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.
Carbon Fiber Comes to Bikes
In 1992, as the first issues of Men's Journal were landing on newsstands, the Wisconsin bikemaker Trek released its first all-carbon-fiber-framed road bike, the Trek 5500. "The next revolution in road bikes is here," declared Trek's catalog. The sales pitch might have been hyperbolic, but one fact was impossible to ignore: It was the lightest production bike frame in the world. At the time, steel frames clocked in at over four pounds. Aluminum frames were a bit lighter, in the range of three and a half pounds. Trek's 5500, made of carbon fiber – strands of nearly microscopic polymer composites bonded in resins – came in a full pound under that. In cycling, where a gram can seem like a ton, it was huge.
For nearly a century, the world's top racers had ridden steel-framed bikes. For a brief time in the 1990s, aluminum frames dominated the Tour de France, but their time in the sun was short – 1998 was the last year anyone could win the Tour on aluminum. Carbon had already taken its place.
A material boasting nearly the same tensile strength as steel (it has since eclipsed it) at a fraction of the weight – and an almost unsettling ability to dampen road vibration – carbon was the material for building sleek, lightweight bikes.
The idea that a company as influential as Trek had entered the carbon market – to drive home the point, the 5500 featured the word carbon stenciled on the top tube – was a clear signal of where the industry was headed.
But the full carbon conversion didn't take hold until the end of the decade, and it had as much to do with a man as a material. In 1999, Lance Armstrong won the Tour on a Trek 5500 SL – a stock version of the updated 5500. The bike weighed around 18 pounds (by comparison, Miguel Indurain's 1993 Tour de Francewinning Pinarello tipped the scales at more than 22 pounds). From then on, every winning bike in the Tour was carbon, and the bikes were getting lighter still.
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