I recently experienced a surprising and unexpected musical performance, one that begged more questions than it answered. But before I get to the existential quandary that performance imposed on me, I should back up and talk a bit about what I saw.
There’s a tribute band called The Musical Box. They have devoted themselves to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. It’s like devoting your career as a film historian to the movies of Marlon Brando made prior to the death of James Dean. I need to get on record immediately with the admission that I’ve thought tribute acts, as a category, were silly, like hunting for Mexican Diet Coke, as if that were a thing. Look, I was in plenty of bands that did a more than adequate job of playing other peoples’ material, but the idea of going to see a bunch of guys perform nothing but songs from one band seemed weak at some elemental level. While I can’t say exactly why, the more cynical bones in my body thought it was a special lack of imagination. Let me be clear, I thought of tribute bands as a kind of glorified cover band, a self-absorbed frat party act.
I’m fortunate that I have friends who can point out when I’m being a pinhead and ought to remain more open-minded. I’m also fortunate that these same friends are easily as devoted to the early Genesis material as I am and had actually seen The Musical Box, so they could actively advocate for the superlative quality of their performances.
So on a recent Sunday night my wife, friends and I went to see these five Quebecois musicians perform a selection of songs from Genesis’ 1972 album “Foxtrot.” In addition to those songs they did three songs from earlier albums that appear on the album “Genesis Live.” This is stuff that serves as a textbook example for Progressive Rock, capital P, capital R, for better or worse, depending on your personal view. I know plenty of people who detest this stuff. It appeals to me on a multitude of levels, from the visceral fun of the music, to the technical dexterity required to play it, to the themes contained within the lyrics, right down to the production values and even the cover art. Early Genesis was, for me, the whole package.
What unfolded on stage that night was an event so unlikely as to be surreal. It was very nearly an elaborate joke. The performance wasn’t just an accurate performance of some material that was terribly difficult to perform correctly (I can report this from personal experience), it was a note-for-note replication of the performances contained on those two albums. Not only was every note replicated, they were played on the same period instruments (save the famously wonky mellotron), with the same tone, dynamics and demeanor. Hell, they wore the same clothing and the costumes that Peter Gabriel made to use during those performances. Peter Gabriel actually gave them his old costumes. And the between-song banter and song introductions? Nailed ‘em.
So thoroughly did these guys capture the essence of Genesis that there were times when as I watched them, I simply forgot that I was watching an ensemble other than Genesis. I’d blink my eyes and remember that the vocalist’s first language was French. Interviews with the members of Genesis reveal long-simmering tensions about the challenge of performing their material correctly night after night. The performance by The Musical Box was flawless, and that points to a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not! moment: those guys are actually better than the original.
Not only did Peter Gabriel give them his old costumes, their web site features testimonials by the members of Genesis on just how good they are. Gabriel says he took his kids to see them so they “could see what their father did back then.” But Phil Collins’ testimonial is perhaps the most effective. Collins says, “They are not a tribute band, they are taking a period and faithfully reproducing it in the same way that someone would do a theater production.”
As I walked out I told my wife that what we’d just seen was, from a musical standpoint, the best performance I’d seen in years. It wasn’t just that what they played was technically accurate; rather, what they did honored the original intent of the music. It reminded me of a recording I have of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The conductor worked with the record label to go back through Tchaikovsky’s original score and look at the parts for the cannons at the end of the piece. They noted the rhythms and dynamic markings and then went out to a field and had someone fire period-correct cannons that they recorded and integrated into the final recording. The first time the final mix of that recording was playing in the studio was the first time in history that Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece was heard as it was intended. How’s that for mind-blowing?
The Musical Box’s performance came from a place of such deep respect that they could be called a tribute band in the truest sense of the word. Still, I had trouble articulating to her and to myself why I’d found the performance so rousing. A religious experience this was not, but it reached something in me that almost no other musical performance I’ve seen in the last 20 years has managed.
As I struggled with the question of why I was so wowed, I considered how I’ve passed on going to see the Rolling Stones (and a number of other aging acts) over the last 20, maybe even 30 years; it was for exactly the opposite reason. If you watch a live performance by the Stones, you see that the underlying fire to their music is largely gone. Mick Jagger’s voice is more gravel than tone and the loose rhythm to Keith Richards’ guitar work, which was once stylish seems now just to be sloppy. There’s little left to them other than Jaggers’ swagger, which is something to marvel at, but isn’t enough to command me to spend upwards of $100 for an opportunity to sit in the next area code.
That—now that—begs the question of just what we are looking for in a live performance. I’ve realized that it’s not enough for me to be in the same room with performers who were once great. I want to hear music. Shouldn’t that really be the first priority? It’s the music that got me interested in the first place. If you play great and can shake your ass, then great, but I’m not showing up just to see you shake your ass. If your priority is the dancing there’s this thing called ballet, or you can go see a tango recital.
And so I’m back around to why that performance was so affecting that four days later another friend and I drove 100 miles to go see these guys again. Same bunch of songs. No matter. At root, it was a chance to witness someone being very, very good at something, something that was damn difficult. Nothing against AC/DC, but “Back in Black” this ain’t. This material is difficult the way quantum mechanics is difficult. I also recognized a special regard for the audience. Anyone going to this trouble really cares about the people buying tickets, really wants them to have a memorable experience. Given the number of acts I’ve seen that barely phoned in their performances, this is a kind of commerce the world needs more of.
