I can’t tell you where or how I first heard of Assos apparel. It was some time in the early 1990s. What I can tell you was what lodged in my memory of the conversation: the emphatic assertion that Assos was better than anything I’d ever tried. It was as if a friend told me, “Look, I know you think The Who are the greatest band ever, but these guys are 10 times better and once you hear them, you’ll agree. Just trust me on this.”
Eventually, I located a catalog and saw that they made bib knickers with a synthetic chamois. Holy cow. After some more searching I learned that the only remotely convenient way to order a set was through O’Neil’s Bike Shop in Worcester, Mass. I called, discussed sizing and trusted them when they said to go with large (I’d never owned a large anything in cycling apparel), gave them my credit card info after taking a painfully deep breath and waited all of two days for the knickers to arrive.
The bibs were cut from Roubaix Lycra, and as this was the early 1990s, they were the first bib anything I’d ever seen to use the material. The front of the bib was cut high to give your torso extra insulation and they included a short zipper to help you when you needed to answer the call of nature. The pad was unquestionably superior to anything else I’d ever rested my undercarriage on. The cut was cycling’s answer to Armani, just impeccable. They changed my fall and spring riding in New England.
I still wear them.
As great as Assos’ jerseys, jackets and other apparel are, they are known for their bibs the way Ferrari is known for fast. Honestly, though, because their stuff lasts so long, it had been a while since I tried any of the current models. I elected to go with the F.I. Mille S5 bibs because they are made for the long day.
I’ve worn a bunch of bibs in the last two years. Some have been good. Some have featured Lycra thinner than saran wrap. The first thing I noticed about the Milles was the weight of the Lycra. It was substantial, like it was made to last.
The pad is made by Cytech, purveyors of the Elastic Interface brand of pads. Rather than this being yet another off-the-shelf (though often wonderful) pads, the unit contained within the Mille bibs is unique to more than Assos; it’s unique to these bibs. The golf-ball dimples are intended to relieve pressure and speed moisture transfer away from your netherest of regions.
The key to the Mille’s mission as a bib for all-day riding is the density of the foam used in the pad. I can tell you it offers greater support without increased thickness compared to other bibs, but that assessment may still seem subjective. Instead, I’ll offer this: It takes the Mille bibs a full day longer to dry on the rack than any other bibs I own. However, the pad’s most important feature isn’t the dimpling or the density of the foam; rather it’s the fact that it is manufactured with a cupped shape.
I’ve tried bibs with an allegedly anatomic curve before and noticed no significant improvement over traditional flat-made chamois. The Mille pad amazed me with its ability to keep everything situated just so without giving a corset-like squeeze. According to Assos’ internal research, the pocket of the chamois decreases pressure on the gear by 20 percent. How they arrived at this quantification, I can’t say, but I can tell you the claim has legs.
Between the foam and the cover of the pad is a thin mesh panel sewn in place to decrease sideways stretch. This is meant to keep the pad in position on the sit bones; it is Assos’ observation that if a pad stretches too much your sit bones can wind up between the two densest portions of the foam, as if you were slipping into a toilet seat that is too large. This wouldn’t be necessary in some shorts, but they feel it’s needed in these due to the high stretch factor of the Lycra.
Stranger still is the fact that these bibs are cut from just four (4!) panels. There are bibs out in the world with so many panels, I’ve lost count. In talking with the folks at Assos they tell me that the key to the success of the Mille bibs is the orientation of the fabric panels so that they stretch in the directions the body requires. I’m told that their patterning is hell on efficient use of the material, but they manage to make it work by incorporating the scraps into items like gloves.
With only four panels, the subject of seams and how they are finished loses importance because the opportunity for irritation has been cut so drastically. The actual bib portion of the shorts is made from an exceptionally lightweight polyester with a waffle-type weave, again, for moisture movement away from the body.
For all those of you doubtful that you possess the kind of cyclist’s body ideal for which Assos clothing is typically cut, these bibs, I can assure you, offer virtually all cyclists a chance to go Swiss. They come in six sizes—small through TIR (which is what they put on the back of trucks in Europe to indicate wide loads). I wear large in Assos, Castelli and Panache, but medium in most American lines. Draw what comparisons you may.
While the bibs I reviewed were basic black and required no special treatment in the laundry—that is, nothing beyond the basics of cold, gentle, hang dry—they do come in other colors including blue, white and red. And let me tell you, there are lipsticks and Ferraris that wish their red was as lust-inducing as the red found in Assos garments.
I’ll admit that I had largely made up my mind about whether or not I liked the Mille bibs within four or five seconds of pulling the straps over my shoulders. The combination of support and comfort was unlike anything I’d ever felt. Five hours later when I got off the bike the undercarriage was two-hour happy.
The grippers on the Mille bibs are dots of silicone spaced approximately every 2cm around the leg band. I’ve never had trouble with grippers the way some of my friends have, but I suspect that some folks may find these more comfortable than some of the grippers out there. Or maybe not; it’s impossible for me to say.
The reflective tags that protrude from the centerline seams at the front and back of each leg are well done and will certainly aid your visibility to alert drivers. But probably only the alert ones.
Assos takes a lot of guff for making products that are (to some) incomprehensibly expensive. Last fall at Interbike I had the opportunity to talk to some of Assos’ higher-ups. The message was loud and clear. They are driven to make the very best clothing they can. If it costs more, so be it. COO Carl Bergman told me that he works long hours and doesn’t get to ride as much as he’d like. When he gets on the bike, he wants every minute to count; he wants an exceptional experience.
“This is our passion,” he told me. I got the impression that he’d leave the bike industry rather than compromise on principles.
To help convey the belief that these aren’t just another pair of bibs, Assos takes an unusual approach in packaging them. They come in a box (okay, big deal), but in that box the buyer also receives a washing bag, laundry soap and a container of Assos’ beloved chamois cream. Think of the purchase as a starter kit rather than just a pair of bibs. There’s no doubt that paying $260 for a pair of bibs is a lot of money, but I think they do an admirable job of conveying the idea that you’re getting your nickels’-worth.
Consider for a moment my tale of the bib knickers. Suppose for a moment that you purchase a pair of Assos bibs and they last five seasons. How many other bibs do you own that have lasted that long? I expect that with reasonable care they will last even longer than that. Amortized over the life of the garment, $260 isn’t such a bad investment. My last pair of Voler bibs may have cost 25 percent of what the Mille bibs do, but they didn’t really even hold up a full season. C’est la vie.
My one criticism of this garment? It’s actually a criticism of Assos as a whole. Their naming conventions are arcane to the point of lacking meaning. I’ve got a graduate degree—in English!—and until their staff identifies a piece by name, I swear I don’t know what to call it. This is where they ought to take a page from BMW’s playbook. Their model numbers do a face-value service to identifying the rank of the vehicle within their line.
My personal experience with the Mille bibs is that they are as close to flawless as I’ve experienced. There’s no question they are superior to anything else I’ve worn.
Of course, such a positive review leaves RKP open to the criticism that Assos in effect purchased this review by virtue of the fact that they advertise on the blog. As I’m sensitive to any and all criticism the blog receives, I can say I don’t need the hassle that comes with selling editorial. I have been paid to write glowing copy for a fair number of manufacturers; in each and every case, I was a hired gun and as such, my name wasn’t attached. I believe in what Assos creates and I believe in their quest to continually outdo themselves.
When I get to the end of my life, I may not have enjoyed driving a Ferrari, tasted Chateau d’Yquem or finished a Grand Tour, but I can say I got to log miles in Assos clothing. That’s more relevant to my personal bucket list.