To the average cyclist, the idea of mountains of kit, multiple bikes, a never-ending supply of parts, all the snacks you could eat and numerous free accessories sounds like an absolute dream. But what if you got a bike that you really hated? Or how about some kit with a horrendous design? You’re paid to use it, so what do you do if you genuinely hate it?
Bike brands will often pay vast sums for the privilege of giving a team a fleet of free bikes, so this is the area where we rarely see a rider using something from a rival brand. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some notable tantrums thrown over the years and sometimes you get a rider having a good old moan about their team bike as they head to a rival team.
In years gone by Tour de France stars Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara have both had custom bikes made just for them after the geometries on their team bikes failed to meet their exacting standards. They could get away with this as they won stages while saying just how excellent their new bikes were.
Rohan Dennis is the most recent rider to break ranks and use a rival’s bike in search of some of those marginal gains. His mid-stage exit from 2019's Tour de France is believed to have been caused by a disagreement surrounding his equipment for the following day’s time trial stage. Dennis was apparently unhappy about the bike, skinsuit and helmet that his team had provided and chose to let them know of his displeasure via an 11th-hour exit.
To be fair to Dennis, he then jumped back on his old BMC TT bike and won the World Championship time trial.
Quite a lot of the time, the clothing that brands make available to you and me isn’t what the pros get. Brands often make lightweight garments just for the pros as they know that the durability of these items wouldn’t be good enough for the mass market.
This includes putting mesh panels on bib shorts, making jerseys that are all but see-through and designing very simple racing mitts that simply feature a faux-suede palm stitched to a mesh back.
A number of clothing brands will also make custom sizes for each individual rider so you won’t find too many instances of riders complaining about their jerseys and bib shorts.
As we move to some of the more technical pieces like jackets, the riders can be a little fussier. The year that Castelli released the first Gabba jacket, the peloton changed into a black mass of un-branded riders any time the weather was expected to be foul. Each rider saw the advantage of being warm while maintaining breathability and being quite aero. Out came the Sharpies and the colouring in of logos commenced.
The same thing happened when Velotoze overshoes became popular for the spring classics. After a few years though, most brands will have caught up.
Imagine the situation, you take a leader's jersey in the biggest bike race in the world and it doesn't fit. Worried about all of those lost watts, you have a good panic. Thankfully, this is likely to just be a bad dream as gone are the days where cycling jerseys were loose. The organisers have adapted with the times and now offer well-fitting clothing for all of the classification leaders. The designs for each team are decided before the race and are printed up as and when they're needed.
That said, Adam Yates said a few years ago that it was a shame that the organisers couldn't provide a yellow skinsuit when he took the race lead in the first week. With aerodynamics being such an important consideration in modern racing, it might not be too long before you see yellow skinsuits in road stages of the Tour de France.
Aérodynamisme et ultra technicité sont au RDV !
— le coq sportif (@lecoqsportif) July 19, 2019
Where aero gains really matter is in the time trials. You won't be surprised to learn that Team Sky, the kings of marginal gains, were behind this next change, but the organisers now custom-fit the yellow skinsuit to the race leader. This takes place on the eve of a time trial and some extremely good needlework goes into ensuring that not watts are lost because of the skinsuit provided.
Interestingly, the World Champion is at a slight advantage here. Should the wearer of the yellow jersey also be leading, for example, the climber's competition and the World Champion be second in the climber's competition, the polka dot jersey worn by the leader in the climber's competition would defer to the rider sitting second in that classification. Due to the importance of the World Champion's jersey, this rider can refuse to wear the climber's jersey, which would then pass to the third-place rider. In reality, this rarely happens, but Peter Sagan has opted to stick with his rainbow bands before.
At the lower levels of racing (where this writer resides) the leader's jersey is always 'one-size-fits-no-one'. Out come the safety pins to make the jersey slightly more fitted.
One area where we see a lot of electrical tape covering a non-sponsor-correct item is the components. Saddles, wheels, stems, pedals, and even parts of the groupset get quietly brushed aside in favour of something lighter, stiffer, more comfortable or simply something that works better.
We saw this at last year's Tour. Van der Poel made changes for the TT which included a host of non-sponsor-correct parts. The team couriered a Princeton Carbon Works Blur 633 rear disc 900km for the TT and paired it with an Aerocoach Aeox Titan front wheel. These replaced his sponsored Shimano/Pro wheels.
Van der Poel was also using the Aerocoach Ascalon extensions in place of the standard Canyon cockpit and the team didn't stop with the bike. A Lazer Volante helmet replaced his usual Abus, and Aerocoach/No Pinz overshoes were selected over the regular Kalas overshoes.
At the previous year's Tour, Primoz Roglic and his Jumbo Visma teammates were often spotted using Corima front wheels, their Shimano Dura-Ace front wheels deemed too heavy for the job.
For many years, sprinters like Cavendish, Sagan and co could often be found using Zipp’s SL Sprint stem as they found it to be stiffer than their sponsor’s offerings.
After riding their saddles at Liquigas-Cannondale, Italian GC rider Vincenzo Nibali has stuck with Fizik as his choice of perch. A few years ago, his mechanic would try to hide the logos with a permanent marker. More recently, Fizik seems to have provided Nibali with un-branded saddles.
The mechanics will even mix groupsets if the riders ask nicely. A number of the SRAM sponsored Trek-Segafredo riders had Shimano’s Di2 Sprinter shifters in place of SRAM’s Blips.
When a rider is sponsored to use something a bit smaller like pedals or certain accessories, you will rarely hear them complaining about problems. The poor performance of products and the shoddy customer service experienced by the paying public are often solved for the pros with a simple replacement.
Should a pair of sunglasses not be to the taste of a rider or a GPS head unit not have the features that they want, then they might quietly use other stuff in training.
So, if you spot something without logos on a pro bike, you might be seeing a prototype or you might just be seeing a rider refusing to use something that their sponsor has provided.