The winner of the Biggest Game-Changer award is...

While other sports wait for trends to come to them, triathlon has a long, rich history of living at the cutting edge of technology and design. Multisport has led the pack in breaking trends, and while not every tri design is a home run, our sport is a petri dish for exciting innovation. We sat down with our editors and a team of gear experts to whittle through the most exciting and impactful people, products, and more from the last year to see who is truly deserving of Triathlete’s designs of the year. We’ll be announcing the winners one by one here on Triathlete.com. Pick up the March/April issue for a complete list of winners (and don’t forget to enter to win the bike featured on the cover). The winner of the Biggest Game-Changer award is…

Carbon-Plated Shoes

It’s rare that a design comes along that is so revolutionary that it literally changes the rules of the sport. While Nike’s % line (which includes the Vaporfly 4%, the NEXT%, and now the Alphafly Next%) may have barely skirted under the new rules handed down by track’s governing body, World Athletics, no one can argue the rule itself is a direct result of Nike’s new carbon-plated design. 

Nike’s current design uses a carbon-fiber plate sandwiched between two layers of special foam. The idea being that the foam cushions impact, while the carbon plate helps return energy back to the runner to prevent that “dead feeling” that piles of foam alone would create. Nike has said that tests confirm at least a 4% increase in efficiency with their % line—meaning that runners will be at least 4% more efficient, not necessarily 4% faster.

The carbon-plate design itself is nothing new for this year, but the speed at which other brands have adopted it into their own lines is: Hoka, Asics, Brooks, New Balance, and Saucony have all followed suit with similar carbon designs in the last 10 months, and though the new rules may prevent excess in the new technology, it also ensures that demand is high. Who doesn’t want to push the limits of legally fast?

 At least half of the pro field at Kona in 2019 was wearing some form of carbon-plated shoe, and a staggering number of age groupers were spotted in just the Nikes alone. In the marathon world, Eliud Kipchoge wore a prototype pair of the Alphaflys last October to run his 1:59:40 exhibition marathon in Vienna. Needless to say, right now the running and multisport world certainly believes carbon-plated shoes are the fastest thing out there. That’s when you know you’re designing right.

Honorable Mention: SRAM eTap AXS 12-Speed Shifting

While it’s one thing to simply raise the number of gears in your rear cassette from 11 to 12—as SRAM has done with its new eTap AXS system—it’s another to reinvent the way shifting is done. By using a tighter range with fewer jumps per teeth, SRAM’s new wireless groupset may not necessarily seem game-changing at first glance, but it opens the door for some pretty exciting advances in everything from drivetrain to bike design itself. 

By using a different spread of gear ranges, SRAM has not only made the shifting range wider, but its new design brings the reality of efficient front-derailleur-free shifting that much closer to practical reality. Whereas before a cassette with a 10-28t range might have some very big jumps that would compromise shifting, now that same range is much smoother. Smoother shifting throughout the range means a wider range is possible; with a wider range (read: more easier gears while retaining hard gears in the rear), there’s less of a need for a second chainring up front. By eliminating the second front chainring—and the front derailleur altogether—bike cost can go (slightly) down, we’ll save weight, and most importantly bikes no longer have to adhere to a design that requires a seat tube to place the front derailleur. This could be a big win for unconventional frame designers (hello, triathletes!). 

While the RED eTap AXS 12 starts at $2,800 for the 1X aero setup, the bigger game changer for every day riders is how quickly SRAM made its more budget wireless shifting group, Force, available. Now for just around $2,000, triathletes can get wireless 12-speed shifting on a 1X rim brake setup, a pricepoint that may actually affect manufacturers’ OEM spec. Even though adding one more speed may just seem like a predictable escalation in the world of drivetrains, this step could be the one to push a lot of tri bike design over the edge.