This story was written by Chris Klibowitz and appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Bicycling Magazine. The patches photographed by Mitch Mandel for the story were provided by collector and manufacturer Walter Skrzypek of Falls Creek Outfitters, who makes our embroidered #GTFO patches.
Three years ago, Todd Siegle was out for a spin near his Orlando, Florida, home when a rider he didn’t know jumped into his slipstream then hung on behind him, wordless, for miles. A keen observer of cycling culture who founded the Fixed Fight alleycat race in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2007, Siegle decided he wanted to commemorate the odd feeling of being wheelsucked. He envisioned a “Death to Suckers” icon, featuring a cyclist, with X’ed-out eyes, sucking on a lollipop that resembled a bike wheel.
Siegle is a thoroughly modern, 37-year-old financial analyst who rides a carbon fiber Boardman and was an early adopter of Strava (though he admits his upload rate is “somewhat shameful”). But when it came time to turn his wheelsucker idea into something he could pass around to his friends, he chose to do so with a technology that was last popular before he even learned to ride a bike—a cloth patch.
From individuals like Siegle, to businesses as diverse as Rapha and Golden Saddle Cyclery, the tastemakers who help define what is desirable in cycling have resurrected this humble, old-fashioned emblem.
Starting in the early 1970s and lasting through the 1980s, the patch was cycling’s badge of honor, usually indicating membership in a local club or to show that you’d completed a century or a tour. One of the earliest documented appearances came in 1973, when two staffers from the Des Moines Register who’d completed the first RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) sent patches to the 114 people who finished the ride. (Bucking the rise and fall of the patch’s popularity in the time since then, the organizers have given them out every year.)
Of course, patches weren’t big only among cyclists. The Chicago Embroidery Company was founded in 1890 and has manufactured for some of the largest patch users—about 117.6 million for the Boy and Girl Scouts alone, for instance. President Rob Faurot traces the patch’s prevalence to a need to outfit the 16 million US soldiers who enlisted during World War II, a push that kept up through the Korean and Vietnam wars, then came home with the soldiers as they found civilian jobs as police, firemen, and repairmen. As is common in fashion, workwear became an inspiration for self-expression, and beginning in the ’60s the patch exploded in popularity—until cheaper, quicker, direct-on-clothing automated embroidery took over. This coincided with the rise of digital production that made custom stickers affordable, and by the late 1980s, the cycling patch was all but extinct.
Stevil Kinevil, proprietor of the bicycling-culture blog All Hail The Black Market, says, “I’ve loved stickers since my days as a little skate grom in 1982. They were like a form of commerce, as well as just generally a fun thing to collect. If stickers are commerce, however, patches have proven to be a 401k.”
Indeed, like the dollar, a sticker doesn’t seem to go far these days. Since 2010, Rapha has offered patches for completing its ride challenges, such as the Festive 500. Explains Rapha’s communications director, Chris DiStefano: “The decision to offer patches—or ‘roundels’ as they say in the UK—was not for nostalgia but to offer something that is meaningful and can be applied to a jersey, jacket, or bag.”
Siegle echoes that notion. “Death to Suckers” proved so popular that he opened an online shop, Spoking Fun, and in the past three years has sold more than 10,000 patches in 60-plus designs—many of them with inspirational messages, such as another early creation of his that reads, We All Suffer—Keep Going. Which is just what he—and other patch makers—plan to do. “Now that we’ve seen what can be done with the medium,” he says, “there’s no turning back.”
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