There was no obvious need for me to relate my reaction to those performances back to larger issues in my life, but I’m much too introspective to let something like this go. Within the collective urge by these guys to honor Genesis’ music I see a parallel in the bike industry. I find it in the people who toil somewhat anonymously in building for a name like Waterford or Seven, cutting fabric for Assos and Castelli. Those names are an implicit mark of quality and demand a level of precision difficult to achieve without a commensurate passion for the work itself. Does anything really need to be that difficult, that precise? No, but excellence is rarely found without bucketfuls of passion. Being witness to such an intense replication of that music was first-kiss heady. I’m awed to say that these play-actors performed with such faithfulness that my connection to that material is stronger than ever. I came to appreciate nuances—playfulness and irony—of songs I’d missed by only listening to the albums.
All-in is a favorite descriptor of mine. It speaks to a commitment that isn’t possible without an underlying fire. Those five guys reminded me why I’ve been writing about bicycles for 20 years. Quality matters. It always matters.
For all those of you who fell in love with the Castelli San Remo Speedsuit, this is the thermal ‘cross version. It features heavier-weight Roubaix Lycra for cold conditions and though the sleeves are longer, they are cut just to elbow length (just longer than) because Castelli’s research showed most racers were pushing up the sleeves on their long-sleeve skinsuits. Pricing on the custom San Remo Speedsuits is surprisingly good, though the number you buy will influence your final price. I have a covet.
Parlee showed a new frame set in the Enve booth. Long known for truly cutting-edge work in carbon fiber, the new Z0 rivals the very finest work any of the big guys are doing, while offering completely custom geometry. The frame will weigh in the neighborhood of 750 grams, depending on size and while the price hasn’t been announced, it will run upward of $5k.
Internal cable routing for either mechanical or electronic groups is one of the many, choice features of the frame.
The appearance of the new Z0 is as simple as it is elegant. Gone are the abrupt lug transitions of its predecessors. What you see now are the smooth lines of other monocoque frames. And that’s how Bob Parlee describes the frame—monocoque. Yes, it features eight tubes constructed by Enve, but what really brings those elements together in what appears to be an essentially seamless unit is Parlee’s incredible workmanship and skill. In a nod to what other companies have found regarding stiffness, the Z0 will feature a tapered head tube with 1 1/8-inch top and 1 1/4-inch lower bearings. That’s still not as big as most companies, but Parlee said it’s an effort to balance the needs of the all-day rider versus the need for performance. Speaking of the needs of the all-day rider, the z0 will accommodate 28mm tires. Yeah, it’s like that.
Parlee also showed this disc-brake version of the new Z0. They expect it to be a standard option soon. Making the bike all the more attractive was the powder blue with orange paint scheme that recalls the Ford GT40, arguably one of the more iconic cars ever created.
Stages Cycling introduced a new power meter that will go for $699 and is contained entirely within the non-drive-side crank arm. It is both bluetooth and ANT+ compatible so it can talk to any device you’re running, including your iPhone or Android. They’ve inked agreements with most crank arm manufacturers so nearly any crank you might be running is available.
The StageONE power meter has been in development for more than two years and while it might not do everything that an SRM does, the vast majority of us don’t need quite the level of detail that it provides. Honestly, I don’t care if I’m using a power meter that’s off by 10 watts, so long as it’s consistent, nor do I care that much about an imbalance in my leg strength; I have neither the time nor inclination to head to a gym to solve one relatively minor problem. I think the real genius in this is that: A) it adds only 20 grams to the bike’s weight and B) if you’re running the same group on multiple bikes, you can conceivably swap the crank arm from time to time so that you can enjoy wattage data from more than one bike while still enjoying your choice of wheel sets.
I can’t say that anything I saw at Enve was new. I couldn’t help but stop by their booth because of the number of cool bikes they had and I’m eager for a chance to ride some of the new Smart system wheels in carbon clincher. A chance just to look at them is too good to pass up.
Polar has a new wrist unit GPS. Okay, so wrist units strapped to a handlebar are sooo 1990s (they’ll have a handlebar-specifc unit for 2013), but the entry by Polar into the GPS game is pretty interesting. The genius of Polar has never been the units themselves, it was always the software and firmware. The company has always been fixated on helping users analyze their training so they get the most out of each workout. The RC3 GPS includes a full suite of GPS features plus Polar’s Smart Coaching software which provides a viable alternative to products like Training Peaks.
The RC3 GPS bike package includes a heart rate monitor chest strap plus cadence sensor and goes for $369.95. It’s also worth noting that while the usability of Polar units has long been in question (they can be more complicated to operate than a Rubik’s Cube), the RC3 GPS was terrifically easy to operate, with a minimum number of button presses to start a workout.
Also worth noting is that Polar is now selling a bluetooth compatible heart rate monitor chest strap. So for all of you out there who run Strava on your iPhone while it sits in your jersey pocket, this is a way to record heart rate data without a dongle. Not just cool, damn cool.
