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Professor Multisport: Why Are Triathletes Such Early Adopters?

Find semi-scientific answers to your most pressing questions, each month in Triathlete magazine.

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Find semi-scientific answers to your most pressing questions, each month in Triathlete magazine.

Sometimes it seems like just when you’ve saved up for a new bike, you’ll show up to a club ride to see someone pedaling a model that’s one of only three in existence that they got through an Italian cousin who’s friends with the designer who’s currently finalizing aero testing at a secret alpine estate where there’s a natural outdoor wind tunnel to confirm it is, indeed, the fastest ever before it’s offered to the general public. And it makes espresso! (Just kidding.) But your observation is astute—many of us tend to be early adopters, unafraid to try something super new. To understand why, we must first look at the origins of the concept. And so we turn to Idaho in the late 1930s.

That’s when a young Harvard sociology Ph.D. named Bryce Ryan took a job at Iowa State University’s Department of Economics and Sociology. Iowa was big on farming, and the university was big on solving agricultural problems, like how to deal with rodents and weeds. Ryan was not—the whole agricultural thing made him a wee bit uncomfortable since he didn’t have a farming background. He was, however, interested in why people make illogical economic decisions, like buying a two-seater sports car when you have a kid on the way. And so he set up a study that would make himself and his university happy.

He decided to look into what made people choose to use hybrid seed corn. The new seed type had been developed about 10 years earlier, but not all farmers decided to use it immediately, even though it generally increased corn production by 20 percent and was more drought resistant than your typical corn seed.

So Ryan sent out his research assistant, Neal C. Gross, to do the dirty work of interviewing 345 farmers to find out why the heck it took them so long to use the seeds. What Ryan and Gross found: Farmers did what their friends did. It took about five years for most farmers to try the seeds because they didn’t want to be the first on the block to use this fancy schmancy corn—they wanted to know their buddies were happy hybrid corn users before diving in and taking the risk themselves that their investment might not work.

The farmers who tried it straight away—at least on a few test acres—tended to have learned about the stuff from sales reps and were more “cosmopolite,” or worldly, an attribute determined by how many annual trips they made to Des Moines. And for five years they were presumably sticking it to their fellow farmers with amazing, beautiful crops that didn’t poop out during the severe droughts of the mid-1930s.

Those guys would be dubbed early adopters. Like them, triathletes have a bit of fear of missing out (aka FOMO) when it comes to new inventions: If there’s something out there that’ll speed us up or make training more fun, we’ll be darned if we miss out on five years of funner, faster triathloning because we didn’t try something sooner. A good look online at some research and what the pros are doing—our modern version of being cosmopolite—and we’ve got our minds made up to try the same thing. All it takes is a stellar performance or two to send thousands of us shopping. And this theory is absolutely 100 percent totally valid because that’s exactly what happened with aerobars.

In 1987, a pro named Brad Kearns became the first triathlete to race with the funky handlebars. As Kearns tells it, one glance at his buddy Johnny Goldsmith in the aero position, and he got it. “He was basically resting like his hands were on the back of a couch and he looked so much more comfortable,” Kearns says.

Johnny G., the inventor of Spinning, was training for the cross-country cycling event Race Across America and nabbed a pair of aerobars from a ski coach named Boone Lennon, who is generally credited with their invention. Lennon was selling them under the Scott brand with an ad picturing a skier in the tuck position superimposed with a cyclist riding with aerobars. Next to that, there was a cyclist with his hands in the drops creating a parachute-like effect. “You look at the picture and in one second you’re like, ‘This is the greatest invention of all time,’” Kearns says, in the classic words of an early adopter.

Kearns got a pair the day before heading to a duathlon in Palm Springs, Calif. He rode with them for three miles at home and decided to use them in the race, totally ignoring the “nothing new on race day” mantra. Then Kearns crushed the bike and won the race, and his fellow pros, including Andrew McNaughton, wanted his bars. McNaughton got a pair, then went on a winning streak, dominating superbiker Mike Pigg. Then Pigg got a pair and won seven races himself. “I was the first person to debut the bars at a multisport race in February,” Kearns says. “Then by August, you’d go to Chicago, the big race, and of 4,000 bikes, 3,000 of them had aerobars.”

The early adopter is in our genes, you see. It would’ve taken five more years to see that kind of aerobar love in a bike race. In fact, it almost did. The only reason cyclists adopted them any sooner was a Tour de France arse whooping handed out by Greg LeMond, a unicorn of an early-adopting cyclist. “It was ’89 and cyclists still hadn’t embraced the concept,” Kearns says. “LeMond won the Tour by eight seconds because he beat Fignon in the final time trial in that beautiful aero position.