What happens when you combine an eccentric businessman, France’s greatest cyclist, and an abstract Dutch artist from the turn of the century? The unexpected result is arguably cycling’s most iconic livery. We’re talking about the primary red, blue, and yellow colors, arranged in elegant squares with black lines, that define Look bicycles.
Photo courtesy Look Cycle.
These are not only the colors of Look bicycles, but also the colors of cycling’s original super-team, La Vie Claire. But how did Piet Mondrian’s famous art come to represent French cycling?
French businessman Bernard Tapie and Swiss team director Paul Kochli founded the team in 1984 with the health-food store La Vie Claire as title sponsor. According to the book “Slaying the Badger,” a prominent designer first suggested the team wear black kits, inspired by the dominant New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. “No, no – cyclists don’t wear black jerseys,” team manager Paul Kochli said. Legend has it that a student in the meeting suggested adopting Mondrian’s primary colors, seen in his “Composition with Red Blue and Yellow” work.
“It was genius,” Kochli said in “Slaying the Badger.”
The colors lent an innovative look to the team, one very fitting for the mid-’80s. And the team was known for innovation. A new start on a new team suited French cycling legend, Bernard Hinault. 1983 was his annus horribilus. Though the four-time Tour de France champion won the Vuelta a Espana that spring, he aggravated his knee tendonitis and could not start the Tour. Instead, upstart teammate Laurent Fignon carried the mantle for the Renault team, accelerating the fall-out Hinault had with team boss Cyrille Guimard. This led Hinault to La Vie Claire.
Contrary to the tradition-bound Renault team, La Vie Claire drew on technology to help it become the dominant team of the era. Its riders were some of the first to train using heart rate monitors. And it just so happened that Tapie also owned French company Look, which was pleased to supply its novel clipless pedals and carbon fiber frames.
Bernard Hinault, wearing pink as leader of the Giro d'Italia. Photo courtesy Look Cycle.
Keen for marketing opportunities, Tapie revamped the 32-year-old company’s identity to match La Vie Claire’s Mondrian colors. Pedals, frames, and every other accessory were quickly colored red, yellow, and blue.
It was fitting because although Mondrian was Dutch by birth, he spent a little more than 30 years of his life living in Paris. Plus, it was in the City of Lights where he produced his iconic work, influenced by the avant-garde Cubist movement that blossomed in Paris in the early 20th Century. Mondrian’s own movement, a collective of like-minded Dutch artists, became known as De Stijl (The Style).
An example of Mondrian's iconic artwork. Photo: Mario Badilla | Flickr Creative Commons
And what a style it was. In the professional peloton of the 1980s, the bold primary colors stood out. Tapie gleefully filled each square of the jersey’s design with a different sponsor.
Despite the team’s two Tour de France victories — one being Greg LeMond’s memorable win in 1986 — a Giro d’Italia win, and numerous other race wins, it left the peloton in 1991. Even before then, La Vie Claire left its role as title sponsor in 1988 and the iconic Mondrian look went away in 1990 under the final years of sponsorship with Toshiba.
Fortunately, De Stijl lives on in the world of cycling, thanks to Look. Since that fateful meeting in ‘83, the French company has adorned its bikes, pedals, and other accessories with those iconic primary color squares.
Not every Look bicycle is painted with Mondrian’s abstract design, but perhaps it should be.