I got my first look at the Sufferfest videos over at the Minoura booth. Minoura has been making solid trainers for ages; I had one back in the 1990s that I put 1000 miles on in a single winter.
It’s a winter I don’t wish to repeat. However, if I had to, the Sufferfest videos with their funny copy, imperative instructions and first-rate race footage could make an hour go by like 15 minutes, and anyone who has ever spent time on a trainer knows that the world usually works the other way around. It doesn’t hurt that if you buy a Minoura trainer you get a Sufferfest DVD with the unit. I can say that the only way I made it through that aforementioned winter was by watching VHS tapes I had recorded of any/all racing that appeared on TV. The Sufferfest video boils the action down into crafted workouts that are both structured and fun to watch, if not to do.
Which is the point, I suppose.
This would be a detail from a Pegoretti frame. ‘Nuff said.
Giordana and DMT have gone big on neon yellow. For everyone who has associated the color popularized as “Screaming Yellow” by Pearl Izumi as the mark of a new cyclist, get ready to have your assumptions nullified like so many Florida votes. If Giordana has any say in it, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of this seemingly battery-powered color on the road. Whether it’s an offense to your eyes or your aesthetics (or both) having a few more of us out in this color can’t help. We might be seen with more frequency and if your average texting driver gets the idea that free-range cyclists are more common, then they might thumb-LOL their friends a bit less. Which would be good for our survival, huh?
Let’s see, it’s corporate and smacks of the kind of branding tie-in that results in Jack Daniels’ BBQ sauce at chain eateries like T.G.I. Friday’s. But dude, something about this screams summer day and, “Have a Coke and a smile.” Which it did. Make me smile, that is. The folks at Nirve are no dummies. It’s a Coke crate on wheels screaming with the Dopamine bliss of ice cold sugar and caffeine. I don’t just like this bike, I want it, but only if I can get it complete with the banner.
There’s a reason why companies like Trek, Giant and Specialized are working hard to squeeze lines like Focus and Felt out of their dealers. They are offering killer values. The Cayo Evo 6.0 in the foreground retails for a measly $2150 and features the exact frame as its more expensive Cayo Evo counterparts. The drivetrain is Shimano 105 with an FSA crank and Fulcrum wheels. Its big brother, the Cayo Evo 1.0 goes for $4500 and comes equipped with Campy Chorus and Vision wheels.
When I was a kid going to Catholic school, before our first confession we were told that every priest had heard every sin, that nothing we could say to them would be new or surprising, so we should just get over our embarrassment and misguided ideas that we were somehow committing rare or special sins and get on with the business of confessing our misdeeds. What they were really trying to instill in us was the belief that there is nothing new or unusual we might do. I didn’t buy it.
I get the feeling that designers in Italy responsible for Castelli’s many innovations had a similar childhood. I’m sure they tired of being told there were no new ideas. How else could you labor as a clothing designer for years on end if you didn’t believe that the world was big enough to hold a few surprises yet?
It is into such a void that Castelli thrust the San Remo Speedsuit. The first couple of times I saw it I didn’t appreciate just what it was. Watching guys on TV I couldn’t tell that what I was seeing wasn’t just another ultra-tight Castelli jersey paired with a set of Body Paint bibs. Oh, but the San Remo Speedsuit is nothing ordinary. But just what is it, if it isn’t ordinary?
In broad strokes, it is the skinsuit for the 21st century. Or maybe it’s the traditional jersey and bibs rethought in as aero a manner as possible. That’s the thing: The skinsuit family tree forked a few years back. The traditional skinsuit used in a time trial has become an ever more aerodynamic garment, with fabrics that make normal Lycra seem as slippery as sandpaper on skin. Long sleeves and integrated gloves have helped ratchet up the aero-ness of an already speedy outfit. The San Remo Speedsuit heads in the other direction. It takes the skinsuit as the starting point and makes it more functional, providing the wearer with a skinsuit that is more comfortable and practical than the Lycra jail that is the traditional skinsuit.
The San Remo Speedsuit begins with Castelli’s top-of-the-line Body Paint bib shorts. They are mated to a full-zip Aero Race jersey. To look at the garment is to see something that appears utterly obvious, but it takes a bit of explaining. The rear hem of the jersey and its accompanying gripper are removed; the jersey is sewn directly into the short. Consequently, the bibs are discarded. Also, unlike the Body Paint bibs, the front hem is brought up higher, making the Speedsuit more comfortable than Body Paint bibs for people who aren’t running 4 percent body fat. The front of the Speedsuit features a full zip but the fabric is anchored where the bibs would begin their run from the belly to the shoulders. What that means is that when you unzip the front of the Speedsuit, you realize two benefits. First, you don’t end up with a disco-style V-neck design running to your navel, you end up with real ventilation. Second, you also end up with a garment that doesn’t require Houdini-like powers to remove.
Let’s back up a sec. A few years ago I had the opportunity to try one of Castelli’s Body Paint jerseys. It was like a Lycra condom for my torso. Someone is reading this right now and thinking—”Perfect! That’s just what I’ve been looking for.”—but my experience was one of claustrophobia. I couldn’t have been more surprised by my reaction. Somehow, the fact that the garment wasn’t integrated into a skinsuit made the jersey intolerable. So I didn’t review it.
