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.
How Boarders Changed Skiing for the Better
Skiers (begrudgingly) owe thanks to the snowboard industry for revolutionizing their sport. In 1992, K2's top-end race skis, the CV Comp, were as straight as lumber and nearly as stiff. "To make them turn," says K2's Jeff Mechura, "it took a lot of strength and technique. By the end of the day, your quads were burnt." Snowboards, since the mid-1970s, had been built with an hourglass shape – the sidecut of the board resembled the turn shape, allowing the board to arc when it was simply put on edge. "We just copied what they were doing," says Mechura. Since the skis were then easier to maneuver, they could be wider, providing greater stability. Then in 2002, big-mountain ripper Shane McConkey, believing that snow should be skied like water, designed skis that arced upward, allowing them to float on top of powder. "Rocker" technology was born. The Bolt, one of K2's latest skis, integrates sidecut, greater width, and rocker. "Combining all three technologies makes the sport much easier than it was 20 years ago," says Mechura.
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