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.
Building a Better Shell with Gore-Tex
You'd think that making a simple shell wouldn't be that vexing an undertaking: It doesn't require any complex mechanics or chemical wizardry. But making a jacket that keeps the rain from getting in, while allowing heat and perspiration out, has been one of the great technical challenges facing gearmakers. After decades of striving, the gear-makers have won an arduous but decisive victory.
I'm standing at a cutting table with Carl Moriarty, chief designer at the headquarters of outdoor company Arc'teryx, based in North Vancouver, BC, where snowcapped Mount Seymour looms in the distant mist. Before us is the company's current top-of-the-line shell – the widely feted Alpha SV, a jacket used by everyone from elite ice climbers to British Columbia's highways avalanche department – alongside the company's inaugural effort, a shell from the early 1990s.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much separating the two items. They both have hoods, "pit zips," slightly shiny Gore-Tex surfaces. They both look like they'd reasonably do what they're designed to do – keep you dry, therefore warm.
But as Moriarty, a laid-back New Zealander who started as a shipping clerk at the company after a climbing odyssey dumped him in nearby Squamish, pores over the jackets, the differences between the Clinton-era shell and this year's model surge into view. The biggest is weight. "This is 780 grams," he says, picking up the older model, "and now we're at 470 grams." At the time, it should be noted, 780 grams was pretty good.
The designers at Arc'teryx have little to do with the most radical improvements in their garments – or anyone's water-resistant garments – in the past 50 years. Gore-Tex, the trademarked membrane inside most shells that make a reasonable claim to being waterproof and breathable – has improved consistently since its arrival in the 1970s. The lost weight is partially due to improvements in Gore-Tex itself: Over two decades, it's become lighter (Arc'teryx now makes a jacket that weighs 370 grams), more breathable (by some 20 percent), and more abrasion-resistant (also by roughly 20 percent).
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