Guy Andrews called me, asked me to write this, and I started it as a pretty standard paean about De Vlaeminck. When I found out he’d never flatted at Roubaix while wearing the Brooklyn jersey the story got all sideways on me in a way that I liked, and I ended up writing about America instead of Brooklyn, or the team, or De Vlaeminck. I also finally got it into my long-term memory that it’s capital D.
He shouted it as I passed, a hipster in dreads and a hoodie, interrupting the rhythm of his slouchy strut to punch a fist skyward as the word left his mouth: “Brooklyn!” A few pedal strokes later, I passed by a man with the black box of a camera obscuring half his face, a tourist or maybe an art student, leaning back against the rail of the bridge and clicking off pictures so fast it sounded like a pack shifting up for a sprint. The shooter swiveled to keep me in his lens, a bike racer pedaling across the Brooklyn Bridge, into Brooklyn, wearing the legendary red, white, and blue Brooklyn jersey. It was an iconic shot.
But not at all in the way he imagined.
In 1946, two brothers, Ambrogio and Egidio Perfetti, began making chewing gum in Lainate, Italy. With the end of the World War II just past, the brothers thought an American-sounding name would be popular. They were right: Brooklyn Chewing Gum became Italy’s top-selling brand. In 1973, the company began a five-year sponsorship of a cycling team that became defined by Roger De Vlaeminck, Mr. Paris-Roubaix, so-called for his four wins in the Hell of the North.
I prefer De Vlaeminck’s original nickname, The Gypsy, which for me evokes a kind of furious joy and a jaunty disregard for stricture that made him one of the few riders of that era who refused to meekly roll aside and wait for the race for second place to begin whenever Eddy Merckx attacked. From 1973 to 1977, wearing the brilliant and brilliantly simple Brooklyn jersey, and riding a — of course — brilliant blue Gios Torino, De Vlaeminck claimed three of his Roubaix titles, one of his three Milan-San Remo wins, the Tour of Flanders, two Tours of Lombardy, the Tour de Suisse, four of his six Tirreno-Adriatico victories, two points jerseys in the Giro d’Italia, and a cyclocross world championship.
Those are amazing palmares, but it’s farther out, at the edges of legend, where my affinities lie, and where the Brooklyn jersey is transmuted from venerable to holy. Why? Because De Vlaeminck never flatted at Paris-Roubaix while wearing that jersey, and after the team disbanded he finished second there three times and crashed out once. Because, according to some stories, the team skipped the Tour de France one season because the money for the trip was used to pay ransom for a corporate officer who’d been kidnapped. Because few cycling fans know that the quintessential American jersey adorned an Italian team made famous by a Belgian who dominated a French race that wasn’t the only race most U.S. citizens have ever heard of. I love the fact that most of those who do know there was no Brooklyn gum factory in Brooklyn don’t know there actually was a gum company founded there, and that it was Topps, the confectionary behemoth that a decade or so after its founding in 1938 would go on to create Bazooka Bubble Gum, the best-selling chewy of all time. I savor, as well, the knowledge that Ambrogio and Egidio’s company survives to this day, with $1 billion in yearly revenue that comes mostly from Mentos and Chupa Chups (with a small contribution from its original gum brand, which you can still buy in Italy, and which is terrible), and that the U.S. headquarters for Brooklyn is in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
From its founding to its heyday on De Vlaeminck’s shoulders to its contemporary reputation as one of the sport’s most cherished vintage gets, the Brooklyn jersey has embodied chaos, cultural collapse, mercenary marketing, misplaced nostalgia, and ignorance of history — yet, also, somehow, victory, tenacity, and beauty. It’s the perfect American jersey.
Originally published in Rouleur, Issue Ten