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.
The World After Gore-Tex
"In 1978, when Gore-Tex first came out, we thought we'd bought coats we were going to be able to run up hills in, without any condensation inside," says Mike Blenkarn Arc'teryx's refreshingly unfiltered, passionate director of technology innovation. "Within two weeks, these things would be passing water absolutely the wrong fucking way." It turned out that the membrane of the early Gore-Tex was extremely fragile and could be compromised if the surface tension of water molecules was disrupted "by soap or skin or crushed up Power Bar." (They called it Leak-Tex.) And so Gore-Tex added filters to keep hydrophilic matter out of the membrane, steadily making advances. The current Alpha SV, notes Blenkarn, is good for 250 days of hardcore, pro-level use. "For my dad," says Blenkarn, "it's a lifetime jacket."
Gore-Tex sells its fabrics to lots of outfitters, so innovation must come in what you do with it. The way Arc'teryx, which began by making climbing harnesses, rose to prominence in the jacket market over the past two decades, was by bringing the same values to clothing that it did to equipment. It turned endless tinkering and accidental discoveries into novel technology, and then created the machines to produce it.
Take, for example, the waterproof seam-sealing tape that covers the stitches on the inside of the shell. The average jacket will be laced with some 16 meters of tape, applied by a seamstress using a custom machine – one of more than 200 discrete operations and more than 60 pairs of hands involved in making the Alpha SV. Over time, they've figured out how to use increasingly narrow strips of tape – from 7/8 of an inch, to a half-inch, to 5/16 of an inch. "It's ultimately more breathable," Moriarty says, "because wherever you put the tape down, you actually kill the breathability of the fabric." Building water-proof jackets is a constant trade-off between water resistance and breathability, though the two are getting ever closer to peaceful co-existence.
Arc'teryx also went after the zipper, a classic weak spot. Previously, to keep water out, designers simply put a flap over it – adding bulk and stiffness. The Arc'teryx solution was to essentially turn the zipper inside out, in 1998, with a urethane strip applied to the back to make it waterproof. Instead of being sewed in, the zipper is fused to the jacket, which itself required working with zipper giant YKK on a heat-resistant plastic. The elimination of the flaps, says Moriarty, "gave this a very clean modern aesthetic that hadn't really been seen in outdoor products before."
Everywhere is a small refinement. Largely gone is the Velcro, which represented a radical burst of fastening innovation. "It's not very good in cold, snowy conditions," says Moriarty. "It tends to ice up and it also tends to destroy your other pieces of clothing." A small "zipper garage" – a little fabric enclosure at the top of the zipper – keeps water from getting into that inevitable gap where the zipper doesn't quite close 100 percent. There's a foam noodle at the bottom hem that tucks underneath a climbing harness so the jacket won't pull out. Another difference between the two jackets is that the new one is designed with a more three-dimensional form. As climbers spend much of their time with their hands over their heads, there's what Moriarty calls a "sculptural form in the elbow" so that the jacket won't lift with your arms.
All these seemingly minor upgrades – outerwear that's lighter, drier, and more durable, with a better range of motion – have changed what's possible in the outdoors. It's hard to imagine the recent growth of rapid alpine-style ascents or unsupported backcountry forays without light-weight gear that's better able to handle a variety of conditions. "If Gregor [record-setting backcountry skier Greg Hill] is going to ski 2 million feet, it's going to be a whole year of him sweating into that suit," says Blenkarn.
But it's not just the elite athletes who benefit, he adds. "If people went on the West Coast Trail, which is known for being a swamp," says Blenkarn, "and they're looking up at how beautiful those trees are while it's raining, they might come back and say, 'That's really worth saving.' If they go on the trail in a garbage bag and it starts to shit on them, they're going to hate life. They're going to say, "Let's log it, let's pave it.'"
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