Rainbows and polka dots – The colour of cycling

Eddy Merckx and orange team

Le maillot noir. The black jersey. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? Cycling is a sport of tradition, of colour. Famous races evoke certain colours, riders too. Colour influences the dear cyclist more than we realise. We know every shade of grey cloud. We take pride in the tell tale signs of blackened legs after a long wet day in the saddle. We know how hard we pushed by the colour of our cheeks. The colour of our paintwork is a decision we will agonise over more than the name of our offspring.

The psychology of colour

Humans can see over seven million different colours, although reading cycling forums you may be inclined to think it is just a matter of black or white. Seven million! That must be like watching a pro peloton pass in front of your nose.

Yellow food. Orange clothing. Blue drinks. Colour tells us what to avoid. Unfortunately it also tells us what to think, colouring our logic (excuse the pun). Ginger hair. Black skin. White eyes. Identities then, are also defined by colour. We immediately trust somebody should they be wearing a uniform that conforms: police in blue, doctors in white and fast food employees in red.

Fans and teams play to such traits in sport. The colour of your scarf or shirt could be the difference between a smile or a fist. Research suggests football teams in red have a competitive edge, winning more often than teams dressed in any other colour. Boxers in the Olympic Games also tend to win more if they wear the red shorts. So maybe that red bike will make you faster after all.

“Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”
Oscar Wilde

Apparently even our personalities are coloured, should robust internet tests based on ten questions be believed (I’m summer apparently, a perfect host!). Our moods succumb to colour. To feel blue is to be sad in England whilst the German, ‘blau sein’ (to be blue) means to be drunk or in Russian ‘голубой’ (light blue) means to be homosexual. Idioms and travel should not be mixed.

In China, red symbolises good fortune. Whilst over here in Britain green is thought to be unlucky. The next time you hear the dreaded hiss on your ride, take a look at the colour of the bike with the flat!

Cycling and colour

Orange tights? Check.
Orange tights? Check.
On the road, red tells us when to stop, green when to go and orange when to stomp on those pedals. Colourful language is often heard as we climb a killer hill or as we struggle to slip the tight tyre beading over our wheel when repairing a puncture.

Rosy cheeks on a cold winter morn. A purple bruise signals a moment of inattention. The black ice we never see. White fingers frozen in January. The brown skunk line down our back because we refuse mudguards. The yellow sick after a particularly violent hill climb. The black hands that speak of a mechanical failure turned bodged success.

Colour plays an important part in our decision making too. We choose our bike primarily based on colour. Research suggests people make up their minds within 90 seconds of first seeing a product and that up to 90 percent of their assessment is based on colour alone. As a cyclist I’d say that’s closer to 100% and takes about 0.01 nanoseconds.

Cycling then has its very own colour scheme.

Merckxian orange

Burnt orange, scorched by speed. You see Merckxian orange on the road and think of one man. The cannibal. Eddy Merckx, destroyer of dreams, champion of champions. The bike, the jersey. Orange. He made them his own. The colours he wore and rode are iconic, as memorable as anything the great man achieved.

After much umming and ahhing, I recently bought a long sleeve version of the famous jersey. I’ll admit to being more Fred Flintstone than Eddy Merckx. Do people shake their heads when they see me wearing the rainbow stripes? Maybe, but they miss my smile. Do people ride faster to prove some kind of ridiculous point by overtaking me? You’ll have to ask them. Do I ride faster to keep such folk at bay? Of course!

Pretty in pink

You better be paying me well
You better be paying me well
Many a lady wears it and just as many hate it. Pink. The maglia rosa. The choice colour for cycling catalogues trying to sell to women, not realising that this tiresome cliché puts off more customers than it attracts. The pink jersey is also famous as the leader’s jersey of the Giro d’Italia. I for one would like to see the sales of this jersey to the male of the species. Italian men could just about pull it off but a pasty Brit such as I?

