Story and photo by Marc Peruzzi
First, a gear editor’s unabashed—OK, slightly abashed—testimonial: Roughly 50 percent of us need prescription eyewear, but only a tiny fraction opt for purpose built, prescription sunglasses for outdoor sports. The abstainers are probably like me. In the 1990s, I purchased RX sunglasses with high hopes. Complete disaster. The wraparound shades came with a clip-on RX insert—you know the look. Staring through the double lens was like gazing through binoculars. My peripheral vision was a blur of frames. In cold weather they fogged uncontrollably. The pricey item went in a drawer. And I became a 20-year contact lens wearer. I’d occasionally ask my optometrist about improvements in RX sport shades, but he was always quick to intimate that prescription wraparounds were distorted junk. Then they happily filled my $350 contact order.
What I didn’t know was that during this same period, SportRX, a specialty prescription eyewear company, as well as in-house engineers at optics makers like Smith and Oakley, were working on the problem. The first solutions were crude but functional—the curvature of the prescription lens would bulge from the center of the sunglass. Eventually, 3D CAD machines allowed for the digital resurfacing of the lens for vastly reduced distortion. And still more recently, SportRX helped develop a software program called Digital Wrap Compensation which made it easy to account for the curvature of a wrapped lens—and adjust the RX accordingly.
Last fall, I ordered RX Oakley Racing Jackets (below) through SportRX, and I’ve been using them cycling, driving, and Nordic skiing ever since. It’s not an overstatement to say this single piece of gear—and I test a lot of gear—has been life changing. Not messing with contacts at 5:00 a.m., in a tent; no discomfort from pollen under contact lenses—I was expecting those benefits. What I didn’t recognize was how miserable dried out contact lenses were making me. They’re like little remoras suckling on your eyes. As for my vision, I always thought it was sharper with contacts than glasses, but no longer.
Most people aren’t getting that message. There are probably a few reasons for this. First: Your optometrist is also in the business of selling glasses and contacts. And second, because the vast majority of the glasses they do sell are flat (little to no wrap) they likely don’t even know about the advancements in sport prescriptions. According to SportRX’s Rob Tavakoli, “It’s heartwrenching to me to see people buy $8,000 carbon bikes and $400 Italian cycling shoes that are willing to compromise their vision.” Yeah, good point.
Spy Frazier Polarized w/ Happy Lens technology: Hmm, the lens makes you happy? Well yeah that’s the claim, and Spy has studies to back it up. Like the Smith ChromaPop, the Happy Lens lets in more good light (greens are greener, reds are redder) but keeps the bad light out. And good light releases serotonin—or so the theory goes. $155
Smith Dover Polarized ChromaPop: We were thinking about our commercial fisherman ski tester when we tried the Dovers. Why? The light brown, ChromaPop lens lets in all available light on bright but graybird days. That, and the polarization and close wrap lend themselves to spotting fish. $140
Zeal Fleetwood: The frame is biodegradable. The hipness is decidedly not. Zeal even writes its product descriptions in beatnik poetry. Or is that “beatnik poetry”? No matter, the translucent frame is derived from cotton. And the polarized lens is easily RX-able. $170
Arnette Slacker: Here’s your riding-the-cruiser-bike-to-the-swimming-hole-with-a-sixer-of-unfiltered-wheat-beer sunglass for under a hundred bucks. The frame is made out of the flexible Grilamid nylon found in $750 ski touring boots. The polycarbonate lens is a relaxing light brown tint. $80; arnette.com
RX Oakley Racing Jacket: Not new, as it was the preferred model of Big George Hincapie in the Tour peloton, but one of the best cycling frames ever made. Also see the venting in the photochromic lens. Buying advice: Cyclists and skiers should skip polarized lenses. They make it tough to spot oil slicks, ice, or to read your bike computer. $220; sportrx.com
From the Early Summer 2014 issue.