Many cycling companies have recently begun testing bikes and clothing in wind tunnels. But for Assos, that’s where it all began, back in 1976 with company founder Tony Maier-Moussa.
Maier-Moussa had created an aero carbon bike — a first, he claims, back in the ’70s — that he took into a wind tunnel for testing along with engineers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. There Maier-Moussa learned that while his frame shapes were indeed superior to the round steel tubes of the day, rider position was the much bigger aerodynamic factor. And thus Maier-Moussa developed his bullhorn bars, which he mounted at the fork crown below the head tube.
The beginning of Assos: an aero carbon road bike — circa 1976
What does this have to do with clothing, you ask?
Tony Maier-Moussa and the university engineers also tested fabrics in the wind tunnel. No big surprise in retrospect, but they found wool had high drag. They tested a rider naked, but found skin wasn’t the fastest surface, either. So Maier-Moussa, his wife Elaine Maier-Moussa and their friend Hans Hess, a Swiss downhill ski racing suit maker, set about creating a Lycra skinsuit.
From there finally came the Lycra shorts. While Maurizio Castelli makes the same claim, Assos holds its Lycra cycling short to be the first. In any event, Lycra shorts were initially met with skepticism and derision. But after the Ti-Raleigh pro team began wearing them, soon the rest of the peloton adopted the technology and cycling never looked back.
Assos in 2013
Today, Assos remains a family business, now shepherded by the second generation, with approximately 70 employees at the headquarters that includes the house where the Maier-Moussa lived and worked for years. A hillside vineyard rises behind the stark black-and-white Assos facility that sits at a quiet side street junction, just up the hill a few kilometers from Lake Lugano in the Ticino region of southern Switzerland.
“The company started in our house,” said Desireé Bergman-Maier. “It was my mother, my father and a sewer. My mother is Greek. She was the one who named the company, Assos, which means the first, the best.”
It was Bergman-Maier's Greek mother who gave the company its name
In some ways, the family’s history in cycling goes back one generation further.
“Me and my brother Roche are the third generation,” Bergman-Maier said. “My grandpa had a bike shop, and we have all continued from there. The heart of Assos is really in the history.”
And that history, initially, was not about Lycra shorts.
“He didn’t really focus on clothing, but instead on the bike,” Bergman-Maier said. “The resulting aero frame was 50,000 francs. We sponsored a Swiss team of five guys. The ’78 worlds was a breakthrough, showing our shorts in the papers.”
Swiss riders help put Assos on the map, and Assos remains a strident supporter of the national team
Bergman-Maier’s brother Roche Maier-Moussa formally took over the company in 1996, and he continues to push the envelope on clothing design. If anything, he is too hands on, constantly tweaking products. As headquarters, Assos have a locked glass cabinet they call an incubator.
“The incubator exists to stop him from fiddling,” Bergman-Maier said with a laugh. “New concepts sit locked in there for one month, then we decide whether they will become products.”
Most garments are now made in Romania, then sent through headquarters for quality control.
Unlike most companies, Assos has no model years. New clothing comes out when there is new clothing. Many products have stayed in the line for years. “Buy less, buy better,” is a slogan the company throws around.
No, this isn't a black-and-white photo; this is what the design room looks like inside Assos
Today, Assos ships to 30 countries, and sell through about 1,700 traditional and online stores. In 2009, they opened an Assos-only concept store in Frankfurt, followed in 2010 by a company showroom on the banks of Lake Lugano, just a few kilometers from Tony and Elaine’s old place. Recently a similar “experience” store opened in Tel Aviv.
But in Lugano, you are likely to see the same faces year after year. “For us, it’s a family business,” said Erwin Groenendal, longtime marketing and design director: “We live it seven days a week.”
The Lycra bibshort remains the centerpiece of the Assos collection