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Assos : Factory Visit

Assos founder
Peter Stuart
27 Apr 2015

Keen to do things differently Assos made a carbon frame before they realised they could achieve more with lycra.

In the southern-most tip of Switzerland, near Lake Como and on the border with Italy, lies the town of San Pietro di Stablio. It’s here, in the shadow of snow-capped mountains, that Assos has its global headquarters, nestled discreetly beside a local vineyard. Somewhere within the cluster of neatly whitewashed buildings sits the ‘Incubator’ – a glass box in which all designs must be sealed and left for one month before they are deemed worthy of bearing the Assos logo. The idea of this self-imposed quarantine is to discourage excessive tweaking by designers or company executives. It’s an unusual policy, perhaps, but when you look back over Assos’s history it makes perfect sense.

One might imagine Assos is a brand born out of a love of cycling apparel, steeped in the subtleties of textiles and stitching, but actually its story began with what’s claimed to be the very first carbon fibre bicycle. It was 1976 when Toni Maier, the godfather of the Assos brand, took his idea for an aerodynamic track frame to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The results were quite unexpected.

‘I remember the Americans were not selling to the East because of the Russians, so it was not easy to find the materials for the bike,’ Maier tells Cyclist when we visit the factory. ‘I looked for people who had more experience with carbon, because it was really a material only used in the space industry at the time.’ In those pre-internet days, researching the material was extremely difficult, and Maier was hard-pressed to find anyone with adequate knowledge. ‘I found a company who worked with fibre glass, but were new to carbon.’ One way or another, the bike was completed along with Maier’s new cowhorn aero bars. With its unusual shape and hitherto unseen material, Assos’s bike stood out, as did its 50,000 Swiss francs pricetag. ‘He really did it only for passion. It was not logical, it was not commercial,’ says Désirée Bergman-Maier, Toni’s daughter and now business partner.

Assos frame

Maier was quick to test his theories about the aerodynamics of the bike: ‘A professor at the Institute of Technology helped, and he also took the bike to the wind-tunnel,’ Maier says, still bubbling with enthusiasm despite his 76 years. ‘At first the aero benefit of the bike was exactly as we had calculated,’ he says, holding his arms wide apart to demonstrate the margin. ‘But after we put the rider on the bike, it was like this,’ he says, with his fingers pinched close together. Clothing, he realised, was where the battle could be won.

Désirée eagerly picks up the story: ‘The cyclist was wearing wool, but Toni realised it had very high drag. So he put the cyclist naked on the bike and saw a huge difference in aerodynamics. But he was naked. Then Toni got inspired by skiing, because in skiing they were already using very hi-tech materials in skinsuits and were thinking of aerodynamics. So then he had the rider wear a ski suit and he saw a significant performance gain.’

That led to two innovations: the first skinsuit and the first Lycra shorts, both of which were gamechangers at the time. Désirée says, ‘It was in 1978 when Daniel Gisiger participated in the Worlds in Munich with the first carbon fibre frame and the first bodysuit. He didn’t win but it was all over the newspapers – he looked like an alien.’ Next came the Lycra shorts. Of course, Maurizo Castelli hotly refutes Assos’s claim of creating the first Lycra shorts, but Désirée dismisses the contradiction: ‘You know, we’re not so interested in our competitors. I think they’re more interested in us.’

At any rate, Assos was the first to bring Lycra shorts to the pro peloton with the Ti-Raleigh team. Their success was such that by the late 70s all the pro teams wore Lycra, rendering wool and acrylic obsolete. And with pros paying consumer prices for Assos shorts, its identity as a prestige cycling brand was affirmed.

A mythical age

Assos cancellara

Then, and now, the Assos empire has been ruled by the Maiers – a family steeped in cycling heritage. Toni Maier’s father owned a Swiss bike shop: ‘There were five of us, all born into a bike shop,’ he reminisces. He dreamed of being a pro rider in one of the most passionate ages of cycling. He spills into long narratives and debates about the golden age with Phil Griffiths, Assos’s British distributor who’s also visiting the factory. Griffiths, an Olympic cyclist himself, says his passion for the brand was sparked by Maier’s obsession for cycling. They speak often of a time when equipment held a near-mythical status. ‘Campag was like a religion back when I was riding,’ Maier recalls.

When Maier’s career was cut short by a knee injury, his focus turned to his brand. Désirée says, ‘The company started in our house. In our basement a lady used to sew the shorts, and we started selling them to teams. Then we began thinking of a name as it started to become a business. Our last name is Maier which we didn’t think sounded right, and then my mum had the idea for a name, Assos, which comes from the Greek for “ace” – being the best.’ Being first has been an obsession for Maier. He remained focused on developing bike technology ahead of new clothing, using his successful clothing to fund the habit: ‘The clothing was the bread and butter.’

