A Brief History of Nike Cycling
Cycling experienced its largest uptake in the US between 1965 and 1975, a period referred to as the ‘bike boom’. Time Magazine proclaimed it was ‘the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history’. After the boom settled down, and cycling was a widely accepted sport and pastime, many sportswear companies got in on the action. Nike was a fairly prominent player between the 80s and early 2000s, with an extensive line of cycling-specific performance products.
Currently, Nike has not officially released any cycling products for over a decade. With a storied history in the sport, there is so much the Swoosh can re-engage with. This is a brief history of Nike Cycling.
The Early Years
Deep Internet hunting shows Nike had a cycling-specific sneaker circa 1984, aptly named the Velo (French for 'bicycle'). It utilised a perforated suede vamp for breathable durability, paired with nylon on the quarter to save weight. Importantly, the outsole was made from relatively thick rubber, built up around the forefoot ball for a stiff interface with bicycle pedals.
Some of the earliest Nike catalogue examples featuring purpose-designed cycling shoes that we could access are found in 1987. Comprising three styles: the VT, Discovery, and Nike SC, they each used relatively thick rubber soles for a stiff interface with flat pedals. The Discovery, in particular, was an early mountain biking shoe, and had a slight ridge in the forefoot to replicate a cleat to mesh with MTB pedals.
The Short-Lived Echelon
It seems there was a specific name for Nike’s burgeoning cycling arm in the very early 90s: Nike Echelon. In cycling, echelon is jargon for a group of riders spreading across the road to shield each other from the wind direction that would otherwise slow them down.
French company LOOK popularised the three-bolt clipless pedal cleat system in the late 80s, after fellow countryman Bernard Hinault won the 1986 edition of the Tour de France. By the early 90s, most of the pro peloton adopted the new pedal interface, and amateur riders wanted to use the same system their heroes did. Nike catered to the market with the System Ultra and System T/C, which used the new three-bolt cleat standard. These were the flagship models, but older fixed-cleat styles were also available as three-bolt wasn’t mainstream yet.
At the same time, the conception of off-road riding, aka mountain biking (MTB), was taking off. Under the Echelon umbrella, silhouettes like the Terramac and Cross Terrain 2 were available for rigorous riding over technical terrain. Most interestingly, Nike Echelon only appeared for a year. Its footwear range was categorised as such in catalogues between 1991 and 1992, but by 1993 it had reverted back to ‘cycling’. The line showed promise too: Fall 1991’s catalogue had an aerodynamic bootie accessory called the Zero C to use with cycling shoes.
The Rest of the 90s
Nike’s cycling product increasingly appeared within the All Conditions Gear (ACG) umbrella, reflective of the aforementioned MTB renaissance. Before technical shoes designed around a pedal interface, ACG had some hiking models doubling as bike-ready styles. For example, the 1992 Air Revaderchi’s forefoot used a stiff rubber portion for efficient pedalling, much like its 80s precursors. Or the Air Mowabb from the previous year, shown in use mountain biking in a vintage Nike ad:
By the middle of the decade, Nike already had cleverly-named styles like the Pooh-Bah, a mid-cut shoe with lockdown straps coloured in the Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI) world champion rainbow bands. It also helped that off-road rockstar John Tomac was wearing them. As the 90s rolled on, Shimano’s two-bolt SPD recessed cleat gained popularity in the MTB world: Nike followed suit with two-bolt compatibility on successive styles like the Supa Pooh-Bah and Nguba 2. At this point, it was the late 90s and most cycling-ready Nike footwear was ACG. Three-bolt road shoes also sat under this umbrella.
The Lance Years
In 1999, a Texan named Lance Armstrong ‘won’ the first of his six consecutive Tour de France victories, three years after surviving testicular cancer. Armstrong’s emergence as a household name threw Nike back into the cycling spotlight, as they provided classification jerseys at Le Tour, and struck a major endorsement deal with Armstrong, bolstering his LIVESTRONG cancer foundation in the process.
