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It is hard to be a serious cyclist and not know the iconic brand ASSOS. No, actually it is impossible. After all, the Swiss brand that pioneered the lycra short as well as the bib short has been on the cutting-edge of cycling apparel for the past 50 years. They have had a continual presence in the professional peloton, with a long sponsorship history of teams at the highest level, making their distinctive “A” logo synonymous with high performance clothing. And to this day, they pride themselves on making their clothing by hand here in Switzerland.
By James Startt | Images by James Startt
“My family, the Maier family goes back five generations in cycling,” said Roche Maier, the second-generation member of his family to be involved with ASSOS, while we visited the brand’s headquarters in Lugano, Switzerland. “My great-grandfather opened up what we believe was the first bike store, Velo Maier, in Europe. My dad was actually the first importer of Shimano back in the 1970s and worked closely with the Swiss Federation.”
According to Maier, the family never set out to be the clothing giant it is today. “No, the clothing was actually a bit of a mistake,” he said. “My dad wanted to make the fastest track bicycle for the Olympic Games in 1972. He had a flash to use carbon fiber tubes and so actually ASSOS built the first carbon fiber bicycle! But there were only five made, and today there are only two remaining. But the very first product ASSOS made was a carbon fiber frame. Back then he had to get a special approval from NASA and the U.S. Defense Department had to sign off on it because, well, carbon fiber was only being used for space missions. But the clothing came out of the aerodynamic testing we did on the bike. We didn’t want the clothing to be an uncommon denominator in the testing of the bike, we actually had our rider to the wind tunnel testing naked. The tests were really good, but well, we couldn’t send an athlete to the Olympics naked! As a result, my dad started thinking about clothing that was as close to the skin as possible.”
Inspired by the the first skinsuits being made for downhill skiing competitions, Roche’s father Toni Maier looked for alternative materials to the standard wool employed by the peloton, and eventually came up with lycra; the bib innovation followed shortly thereafter. “We came up with the first plastified skinsuit,” said Roche. It was space-age. But we saw that the clothing had real possibilities and from there we came up with the first lycra shorts.”
Growing up, Roche spent countless hours in the family basement where his mother and a team of seamstresses produced their distinctive clothing line. But while the spirit was artisanal, the technology was nothing short of revolutionary. “Our shorts were four times more expensive than the best wool shorts,” Roche recalls. “But we instantly attracted a strong following with racers. It was a real niche, but a committed one. And I literally learned the business from the ground up.”
Those early days at the Maier house established the DNA of the brand. Today virtually all ASSOS clothing is designed in nearby Stabio, on the Italian border of Switzerland. And it is here where the product line undergoes rugged testing process using the company’s test team known as the Werksmannschaft.
“Werksmannschaft ASSOS was actually an elite Swiss team that we sponsored,” said Roche. “And because my dad was a racer himself, this became our testing ground, along with our relationship with the Swiss federation. But while professionals offer a testing of the equipment at the highest level, we need riders that can come back and explain to our engineers what exactly is the problem, and what can be done to improve. So today we have put together a group of highly-experienced riders that are really testing our products and are able to communicate with our engineers. We have riders here, like former professionals that can go out and ride shorts 10,000 kilometers and wash them 300 times and come back and really help us analyze the product. Things like that are so important. They are part of the testing protocol. Professional teams are of course doing stress testing of their own because they are riding 35,000 kilometers a year. They provide a sort of validation process, but with the Werkmannschaft we have a real test team of inner core athletes, product development athletes that really give us the feedback we need.”
Here in Lugano, longtime Italian professional Daniele Nardello oversees a core group of testers whose central mission is to ride ASSOS equipment hard and provide hands-on feedback. Additionally, a larger group of professionals like popular French cyclist Thomas Voeckler, who today is the director of the French national team, as well as recently retired professionals like Nicolas Roche and Fabio Aru also play a role.
