Assos, the Swiss manufacturer widely regarded as producing the world's finest—and most expensive—road apparel, has launched into mountain biking.
The company spent four years developing the new off-road product, which debuts with three distinct pieces of apparel: one bib short and two jerseys. "Speed and schedules are not our strong point," said Omar Visentin, the company's R&D director. "We are instead committed to creating product that performs better than anything that exists and releasing it only when we're satisfied."
All three debut products are aimed at the XC and marathon markets. But Visentin said that more items would follow in coming years and hinted that expansion might include all-mountain oriented apparel.
Assos has built its reputation over the years on its refined bib shorts and chamois technology, and the flagship of the mountain bike line, dubbed OffRoadRally, is the T.rallyShorts_s7 bib ($450). The design borrows from Assos top-line T.campionissimo road short, though almost every detail has been tweaked to stand up to trail abuse.
The chamois uses Assos' Golden Gate design to help separate the insert from the short for less friction and chafing. It's also wider and positioned a bit farther back than its road counterpart to accommodate the more upright riding position of mountain biking. The bibs are reinforced for strength and resilience, and the back is a simple crisscross design, as opposed to traditional mesh, to minimize contact points that may rub under a hydration pack.
The most distinctive feature is a pair of oval-shaped closed-cell foam pads that tuck into interior slot pockets on the hips for impact protection in case of a crash. We were concerned that these pads might feel awkward, but they are thin, flexible, and perforated for ventilation. Once positioned, they are hardly noticeable. During our initial group test ride, one rider hit the deck on a slick road, landing squarely on his hip, and not only did the pad cushion the fall, but the shorts didn't rip or fray.
The premium jersey, SS.RallyTrekkingJersey_Evo7 ($400), is aimed at the endurance and marathon racing crowd, and it's unlike any other cycling apparel we've seen. The jersey employs six unique fabrics, including a 3D Mesh in the shoulders and across the entire back panel. Not only does this material add ventilation, but because it's nearly a centimeter thick, it provides cushioning when wearing a pack. Given the risk of UV exposure from the mesh, the jersey is the first produced by Assos that will come bundled with a base layer, the new lightweight Skinfoil_S7. That base layer will also be available separately for $89, which partly explains the high cost of the Trekking bundle.
The last piece is the SS.CapeEpicXCJersey_Evo7 ($220), so named because the product line underwent its final testing and development at South Africa's eight-day stage race. On first glance, it may look like any other jersey, but it employs Assos' meticulous attention to design and function, with three fabrics and 16 patterns. It is intended to be a light, simple, form-fitting jersey for XC racers. And the graphics, with Assos' trademark blocks on one half and the Cape Epic's zebra stripes on the other, are a nod to the Swiss company's contribution of leader's jerseys to the African race.
Skeptics often take issue with the Swiss company's exorbitant pricing. Assos responds that all of its fabrics and technologies are developed in-house and tailored explicitly to the end use. The company created 12 new fabrics for these three pieces of apparel, with special attention given to materials that are lightweight but sturdy enough to withstand the branches, rocks, and crashing associated with trail riding. And since the fabrics are proprietary, they won't suddenly appear on other manufacturers' less-expensive gear.
The prices also reflect Assos' fit, finish, and performance. Sleeves are perfectly sculpted, fabrics lie flat in a riding position and don't flop in the wind, seams are minimal and placed to prevent chafing, and detailing is second to none, including reflective bits, locking zippers, waterproof pockets, and electronics routings. Additionally, the Swiss company is willing to innovate with little regard for the end price, which might make the gear costly but also fosters development.
I have spent two weeks riding in the new bibs and the CapeEpic jersey, and so far the features and function live up to the Assos reputation for quality. Is it worth buying? As with any good gear—and the OffRoadRally line is definitely more equipment than just apparel—that probably depends on how much you ride, how long you spend in the saddle, and, of course, how picky you are about small details.
But it's clear that for those seeking the ultimate in comfort, Assos' long-overdue entry into the mountain-bike market will be welcome.