Over the past couple of decades, few things have contributed to the achievement and satisfaction of the casual athlete more than his gear. Sports equipment has been dramatically reimagined, ushering in a so-called "techno-physiological evolution" in performance. Which, at the very least, has heightened our belief that the racquet we're swinging or board we're riding gives us some irrefutable advantage. These are the Gear Decades. From Speedo's polyurethane full-body suits that had swimming records falling faster than the Berlin Wall to big-headed golf clubs that have tripled the size of the sweet spot, the athletic-gear industry has adopted aerospace-derived R&D and synthetic materials that are lighter, stronger, and harder.
Throughout the sports world, there has been more innovation in the past few years than in the half-century before. The steel-framed bikes that dominated the Tour de France through the 1980s wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1950s. Carbon fiber, barely on the radar in 1992, is now in everything from skis to sails to the legs of sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Even the hoary baseball glove is being reinvented: MLB has quietly approved a microfiber mitt 10 ounces lighter than leather. French sports-medicine researcher Geoffroy Berthelot argues we may be reaching the limits of human improvement in athletics: More than 60 percent of track and field records haven't changed since 1993. Perhaps that's why we're increasingly seeking more competitive advantages from our stuff. To better explore MJ's history, we chose to examine our gear – and the steady march of progress that keeps us interested every year. We visited three companies who, in 1992, were making an iconic product (bike, jacket, running shoe) to make sense of where our gear has been and where it can go.
Amateurs Can Now Have Better Tech than Tour Riders
Another kind of limit has already been reached: Technology is now outpacing the bounds of what's allowed on the road for racers. Where Trek could be making bikes ever lighter – by radically removing sections of the frame – they often find themselves adding weight to bikes, simply to meet the minimum weight requirements of bike-racing authorities. Don't think you'll see frames get freakier in the peloton anytime soon: Cycling's various governing bodies play an increasingly large part in regulating not just the weight of bikes, but what they look like. As Scott Daubert, who works with Trek's pro teams, puts it, "They want a bike to look like a bike."
With the bicycle's enduring, familiar form, you might look at these two bikes and wonder what's so great about the current one – both are constructed of carbon-fiber composite, after all. The answer is: a lot. The 2012 frame is over a third lighter and twice as stiff. In 1992, the 5500 used a single type of carbon fiber and a simplistic assembly that basically treated it like a metal tube, failing to take advantage of the directional-stiffness properties that make carbon fantastically tunable.
The modern version uses multiple grades of carbon that are as much as 36 times as expensive, and with the help of computerized finite-element-analysis software (FEA) that wasn't feasible in 1992, Trek can analyze the effect on a ride from something as small as changing the fiber direction of a single ply of carbon. Senior Composites Manufacturing Engineer Jim Colegrove says that our understanding of how to use carbon fiber properly has been the biggest leap. "It's beyond my wildest dreams what we're doing today. The techniques, the quiver of materials we pull from – it's just mind-blowing," he says.
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