Whatever wasn’t working for me then has been sorted. It’s worth mentioning that the jersey portion of the Speedsuit uses more polyester which helps eliminate the whole ohmigod-I’m-covered-in-latex-in-public thing. The front up to the shoulders is Lycra, but the sleeves and back are poly. In the pits a textured material is used to help speed air flow in what tends to be a fairly turbulent area.
Of this garment’s many selling points is how it offers three usable pockets. It’s impressive because the pockets lie flat—as they should—but they aren’t so snug that it’s difficult to get your hand in or out while holding a gel. With pros wearing their jerseys snugger, this has caused jersey pockets to sit higher because all you’re really doing is wearing a size smaller, and that makes the pockets harder to access. Well one of the added bonuses of the Speedsuit is that the pockets sit lower than they would with a similarly cut jersey, making them really easy to access.
There are those ultra-hot days when all a base layer does is absorb sweat. Ditto for bib material. Imagine a garment that is useful enough and comfortable enough to ride a century in but eliminates as much bulk as possible. It’s amazing how comfortable the shorts are given there’s only a single seam running up the inside of each leg. Despite reading about all the science that went into these things I’m still amazed that they can fit so well.
The ends of the legs are lazer-cut and receive just the barest treatment for a gripper to prevent them from riding up. My one knock on them is that there isn’t enough pad in front to protect shifting equipment, and even if chafing isn’t a problem, modesty can be. However, the Progetto X2 pad is very comfy and does a great job of offering support without staying wet with sweat.
Having just finished a ride in the Speedsuit I’m reminded of just how much easier it is to open the dam for a controlled flow than with a traditional skinsuit. It’s also better than a skinsuit in that you needn’t be the human equivalent of skim milk (fat-free) to look good in it. I’m not at all sure how they pull that off, but maybe that’s part of why they patented the design.
I reviewed a large Speedsuit, just as I wear when I don a pair Castelli’s bib shorts. Now, I normally wear a medium in Castelli’s jerseys, but that wasn’t a problem with the Speedsuit. As I mentioned previously, the top was snug without being vacuum-chamber tight. I suspect that riders who normally wear a large jersey would still be comfortable in the large Speedsuit. I really only see there being a sizing issue for those who actually have a real upper body and wear a size jersey larger than their bibs; those riders will be faced with either loose shorts or an ultra-tight top.
Castelli claims this thing has a temperature range of 53 degrees to 95 degrees. Yeah, maybe if you slather your entire body in some Mad Alchemy Madness, but honestly, I won’t wear this thing out if the temperature is much below 80. As to that upper temperature recommendation, I’m of the opinion that if it’s not too hot for you to ride, then this is a suitable answer. I’m going to RAGBRAI soon and I’ll have this thing along with me. If it’s as hot as it was last time I rode the event, I might be washing it in a sink at the end of each day. Temperature aside, the material used in the back of the Speedsuit is ventilated enough as to be practically see-through; I was able to a buddy’s chest strap through his. On bright days wearers would do well to apply sunscreen to their backs all the way from their shoulders to the waist.
Some folks will flinch at the $350 price tag. Given the quality of the bibs, the incredible fit and just how functional it is, the San Remo Speedsuit is worth every cent. Maybe not a bargain, but I once had a bargain skinsuit and I can say that was a waste of $120.
I spent my formative years struggling between wearing clothes that were unfashionable but fit me and those that were fashionable, but didn’t remotely fit me. Not only did I not understand it, my mother didn’t either. Most of the pants I wore in grade school were loose at the small of my back; to keep them at my waist I had to pull my belt pretty snug. Most of my shirts fit okay at the shoulders and then billowed out as they went down, like I was wearing a tailored tent.
Eventually I began to notice from time to time that some clothes simply fit better than others. As much as I loved Patagonia casual wear, their polo shirts were flappy on me, even in small. Their pants and shorts either fit in the seat and loose in the waist or fit at the waist and tight across my crotch. Levi’s 501s stopped fitting me after I took up cycling. I had to switch to the 569s—sit at the waist and roomy through the seat and thighs. Those skinny hipster jeans? I’d never get ‘em past my knees, unless I went for the 40-inch waist.
It wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend taught me about fit models and how all clothing begins with pieces of fabric cut to fit some individual that I began to appreciate why some things fit and others didn’t. Understanding that actually made shopping easier; it eliminated whole product lines because I knew they weren’t cut for me.
When I first got into cycling I was pretty unaware of just how cycling clothing needed to fit. I got it more or less right, but I occasionally bought shorts that were too big and all my jerseys were a size larger than necessary. Even through the turn of the century, most cycling clothing had enough stretch to accommodate differences in physique within a given size.
More recently, with the advent of Power Lycra, compression panels and skinsuit-tight jerseys, I’ve begun to notice some stuff doesn’t fit as well as it used to, or as well as some of the competition. In my reviews of clothing I’ve begun to talk about the nature of the fit. The point isn’t to say this fit is good or that fit is bad, but to note how it fits. We can talk about features like materials, reflective piping, dual-density foam in pads and Power Lycra panels until our faces are cyan, but if you—like me—have a bounteous and spherical caboose, some bibs aren’t going to fit you all that well. It won’t make them bad, but it’s worth knowing that there are others that might fit you better.
