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 for the Rest of Us
In the age of Lance, trickle-down bike tech became more marketable than ever. The Tour had begun stoking the carbon-fiber dreams of weekend bikers. Suddenly everyone – from pro racers to orthodontists – had to have one.
"As Lance won, and interest grew, so did demand for the highest-end bikes. There's a real interest in technology at the top-end enthusiast part of the market. Trek, Specialized, Giant, and Cervelo are now all making the bikes they make for the pro teams available to consumers. If you've got enough bucks, you can get the same team-issue bike the pros ride, with all the carbon-fiber bells and whistles. You couldn't do that in 2005," says Jay Townley, a partner in Gluskin Townley Group, a market-research firm focusing on the bike-shop trade.
In the lobby of Trek's Waterloo, Wisconsin, headquarters, the progression of bikes is displayed like a natural-history-museum poster charting the evolution of man. Walking me through the time line is Jim Cole-grove, Trek's "carbon guru," an affable manufacturing engineer who did developmental work for Boeing Northrop, among others. Though he points out that he's not an aerospace engineer, the fact that a person with his resume could be mistaken for one hints at how the industry has evolved.
At the far right of the display is Armstrong's pioneering Tour winner from 1999. At first glance, it doesn't look that different from a 1970s steel-frame bike: The tubes are round and bonded onto lugs. The shifters have been moved to the handlebars, shaving seconds from shifting and freeing riders from having to take their hands off the bars. Moving along through the years, we see the frame geometry begins to change: The top tube begins to slope, the transitions become sweeping. Lugs vanish into a sheer monocoque body. Cables run inside, and there's little exposed. Everything is trying to be hidden. The changes are even more dramatic in time-trial bikes: Round tubes and standard handle-bars give way to long, narrow blades – the deeper the blade, the less the turbulent drag. There are even special triangular water bottles.
The bike's tech revolution is as much about the methods used in their design as the materials. Beginning in the late 1990s, bikes began to be shaped by wind -tunnels and advanced software and equipment that simply wasn't available for bike-makers before. "To understand mass flow and how those things happen was well-known by engineers. We just didn't have the processing power," says Colegrove. Carbon, as it turned out, wasn't just light, it's malleability made it ideal for the exotic designs being conjured by the newest tools of computational fluid dynamics and wind-tunnel testing. And since it could be much more easily shaped and distributed to discrete sections of the frame, carbon fiber was the perfect material for the strange new designs being formed on the computer screen. Now the material populates not just frames but seat posts, stems, water-bottle cages, pedals, even cycling shoes.
"When we first made the 5500, it was a piece a cake to take out a pound," says Colegrove. Since then, he says, frame weights have gone "asymptotic." They've flatlined. "When you think of a gram – a paper clip – we are struggling for grams."
The weight-watching frenzy has only intensified. Take carbon wheels, for example. "Five years ago," says Trek's Andrew Rosch, "aluminum wheels dominated the high-end road market." Only pros, supported by wheel companies, had carbon wheels. Now, he says, even recreational riders are flocking to the carbon wheels made by manufacturers like Trek subsidiary Bontrager. "It's hard for high-end aluminum wheels to compete."
And when a rider can lift a frame with a pinkie, where do you go from there? "We are starting to reach a point – I don't think we're there yet – where we will not be able to make carbon-fiber frames any lighter," says Colegrove. "There are some realities to the physics of the material."
Though the quest for the lightest carbon-fiber frame has slowed, the battle continues in other areas. Over the past several decades, carbon-fiber producers – Trek uses carbon from Utah-based Hexcel and claims its own proprietary OCLV (-Optimum Compaction, Low Void) process – have been tweaking the magic triad of stiffness, low areal weight, and high "modulus" (or tensile strength).
Credit: Erik Isakson / Getty Images