In 2004, Armstrong had essentially what was a signature shoe: the Nike Lance. As the story goes in A Brief History of Speed, designer Bill Cass had worked with Armstrong since his comeback in 1998. Armstrong liked a late 90s MTB shoe called the Cairns, so Cass put a low-profile carbon fibre sole unit on it. With some tweaking, the Lance was born. Another very popular style at the time was the lightweight Poggio 2.
Nike’s cycling involvement was mostly in the footwear department. From 1995 to 2011, Nike cycling apparel was actually the result of a collaboration with Italian-American company Giordana. So, anything with a Swoosh on it, be it yellow Discovery jerseys or Armstrong’s lycra shorts, was actually made by Giordana.
Off the bike, the LIVESTRONG collection yielded some memorable footwear. Reissues of highly limited releases returned in the black and yellow livery that the foundation had become synonymous with. Come 2013, Armstrong’s infamous Oprah confession resulted in the end of this Nike partnership.
Neither Road nor Mountain
With skateboarding, BMX, and other ‘action sports’ too lucrative of a market to miss out on, Nike again tried to capture customers with their 6.0 line. Some of these silhouettes were re-jigged classics with extra padding or vulcanised soles. Sure, these styles did the job but, as history has dictated, the SB line overshadowed it fairly easily as the product overlap was too great.
In 2008, the Dunk Gyrizo entered the mix. For the Summer Olympics in Beijing that year, BMX Racing was included as a sport for the first time. The Dunk Gyrizo was purpose-built for this, using the same two-bolt SPD cleat interface. However, this revisit was short lived, and it’s almost impossible to find a pair for sale. But hey, Nigel Sylvester is currently holding down the fort as the most prominent BMX rider with a Nike deal. No Gyrizos to be seen though – he’s an Air Jordan 1 man.
Nike Cycling Today
Here’s where things get interesting. According to cycling industry reports, Nike stopped availability and development of cycling product after around 2008. So, how is it that current professional road and track cyclists like Mark Cavendish and Adam Blythe have been spotted riding in Nike-branded road cycling shoes?
It seems the Swoosh are still tinkering with some experiments. In 2015, now-retired rider Dani Rowe (née King) posted custom Great Britain team Nike cycling shoes on her Instagram that bore resemblance to something as early as the Mercurial 4 football (soccer) boot!
Then, in 2018, Cavendish posted a pair of Nike cycling shoes in the same colourway as the OG Mercurial R9 from 1998.
In his own words, it was a Mercurial Superfly 360 with an added ankle strap. Could Nike just put carbon soles on Mercurial boots to make cycling shoes? It appeared simple enough, as many top-end football boots use carbon soles. It wasn’t the first modified Mercurial boot Cavendish had been riding, either.
At the same time, out of the blue, English rider Blythe also posted his own custom Nike cycling shoes.
Mercurials again! One-of-ones, modelled on the Off-White Mercurial collaboration, but with BOA closures instead of laces. Blythe is also a prolific owner of other custom Nike cycling shoes: a deep trawl of his Instagram reveals at least half a dozen colourways at his disposal. Yet, Nike don’t currently have any publicly-available cycling products, despite Blythe using Nike shoes from as far back as 2012.
Mention has to be made to Biketown, Portland’s public bike share program. Guess who else is based in Portland? In 2016, Nike began investing $10 million over the next five years into Biketown. This investment sees an increase in available bikes, infrastructure, and limited edition bike frame wraps in iconic Nike motifs.
An Unofficial Return?
The Swoosh have clearly tapped into their previous experience, designing a sleek-looking spin shoe with modern branding and practical cyclist features, like the rubberised heel and toe studs to prevent slipping. They release in June 2020.
While this doesn't mark an official revival of Nike Cycling, it's a promising sign that there might be more options for sneakerheads who like to travel on two wheels!
Is it Time for Nike to Get Back Into the Peloton?
Sooner or later, the public will forget about the Armstrong saga. Riders are still rolling with their soon-to-be vintage Poggios at the risk of the soles falling off. And, at the pro level, Cavendish and Blythe are stoking fans’ fires. As a guarantee, if the Swoosh revive their cycling line – and perhaps call it Echelon – they’ll have at least one very loyal customer.