, first published in 2015.