I’d like to get one thing out of the way now, just so we’re clear, and because I don’t see drama as an option.
These are the finest bib shorts available. It’s not really up for discussion.
Some will complain about the price, and at $369, that’s a bunch of greenbacks out of your wallet in exchange for a single garment. I once spent roughly that for two jerseys, two bib shorts, arm warmers, a vest and a skinsuit. But that was 14 years ago and those bibs could do things to my undercarriage worthy of scenes in “50 Shades of Gray.” The rest of the pieces were all, at some level, rudimentary pieces no one would mention in a postcard home. Some will observe that at that price, they simply couldn’t afford even one new kit per year.
This is a crazy amount of money for a single pair of bibs; I know that.
I’m not going to suggest these are the bibs for you. If you have anything like a middle-class income and a marriage you want to last at least through the next presidency, ordering a pair of these could be a bad idea. Which is a shame, really.
Were this any one of the millions of gear-centric sites on the web, I could probably have concluded the review following the third sentence. But readers of RKP know I can’t shut up after only 50 words. Reviewing a piece of gear like this is half the fun of my job. This little exercise, which may seem like a paid-for advertisement for Assos, is really just an excuse for me to write about craft and the pursuit of excellence. I have a thing for folks who really walk the walk, especially when they are the CEO of the company. The Fi.13 bibs are the shorts that Roche Maier, Assos’ resident Don Quixote, wanted for himself.
I dig that.
So even if you know you’re not going to plunk down your lettuce on a pair of these bibs, here’s why you should keep reading: These bibs have a host of features you’d do well to look for in other, less expensive, bibs. You won’t find exactly the same features anywhere, but there are elements of these bibs that are going to gradually show up in other bibs as time does that little marchy thingy.
The crux of these bibs really comes down to the chamois. If there were only one feature that I were to focus on for Assos bibs as a whole, it would be their pads. The Uno pad is is amazing, better than most companies’ top-of-the-line units. But that’s only Assos’ entry-level product. The chamois in the Mille (say Mee-lay) is a rose among weeds, an Eames among toilets. It’s so fine that you can be forgiven for thinking no one could top it.
So what makes the Fi.13 chamois so special? Were I an employee of Assos, I’d give my patented, exasperated eye-roll. It’s the same eye roll that Aston Martin salesmen give. Where to begin…?
Well, now that I’ve danced around it a bit, I should mention the elephant in the room. Yes, that name. If you can call it that. The folks at Assos just refer to these as the eff-aye-dot-thirteen. Even they concede that to say tee-eff-aye-dot-thirteen-underscore-ess-five is in the next orbit beyond mouthful. It’s not even a term of art. It’s computer code, just minus the machine language. Now that I’ve dealt with what to call them (I mean, other than expensive), let’s consider the product itself.
Permit me a moment to talk about what you see at Interbike. That is, what you see at Interbike when you’re not at the Colnago booth, or the Campagnolo booth, or getting Mario Cipollini’s autograph or chatting up the models pouring espresso at the Marzocchi booth. There are apparel contractors at Interbike. These aren’t the apparel companies whose names appear on the tags of your team kit. These are the companies supplying textiles to the factories that actually make the clothing for companies like Hincapie, Capo and Sugoi. They usually occupy nondescript 10×10 booths and they’ll have a whole range of pads that you can select. One of the things I’ve seen repeatedly are pads that have been designed with little darts and tucks to make them conform to the shape of the shorts. The idea is that these adjustment will make them better follow the legs of the shorts, wrapping around the saddle more.
It’s not a bad line of thinking, but it is a wrong line of thinking.
Let’s think about what a pad really needs to do. It doesn’t need to conform to the saddle. It needs to conform to you. It needs to curve front to rear, effectively cradling you and your faucet. So what Assos did was start molding a pad not as a single, flat piece of padding, but in 3D, building the cradle into the pad. I’ve seen the Fi.13 pad on its own and it won’t lay flat. This curved construction has another excellent effect. The bunching up of material that can happen when a thick pad gets sewn into a curvy pair of cycling shorts doesn’t happen with these bibs. As a matter of fact, you can tell the Fi.13 bibs from anything else on the market because they hang weird. Unlike top bibs from every other company I can think of, the legs of the Fi.13s are held apart by the pad, like a ref between two angry ball players. This pad doesn’t have a crease to make the shorts lie flat on the drying rack.
