When I think about all the brands that made a splashy entrance to the world of cycling and then failed to capitalize on their promise, the list is longer than the credits at the end of a Peter Jackson film. You could play Rush’s 2112 in the background as you rolled the names up the screen. Here’s the amazing part. In a list with hundreds of names, there have been a few that backed up, took stock, and then cautiously took another run at us. Incredibly, Bollé is hot on their third run at cycling and are likely to find that it’s going to take 10 times as much cash to accomplish as much as they did by sponsoring the 7-Eleven team back in 1989. More relevant to our discussion is the emergence of SPY as a credible brand in cycling.
I had a few pair of SPY glasses back in the late ’90s. They were mostly handy for putting on models in photo shoots. There were two reasons for this. First, in the late ’90s, I wasn’t going to be caught wearing something that wasn’t Oakley unless I was reviewing it, so thorough was Oakley’s hold on the cyclist’s self-image. To look right, you really had to wear Oakley. Second, while there was a certain style to the SPY pieces I had, if they didn’t return post-shoot, I wasn’t going to be crushed. At some point they did disappear and I summed up my level of bummitude as wishing they’d nabbed the Dragons and left the SPYs. There are worse things.
Fast forward to 2009 and the entrance of Michael Marckx to SPY Optic. It’s an oft-told tale: Southern California action sports brand has been floundering and needs more than a turnaround, it needs a reboot. As the company’s new president (we can add CEO to that as well), he shook up the organization in a big way. One of the things he did was to take a page from Oakley’s playbook and started sponsoring athletes like crazy. His next step was to sponsor clubs and get pro-forms for discounted shades out to teams desperate for quality at affordable prices. His third step was to reinvent their marketing image. He went for irreverent, suggestive, a touch salty. It ruffled feathers and got attention that a traditional corporate approach would never have received. His fourth step was perhaps his master stroke. He showed that SPY’s re-entrance into cycling wasn’t just lip-service. In sponsoring what has quickly become one of the hardest and most talked about rides in the U.S.—the Belgian Waffle Ride—and by riding at the front himself, Marckx showed that he spins the spin, so to speak. They’ve managed to show they are core in a way that most brands struggle to do for their entire existence.
While bike shops have been slow to come around in terms of carrying the product, SPY eyewear, particularly the Screw (which I’ll get to soon enough) has become the new it eyewear for SoCal cyclists. Neat trick.
So they’ve got the cool image thing down, fine. But what about the product? Well, when I reviewed the Alphas a couple of seasons ago, I remarked that the lens in those shades was one of my all-time faves for overcast conditions. They’ve been doing impressive work in lens design with clarity and variety matched only by Oakley. Which is why I’m reviewing a lifestyle piece, the Frazier. If SPY was all flash and zero substance, I wouldn’t make the effort, but when I began to learn about their Happy Lens, I was intrigued.
It’s rare that a single product can reinvigorate an entire brand, but if you play it well, the right hit with bases loaded can get you four runs.
The Happy Lens is based on a significant body of scientific data. I’m going to try to summarize it briefly here. We know that long-wavelength blue light is good for people. Winter light lacks these wavelengths, and this is what leads (in an eerily apt turn) to the winter blues. My mom has a special light she keeps in her kitchen and turns it on as she reads the paper to help her get through the winter. People around the world suffer with winter depression caused by this missing bit of light. So what the patent-pending Happy Lens does is boost those long-wavelength blues to give you a heavy dose of what you need. Think of it as a multivitamin for the eyes. At the same time, the lens filters out wavelengths that lead to eye fatigue in the short term and macular degeneration in the long term. And because they are polarized, they increase clarity and tone down highlights.
I’ve been alternating between a $200 set of polarized shades from SPY’s aforementioned competitor and the Happy Lens-equipped Fraziers for several months now. I can’t claim I was being scientific about my usage, but I just wanted to see if I experienced a difference between the two at a visceral level. I went months thinking the Fraziers were more comfortable on my face, but being frustrated that they didn’t fit in my sunglass compartment in my car. Then one day after a hard ride I’d driven to, I got back to my car, sat the Happy Lens on my face and in one of those unguarded moments thought, “Ah, that’s better.” That’s when I noticed that I seemed to feel a tad calmer while wearing them. Happier? That’s a fence farther than I can throw, but I’ve concluded they are my favorite pair of lifestyle shades I own.
The Happy Lens with Trident Polarization isn’t cheap. These babies go for $144.95, but that’s 25 percent less than similar quality from Oakley. The frames are molded from Grilamid, which lacks the brittleness found in many other companies’ frames; that flex and forgiveness is handy in a life with little people. I’m just sayin’. They also include Hytrel pads in the nose and temples to keep them in place even if you get a bit sweaty. One of the things I noted in my review of the Alphas is how SPY gives you frame measurements so that you can compare frame shapes on an objective basis to know if they’ll fit your face if you can’t try them on. To my knowledge, that’s unique among lifestyle and action sports eyewear brands.
My one gripe with SPY is that the Happy Lens hasn’t found its way into the Screw or the Alpha, but I’m told that’s coming. Honestly, the Happy Lens is the freshest idea in lens technology since polarization was introduced to the mass market in the 1970s, they’re that good.