“For years I have used ASSOS,” Aru said as he stopped by the shop in Lugano, near his home. “The truth is that even as a professional, I sometimes bought ASSOS on my own because the quality was just so good! They are just so clearly about innovation and technology. And the fact that in my final season last year, ASSOS was a partner of Qhubeka was a huge plus for me. Not only was the product great but they were really involved in the Bicycles Change Lives program which really impressed me. So when I stopped as a professional I really wanted to continue with ASSOS, because I like the spirit and I love the product.
“We were excited to work with Fabio because he has a real ASSOS past,” explained Roche Maier. “Fabio bought ASSOS when he got started in cycling and he was sponsored by us in his last year as a professional. There is a real mutual respect between us. He may not be a professional anymore, but he still lives and rides like a professional. Cycling is his lifestyle so it is a win-win situation. He is part of our outer group.”
While the ASSOS test team is continually grilling their products on the bike, Werksmannschaft ASSOS are also active participants in the development of new products. Sometimes improvements are incremental and gains are marginal. But while progress is often evolutionary, ASSOS knows that it can also be revolutionary. After all, they invented the lycra short as well as the bib. And this year they have introduced a game changer in women’s apparel with a ground-breaking detachable bib for nature breaks, using “Bisiclick” technology.
Officially released on February 22, the new detachable bib promises to be yet another go-to product in the company’s long history.
“You know, new product can easily take five years to develop from start to finish, and this new women’s bib is a good example,” said Roche. “We have been working for years on coming up with a better bib short for women. Bibs just stay in place so much better than a standard short, but they were not practical for women. We worked on a lot of prototypes with zippers, but never we were happy with the result because, well, they can break easily and they are not comfortable. But one evening it clicked for me!”
The “Bisiclick” detachable bib is just the latest example of ASSOS innovation, and one reason why, with the flood of new cycling apparel companies over the past decade, the Swiss company has maintained their place at the summit of the sport.
“The competition has really forced us to think about what distinguishes us as a brand, said Derek Bouchard-Hall, the former head of USA Cycling, who is now CEO of ASSOS. “What makes ASSOS different? We absolutely try to distinguish ourself with the function and performance of our apparel. How does our apparel service a customer in terms of comfort, weight, performance, aerodynamics on a functional level? Here at ASSOS we often say that we are equipment not fashion. We are speaking to the athlete that wants to put on a suit of armor, be it for the summer or the winter.”
But while ASSOS is firstly about function and performance, their attention to detail has forged a unique but recognizable aesthetic. “There is an ASSOS look,” Bouchard-Hall insists. “We are often known for a black jacket, but it is not a straight black jacket. There is an understated ASSOS look. Everybody cares a lot about what a product looks like. You cannot fall in love with something if you don’t love the way if works and the way that it looks. Completely plain is not us.”
In 2015, the Maier family sold the company to a consortium of investors who were all passionate cyclists. ASSOS, of course, is not the first historic cycling brand to have been sold in recent years. But unlike some brands that have seemingly been lost in the shuffle of acquisitions, ASSOS has thrived, demonstrating robust growth.
“The investors are passionate about the ASSOS brand,” explained Bouchard-Hall. “So many of the investors always loved the brand so much. They wanted to be able to invest in something they were using themselves and something they personally cared about. “But as you can see, the family has stayed very close, and as you can see with Roche Maier, they still play a very active role.”
For both Maier and Bouchard-Hall, the marriage was built on real mutual interest. “The consortium really saw ASSOS as an amazing investment opportunity,” said Bouchard-Hall. “ASSOS was a very strong brand. But the reality was that it was a very small business. The brand was so much larger than the business. It was a very popular brand that people love, and a brand that has this incredible heritage. So basically they thought that if they could get the distribution, marketing and communication to the same level of the product, there would be tremendous growth. And that has very much been the case. Today it is safe to say that ASSOS is three times larger than it was in 2015.”
But while the company has witnessed unimaginable growth in recent years, they understand that nothing is a given, something they were reminded of when they lost their spot in the WorldTour with the sudden end-of-the season collapse of Qhubeka. They will be back. “You know one thing my dad really gave me was the idea that you are never the best,” Roche said. “And to be honest, here at ASSOS we never use words like ‘perfect’ or ‘best.’ You can be good. You can be very good. But you can always be better.”