That brings us to another point about this pad: It does not follow the example of so many other pads that use multiple thicknesses to create channels of reduced pressure. The interesting thing is how often these various channels end up working like hinge points, meaning the pad is more likely to bend there than at other points. The dimpled surface of the pad maintains a mostly uniform thickness across its surface, though it’s not perfectly consistent due to the aforementioned dimpling. That dimpling is meant to help with ventilation, to keep you drier on long days.
Back to the Mille pad for a second. That pad is designed specifically for riders who are apt to sit up a bit more and have more of their weight rest on their sit bones. That’s why the Mille pad is 10mm thick. If you’ve ever thought that maybe the Mille pad was a bit too thick, that might be why. The Fi.13 pad, by comparison, is meant for riders who rotate their hips and as a result have their weight spread over a broader area, and as a result is only 8mm thick.
Lest I give you the impression that the pad in the Fi.13s has a single, form-following curve, that’s not quite right. There’s actually a second curve to the front of the pad. Call it a pocket, if you will. The idea here is that it will cut pressure on your groceries. So while you don’t look so indelicate as a ballet dancer, there is definitely a pronounced bulge at the front of the bibs. It’s a sight that, in the mirror, is reassuring. I’ve always found it disconcerting the way so many shorts make a man look like a Ken doll below the waist.
So when I donned a pair of Fi.13s for the first time, I was immediately aware that I was wearing a garment meant for a specific duty. The molding of the pad is such that the bibs are pre-shaped to sit on a saddle. The very first time I pushed off, took a couple of pedal strokes and sat down I was struck by that extra ease I experienced in sitting down on exactly the right spot on the saddle. It wasn’t huge, but it was tangible.
Because these are Assos’ ne-plus-ultra shorts, they decided to spec a fabric on the inside of the thighs that stretches less than the material used elsewhere in the shorts, in order to move more naturally with you, while also offering increased durability as your legs rub that fabric against your saddle. That unusual stitching at the back of the pad is intended to allow more more independent cheek movement; it works. But don’t let little stitching touches throw you. This is a six-panel short. Stitching is kept to a minimum in order to keep you as comfortable as possible. The fact that this is a six-panel short makes me chuckle. I spent years in bike shops steering everyone to eight-panel shorts because they fit better than six-panel shorts. That was the pitch. Tonight, I fully expect to have a nightmare in which a pair of six-panel shorts walk up to me says, “How you like me now, bitch?!”
Compared to its predecessor (the S2), these bibs are supposed to be 20 percent lighter and offer 20 percent more muscle compression. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worn plenty of compression shorts that use materials like Power Lycra. While support seems like a really good idea, if a pair of shorts is too tight, I begin avoiding them. I’ve had the experience of looking into a drawer, seeing a particular pair of compression shorts and thinking, “Oh, no, I can’t wear the corset shorts today.”
I am quite definitely a freak, but I can’t be the only person who has ever thought that.
With the Fi.13 I get a certain amount of compression without feeling like I’m wearing the two-headed bastard sire of a tourniquet and a diaper. I mean, really, where’s the fun in that? A great pair of bibs shouldn’t require chamois cream for installation and ought to feel comfortable when you pull them on; medical devices are for the injured, right? Right.
Assos claims that these bibs are also 35 percent more breathable than their predecessors. Part of how they attempt to achieve that is by running the mesh used in the bibs right down into the crotch. I’ve no way to verify that number, but what I can tell you is this: In the hottest, sunniest weather I’ve experienced this year the Fi.13 has proven to be the pair of bibs that keep me driest. Maybe not perfectly dry, but drier than even some of the allegedly summer-leaning clothing I’ve tried this year. I’ll take it.
