We all know that every company indulges in a little self-mythologising when describing its history and products. Even if some claims are pure tumble-dryer lint, many of us prefer the tall tale to the naked truth, while well-tooled marketing helps erase lingering doubts. When it comes to designing cycling apparel, Assos of Switzerland has a longer history than most – it’s 42 years old this year – and credibly claims to have had a hand in much that is great about riding kit.
Assos founder Toni Maier (above, centre) played a significant part in introducing Lycra shorts, skinsuits, carbon-fibre frames, aerodynamic rims and synthetic chamois which, as a list of innovations, is impressive. Can it all be true?
Maier, from Winterthur in German-speaking Switzerland, was a wannabe pro whose ambitions were snuffed at 22 by a chronic knee injury who turned his passion into his business. “My father owned a bike shop and my brothers and I were born in the apartment above the shop,” explains Maier, now 81, “so cycling was all around me from the start,” making his lifelong involvement in cycling sound like inescapable destiny.
After abandoning his pro dream, Maier worked in the Belgian Congo – in a bike factory, obviously – before returning to Switzerland, studying at Zurich business school and setting up shop, becoming Shimano’s first Swiss distributor in 1967.
Maier, being Swiss, was almost inevitably interested in skiing, so when the national squad started using Lycra, he spied crossover potential. “Early Lycra couldn’t fit downhillers tightly enough – skiers move a lot faster than cyclists – but I contacted DuPont in America, who held the Lycra patent.” Assos’ first Lycra shorts arrived in 1976 and word of their comfort spread through the peloton, while over the border in Italy Castelli was also developing its own line.
Lycra shorts quickly took over and, by 1980, professionals were no longer wearing wool shorts, even if Lycra was still prohibitively expensive for amateurs. “Then Daniel Gisiger won the Grand Prix des Nations time trial with an early Assos skinsuit in 1981 and people got really interested!”
Urs Freuler, the Swiss road sprinter and Six-Day specialist, was an early Assos convert/guinea pig. “I remember I got a plasticised skin-suit for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, which was incredible, but it didn’t breathe, I lost about four kilos of sweat every time I rode a pursuit,” recalls the moustachioed maestro who now organises the Zurich Six Day.
“I remember the first time I was sent a thermal suit, with the hood, too, that was around then,” adds Freuler, “that made such a difference to winter training.”
“Ah, yes,” interjects Maier, “that design was inspired by speed skaters, with the close-fitting hood.”
In fact, Maier used Swiss duo Gisiger and Freuler as ‘front men’ giving them kit to try and show to fellow pros, many of whom were seduced by the Swiss clothing. “Teams would ask Assos to make their team clothing, regardless of who they were sponsored by,” smiles Maier, “so there were a lot of teams with our kit on, but with the logo scratched off.”
The Co-op Mercier team with Joop Zoetemelk was an early adopter, and Renault-Elf too. “It’s funny that back in the 1980s teams would come and pay us for clothing, now firms have to pay teams and supply the clothing too,” observes Maier.
Maier -who also worked at Milanese frame builder Masi when he was younger- was an inveterate tinkerer and has a claim to be behind the first carbon fibre frame, working up early designs with an engineer from the University of Zurich.
“I was friendly with the head of the Swiss skiing federation and I knew they were doing a lot of aerodynamic work in wind tunnels and I thought about making an aerodynamic frame with teardrop tubes made from carbon fibre.
“In 1976 that was still a very new material and I had signed a letter with DuPont – saying that I wouldn’t sell any to Russia – before they would send me anything. At the time I was more terrified about a frame shattering than anything else, but we made a carbon frame – with Gisiger – and it performed really well in the wind tunnel tests, it was much more aero than anything else at the time.”
With new materials and a revolutionary design, were Maier and Assos on the brink of a massive breakthrough? No. “The problem started when we put a pedalling rider on the bike in the wind-tunnel and discovered that, in fact, the bike wasn’t much better than the standard bike!”
But Maier wasn’t entirely put off the aerodynamic track, realising that turbulence from wheels was a major issue. So much so, he started investigating aerodynamic rim and bladed spoke designs.
“We were making the wheels in our small factory and Gisiger was racing with them and getting good results. So much so that Renault – with Hinault and Fignon – said they’d like to race with them.”
“But they wanted them in numbers we couldn’t supply and it didn’t happen. We had so much going on – with the carbon fibre frame and wheels and clothing – it was too much, and I decided to concentrate on the clothing. Around that time we had moved to a bigger facility nearer the Italian border, the Italians knew fabrics and clothing, that was their area of expertise, but not so much metals and engineering.”
And so Maier and Assos definitively shifted their focus to clothing, turning its back on wheels and frames.
Since 2015 Assos has been owned by an American consortium including private equity groups TZP and Summit Group, led by Phil Duff, who happens to be insanely keen on cycling.
“My daughter, who had worked in fashion studios in America, was working in the design studio in Switzerland and we were going home and she turned to me and said, ‘Toni must be a multi-millionaire, right? He invented that sublimation fabric printing process that all the fashion houses use, so if that process was his patent and licence, he must have made a fortune.’ Actually, I said, ‘No, he never patented it, he never wanted to,’” laughed CEO Duff.
As a coda to Maier’s pioneering tales, that anecdote could hardly be more appropriate, offering a flashback to a time, long, long ago, when marketing, research and development were done by two Swiss pros, when you didn’t care much for patents and you had to promise not to sell stuff to the Russians. That’s worth mythologizing.