Assos’s early innovations included rims, chainsets, pedals, bottom bracket, hubs, saddles and a belt attaching a rider to the stem for more climbing power. Despite failing to establish themselves as long-term saleable products, several of Maier’s inventions were successes. Assos’s impressively light, aerodynamically curved, anodised aluminium rims were ahead of their time, and met with significant acclaim: ‘Fignon and Hinault were riding on my rims, re-badged. My biggest problem was that I didn’t have the money to pay them.’

So Assos continued with innovation in clothing, and ideas such as the 1995 line of kit that was the first to be made available in a full range of colours would cement the company’s place at the top of the industry. While things have changed a little from the early days when Assos clothing first made riders looks like aliens, it is certainly a brand with an enduring peculiarity. But as Cyclist learns during our visit, it’s that unusual approach that has made Assos such a prominent name.

The European connection

Assos factory

These days the Maier family is no longer stitching shorts in the basement. Toni Maier now holds more of a consulting role – son Roche having taken the reigns with Désirée managing the brand’s public image. Assos owns its own factory in Bulgaria, with additional capacity in Greece. But it’s here in San Pietro where the R&D still takes place. Unlike many brands, production has never been outsourced to the Far East. ‘We only produce in Europe,’ says Désirée. ‘Our main factory is in Bulgaria and they work exclusively for us – all the shorts, tights and jerseys are made there.’

San Pietro is where the highest-end custom kit is produced, and all the production staff have worked on every facet of the process to ensure knowledge is shared. We wander into the first floor of production where a Swiss woman named Colette is screen-printing the Swiss cross onto under-23 team kits, surrounded by photos of Fabian Cancellara. 

All materials to be used undergo a rigorous testing process, too. One machine in the test lab rotates blunt pads over the textiles for one-and-a-half million cycles to assess wear. The lab also pushes other limits – an aged washing machine runs day-in-day-out to repeatedly expose the clothing to real-world stresses. Material durability is only one piece of the jigsaw, and designers experiment with countless variations garment construction. ‘We went through 80 different prototypes for our S7 bibshorts,’ Désirée says. Perfectionism is a ruling principle but often a thorn in the brand’s side.

‘We did a bodysuit for Andrea, our model, for the Ironman in Hawaii, and he won in his category. It would have been a perfect time to launch it, but Roche kept changing this and that. Now it’s been two years and we haven’t launched so we have to start again,’ Désirée says. ‘Sometimes we lose out by being too perfectionist.’

But despite occasionally throwing a spanner into the works, Assos’s meticulous process ensures that standards are kept high, and Désirée insists that the company has a returns rate of less than 1%.

‘We get a lot of letters, love letters really, from our customers just to thank us and to say how happy they are with the product,’ she says. That comes with certain burdens too, and Désirée explains that they often receive warranty returns with products that have been used for over 15 years – arguably beyond their intended use period.

In the Kuku Penthouse

While Assos’s product quality may keep consumers returning, its enigmatic style has created a zealous fan base. Erwin Groenendal, marketing and design director, jokes about the complexities that arise. ‘Roche is responsible for some of our funny product names, which can make marketing tricky,’ he says. ‘But we really like the names to become iconic. The Fugu jacket is all about extreme conditions and now people talk about “Fugu conditions”. Our goal is to create interest – the KuKu Penthouse [a soft pouch in the chamois for male genitals] for instance.’ Another quirk is that Assos only uses odd numbers in its lines.

Assos jackets

Then there’s Assos Man, the brand’s sole male model, infamous for his strained poses. He’s a figure who has come to epitomise the brand. ‘He’s 42 now but his body is perfect,’ Groenendal says. ‘One day we will have to change, but we’ve always been very happy with him. It’s not easy to find the right face for our brand.’

If Assos Man is the brand in human form, then the Church of Assos must be its concept store in Lugano. The manga.Yio store looks more like a Porsche dealership than a cycling clothing shop. Pieces of clothing are displayed like artworks in illuminated stands. Upstairs is a relaxation zone with white leather sofas and mood lighting. The place is more of a domain for absorbing the Assos philosophy than for actually buying clothes.

Assos even has its own set of spiritual beliefs, based on five levels of life from ‘birth’ to ‘wisdom’. Above all of those, though, is ‘Level.13’ – a spiritual understanding of cycling, achieved mainly by wearing Assos kit. At times it’s hard to know whether the brand is being serious or not, but it is certainly keen to spread the Assos word, and has plans to open similar stores of worship all over Europe. (Griffiths tells us that he wants to open just such a centre in the UK).

Assos proves that thinking differently can have intriguing results, whether it be the first carbon bicycle or a soft pouch for your delicates. The Maier family seems fully aware that cycling is constantly changing and ensures that the kit does the same. As Toni Maier himself puts it, ‘It’s the new world of cycling. Twenty years ago, no one could have imagined it.’

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