The Fi.13s are available in two colors, black and unforgivable—I mean black and white. I’ve yet to see anyone wear the white. If I had half the charisma of Mario Cipollini, I’d give ‘em a try, but I don’t, so like all the intelligent people I know, I’ll stick with black. They also come in six sizes: small, medium, large XL, XXL and TIR. (For folks who haven’t been to Switzerland, that’s a little joke; “TIR” is what the Swiss put on the back of a truck to indicate a wide load.) I’m about 160 lbs. and wear the large.
I’m going to add a little testimonial to this review. This spring I decided it was time to make sure that my family of four remained a family of four, if you get my drift. There was a consultation, a needle, some tugging, a bit of smoke and some time off the bike. In my first attempts to return to the bike I noticed a curious affinity. Those first rides demanded everything be situated just-s0. On my first three rides, the only shorts that made riding possible were the Fi.13s. Mind you, this was following a 12-day wait. I took my time. There was one day where I wanted to ride, but the Fi.13s were on the drying rack, so I pulled out every other pair of bibs I owned and kept trying to see if something else could provide not the same comfort, but just adequate comfort. I was only seeking enough comfort to enable me to ride for an hour. It didn’t happen. I didn’t comfort. I didn’t ride. I didn’t happy.
I learned about Pearl Izumi in 1990 from a sales rep who walked into the bike shop I worked at to give us a technical presentation on their cycling apparel. To this day I don’t recall enough about what he said to be able to decide if the features were really that great or if he was just that good at tech presentations. Either way, he succeeded. I was sold. My grad-school-student bank account was thinner than the leg of a ballet dancer, but somehow I found the scratch necessary to order a long sleeve jersey.
I’ve still got that jersey in a container in my garage. It has held up remarkably well, which is as much a testament to my careful washing and inability to discard anything still functional as it is a verification of the durability of the clothing itself. The jersey had no rear pockets, so if you were going out for more than an hour or so, you needed to wear a jacket or vest with pockets. In the event that it wasn’t cold enough for both that jersey and a vest, you had a dilemma. How to solve that dilemma isn’t something I recall. But I do remember how I was convinced that no garment ever in the history of man-made fibers could wick moisture off my body as effectively. I stayed convinced, too, for the simple reason that it really did. Compared to the long-sleeve jerseys I owned from Avenir and Giordana, the Pearl Izumi jersey was better in every manner, save pocket inclusion. It pulled moisture off me like a cotton towel. It fit like a tailored dress shirt. The zipper was just long enough to conduct actual ventilation. It looked as stylish as a ’71 Mustang. The material was as comfortable as flannel sheets. And it had brand zing the way Clint Eastwood has irascible.
In 1990, Boulder, Colorado, was the epicenter of cool in cycling. All the best pros—international and domestic—were based there, along with a growing number of bike companies. The fact that Pearl Izumi was based there was simply confirmation that they had it going on. From that moment until sometime in the late 1990s, Pearl was the creme de la creme of cycling kit to me. I can recall season upon season where my friends and I would buy our team’s Voler jerseys but pass on the bibs and instead go with the Pearl Field/Micro/Ultrasensor bibs.
It’s hard for me to pin down why or how I lost interest in Pearl; it may be that I just reached a point where I was ready for a new top brand and I transferred my affection to Assos around 1998. Then, due to changes in management and shop distribution they all but disappeared from my radar for a good 10 years.
Last fall I got reintroduced to some of the line. They—Pearl Izumi—were something of a curiosity to me—the question being, had they progressed much? Sure, there were new materials, but I wondered about whether the cut of the jerseys and bibs had evolved in a significant way.