The importance of this was driven home for me this past winter when I had an experience I really didn’t want to have. I’ve long been an admirer of Vermarc clothing, but I’d never had the opportunity to wear any of their stuff. It’s a big world and I just didn’t get around to it until this winter. I tried one of their top pairs of bibs. On my first ride, I cut a three-hour ride short because my ass hurt. How could that be? I was wearing the pride of Belgium. What gives?
In objective terms, I’ve been riding 143mm-wide Specialized saddles, though it was recently suggested to me that I might do well to try the 155mm-wide version of the Romin. Not the Incredible Hulk, but not bantam, either.
Well, as it turned, out my sit bones are wider than the widest portion of the densest foam in the pad. I was writing out of the margins, so-to-speak. It doesn’t mean they are bad bibs at all. It just suggests I’m seven feet tall and the owner of a new Mini Cooper.
While this won’t be complete by any means, I wanted to note my experience with some of the different lines out there to help give you a better basis for comparison. For the record, I’m 5′ 11″ and currently weigh 163 lbs., which I hate to admit, is heavy for me.
- Assos—the Uno and Mille bibs are fairly consistent in their style of fit, though the Unos are a bit more snug on me. Like I said, I’ve got enough of a butt that I can’t do straight-leg jeans. The Mille in particular is a fantastic fit for me. And with both pads, my sit bones come down squarely in the middle of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Castelli—these are cut for riders with a slighter frame. For me, by the time I’ve crowded my ass into them they are a bit tight across the front. I’ve experienced this more with some of their bibs than others, but I do get it to some degree with all of them, save the Claudio (thermal) bibs. In my mind, most are climbers’ bibs. I wear a large.
- Capo—This line is pretty remarkable for its middle-of-the-road fit. I’ve had no issues with their bibs, nor have any friends reported issues with their stuff. I wear a medium.
- Voler—I’ve had issues with being sort of between sizes. I was too big for the smalls but the mediums weren’t as snug in fit as it seemed they ought. I can’t recall ever being between sizes with another line. The quality has come a long way from what it once was, but the pad will only stay put if the bibs are tight enough that you don’t catch the bibs on the nose of the saddle. I wear a medium.
- Panache—this is another line that offers ample room for my bumper. In addition to being roomy enough to accommodate both of my glutes, the pad is one of a handful that can rival Assos’ for comfort in terms of width and placement of the densest foam. I wear a large.
- Rapha—I’ve just begun wearing the new Pro Team bibs and have been impressed with the fit. They are cut with plenty of room for my glutes without being loose up front, which is what happens if the butt is too roomy (which I did experience once). I wear a medium.
- Hincapie—like Castelli, these tend to lack a bit of room in need in back. I wear a medium.
- Giordana—Giordana has so many different product lines, there’s no one essential truth to their fit. Most of their stuff fits me pretty well, though the FormaRed Carbon bibs use the same narrow pad in the Vermarc bibs I tried. I wear a medium.
- Vermarc—overall the fit was good; I just need a wider pad. I wear a medium.
- Etxe Ondo—these could use a bit more room in the butt, but overall the fit was pretty good given the Power Lycra panels. I wear a medium.
- Specialized—these had a very traditional fit. It may be that the Lycra they used was just particularly forgiving (I believe it was 6-oz. throughout) and that what made the fit. I wear a medium.
- Primal Wear—not quite enough room in back, so it ended up being a bit snug in front. I wear a medium.
- Nalini—another pair of bibs that needed more room in back to keep the front from being too tight. I wear a medium.
- Assos—all the Assos jerseys I’ve worn have been cut on a pretty noticeable taper. However, there are always materials with such great stretch utilized that the fit ends up being remarkably forgiving. distinctly short, lengthwise. I wear a medium.
- Castelli—the jerseys I’ve tried are cut a bit more straight than Assos jerseys, though it appears their top-shelf stuff is cut on more of a taper. Mid-line stuff is somewhat long, but the pro stuff appears to be shorter. It’s really easy to buy a size too big with Castelli. I wear a medium.
- Capo—cut on a slight taper and cut on the short side, though not as short as Assos. I wear a small.
- Voler—cut remarkably straight and nearly as short as Assos; it’s a unique fit, but one I like when I’m not in perfect shape. I wear a small.
- Panache—these jerseys feature a significant taper and run short. Out of season I need to wear a medium; when I’m fit and want a pro-style fit, I’m a small.
- Hincapie—these are cut straight and long. They’ve got to fit the man himself. I wear a small.
- Giordana—again, Giordana offers so much stuff their fit is all over the place. Inexpensive stuff is generous in fit, while primo stuff like the FormaRed Carbon is short, snug and tapered. I wear a small.
- Vermarc—they feature a tapered cut and run slightly short. I wear a small.
- Etxe Ondo—yet another tapered cut, but these run on the long side, though not so long as Hincapie. I wear a small.
