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Visiting Assos

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If ever there was a name that fit a brand’s goals perfectly, this is it. The Assos credo from the very beginning has been to make the best cycling apparel possible without compromises. Interestingly, however, that aim did not begin with clothing. The actual origins of the Assos brand originate with an interest in carbon, not fabrics.

Words/images: Jered Gruber

In the mid-1970s Assos’s founder, Toni Maier-Moussa, a former racer and member of a cycling mad family, dreamed of creating the ultimate bike—and he landed on carbon as the material he wanted to use. Now, stop. Take a moment to think about the timing on that. This was back in the heyday of steel, aluminum was still exotic, and carbon was used almost entirely for aerospace applications.

Carbon was so exotic at the time that Maier-Moussa had to get special permission from the U.S. Department of Defense to get clearance to start his project of creating a carbon bicycle. Pentagon eyebrows raised, but after some convincing, Maier-Moussa got the go-ahead.

This is when things got interesting. Maier-Moussa, along with engineers from the Zürich Technical University, set about making something revolutionary. Utilizing a teardrop shape on the carbon tubing, the frame was already a leap forward in the wind tunnel. From there, however, he started to realize other notable pieces of aerodynamic fundamentals: the traditional riding position was atrocious aerodynamically and the woolen clothing of the day was the equivalent of a parachute.

Without missing a beat, Maier-Moussa created the first cowhorn bars and put them not at the top of the steerer tube, but rather at the base of it, just centimeters above the front wheel. The ensuing position was low, tucked, and aero—a huge leap forward.

The woolen issue, however, presented another problem altogether, and it was on this branch of the development tree that Maier-Moussa’s future company would later grow from.

With the help of his wife, Eliane, who worked as an apparel and textile technician, and good friend Hans Hess, a Swiss producer of downhill ski racing suits, the three were able to create arguably the first Lycra skinsuit, which shortly gave birth to the Lycra shorts (It’s a point of some contention though, as Maurizio Castelli’s own Lycra shorts were in development and released around the same time).

The Lycra skinsuit was a quantum leap forward in aerodynamics. When paired with the new cowhorn bars and carbon bike, Maier-Moussa had a hit that would make waves.

The next step for Maier-Moussa’s fledgling assortment of products was to find a team to push his new developments forward. At the time, Maier-Moussa had two intriguing new products: a carbon bike and Lycra cycling clothing. The Swiss innovator found an interested party in Ti-Raleigh’s Peter Post, arguably the best team in the world during the late 1970s. Post was primarily interested in the new carbon bike, but after being presented with the new Lycra clothing, he and his previously skeptical team, became rapid converts and disciples of the new fabric. After that, the who’s who of cycling luminaries that have donned Assos clothing grew by the year, with success in all of the biggest events in cycling from the world championships, to the Grand Tours, to the classics, the Olympics, and everywhere in between. A few of the cyclists wearing Assos? Freddy Maertens, Laurent Fignon, Graeme Obree, Joop Zoetemelk, Lucho Herrera, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, Tony Rominger, Bruno Risi, LaurentJalabert, Jan Ullrich, Francesco Moser, and of course, Mr. Fabian Cancellara. Then there’s the huge population that have worn Assos’ products in quieter fashion – R&D director at Assos Luigi Bergamo confesses that many top level athletes under clothing sponsorship by another company have approached Assos in order to solve their comfort issues – a new seatpad is a typical request. It’s an easy fix that doesn’t make waves, but ensures a happy rider and sponsor.

Sponsorship played a big part in the early years of Assos’s development. From the late 1970s until recently, professional level sponsorship played a huge role in not only the marketing of the brand, but also provided impetus for new innovations.

Bergamo, a former full-time racer and still wickedly fit, sees an overall change in the attitude of the consumer. Where once the rage was to wear the same jersey of your favorite pro, the tastes are moving more towards simple, non-sponsored kit.