In the last six months I have ridden a lot of new kits. Some I have liked and will be reviewing. Some of the stuff I didn’t find remarkable enough to be worth the time required to write the review. My experience with all this new cycling clothing has taught me two interesting lessons, interesting because the lessons are divergent. The first lesson is that while cycling jerseys have come in two different cuts, generally referred to as “race” and “club,” those two cuts have evolved over the last five years. Race cuts are snugger, more form-following, and tend to use more Lycra or at least Lycra-adjacent materials to give them skinsuit-like cling. And while I don’t (won’t) wear club-cut jerseys, I’m noticing that many of the ones out there aren’t the spinnakers of yore. I’ve caught a few exceptions, such as some of Rapha’s pieces, but as the cliché goes, things are trending toward more form-following cuts, even if your personal dimensions are more Jon Voight than Jens Voigt.
Bibs, on the other hand, are cut in more lengths than ever before. This is mostly due to the incredible variety of gripper bands forming the bottom of the bibs. Capo is pushing the long bands that feature double-layer material simply folded over with no actual grippers. Assos is staying the traditional course with a narrow band backed with silicone gripper dots. The space in between is rich enough in options that you needn’t develop a hard-edged tan line on your thigh.
I’ve been wearing two different kits from Pearl’s line since this spring. One of the kits is the P.R.O. LTD Speed Jersey and In-R-Cool Bibs. The other is the P.R.O. Leader Jersey and Bibs.
I’m going to begin with the P.R.O. Leader Jersey and Bibs. This is Pearl’s super-call stuff. The moment I pulled on the bibs I could tell that this was a cut above. I’ve tried on so much stuff that seems amazing but I wonder how long it will last. Well these bibs are cut from 244g/m² (roughly 8.6 oz.) fabric, meaning it has some real heft to it. The sublimated side panels are, naturally, lighter—more like 6 oz. I’ve worn this kit mountain biking on several occasions because I figure if I go down it’s not going to vaporize the moment it comes into contact with the ground. These bibs, like the In-R-Cool bibs, receive a Coldblack treatment to reflect UV rays to keep you cooler.
Some manufacturers have gone crazy with multiple panels in their quest to create a better-fitting pair of bibs. But some, including Pearl Izumi and Assos, have gone the other direction on some of their bibs. Inventive patterning has allowed manufacturers to use material that stretches more in one direction than another, which has enabled them to reduce the number of necessary panels to make bibs fit properly. With the P.R.O. Leader Bibs, excluding the band for the gripper, each leg is made up of just two panels. That’s a six-panel short minus the bibs. That eliminated a few serge-seams on the inside of the short, making them more comfortable on your skin when you’re out for rides upwards of three hours.
The pad employed is Pearl’s P.R.O. Seamless 4D Chamois. I’ve had 4D stretch explained to me a few times (several companies are using pads or materials that they claim stretch in 4D), but I need to be honest and say that I’d like everyone just to cut this shit out. We live in a 3D world, and 4D isn’t really clever unless you’re a quantum physicist. For those working in textiles, just tell me the chamois has a lot of stretch and once I ride it, if you’re right, I’ll agree with you. Claiming a pad stretches in 4D is something I’m never really going to believe, either intellectually or viscerally. It’s a marketing fail.
But as failures go, this is a pretty terrific pad. At it’s thickest it’s supposed to be 13mm. I couldn’t measure it, but that sounds about right. There’s a central channel to relieve pressure on soft tissue and while I know that pressure relief is its primary mission, in many of these pads the thinner areas are really helpful in allowing the chamois to move with you without bunching up.
For me, the real test of a chamois comes when I have to make several out-of-the-saddle efforts in rapid succession. That repeated movement of standing up, accelerating, sitting back down and then standing up again won’t go well if the chamois doesn’t really move with me. At some point a lesser chamois will bunch up or catch on the saddle. The P.R.O. Seamless yadda yadda chamois kept my undercarriage happy as a kid on Coca-Cola.
The shorts feature a 10-inch inseam, largely due to the double-layer cuff that finishes the short. What’s surprising, though, is that the inside of the cuff is doted with silicone grippers; there are a dozen small diamond-shaped grippers on each cuff. I’m not really convinced they are necessary, though I can’t say they are a real disservice either. The bib straps are cut from Minerale polyester, a very lightweight and breathable poly that does a fine job of wicking moisture off my body.