- Specialized—this is a remarkably straight cut with a little more length than some stuff. A conservative, fit-almost-anyone cut. I wear a small.
- Primal Wear—cut pretty straight and with a fair amount of length. I wear a small.
- Nalini—tapered cut, almost as short as Assos. I wear a small.
Bottom line: I’m not trying to steer you into or out of any one clothing line. I have my personal likes, but the value in this is to give you a greater frame of reference for choosing clothing next time you go to buy something. Fit is at the root of comfort. Go be comfortable and ride well.
The knock against Assos is always their cost. The Swiss manufacturer is famous for nothing so much as their pricing that makes Mercedes seem as affordable as Kia. Sure, they are known for their over-the-top models and pimped-out images of said models in their clothing, but the prices can make you forget the models, at least until you put your injured Visa away.
But here’s the thing: While everyone I have spoken with about Assos has exclaimed, “Dude, that’s a lot of f***in’ money for a pair of shorts,” everyone I know who has actually plunked down said money has rendered the same verdict—”Best shorts I’ve ever worn.”
The F.I. Uno S5 is Assos least-expensive pair of bibs. At $200 that’s a good deal more than almost all of their competitors’ most expensive bibs. This is Aston Martin territory, wherein every vehicle they offer is more expensive than anything Lexus offers. That can be hard to wrap your head around. It doesn’t so much redefine the term “luxury” as render it useless.
And while I’ve driven very few Mercedes and only ridden in a single Aston Martin, I have this suspicion that after a fortnight in a fine example of either, going back to my Subaru would be like drinking Two Buck Chuck after having spent a weekend in the Russian River Valley. You’d wonder what the point was.
That’s a bit like my reaction to the Uno bibs. My recollection is that the most I’ve ever paid for a pair of custom bibs was $120. The material was pretty good and the fit was good, but the pad was just so-so. (The best pad ever included in a pair of custom bibs, by contrast, was not the most expensive pair.) You’d hope that the $200 Unos would be better than that, right?
Well, the Uno bibs are unsurprisingly better. They are also so superior to most of the custom stuff I’ve worn that I wish they did my custom kit. But then I don’t suppose many people would buy it. Here’s the crazy thing: If you told me that Assos made only one pair of bibs and the Unos were they, I’d believe and would never dare wish for something superior; they are that good.
But Assos positions these as their all-purpose training and racing bibs. Which may undersell them, kinda like having a dressy tux and then a casual tux.
When I compare the Uno to other shorts in the $180 to $220 range, the Uno is the hands-down winner. Now, I can’t claim to have worn all of the offerings from Capo and Rapha out there, but against Giordana, Castelli and Hincapie, the Uno is the clear winner. That’s not to say I don’t like the others, but the Uno is just superior.
Take the pad in the Uno. It isn’t curved like that in the Mille, but it still fits very well. It’s also more comfortable than the pad in comparable shorts from Castelli and Hincapie. And the pad in the Giordana Forma Red Carbon? This is the same pad that Vermarc uses, the same pad that graces the powerful hindquarters of Philippe Gilbert. That pad? It’s too narrow for my ass. My sit bones fall beyond the thickest portion of the pad. I have no such trouble with the pad Assos puts in the Uno.
And how a six-panel short can fit so well and offer compression over an evenly distributed area is as surprising to me as a pharmaceutical with no side effects. As much as I love Castelli products, I think their shorts are cut for people with less caboose than me; as a result the fit just isn’t terrific; they are a bit tight up front.
Let’s consider for a moment that I’m discussing each of these products in relatively newish state. My experience with Assos is that these bibs, now eight months old, will still be in rotation in five years. I’ve never had a pair of shorts last as long from any other manufacturer. For that reason alone they are worth comparing against any similarly priced shorts.
But here’s the kicker: Had I never worn Assos’ Mille bibs or the T.607 thermal bibs, and only knew the Unos, you could have lied to me and told me these were the very best shorts out of Switzerland and I wouldn’t have had reason to doubt you. I’d like to try the rest of the comparable bibs out there, if only to test my belief that these are the very best value in shorts you can get for $200. Given what else is on the market in this price range, this is one time when you simply can’t knock Assos as too expensive.
The garage looks as a garage should. A phalanx of bikes hung across the back wall. A repair stand with half-ass repair in progress. A tool chest with bike stickers, drawers in various states of openness, the hex keys to the fore. Then a big plastic parts bin, too random to catalog, as well as another bin with lights, fenders, mismatched pedals, frame pumps, old shoe covers, water bottle cages, flotsam, jetsam and bric-a-brac. Two floor pumps. Three sets of orphaned wheels. A pile of tires. A shelf of lubes. Another shelf entirely dedicated to inner tubes needing repair. By the door, a rack with helmets, road, mountain and BMX.
Enter the basement. An entire coat rack devoted to cycling hats, wind vests, rain gear. A basket with seldom-used gloves, more hats, warmers, arm, knee and leg, and a few u-locks. Vintage cyclocross poster by the door. Posters from local races. A product poster with Cippolini on it, riding, laughing, text in Italian. The trainer, Kurt Kinetic, slung over by the TV. A pile of unwashed kit by the washing machine. That post-ride tang hanging in the air from when, last weekend?