“The mentality I see in Italy with the Gran Fondos is changing. For a long time, people were always looking for replica team jerseys, but now on the road, you see less of that. A few years ago, we created the slogan, ‘Sponsor Yourself,’ and I think it’s appropriate. You ride your bike for yourself, not because you’re a fan of any cycling stars. You ride a bike because you love it. The mentality is changing amongst riders, and if you’re spending a lot of time on the bike, you should take care of yourself and make sure you’re riding the best solution for you. You choose your shoes, bike, and clothing. You choose it with the main goal of finding what works best for you, not the jersey that you saw on TV during the Giro.”

The unique slogan of “Sponsor Yourself” puts an extreme burden of proof on Assos. consumer to buy their product because it’s an excellent piece of clothing and not because it’s worn by a star rider. The product thus has nothing to bolster itself with other than its quality, technical aspects, and durability. There are no artificial buttresses provided by smiling stars and yellow jerseys, just the raw test: is this expensive product worth my money?

To walk through Assos’s cluster of white-walled buildings in Stabio di Pietro is to get a glimpse at a company unconcerned with budget or cheap options, but with creating the highest quality product they can. It is clearly demonstrated from beginning to end, that there are no corners cut at any point—from the origination of an idea to the moment a consumer picks a product off the shelf in one of Assos’s characteristically classy boxes. From start to finish, the emphasis is on creating a product that’s not only innovative and focused on performance, but also stylish and built to last.

A trip into the testing laboratory showed machines designed to destroy fabrics, grind them to nothing, light them until fabulous colors turned to faded pastels. When a fabric can withstand the rigors set forth in the testing laboratory, it moves forward. No matter how rigorous the fabric and durability testing is, however, it doesn’t compare to what the consumer can do to a piece of clothing. In the warranty office, we saw shorts that had to be close to a decade old, and yet, with Assos’s warranty, a short that predated the millennium with a small hole in the fabric was still signed off for a 25% discount on the owner’s next purchase. Normally, they’ll either repair the beaten piece of clothing or send an entirely new piece if something truly goes awry. Assos’s commitment to lifelong quality was astounding; even in the face of a ludicrous return from a contrary customer, they shrugged and lived up to their word.

That’s not to say that Assos is the only company like this in cycling, not at all, but to be physically confronted with the shorts of a recalcitrant customer hell-bent on wringing every penny out of their purchase, Assos’s guarantee was underlined—thoroughly.

Assos is not a company known for innovation for the sake of innovation. The line, highlighted by five main colors—black, white, red, yellow, blue—is designed to stand the test of time and to coordinate together as a whole outfit from head to toe. They intentionally won’t release new colors and new fashions each year, as the continuity in the line gives value to the products. There’s nothing worse than buying the latest and greatest, let’s call it the X14, then encountering next year’s model, the X15, which has just rendered your hard-earned piece of product obsolete.

Freeing themselves from the chains of big-time sponsorship and instead focusing on well thought out innovation ensures that each step the company makes is a deliberate, smart, forward one. The missteps are few, and the march toward the mythical realm of the perfect piece of clothing remains steady and unwavering.

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“We are an R&D company. Maybe we aren’t too productive in terms of putting new items on to the market each year, but that’s because we spend so much time with our R&D. Until we are really sure that a product is an improvement or something better, we don’t launch or introduce it to the market,” says Bergamo.

Of course, the obvious question comes up: what can we expect to see from Assos in the coming years?

“The king of the everyday collection is the shorts. In one or two years we will launch a new generation of shorts, and that will be an evolution of the collection we have on the market now. In the meantime, we would like to present a mountain bike collection as well as a city biking or commuter line. That is the evolution of the DB collection, which is our after-bike collection. With this new collection, however, we want to add a touch of technology not only to the off-the-bike times, but to easily flow on the bike or to ride easily and in the direction of the commuter bike. We also would like to produce a triathlon collection, and after that a new generation of shorts. We would like to extend our line.”

A company like Assos is comfortable in its uniqueness. They offer a wide range of premium products, all governed by an attention to high quality through and through, longevity, comfort and fashion. This standard is the common thread that defines Assos.

From issue 7. Buy it here.