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Belgian junior Jens Verbrugghe had his Time Trial World Championship hopes dashed when his bike was rejected for illegal gearing moments before the start.
The young Belgian, who finished second in the European Time Trial championships, had to switch to an unfamiliar bike from the Belgian federation’s fleet of spares and ultimately finished 26th of the 52 starters in the Junior Time Trial event.
Under current UCI regulations, set to be scrapped on January 1st after the emergence of “new medical evidence”, “the maximum gear ratio authorised is that which gives a distance covered per pedal revolution of 7.93 metres.” For most juniors, that has always meant a 52-chainring up front paired to a 14 sprocket on the rear, although other combinations will work with varying-sized tyres.
Problems arose for Verbrugghe, son of former pro and current Israel-Premier Tech Director Sportif, Rik Verbrugghe, when commissaires checked his gearing with a “rollout test” moments before the start, as per standard protocol. Despite reportedly passing a gear check two hours earlier, Verburgghe’s gear was found to roll out 15cm over the 7.93-metre limit, with a 53 tooth front chainring found to be the offending culprit.
With only moments to spare before his time trial start time, Verburgghe was left with no option but to race on a spare bike provided by the Belgian squad. Although the bike appears to have already been set up for Verburgghe, undoubtedly it would not have been a perfect match and presumably been less optimised, not to mention all the added stress for the young rider who will only 18 years old on Friday.
The Belgian Junior Time Trial Championships silver medalist, who will race for The Groupama-FDJ development squad for the next two seasons, was understandably devastated at the finish line.
No sooner had Verbrugghe crossed that finish line than questions arose as to how such a mistake could happen. HLN.be first reported on Verbrugghe’s gear restriction infringement and quotes Belgian Cycling’s Technical Director, Frederik Broché, as explaining that while the matter was “a shame”, suggestions the gear combination was an intentional attempt to give Verbrugghe an illegal advantage were “not true”. Broché went on to reiterate that “malicious intent seems out of the question to me.”
While not on the ground at the World Championships, and not knowing Verbrugghe or Broché, it does seem unlikely any rider or federation would intentionally line up at the UCI World Championships with oversized gearing, given the almost certainty of getting caught. Every rider’s bike must undergo the rollout check prior to the start, and too large a gear is always likely to fall foul of the check.
How then, does an experienced second-year junior rider end up on the start line with an illegal gear? The answer may lie with Verburgghe’s 2023 team.
Groupama-FDJ provided Verburgghe with a Lapierre time trial bike ahead of the World Championships and his move to the squad for the next two seasons. If it was the U23 decision of the Groupama-FDJ squad that provided the bike, it seems plausible the mechanics assembling Verbrugghe’s bike wouldn’t have had access to, or even thought of, installing a 52-tooth chainring on a time trial bike. Furthermore, given the French Federation does not apply the 7.93 metre gear restriction to regional level junior races in France, again, the idea of fitting a 52-tooth chainring may have slipped through the cracks at Verbrugghe’s new team.
Also possible is the bike was fitted with a “standard” 53 with the intention that Verbrugghe would replace it upon receiving the bike, something that was perhaps not communicated to the young rider or maybe it was something he simply forgot.
HLN.be quotes Broché as explaining, “the bike was prepared by his (future) team and came to us that way.” Broché went on to explain that 52-tooth chainrings are “hardly sold anymore, you really have to look for it”, which is true for the 11-speed Shimano groupset fitted to Verbrugghe’s Lapierre TT bike.
Our mechanics have assembled 120 bicycles here. We assume that the bicycles will arrive with the correct resistance. There is no malicious intent involved here. This is a human error on the part of several people: the rider, the mechanic of his team, our people. We are not going to point the finger at anyone, it is a shared responsibility.”Belgian Cycling’s Technical Director, Frederik Broché
It is not entirely clear just how much advantage Verburgghe might have gained had the gear infringement passed through the rollout check. However, photos of Verbrugghe training on the Lapierre suggest he was planning to race with what appears to be a 25 mm Continental Competition tubular, in which case the larger 53:14 gear rollout would provide an extra 7cm per revolution above the 7.93 metres stated in the regulations. In other words, a marginal gain.
Nevertheless, it is a gain, and comparing it to the rollout 7.83m rollout with the typical 52×14 junior gear, the gain is slightly larger again. In fact, at 100rpm and the same 25 mm tyre, the 52×14 equates to 48kph, while the 53-tooth setup gains the rider a full kilometre per hour extra at 49kph. That’s the kind of marginal gain any time triallist would snap your arm off for.
Regardless of intent or not, Verbrugghe’s nightmare is likely one final hurrah for the junior gear restrictions before it is abolished on January 1st. Unless, of course, someone makes a similar mistake ahead of the men’s and women’s junior road races on Friday and Saturday.