Climb the stairs.
The living room offers up only a couple subtle clues. An RKP water bottle, half empty/half full. The kids use all my best water bottles to stay hydrated after obscenely large bowls of movie popcorn. On the bookshelf, a few cycling DVDs, Stars and Water Carriers, Overcoming, the 1994 Paris Roubaix.
On the kitchen counter, a brand new, tags-on Castelli cyclocross beanie, in gray. Also a copy of peloton, issue seven. Nearby, the bowl that holds the various and sundry on-bike nutritional products, ShotBloks, GUs, Lara Bars.
The half bath is a veritable trove. Copies of Cycling Plus, Road Bike Action, Velo, as well as the Colorado Cyclist catalog. A large framed poster from the 1943 Volta Cataluña, a smaller frame with the cover of the 1893 Columbia Safety Bicycles catalog. Two square canvases with original stencil art, one of the great Coppi, the other of Raymond Poulidor. It’s a half bath, but it’s all-cycling.
The dining room is littered with more evidence. My courier bag, Chrome Metropolis, black, ‘ROBOT’ stenciled across the back, a three-way flasher bolted through the top flap. Also, a small pile of gloves from Descente, Capo and Giro. The rest of the Castelli order, still tagged and cosseted in plastic; two thermal skull caps, one red, one black; a pair of Pavé bib tights; a smart, gray wool jersey; a pair of Diluvio gloves. Also, a pair of well-worn Sidis, tucked under a chair.
Up the stairs and into the bedroom. Lycra hung on door knobs and hooks, mostly to dry out before going into the hamper. Half pairs of nice wool socks on the floor, the other halves eaten by the greedy-ass dryer or simply hiding in another load. Beside the bed, another pile of cycling magazines, Patrick Brady’s “The No-Drop Zone”, for reference, and the inevitably large bedside “Journey Through Hell” that I never manage to finish reading, mostly because I only look at the pictures.
The bathroom keeps its secrets pretty well, but for those with the temerity to breach the medicine chest, there are multiple tubs of embrocation, Cream of Courage and Mad Alchemy’s Madness, as well as an Icy Hot balm stick, for when you just need that old, medicinal burn.
There’s a pair of wool RKP socks on top of the stairs, too. Who left those there? I did.
We could peek into the kids’ room. There will be more water bottles there. The little thieves.
The attic is cycling-free. Only insulation up there.
Look, I don’t know how all this happened. Credit cards were swiped. Gifts were given. SWAG was had. I traded for some of it, and because of what I do, much of it just washed in on the tide like so many broken clam shells and bits of sea vegetable.
In a court of law, I’d be easy to convict. I’m a cyclist. At some point you don’t have to be caught red-handed. The weight of circumstance is enough. The truth is, if you hang around long enough, it just gets all over you.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
You may recall my post from last winter on the cotton cycling cap. Chock full of nostalgia and ambivalence, the post sparked a stunning number of comments for so humble an item. They were all, shall we say, of a piece. Frankly, I was surprised that there was so much support and desire for an RKP hat.
Robot, God love him, got things rolling with Castelli and we’re pleased to report that they’ll begin shipping from RKP‘s SoCal headquarters during the first week of the Tour. Twenty bucks gets you a cap and some stickers, too.
I will be officially retiring that old, blue Alexia Alluminio cap the moment these arrive.
You can order them here.
A little update: They are here and are shipping out!
One of the perks of writing about cycling gear is that from time to time you receive schwag. From jerseys to courier bags to T-shirts by the pound, bike companies spend untold dollars giving this stuff to journalists. Knowing that all this stuff is a drain on bottom line, I try to be mindful and respectful when I am the recipient of said schwag.
Honestly, some of the stuff isn’t that exciting, but every now and then some item clears the bar of wearable and vaults up into the territory of real find. Take these Merino wool socks from Castelli. Unless a pair of socks is hideous in appearance or so coarse as to be uncomfortable (both happen), they are likely to make it into my rotation. I’ve got so many pairs of socks I could go a month—maybe more—and not worry about dirty socks.
These are part of the Garmin-Cervelo kit, which explains the Garmin blue at the back of the sock, as shown above.
They are thinner than most wool socks, making them perfect for warm weather and come in three sizes, so unlike some socks, these actually came in a size that fit my foot. Perhaps their best feature is that they are available as part of Castelli’s Service Course custom clothing program. The only possible knock against the sock is that it has pilled a bit since these images were taken.
When it comes to great cycling clothing, touting the benefits of Assos can at times be a bit like shooting apples in a barrel—it’s that easy. The reason I do review Assos products is to show just how good a piece of apparel can be.
For reasons I can’t explain, Castelli doesn’t seem to receive the respect it deserves. This sock is a perfect example of just how good Castelli’s clothing is. Given that their stuff is noticeably less expensive than Assos’ and yet usually significantly better than anything offered by their similarly priced competitors, I can’t fathom why their stuff isn’t more popular.
Just to be super-explicit about this: When it comes to custom clothing, they are in the top three of all the clothing I’ve ever worn. These socks are a perfect example of the company’s attention to detail.
