Hyperbole. It's a word, but also a notable human attitude, the ability to lose perspective of the grey hues lying in the middle of the poles of an idea, of a thing, of a product. It fuels war, cable news, politicians, and marketing campaigns the world over. Sometimes, though, when it's something we embrace, it can be something that drives us forward, something that keeps us moving, the proverbial carrot in front of the horse.
Today, I want to tell a story about a guy named Chad Nordwall, about the how and why behind Above Category's deep involvement first with legendary performance apparel brand Assos, and finally what we view as its spiritual sequel, Q36.5. It feels apropos as we dive deep into a committed partnership with Q36.5 over the coming years. Chad is fanatically passionate. If he latches onto a pursuit, it becomes encompassing, and the hunt for the ideal vision of whatever it is is relentless. It's evident throughout his life, from building the Above Category brand for the past decade, to his obsession with motorcycle racing, to joining the Army in his early 20s and becoming a Green Beret. His introduction to road cycling in the late 1980s was no different. His earliest memory of Assos is one that goes hand in hand with his introduction to the premium element of the sport. He was on his way home from a crit as a 17 year-old with his team. The year was 1989. They stopped at a hole-in-the-wall deli for lunch, and there was a bike shop next door. Chad was the only of the group that took an interest, and wandered inside. The shop? Il Vecchio. In English, literally "The Old". The shop was tiny, 500 square feet at the most. Its tiny space was occupied by a curated, minimalist selection of bikes, tools, and clothing, all stuff of legend. "On the back wall, there was a huge picture of Eddy Merckx," Chad recounted, the excitement in his voice almost palpable, "and in front of it was his hour record bike, the actual bike!"
It was there that Chad saw Assos. He couldn't afford any of it, save a single pair of socks. But he lingered. In the coming months, George, the owner, educated Chad on the merits of a decent kit. He saved for what seemed like forever to buy a pair of $125 Assos bibs with a natural chamois. George "was so old school, telling me only to train in them, because I shouldn't crash in training", Chad said. "My only kit at the time, my first kit, was an old Schwinn-Wheaties pro team kit, and the bibs were awful. Most then were." He went on to buy a single jersey and a pair of arm warmers, treating them like treasure. And then? Then he more or less forgot about Assos of Switzerland. As he climbed the proverbial amateur cycling ladder, team kits happened, racing happened, and other brands reacted to the technical pressure from the storied inventors of the modern cycling short.
Fast forward almost two decades, to six months after Above Category opened its doors in its first tiny location in Mill Valley, California, with Chad as sole employee. Originally, AC focused only on bikes - no apparel. And then, shortly afterward, a client wanted kit. Chad checked around with a couple of brands without luck. They had nothing the client was interested in. Finally, Chad went to the American Assos distributor, and ordered a single kit for the gentleman.
When it arrived, he was awestruck. The packaging. The product design. The sheer execution of the aesthetic - it all resonated deep within Chad's core, with his modality of perpetually seeking the best. "I wanted it on my shelves. I didn't even care if we sold it, it looked that good," he exclaimed. He ordered a kit for himself, the single-color Uno kit with minimal highlights, all in blue. "I looked like a pasty blueberry in the dead of winter," he fondly remembered. He took it out for a quick ride, and was smitten with the incredible comfort that it afforded, beyond anything he'd ridden at the time. Above Category promptly ordered $10,000 of Assos when it had no money, no presence, and no real revenue to speak of.
The dynamo behind Above Category took to it like he tends to take to everything else - fanatically. Chad setup a color-coordinated Assos display in the minuscule shop with matching LAS helmets. At about the same time, Assos distribution in the US was changing over from a third party to an operation run by the Swiss company itself. The western US sales manager, who was completely unaware of Above Category, was driving by one day shortly afterwards. The shop was closed at the time, but he saw the Assos display from his car. He stopped...and started taking photos from the sidewalk. It was something astonishing, something he'd never seen before. He got in touch with Chad, and informed the CEO of Assos in Switzerland, Roche Maier of his discovery. Roche was thrilled, the AC approach was something that no retailer in the US or even Europe had embarked on before. Chad and his wife, Kalara, even put together a PDF about why Above Category loved Assos, and the relationship was solidified. With Roche's magnanimous support, Chad went to Europe to see the Swiss apparel legend firsthand. It was there that he met Luigi Bergamo.
Luigi, as Chad says, was the "Q" of Assos. The mad scientist and brilliant engineer, constantly innovating and trying new concepts with textiles. He was the guy Chad would hang out with during his frequent visits to Switzerland. Chad and Luigi's equal penchant for performance was perfect chemistry. Oftentimes, Chad would offer unsolicited ideas and thoughts on products, and sometimes, Assos actually took it to heart. Roche and Luigi would occasionally send kit and mention that Chad's input helped with the finished product. The relationship between Above Category and Assos blossomed, with AC becoming the first retailer worldwide to receive custom Assos kit.
Chad became disenchanted with the course Assos was charting, feeling that it no longer fit the Above Category brand as seamlessly as it once did, priming him to explore other options. Luigi left Assos in late 2012, and Chad, through the grapevine, found out that he'd started his own brand in northern Italy: Q36.5. It was serendipitous. Chad reached out to Luigi, one of the first retailers to do so. A few pieces were sent to AC, and were received with tepid apprehension. This stuff was different. Different textiles. Unique aesthetic. Different designs. Luigi had let loose and poured every last drop of his creativity into the brand, for better or worse. If it had come from anyone else, it probably would've been shot down. And then Chad rode in it. Perfection? Probably not - but closer to it than anything else he'd tried. The unique, innovative approach Luigi had taken produced some of the finest cycling clothing Chad had ever worn - and seen. It wasn't gaudy. It was sedate, yet technical. Cutting-edge, but quiet. Loud and contained, all at the same time. It was the logical successor to the Swiss behemoth.
Before fully committing to Q36.5, Chad and Kalara went to Italy to meet with Luigi and his wife, Sabrina, who also works for Q36.5 (and formerly at Assos). What was observed is, in Kalara's own words, "superhuman". A young couple, with their two small children, running a groundbreaking apparel startup almost entirely themselves, from design, to marketing, to operations, to sales. An impressive endeavor, considering the level of the clothing alone. It's the essence of Q36.5 - a brand, much like Above Category, built by sheer force of will, passion, and the pursuit of absolute perfection. It's why Chad and the rest (all four of us) of the Above Category family are elated to further our relationship with Q36.5 as the official North American agency for the brand.