Q. What do a 19th century Italian tailor, a designer for the Milan Ballet and the first ever lycra cycling shorts have in common?

A. They are all part of a rich 140 year history that's led to today's most recognised brand in cycling: Castelli.

Throw in a heart attack on a famous Italian climb, family feuds, Olympic gold medals and controversy in the pro peloton and it begins to sound more like a Sicilian soap opera than the backdrop to a cycling brand. But then again Castelli is no ordinary brand.

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Today, Castelli's scorpion emblem is arguably the single most recognised in cycling. Iconic is an overused word these days, but the Castelli brand surely qualifies.

We first discovered Castelli on our year long ride through the Americas in 2010, when our founder Liz (pictured) wore Castelli shorts and loved them, so stocking them seemed an obvious choice. But we're almost as captivated by the story behind the name as the kit itself!

In 1876 (warning: read on, this is not a school history lesson), a tailor named Vittore Gianni opened a shop in Milan. Little did he know that this was the start of the Castelli story. He hand made clothes for - among others - the Milan Ballet, the AC Milan football team and local dignitaries.

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In 1935, a certain Armando Castelli (above) joined the team. He was an ambitious character and bought the company that same year! Over the following years, he 'collected' local celebrities to supply clothes to. These included none other than cycling legend Faust Coppi (below), winner of 5 Giri d'Italia and 2 Tours de France, who introduced Castelli to his fellow pros.

Soon a number of professional cycling team were wearing Castelli kit - still made of natural materials and totally unbranded. Those bronzed, wirey, brandy-swilling cycling gods wouldn't have been seen dead sporting a company logo in the 1940s. And sponsorship was unheard of - they were still buying Siñor Castelli's clothes at full price.

Over time, Castelli's products became increasingly part of professional cycling. But it still wasn't called Castelli.

By 1974, Armando's son Maurizio Castelli (above) was part of the company, but they feuded over how to run it. Legend suggests there may also have been a mistress involved with the star sign Scorpio. Either way, Castelli Jnr. broke away and created Castelli and the scorpion logo. The new outfit allowed him to morph rapidly into one of the technical pioneers in cycling kit. Among other achievements, Castelli:

  • Introduced the first lycra cycling shorts* (1977), inspired by skintight Alpine ski kits;
  • Supplied kit to cycling legends like Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil;
  • Pioneered the dye sublimation process - meaning designs and sponsors' names could be printed onto kit for the first time;
  • Introduced the first synthetic pad for shorts - farewell traditional chamois leather!

* This is disputed by ASSOS, another of our favourite brands, but who's counting a few months here or there?!

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He also had a talent for publicity - and controversy. In the 1981 Giro d'Italia he dressed some of the riders in turquoise lycra Castelli shorts (image above). Black was the only permitted colour, but they were covered by black leggings until the start and then spent most of the race with the TV cameras trained on them.

1981 aerodynamic designs from Maurizio Castelli's own archive

Maurizio died suddenly in 1995 whilst riding the notorious Cipressa climb on the Milan San Remo route. His pioneering spirit would no doubt be sad to know that the following year, a Castelli-clad Paula Pezzo (below) famously won the inaugural mountain biking gold medal for Italy in Atlanta, retaining it in 2000 in Sydney.

To sports fans, it was her exceptional cycling that marked her out at those games. But to too many others, it was her flash of cleavage at the finish line threatened to steal the limelight.

So it was no coincidence that around the same time, triggered by Maurizio himself, Castelli launched what many consider the first women's range from a cycling brand.

And the rest was history. We love them for that as much as anything.

Hands on work in the Castelli factory in Milan

Today, Castelli is one of the most recognised brands in cycling. Watch any group of cyclists ride by on a Saturday morning and you'll see plenty wearing the scorpion logo. They continue to create clothing that defines modern cycling, pushing technical limits whilst creating genuinely beautiful women's cycling kit.

It all seems a long way from those Milanese ballet outfits.

Castelli - an unfair advantage

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Here's a short video that features lots of men riding bikes - but it gives a great flavour of Castelli's 140 year history...!