Yellow peril

Le Maillot Jaune, right? As famous on professional cyclists as infamous it is on amateur cyclists. Why is it a certain breed of cyclist refuses to wear the colour of their heroes? Because they haven’t earned it. And they know they’ll be a target for every other cyclist within eyesight. Wear what you want I say. If it feels good do it. Life is too short to make decisions based on the pettiness and prejudices of others.

White and pure

Maybe today wasn't the best day to debut the white bar tape
Maybe today wasn’t the best day to debut the white bar tape
The young man’s jersey at the Tour de France. White is also for the cyclist with full mudguards and a pair of latex gloves in their saddlebag. A virgin white jersey is attractive for about 30 minutes whereupon it quickly turns yellow, brown or black, depending on the grime of your choice.

White bar tape attracts ire from certain quarters. It’s not for me simply because it’s way too difficult to keep clean and begins to look manky very quickly in a hot, sticky summer. I have grey bar tape. It came with the bike, which is itself second hand. I reckon it’s a good six or seven years old! That said it gets frequent wet rinses riding here in the UK.

Polka dots and the rainbow

As above, it is supposedly sacrilege to wear these jerseys. Really? That said, you will not see me in polka dots. A pox, the dots are simply ugly. And the less said about the full shorts and jersey combo the better. The rainbow stripes however? Hell yes. Who doesn’t want to feel like a world champion as they haunch over their bicycle at 12 mph into a slight headwind?

High vis, high fashion

Are you sure the punters can see us? They don't seem to be stopping any more.
Are you sure the punters can see us? They don’t seem to be stopping any more.
Pink, yellow and orange. High vis isn’t a colour, it’s a plea. Please see me. Some, myself included, are vain enough to reject safety due to the fashion horror that is high vis clothing. At night, high vis is redundant. With the advantage of daylight, the obligation is on the metal box driver to see all before them. In car accidents involving pedestrians it would be unacceptable for a driver to say well ‘I didn’t see them, they were wearing black’.

As black as the night

The colour of the masked man, goths, ninjas, bikers, the milk tray man and er, cyclists. Shadows of the streets, those in black are confident enough to disobey the luminous yellow and orange culture of fear. Black is slimming although few cyclists need to worry about such matters. I wore black for many a year simply because cycle clothing is so horrendous. Bright red? Azure blue? Yuk. You can see why Rapha sells although I find that pretty ugly too. Unfortunately there’s still a long way to go until Lyrca makes it onto the catwalks of Paris.

Green peace

Winnats Pass - greener than an Irish man on St Patrick's day
Winnats Pass – greener than an Irish man on St Patrick’s day
No, not the colour of your winter nose dribble, I’m thinking more about cycling in the countryside. Meadows and forests abound. Dales, moors and wolds. Beautiful. This is my colour of cycling.

What about you?

Like to be spotted in polka? Flourish beneath grey skies? Don racing red to psyche out your Sunday morning crew?

Images courtesy of 1) Unknown 2) AP 3) REUTERS/Benoit Tessier 4) Daily Telegraph 5) Key Palmer images


6 thoughts on “Rainbows and polka dots – The colour of cycling

  1. Colour is certainly something I miss at this time of year. I only recently found out 50 shades of grey wasn’t about north east cycling in winter. I think the assistant in WHsmith must have thought I bought cycling weekly at the same time so I could hide what I was reading on the train.


  2. I’m with you on hi-viz, can’t abide the stuff…and hi-viz hookers is a new one on me. I had a spell of thinking crisp white was the way forward, but after half a dozen rides it is all permanently stained with an arc of grey-brown up the back and collecting in the seams. Silly me.


  3. I’m with the 50 per cent of women who loathe pink. Purple, on the other hand, is a wonderful colour. I have a purple helmet and two purple jackets, which is probably more than enough purple. I wouldn’t want to be completely coordinated. Too matchy-matchy.


  4. I rejoice in all sorts of colours – some hi viz when i feel like it and some matchy match.
    Mostly for me its about getting away from “normal” work clothes and putting on the superman cyclist plumage like opening up a peacocks wings. Its kind of like a metamorphosis – no energy- can’t be bothered – slip into your tried and trusted cycling gear and Ah better – now lets get out there. Life is for the riding.


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