Close your eyes and picture Andy Hampsten. What does he have on his face? If you don’t see a pair of Eyeshades, it’s likely that you’re picturing a different Andy Hampsten to the winner of the 1988 Giro d’Italia.
Oakley’s eyewear has become deeply entwined with the fabric of professional cycling. The connection to certain riders and events is so strong that it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Imagine now that you have grown up treasuring the pivotal moments of cycling’s recent history; that your desire to emulate the local pro led you to work in bike shops, simply to gain the discount that might at last allow you to afford the same glasses. Imagine that later you are entrusted with creating a new design for the same manufacturer, working with a champion whose accomplishments far outstrip those of the rider you grew up idolising. Pressure?
“When I got here, among all these people that had invented these things that I had enjoyed for so many years, the realisation was that there was a big responsibility to not screw it up. It’s a huge legacy that your trusted with.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of the Jim Jannards, but at the same time there’s a huge responsibility to my people: to the cyclists, the people that I grew up with, that kid that I was, using every bit of money he has to buy a piece of eyewear. It’s definitely a responsibility.”
Ryan Calilung tells a good story. And if you ask Mark Cavendish, he’ll tell you Calilung makes a good set of glasses, too.
November 2013. It’s the off-season and Mark Cavendish is in southern California with his agent, visiting sponsors, and, one imagines, occasionally turning his legs in the sunshine during the single month of the year that the professional cyclist is freed from the otherwise unremitting schedule of training camps and racing.
He visits Oakley’s Foothill Ranch headquarters, there to meet with Calilung and his colleagues. It is a relaxed environment and a refreshing change from the conditions under which they normally meet: conditions in which the designer is told that the rider can spare half-an-hour between massage and dinner, with the implied suggestion to make what he has to say quick.
Cavendish is – famously or infamously, depending on your ability to meet his expectations – a perfectionist. He spends much of his time telling Calilung about the new windows he is planning to install in his kitchen and dining room.
A greater impression is created by his description of the final 200m of a bunch sprint. Calilung is left with visions of gladiatorial combat, and, critically, of the combatant’s need for protection. It’s an analogy I’ve heard elsewhere, from the man charged with clothing Team Sky’s “gladiatorial monks”. With Cavendish, competing in such close proximity to his rivals, and at such speed, it seems still more apt.
Emotions and science
The outcome of Cavendish’s conversation is the Oakley Jawbreaker. In-keeping with Oakley’s previous contributions to the field of cycling eyewear, it is a striking design, notable chiefly for the enormous lens, which affords a concomitantly large field of view.
It is the final result of countless revisions from original sketches that Calilung describes as “more derivative of an orbit shape.”
The Jawbreaker’s huge screen is far removed from a traditional, circular lens, and is the result, Calilung says, of a more considered design approach.
“I think we’ve really matured in our process here. We were like: ‘Wait. Great idea. Great idea. Let’s wait and see if we can add more to it, instead of taking this visceral, emotional response and just marching towards the product.’
“And when we started applying the science, becoming more objective than this subjective, feeling/emotion that we have, that’s when we really started to see the field of view: that the protection isn’t any good, if you can’t see!
“There’s only so much protection you can use if you can’t see what you’re doing. That’s when we searched around to quantify what we were doing, and that’s when we found the eye tracking technology.”
There is a joke at Foothill Ranch: that the technology used to develop the Jawbreaker lens was based on another extreme sport – shopping. Calilung and his team discovered an eye-tracking device used with focus groups by grocery chains to establish the most effective shop layout. In short, which shelf does the customer look at first? Which product?
“We took it one step further. There are two small infrared cameras and two small infrared emitters that shine and measure the reflection off your pupil. We fixed those cameras in space, relative to a frame and a lens and using a bit of math and trigonometry, we could backwards calculate where you’re looking through the lens.”
We return to the gladiator Cavendish, crouched low over the handlebars, chin down, eyes up, in what Calilung calls “the fighter stance”. The importance for him of eyewear that grants vision wherever his eyes are positioned is obvious and the Manxman has reported “an appreciable difference” in the field of view from his new specs.
This is not by chance. Calilung made two of Oakley’s multitude of in-house cyclists replicate Cavendish’s position, sprinting in the Foothill Ranch car park with prototypes equipped with the tracking technology.
For the Jawbreaker, Oakley used Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) – computer modeling, typically used by aerodynamicists to simulate airflow – for the first time. Their goal was not to improve aero efficiency, but to see how channeling air more effectively might prevent heat build up.
“We found that the geometry of the frame can be tuned to work with the vents [in the lens]. So the venting system is a complete system. One acts as an inlet, and the other works more like an exhaust. The bottom vent typically works more like an exhaust, where it allows relief of pressure from behind the lens and the air can come from the top and down.
“Then you combine that with the system at the edge of the frame, on the side. The angle of it is tuned to prevent a pressure build up in this area to allow the micro-climate to exhaust from the side. The pivot for the jaw is called the gimble. Inside there, originally there wasn’t a hole. Then we found with the addition of that small hole, not only does it look really cool but it actually has a functional benefit.”
The gimble is, in essence, a ball joint, but one carefully packaged to fit within the Jawbreaker’s prevailing aesthetic, rather than disrupt it. It is one of 27 pieces in the Jawbreaker, what Calilung describes as “purposeful complexity”. The final design is the result of a whittling down of still more complex systems to allow function to exist within a sleek form. For Oakley – inventors of the Eyeshade and the M Frame – a killer aesthetic is not optional.
A point of order: the Prizm lens was not designed alongside the Jawbreaker, nor is it intended solely for use with this frame, or indeed solely for cycling. But it would be remiss, with Calilung on the phone, not to discuss it.
In short, it is an additive to the polymer from which the lens is fashioned and can be tuned to accentuate certain light conditions. The tuning makes the lens specific to certain environments: Oakley makes a Prizm lens for its snow and golf ranges, for example, and for road and trail within its family of cycling products.
Its advantage to the road cyclist is most obvious. Differences in the condition of the road surface and the camber of corners can catch the rider off guard. “We found that when you let all the light in, it tends to mute the really fine details,” Calilung explains.
“With the road, there’s such a small margin of error for traction, and seeing that was really important: cracks in the road, any changes in the condition of the road surface. There’s a lot of descending here in southern California with trees: so transition from light to dark. The human eye can only respond so quickly. Is there any way when you go into that dark position, and your eyes haven’t adjusted yet, that we can at least help you to see what you’re about to ride over?”
Calilung tells an amusing story about the moment Cavendish received his new glasses. Back at Foothill Ranch, the Manxman pedaled to the front of the building to ride out with Oakley marketing manager Steve Blick and Chad McConnelly, lead engineer on the Jawbreaker.
Cavendish found almost the entire Oakley staff gathered at the front of the building for a separate occasion. He looked at them. They looked at him. “People were like, ‘Look at that guy over there, he looks like Mark Cavendish,’” Calilung recalls, laughing.
He gives the impression that Cavendish was a satisfied customer. “It’s hard to describe the look on his face, but he was like ‘Woah!’ He had heard different bits of pieces and we had asked him questions about it, but this was the first time he had seen the whole thing.”
History will judge if the Jawbreaker attains the same iconic status as the Eyeshade. In Cavendish, Calilung and Oakley are guaranteed exposure for their design.
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