The inexorable march of technology can be as infuriating as it is fun. I didn’t buy the first iPhone. I swore I didn’t need to be able to send email with my phone or surf the Interwebs. Then one day, 400 miles from home and busy trying to figure out an itinerary change, I suddenly realized that real-time access to Google Maps would make my life much easier. Either that, or I needed to travel with a filing cabinet full of maps. I went with technology. Ever since buying that first iPhone I’ve wondered how I got along without it. So elemental to my life is the iPhone that I can compare it to the bicycle in terms of its genius, its necessity, and I can do that with a straight face. No mock sarcasm or irony. Still, with each new introduction I wonder just how much better it could be.
And every single time I catch myself going, “Oh. Wow. Cool.” Imagine how I’d feel if I used Siri regularly.
I wasn’t thinking of the iPhone when Assos announced last fall that they were introducing a new series of bibs. Four pairs total, the S7 line replaces the S5 with four different models, as compared to three. No, what I was thinking of was just who I was going to have to kill for discontinuing the finest pair of bibs on the market. I had heart palpitations when I considered the possibility that the Fi.13 bibs would cease to exist. It’s like no more Grade B maple syrup. No, I’m sorry; that’s not workable. We’re going to have to find an alternative. I didn’t have a problem with them adding new models, but when your top-of-the-line bibs are easily twice as good as everything else on the market (and I swear, nothing comes close to the Fi.13s), what on earth must you be possessed by to think, “Okay, nix those”?
Who does that?
Of course, all my gnashing of teeth happened before I rode anything from the new S7 lineup.
Then I pulled on a pair of the Équipe bibs. It’s a good thing I didn’t speak ill of them before their introduction.
So the S7 lineup has four bibs. The NeoPros are the entry level. The Équipes are next in the lineup. The Cento is third and then Campionissimo is the new top-of-the-line bib. Assos has set up a microsite devoted just to the S7 bibs. There’s a great interview with Tony Maier Moussa, the company founder, there.
With a suggested retail of $270, the Équipe bibs accomplish an unusual feat by turning a nearly entry-level product into a magnitude of premium most manufacturers would find unthinkable. A quick survey online shows that there are a fair number of brands whose best bibs cost less than the Équipes. For some brands, that disparity would be alarming, a signal that they misunderstood the market. But not Assos.
I recall reading an interview with East Coast mountain bike pioneer Chris Chance back in 1987 or ’88. I believe the interview ran in Mountain Bike Action and the interviewer may have been my friend Dan Koeppel. One of the questions he put to Chance was, “What would you tell someone who only had $600 to spend on a mountain bike?” Now, back in ’88, $600 was a helluva lot of sawbucks to spend on a bicycle, doubly so for a mountain bike, but a Wicked Fat Chance ran more than $1000. So how did Chance respond?
“I’d tell them to save their money.”
I was a nearly destitute graduate student. Saving money was as impractical a goal for me as growing gills. Yet, I loved that answer. I liked the man’s principles, and I made a point to tell him so when I met him a few months later—even as I rode an $800 GT Avalanche.
Placing principles ahead of all other concerns is a stance that appeals to me at a very elemental, even visceral, level. If I may, I’m of the belief that too much is done with an eye on cost. Chasing a commodity seems a pointless endeavor, and the pursuit of producing something for the lowest possible cost seems a kind of cancer. I’m reminded of astronaut Alan Shepard, and what he had to say about his Mercury rocket.
“It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
That’s always unnerved me. It’s offensive to my sensibility, as well.
But back to Assos. I’m using their images for the overall shots of the bibs because I don’t look cool enough to model anything, certainly not with my shirt off. I’m doing you a kind of service.
What I find so mind boggling is the way this company dustbinned their entire S5 line of bibs. I went on record calling the Fi.13_S5 bibs the finest on the market. Yes, at $369 they were nearly as expensive as the last set of tires I purchased for my car, but they were more comfortable than anything else on the market by order of magnitude. But they are no more.
So I tried on the Équipe bibs and even before I’d managed to pull the strap up I noticed an unusual feature. That same feeling that the Fi.13 bibs gave of cupping my package and getting it out of the way of my leg movement was present in the Équipe, although at only 75 percent of the cost. This feature is the Kukupenthouse, a term that has gotten more than a touch of derisive laughter. However, this is Assos at their most Assos. Sure, it’s a ridiculous name, but it’s a feature that has a distinct benefit and isn’t duplicated by any other bibs on the market; it’s truly unique to Assos.
