A few years ago, someone took a snapshot of Jonathan Schneider and Richard Grossman, avid cyclists and close friends since childhood, after they finished a long charity ride. Their cycling jerseys sported flames and a beer brewer’s logo. The photo sparked a discomfiting realization: They looked like clowns.
Thus was born Road Holland, a boutique maker of stylishly simple, high-end, high-performance cycling jerseys that don’t scream “cyclist’’ and won’t embarrass the wearer to be seen in off the bike. Since its launch in 2010, Road Holland has won a growing following among dedicated cyclists for the quality of its materials and its distinctive designs, which are inspired by the Dutch tradition of cycling as an everyday activity — but made by skilled, veteran cutters and seamstresses in Hialeah, not exactly a cycling hotbed.
“The Dutch ride not just for sport. It’s a way of life,’’ said Schneider, who oversees design and production of the line from Palm Beach Gardens, while Grossman takes care of marketing from their hometown of Richmond, Va. “We wanted to design cycling clothes that work on or off the bike, not just for racing. But, performance-wise, they work very well on the bike.’’
The polo-like jerseys echo the classic look of pre-Lycra European road-racing kits, featuring solid colors and sewn-on striping, a small crown emblem, discreet accents in Dutch orange, and de rigeur rear pockets. Road Holland has also seized on a throwback trend in cycling by blending soft merino wool, the material of choice for racers before synthetic fibers conquered the peloton, into its signature jerseys. The jerseys are fitted but not snug, unlike the Lycra racing jerseys that leave too many recreational cyclists looking like sausages encased in shrinkwrap.
The low-key styling and the unique fabric, which Schneider says provides unusual comfort and durability under a wide range of conditions, have proven a hit.
Sales of the jerseys, priced at $105 to $150, have doubled every year, Schneider said. The company makes from 300 to 400 units of each of its 10 models for men and women, and has two seasons per year. Most are sold online and ship from a warehouse in Palm Beach County, but Road Holland has also built a network of a dozen bike-shop dealers that stretches from Bend, Ore., to Israel and Osaka, Japan.
At Dean Apparel, the Hialeah factory where Road Holland’s jerseys are made under contract, several seamstresses working under the supervision of owner Alexandra Pedrosa are now busily sewing the fall and winter line, including long-sleeved models for men and women and a new item, a lightweight cycling vest for cool-weather riding.
After an inaugural run in China proved costly and cumbersome, Schneider brought production home to South Florida, where he was happily surprised to find dedicated craftspeople close at hand who could meet his exacting standards.
“I love making it here,’’ he said. “These people take real ownership of their work.’’
Hialeah once boasted a thriving apparel industry, but it dwindled as U.S. production shifted overseas in search of cheaper labor. While some production has shifted back, volumes remain low, and Pedrosa has kept the business going in part because “it’s my passion,’’ she said.
Schneider said he found it more economical to make his jerseys locally. Communicating with producers in China was slow and difficult, and, for a small company like his, the cost of FedExing samples back and forth and paying tariffs can quickly eat into profits, he said. Having production nearby also means Road Holland can develop and market a new model in a quick three months, Schneider said.
Making Road Holland jerseys is not simple, Schneider and Pedrosa say. The tops are handcrafted in small batches with great attention to detail. Pedrosa shows off a signature Utrecht jersey — all models are named after Dutch cities — that’s being sewn together by a seamstress. Panels, tall collars and striping are painstakingly stitched together. Behind the zipper, a “reveal’’ — a colored strip of cloth — curls over the top of the collar to protect the neck from pinching. A discreet reflective edging runs along the bottom of the jersey.
“Our stuff is not easy to make. It’s not like making a polo. But nothing good is easy,’’ Schneider said.
The color palette is limited. And though they don’t exactly advertise it, some are inspired by college colors — Carolina blue, Princeton orange-and-black, and orange and blue for Schneider’s alma mater, the University of Virginia. There are also, of course, all or mostly orange jerseys, for Holland.
“It’s important for us, when you’re in a sea of cycling jerseys, that our jerseys stand out, that people look at them and say, ‘That’s pretty cool,’ ” Grossman said.
Neither Schneider nor Grossman had any experience with the fashion or cycling industries before they hit on the idea for Road Holland. But they had marketing savvy — Schneider worked in marketing for GE and runs his own consumer market research firm, while Grossman does public relations work. They also had a firm sense, as decidedly non-competitive cyclists, that they could carve out a profitable niche catering to others like themselves in the fast-growing world of fancy bike gear and apparel.
“It’s a vast market out there. We know that cycling is getting bigger, and if we can get even a small piece of that, we can do well,’’ Schneider said.
Schneider, who had moved to Palm Beach Gardens to be close to his wife’s family, began testing cuts and materials before settling on Road Holland’s trademark blend of 61 percent wool and 39 percent polyester, from a manufacturer in Denmark. The polyester adds durability and keeps the jerseys from sagging, a pitfall of traditional all-wool cycling tops. (The company has recently added a jersey made of high quality, all-synthetic mesh material, manufactured in the United States, for hot-weather cycling.)
The feel is substantial and surprisingly soft and un-wool-like. A Utrecht jersey worn on a 55-mile morning test ride in Miami by this writer felt dry and comfortable even as the temperature climbed from the low 70s to 80.
“When people feel the material for the first time, we enjoy hearing the surprise,’’ Grossman said. “It’s got that shock and awe: This is wool?’’
He and Schneider also embraced an unpretentious ethos for their company and website, reflecting their personalities and cycling styles. Not coincidentally, that approach also serves to distinguish Road Holland from a bigger, pricier competitor, the minimalist English bike-apparel company Rapha, known for ultra-serious product descriptions and paeans to “epic’’ athletic challenges that have been the stuff of parody in the cycling world.
“We’re just like most of our customers,’’ Grossman said. “We’re not the most athletic people in the world.’’
Grossman began building a Web presence through bike blogs, Facebook and other social media, focusing on markets with lots of serious cyclists, including the northeast, Colorado and California. The partners also created recognition for the fledgling brand by sponsoring charity bike rides and teaming up with other enthusiasts, like a duo in Winston-Salem, N.C., that puts on some unusual adventure rides, including a combination mountain- and road-bike trek.
Autodrop co-founder Erich Grant said he and his partner were looking for distinctive, high-performance jerseys to outfit a dozen volunteers who built and maintain riding trails in Winston-Salem, a cause they support, when they stumbled on Road Holland on the Web. Schneider quickly added Autodrop’s lion emblem to a set of Road Holland jerseys.
“We wanted something stylish, subtle, American-made and wool. Nobody was really doing that,’’ Grant recalled. “We loved the jerseys. And they’re great guys. They’ve been so easy to work with.’’
Debra Banks, who runs a California startup that makes modern versions of traditional riveted leather bicycle saddles and saddlebags, added Road Holland jerseys, emblazoned with her Rivet Cycle Works logo, to the line of goods she sells online after seeing an ad for them.
“That’s a fabulous jersey,’’ Banks said. “They’re pretty indestructible. And they look great.’’
Grant also paid Road Holland jerseys the cyclist’s ultimate compliment, which is that they don’t suffer from a problem common to the usual synthetic-fiber cycling jersey after a long ride:
“They don’t stink, either,’’ he said.