When should innovative sports equipment be banned from sport?

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Graeme Obree on one of his radically different (and now banned) bikes | 1994 Popperfoto

As Specialized’s director of integrated technologies, Chris Yu spends a lot of time around fast bikes, which is half the reason I traveled to Morgan Hill, Calif., To talk to him. But what I really want to know is what he thinks about running shoes.

Yu’s title puts him in a unique position to weigh in on a debate that has gripped the running world since Nike released a shoe called the Vaporfly, which features a controversial curved carbon fiber plate and extra foam. resistant which together help propel runners forward. When Kenyan long-distance runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the men’s marathon world record by over one minute in 2018, he was wearing a pair of Vaporfly.

Some runners see them as an unfair advantage. I thought that Yu, who considers the aerodynamic benefits of cycling as part of his job, might help me dig into a bigger question, bordering on moral: when does the gear get too good? Why do we view some technological advancements as innovations, but others as cheating?

Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has its own answer. In the 1990s, before bicycle companies had wind tunnels for development, an amateur cyclist named Graeme Obree built his own bikes from parts scavenged from old washing machines. His designs gave him a more aerodynamic body position, which he used to break the prestigious one-hour record on two occasions. Two of Obree’s riding positions were subsequently banned from the sport, and the UCI now maintains a strict list of criteria, from tube thickness to saddle recoil, for what constitutes a competition bike. This list determines which innovations can and cannot leave Specialized’s California headquarters.

Although Nike sells the Vaporfly to the general public, the sneaker Kipchoge wore during his record-breaking run was not the same running shoe.

Yu acknowledges that shoes like Nike’s Vaporfly make a difference, but says it’s “not really technically different from new foam with better spring rebound.” With bikes, however, the aerodynamic benefits of a piece of equipment increase as the rider goes fast, amplifying the small benefits. Of course, in road racing there are more beneficial ways to combat the effects of wind drag, which is why the sport is so fun to watch – no amount of smooth equipment can overcome tactics, leverage. teamwork and timing.

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The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%

The question of prototypes is more delicate. Although Nike sells the Vaporfly to the general public, the sneaker Kipchoge wore during his record-breaking run was not the same running shoe. She had a different midsole design and outsole, and she was most likely suitable for him. It was only this year that Tour de France competitors were banned from racing on custom 3D printed handlebars specially designed for them, even though the use of any technology not commercially available has long been banned in the industry. sport.

Unique equipment seems to cross a line for many people, Yu included. “Tackling prototypes is a good thing,” he says. “It’s a fine access line, we’re talking huge volumes of money for this stuff.” (Winners of a major marathon can win up to $ 200,000.) But there’s still a follow-up question: who makes the prototype, and does it matter? Graeme Obree didn’t have a dedicated bicycle designer to imagine crazy new shapes for him; he made his own bikes from old parts, but they were prototypes nonetheless. One wonders if Vaporfly critics would feel any different if Kipchoge had fashioned the shoe himself from scratch.

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Eliud Kipchoge

Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos

Of course, top speed or the best time or the best score is never the only consideration in a sport. All the different governing bodies also take aesthetic concerns into account. Downhill mountain bikers would be faster in spandex speed suits, but these were officially banned a few years ago, likely because nothing kills a gnarly vibe like dressing like the Power Rangers. The ultra-light, ultra-expensive and technologically advanced Tour de France bikes aren’t necessarily the fastest bikes available – the recumbent models, with their negligible drag coefficient, are as fast as hell. Too bad they look like human powered Weinermobiles.

It just goes to show that the rules that define any sport are, on some level, arbitrary, but no less necessary because of it. “You need some kind of rules if you want to define a sport,” Yu explains.

There are an incredible number of factors that go into being an elite athlete; equipment is just one example. There is also discipline and hard work – genetics too. In a competitive arena, someone has to figure out what makes a bike and what makes a shoe, and where those lines end. In the meantime, take advantage of all the competitive advantages that are available to you until someone tells you that you can’t, and if your bike has the right tube thickness, non-structural fairings, and properly sized tires, so, by all means, keep going.

A version of this article originally appeared in issue ten of Speed ​​Patrol Magazine with the title “Skip the line”. Subscribe today.

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