The bibs are all black except for the sublimated side panels and the highlight trim on the bib straps. Visually, it’s a pretty traditional look, and in this case I consider that a selling point.
The P.R.O. Leader jersey is cut largely from nylon (91 percent) and elastane (9 percent), which makes it nearly stretchy as a skinsuit. The sleeves are stretchier still, for obvious reasons and are cut from polyester (80 percent) and elastane (20 percent). I’ve encountered a few jerseys of this variety that were so stretchy that once you loaded up the pockets you risked catching the hem of the jersey on your saddle. Some companies have used materials that stretch horizontally but not vertically, or lengthwise panels that simply didn’t stretch much. Pearl went a different direction. A big, stylized ‘X’ is laminated to the back panel of the jersey, allowing it to stretch some horizontally and just a touch vertically so that it will follow your contours without sagging. It’s a novel and effective approach and adds another visual element to the jersey. There are three small, highly breathable mesh panels employed to aid moisture transfer in critical areas, at the nape of the neck and the underarms.
All the In-R-Cool jerseys receive a Coldblack treatment to keep you cooler on hot days. Pearl claims the body of the jersey has an SPF of 50 while the sleeves are 40.
Of all the various pro-fit jerseys I’ve tried, the P.R.O. Leader has one of the very best fits I’ve encountered. It’s hard to explain the difference in feel between form-following and clingy. One feels natural, and makes me look presentable (MAMIL presentable, anyway) in the mirror, while the other causes claustrophobia while simultaneously eliciting a spider-web creepy factor. Honestly, I’m not sure which of these two effects is more surprising, but I’m clear that one won’t sell in bike shops.
The pockets on the P.R.O. Leader are a bit unconventional. It seems everyone is experimenting with unusual pocket configurations. For this jersey, the two side pockets are cut narrow. You can fit gels and packages of Clif Shot Bloks or tubes of Skratch or Osmo drink mix. You won’t be stuffing a Clif Bar in there; at least, not unless you like the idea of wrestling it out. What that does, though, is make the middle pocket big enough for a farmer’s fist. Inside that pocket is a second, slightly water resistant, radio pocket. There’s a buttonhole to run the earpiece cable inside the jersey, but because it’s not the sort of thing you can reach very easily, if you listen to music while riding, plan to leave your iPod on shuffle.
Part of Pear Izumi’s brand identity in the ’90s was the black/electric blue/screaming yellow color combination. My first Pearl jersey had it and I never tired of the look. I’m pleased to note they finally brought it back and this kit played those colors with style. I get concerned about any kit with too much black for reasons of visibility, but for reasons I can’t explain, this kit doesn’t appear as black as it actually is. In wearing it, I’ve had several people tell me it pops well due to where the yellow and blue designs are placed.
So what’s the damage? The bibs go for $200 and the jersey is $200. Some of you will squawk about how much money that is. And it is a fair amount of money for cycling kit, but when I consider this against Assos, Giordana and Rapha, this kit is a terrific value. It doesn’t stack up against Assos’ best work, but it’s competitive with their Uno line and costs less.
The jersey is available in a whopping seven sizes: Small, S/M, Medium, M/L, L, XL and XXL and the bibs are available in five sizes: Small, Medium, Large, Extra Large and XXL. I wore the S/M jersey and the Medium bibs. I’d compare the sizing favorably to most American brands. The S/M jersey is slightly larger than a Small in most brands (except for Euro lines like Castelli and Assos) and the Medium bibs line up nicely with most other American brands. Those tweener sizes of S/M and M/L are meant to give as dialed a fit as possible for an off-the-rack jersey.
Even though the fit is new, the materials are new and the look has been updated, this feels like a return to Pearl Izumi’s roots—great quality without going bankrupt.
I’ve been wearing these for more than a year and can say they are holding up exceedingly well. We have two each of Large and XXL and one pair of XL. If you have any additional questions, just drop us a note in the comments.
They are going for $95 plus shipping. Check ‘em out here.