The pad in the Équipe bibs enjoys an unusual relationship to the shorts. It is sewn in at five points. This is Assos’ new feature called Goldengate. There’s stitching along the very front of the pad, then two wing points that help form the Kukupenthouse, and then in two sections along the back of the pad—but they don’t join at the middle. The purpose is to allow the pad more natural movement, more freedom to stay with you by allowing it to slide along the short. Think of the stitching as an anchor, not glue, for three-dimensional freedom of movement.
You may have noticed that the bib straps are spaced in an unusually wide stance. Previous attempts to space the bibs wide like this really haven’t worked out. The bibs I’ve worn that tried this either tried to slip off my shoulders or the bunched up around my neck. Assos’ Bibstabilizer is a small piece of fairly rubbery plastic sewn on to the straps to make sure they lie flat along the chest and don’t bunch up. They work; they also doubles as a place to hang your eyewear, as they are sewn only at the ends. Just hook an ear piece through.
Helping to keep those bib straps wide is the (wait for it) Y7 Frame Carrier Bibtech. By using less spandex in the bibs the material bunches less and lays flat to keep the straps set wide. The upshot of the bib straps running wide is that your chest feels more open. Do other bibs restrict my breathing? I wouldn’t suggest that, but my chest feels more open with these.
You may also have noticed that the front of the short is cut pretty low, lower than most bibs. I’ll say that every time I pull these on (and it’s been several times per week since I received my pair) I want a bit more material covering my belly. I hate to have to keep talking about this, but I don’t have the flat belly of a racer boy anymore. And I don’t want my bibs to remind me of that. This is why I’ve never reviewed the Castelli Body Paint bibs; they are cut so low my belly … oh hell, you get the idea. What is both remarkable and frustrating is that the Équipe bibs seem to be cut just barely high enough to keep me from going muffin top. Still, I’d like it if the front was cut just a bit higher, but given that the Équipe is meant to be Assos’ most race-ready bibs, that’s not going to happen.
My friend Steve Carre at Bike Effect has already had the misfortune to crash in a set of the Équipes. My heart sank when he told me this. But because these are are meant for racers, Assos used an unusual blend of fibers in the shorts. They are constructed from fabric that is 70 percent polyamide, 18 percent elastane and 12 percent polyester. The intent was to create a fabric that was more abrasion resistant. Steve told me his bibs were fine despite the distance he slid and they even reduced the amount of road rash he got. Had these been out when I was still racing as a Cat III, this would have been enough to get me to purchase a pair, or two. Assos claims its Abrasionprotec increases abrasion resistance by 18 to 43 percent.
Other features include Assos Icecolor, which is their version of Coldblack, to keep you cooler on hot days, and the new Superflat Grippers which somewhat thicker leg bands to secure the shorts but they aren’t as restrictive as some out there. But these aren’t the big deal.
What’s more important is that Assos has been using memory foam since the S2 generation of shorts—one of only a small handful of companies to employ it. They also improved the Waffle and Superair features, which are the perforations in the pad that increase breathability to cut down on monkeybutt (that’s a motocross term) at the end of a long, sweaty ride. The pad is, of course, an Elastic Interface, made for them by Cytech and is proprietary to Assos. When I consider all these features plus the Kukupenthouse and the Goldengate, I realize that the Équipe bibs are every bit as good as the Fi.13 bibs.
I don’t like writing that.
I’ve got some minor quibbles, like how I prefer the way the way the front of the Fi.13s come up a bit higher and all the sublimation on the webbing in the back of the bibs. They aren’t a deal breaker. What I do think may have some impact on sales for these bibs is the purple stripe that encircles the left gripper that denotes these as the Équipe. What on Earth possessed them to do that? I know plenty of riders who color coordinate every piece of their wardrobe and getting that purple stripe to match everything you wear isn’t going to happen for every ride.
Whatever. These bibs are so good I’ll probably wear them with any jersey I own because they are so comfortable. I’ve worn nothing from another brand that comes close to how comfortable these bibs are—at any price. I was about to write about how these bibs are a game changer and then caught myself when I recalled how Assos’ ads for these bibs used exactly that phrase. Damn. They’re right.
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.