It’s turning into a tradition: Our mid-winter sojourn to Europe. It’s a time to ride, to visit with great brands on their home turf, and to contemplate changes in the way we buy (and sell) to make Competitive Cyclist that much better for our core customer base, i.e. everyone back in North America. We’ll file a total of 4 reports from our trip. This entry is the first and expect to see the remaining ones every 3 or 4 days --
The 9-hour flight to Milan? I slept like a baby. The airport pickup? A Mercedes AMG driven by an Italian beauty whose Hello Brannndan zapped every last bit of Ambien from me. The 90 minute drive to our destination? We went untouched by the morning commuters and soon reached roads any American bike race fan would trade a kidney (their own) to see in the flesh: The sumptuous hills of the Tour of Lombardy, the Tre Valli Varesine, and at least 3 World Championships: Lugano, Varese, and Mendrisio.
We soon reached Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton, Ticino (tah-chino) -- home of Assos. It was a chance to see the changes in store for their Winter 2011 line, to be present for their introduction of their first bike in 30 years, to ride roads so majestic they lull you into that sexual-like sense of unthinking nowness, and (perhaps most importantly) to get a bit of speech therapy.
Last things first: We’ve been selling Assos clothing since 2003 and for reasons unbeknownst to me I’ve bastardized the pronunciation of the brand since day 1. Lord knows how many people I’ve mal-educated by saying Ā-sos and I apologize for it. A public service announcement for those of you I’ve steered wrong: It’s Ah-sos. Think tongue depressor. Ahhhhhhhhhhh. It took 3 days of hearing it spoken by natives before my brain’s default setting entertained the change. Ah-sos. Ah-sos. Ah-sos.
I’m not sure what info is & isn’t embargoed on the Winter 2011 info, so I can’t say much other that the changes aren’t just big -- they’re massive. From a fashion standpoint the Assos aesthetic will have a newfound boldness -- both in its logowork and styling as a whole. This year’s IJ.haBu long sleeve jersey (the replacement for the vaunted Intermediate Evo winter jersey) is a teaser in terms of the look. And if you already own a Fugujack jacket and love it, you understand why it’s such a big deal that in Winter 2011 there’s a head-to-toe expansion of the Fugu line.
The Assos presence in Ticino is made up of two central components. In Lugano you’ll find manga.Yio: It purports to be a retail store focused on showing off the Assos collection, but based on anyone’s typical experience buying cycling clothes at retail (claustrophobia, slatwall waterfall racks doubled up with unlike items, a dearth of anything available in sizes M or L), it’s more fantasyland or fashion retail archetype than anything else. Every item in every color, impeccably merchandised thanks to the inherent temptation of seeing beautiful clothes alongside beautiful clothes. Spacious architecture and heaps of natural light. 3 stories high with enough space between items & space between displays that you can breathe do yoga. It reminded me of that essential retail concept: The art of browsing. What strolling is to love, browsing is to retail. By definition browsing is slow, methodical, and, ironically, requires some emptiness. Except for fit boutiques like Signature Cycles or Cascade Bicycle, is breathingroom-aphobia as bad in American bike retail as I think it is? It’s no mistake that manga.Yio is next door to Lugano’s Brioni company store.
The other Assos presence in Ticino is about 15km from manga.Yio. In a lovely town called Stabio is the Assos HQ and their materials laboratory. It’s takes up a small complex of whitewashed Mediterranean buildings, with terraces of Merlot grapes towering behind them, and likewise spread out in front. Call it fantasyland part 2, why don’t we? It’s here that all of Assos’ sales and marketing is conducted, and it’s also where product design, testing, and experimentation is done. There’s still a full-blown production facility inside where prototype, one-off, custom, and repair work is done. What Cancellara is to a TT bike, these women are to sewing machines. There was much old-school pro skill on display. In Stabio a bike industry rarity was in full effect: We weren’t in Asia, but stuff is actually made here.
The final part of the visit was to see the official unveiling of Assos’ own road frame, a platform called Goomah. It was a long way from the first frame Assos produced – a way-ahead-of-its-time carbon model they brought to market in the 70’s right around the same time that they let loose with the first-ever set of lycra bib shorts. After a series of prototypes, they revealed the G731 – a monocoque carbon frame with an ISP, BB30, tapered headtube, and a new generation of internal cable routing that can accept both standard cables or Di2. It may seem ironic that Assos is designing bikes given that their corporate belief is that your overall ride quality is impacted more by the choice of proper clothing vs. your choice of bike. But the greater irony is that this isn’t a half-baked open-mold project. It’s the exact opposite, including the breathtaking expense of investing in their own molds. And, by the way, if you don’t know what a Goomah is, consult your local “Sopranos” expert, or check out Urban Dictionary. It’s the perfect name for a bike.