When Should Innovative Athletic Gear Be Banned from Sport?

In head-to-head sports where winners are chosen by slim margins, good gear can overshadow talent and hard work.

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’ve flown to Morgan Hill, California, to speak with him. But what I really want to know is how he feels about running shoes.

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

Some runners consider them an unfair advantage. I figured Yu, who contemplates aerodynamic advantages in cycling as part of his job, could help me dig into a larger question, one that borders on the moral: at what point does gear become too good? Why do we regard some technological advancements as innovations, but others as cheating?

Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, has its own answer. Back in the 1990s, before bike companies had wind tunnels for development purposes, an amateur cyclist named Graeme Obree built his own bikes from parts salvaged 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 separate occasions. Two of Obree’s riding positions were later banned from the sport, and the UCI now maintains a strict list of criteria, from tube thickness to saddle setback, for what constitutes a competitive bike. That list determines which innovations can and cannot leave Specialized’s California headquarters.

Though Nike sells the Vaporfly to the general public, the sneaker worn by Kipchoge during his record-setting 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 to a new foam with a better spring rebound.” With bikes, though, a piece of equipment’s aerodynamic advantages grow the faster a rider goes, magnifying small advantages. Of course, in road racing, there are more advantageous ways to fight the effects of wind drag, which is why the sport is so much fun to watch: no amount of slick gear can overcome tactics, teamwork and timing.

The Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%

The issue of prototypes is more fraught. Though Nike sells the Vaporfly to the general public, the sneaker worn by Kipchoge during his record-setting run was not the same running shoe. It had a different midsole design and outsole, and it was very likely custom fitted for him. It was only this year that Tour de France competitors were banned from racing on custom 3D printed handlebars made just for them, even though the use of any technology not commercially available has long been banned in the sport.

One-off gear seems to cross a line for many people, Yu included. “Cracking down on the prototypes, that’s a good thing,” he says. “It’s a fine line of access, we’re talking huge volumes of cash for that stuff.” (Winners of a major marathon can take home upward of $200,000.) But still, there’s a follow-up question: who’s making the prototype, and does it matter? Graeme Obree didn’t have a dedicated bike designer imagining wild new shapes for him; he made his own bikes from old parts, but they were prototypes nonetheless. One wonders if Vaporfly critics would feel differently had Kipchoge fashioned the shoe himself from scratch.

Eliud Kipchoge
Christopher Anderson/ Magnum Photos

Of course, top speed or fastest time or highest score is never the only consideration for a sport. All the various governing bodies consider aesthetic concerns, too. Downhill mountain bikers would be faster in spandex speed suits, but those were officially banned a few years ago, likely because nothing kills a gnarly vibe like dressing up like the Power Rangers. The ultra-light, ultra-expensive and technologically advanced bikes in the Tour de France aren’t necessarily the fastest bikes available — recumbent models, with their negligible drag coefficient, are quick as hell. Shame they look like human-powered Weinermobiles.

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

An incredible number of factors go into making an elite athlete; gear is just one example. There’s also discipline and hard work — genetics, too. In a competitive arena, someone has to determine what makes a bike and what makes a shoe, and where those lines stop. In the meantime, enjoy every competitive advantage offered to you until someone says you can’t, and if your bike has the correct tube thickness, non-structural fairings and properly sized tires, then, by all means, ride on.

A version of this article originally appeared in Issue Ten of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Crossing the Line.” Subscribe today.

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