I have friends racing cyclocross who obsess about tires the way stoner college friends of mine obsessed about the best strains of pot. Neither of those do it for me. Similarly, there’s no chance I’ll lose any sleep from thinking about what I’ll wear to a friend’s party. I’m not a slave to fashion. At least, not in the traditional sense.
In fact, where cycling is concerned, I’m a complete clotheshorse. I check weather forecasts less out of a sincere concern for the weather than to give me my starting coordinates for the next day’s choice of clothing and embrocation.
Will it start cold and stay cold? Or will it start cold but clear and warm rapidly? Will it be wet? Or will it become wet? Each variation gives me the opportunity to consider the best response and maybe wear a piece of gear I haven’t pulled out in a few weeks. The fact that my local climate will spend most of the year hovering between 50 and 70 degrees gives me ample opportunity to vary my wardrobe between short sleeves, arm warmers, long sleeves, light base layers, heavier base layers, knee warmers, all manner of embro and, occasionally, the thermal bib.
Last fall at Interbike I noticed the Mango top in the Nalini collection. Nalini is one of the best-respected Italian manufacturers of cycling clothing going. They’ve made more clothing for more teams over the years than I could cover in this review. To this day, they are the default selection for many Italian pro teams. Points for innovation aren’t often awarded to companies other than Assos and Castelli, but Nalini is a reliable source of fresh ideas—for instance, they produce both red and white leg warmers, but the trick there is that only the front panel is either red or white; the back, always-spatter panel is serviceable black.
With a suggested retail of $250, it’s not a cheap piece, but then specialty items never are. I’ll get to that, in a minute, though.
This is a spring-weight top. While windproof, it features no warming insulation. It’s good down into the low 50s for me, which would probably translate into the upper 40s for those of you in more northern climes who are more accustomed to riding in objectively cold temperatures. The back of the top is adequately breathable, which is to say, when I wore it on a rainy day my back was only wet from perspiration, not soaked from the downpour, but on hard rides it doesn’t turn into a greenhouse on the inside; a feeling uncomfortable enough for me that I’ve skipped weekend post-ride coffee sessions to get home to remove the offending piece.
The cut on this may be my single favorite among its many great features. There’s just enough room inside that I can choose how heavy a base layer I wear beneath it, but it’s cut slim. While the back of the Mango bunched up a bit in the photo above, once I was stretched out on the bike, the fit was form-following and the sleeves were slim enough they didn’t flap and just long enough to reach my gloves. Sizing on these is typically Euro; I wore the medium, the same size I would wear in tops from Castelli or Assos.
The Mango is a cyclist’s cabriolet. By that I mean you can remove the sleeves. For the record, Nalini calls this a jersey and while I suppose that’s technically accurate, it strikes me a a hybrid sort of product; not really a jersey and not really a jacket, but perfect for changeable days. I’ve seen a dozen or so variations on this theme and in each and every circumstance I disliked them because they always had some sort of collar-like flap of material to cover the zipper. That extra material, meant to conceal the jagged-edge appearance of the zipper would flap in the wind; no bueno. Alternatively, the zipper would stay exposed and would look as attractive as corn smut. You can see the black zipper just at the outer edge of the white trim. The contrast helps to hide the appearance of the zipper. Sharp.
The Mango takes an unusual approach in that concealed beneath the removable long sleeve is a short sleeve, turning the jacket into a wind-front jersey. The upsides to this are numerous. First, there is the fact that when you remove the sleeves, you are left with a garment that keeps its design-sense intact. You don’t get some mismatched jersey sleeve poking out, so there’s no chance for the green of a club jersey curdling the red of a good-looking vest. Admittedly, my review sample is black with white and red accents, which would be hard(er) to spoil, but I like that the appearance of the top can’t be disturbed by removing the sleeves.
What makes the Mango especially trick is the way you remove the sleeves. A small reflective tab, reachable over your shoulder opens the zipper. The red portion of the zipper features unusual teeth that can be pulled apart. It works well enough that you can do this on the fly, though it may not be as easy as pulling down arm warmers. I found the right sleeve to be easiest to remove and the left sleeve to require me to hold the zipper pull in place with my thumb and index finger while I pull the end of the zipper out with my other fingers. I suspect it would have operated a touch more simply if a left-handed version of the zipper existed.
While sitting around having coffee I’ve messed with the sleeves just to see if I could zip them back on without removing the top. The answer is yes, it is possible, but it was difficult enough that I was distracted from the conversation at hand. Maybe not one of my more sociable moments. I wouldn’t suggest trying it on the bike.
Of course, there is another option here and that is that simply pulling the zipper open part way on each sleeve can offer a noticeable jump in ventilation. I’m generally the last guy on a ride to push my arm warmers down, but I’ve pulled the zipper part-way open on a few occasions and found that to be a terrific way to regulate temperature. However, once I did this, the zipper was open for the duration. To re-zip the zipper, you have to completely undo the sleeve first, which is not a big deal post-ride.
For those among us whose identities aren’t completely vested in team kit, this is a terrific piece for spring or fall. I wish I’d had something like this for those nasty spring rides I suffered through in the Berkshires.
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.