In 1967 the first aerofoil wing appeared on an F1 car in the guise of the beautiful Lotus 49, piloted to 12 victories by Jim Clark and ushering in the era of aerodynamics. Today aerodynamics is the most significant factor in making things go quickly and this is equally true in cycling. At racing speeds between 80-90% of a rider’s energy is spent pushing the air out of their way. That 10-20% that’s left over is used on mechanical losses and actual forward propulsion.
40 years ago, taking inspiration from F1 and aerospace, Toni Maier set about creating the first aero road bike, in Switzerland, with tube profiles that were only possible with carbon fibre. This Space Age material was a rare and expensive thing and NASA were the only source. Toni even had to give various assurances that he wasn’t going to resell it to the Russians. Testing his new creation in the wind tunnel at the Swiss Institute of Technology, it became obvious just how poorly the woollen clothing of the time performed, flapping wildly in the wind and creating enormous drag. A nude re-run returned dramatic improvements. It wouldn’t be long before Toni had looked to yet another sport for inspiration and, following the example of downhill skiers, he lays claim to having crafted the very first pair of Lycra cycling shorts. The skin suit was unveiled at the ’78 Track World Championships and by the 1980 Olympics in Moscow every rider was wearing one. The game had changed.
When I took up cycling I immediately feared for my undercarriage. The saddle of a road bike does not look like a happy place upon which to perch for any length of time, so acquiring a ‘best’ pair of shorts was something of a priority. If you canvas opinions on experienced riders’ favourite brands you’ll tend to find the name Assos crops up more than any other. In the end I was wooed away by Rapha, mostly because sizing in cycling clothing can be a little tricky and they had a London store where I could try things on. My tush is yet to experience a pair of Assos shorts, but after my experience on the Transcontinental Race their mantra of ‘suffer in comfort’ sounds like something I need to investigate.
That’s made a lot easier with the news that on 18th November Assos will open their first international store, on Regent Street, a couple of doors down from Pinarello. Their product range is bamboozling in its vastness and I’ve not yet fully wrapped my head around the naming conventions. The store houses a sample of every single product though and should make it easy to navigate the range. One particularly nice feature of the new store is the elliptical changing rooms with an opportunity to try the garments on from the riding position of a road bike, because the best kit is designed to work in the riding position and will usually feel very wrong when standing bolt upright.
To celebrate the arrival of the store and their 40th anniversary, Assos took over the Design Museum – currently hosting the Cycling Revolution exhibition – and invited 120 industry VIPs (and 1 random blogger) for an evening with Toni and some of their distinguished ambassadors. I had to decline the beer and bubbly as I was riding to Edinburgh a few hours later, but I took my glass of water on a little tour of the exhibition, which has quite a collection of significant bikes. How nice to see a trio of iconic Hour Record bikes that span the ages. Wiggo’s bleeding-edge TT bike from his recent shattering of the Hour Record, next to Moser’s extreme machine and Merckx’s gold standard steed.
Eventually we made our way upstairs to hear Toni’s stories from 40 years at the pointy end of performance clothing. For a relative newcomer to cycling I found the history lesson quite fascinating and I wasn’t aware of just how influential Toni and Assos has been on the sport. He talked us through that prototype carbon bike, which had made the journey from Switzerland – the first time it has ever left the country!
“Was it expensive?” he was asked. “Oh yes! Just ask my wife” he replied. He didn’t even know how much the final cost would be until it was finished. “The invoices just kept piling up”. The final tally isn’t public knowledge but I’m led to believe you could buy a very, very nice car for that kind of sum. If your significant other starts complaining about how much you spend on cycling just point them to this story. It wasn’t just that the materials were expensive; at that time only a few engineers had the skills to work with it too. There was no commercial value to the bike but it moved the game forward dramatically and that’s the passion that drives pioneers like Toni Meier. I was left with the authentic impression that Toni is driven by winning and hopes that commercial success is a secondary by-product.
We heard multiple tales of getting a call the day before a big race and the seamstresses frantically working through the night on a critical skin suit. Toni would fly out with the garment hours later. I resist the temptation to ask for a skin suit before I ride to Edinburgh in 7 hours time. He also talks, with great pride, of how so many pro riders were buying Assos clothing out of their own pockets, despite being 2-3x the cost of competitor products. At the 1982 World Championships at Goodwood the entire podium were wearing Assos, though only one was a sponsored rider.
As Toni hands the reins of the company to incoming CEO Phil Duff, I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet him and enjoy such colourful access to cycling and sporting history. Here’s hoping Phil can hold onto the magic that’s helped Toni and Assos leave such a significant legacy on the sport.
Assos LDN opens to the public on Regent Street on 18th November.