The Torqued Wrench: Of money and marginal gains at the Olympic Games

Custom equipment at the Olympics fits the rule, but not its spirit, and changes should be made to level the playing field

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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Pile up a heap of marginal gains and the gains aren’t so marginal anymore. Like drops of water filling a gallon bucket, a tiny piece of a percent here, a few grams there, a bit stiffer all around and suddenly, what was once negligible, almost immeasurable, is providing an appreciable advantage.

That has been the rallying cry of Sky and British Cycling through one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory. It has been their go-to retort to the cynics, those who see season-long stage race dominance plus twelve Olympic medals, eight of them gold, as a sure sign that the Sky-branded olive oil surely must be something more.

But such cynics are not the concern, here. I’m a cynic of a whole different sort.

For the Olympics, most of the British squad rode bikes designed and built by the national team, rather than a traditional manufacturer. The team wanted complete control over as many pieces of the puzzle as possible, from frames to handlebars to cranksets, seeking to squeeze out every possible drop of improvement. Other teams, like Germany and Australia, run similar programs.

The UCI requires that equipment be “of a type that is sold for use by anyone practicing cycling as a sport.” In other words, the bikes and components need to be commercially available to the general public.

In the lead up to the Olympics, the Team GB equipment most certainly was not. But a more recent stipulation to the UCI rule, intended to allow for prototype testing, gives a nine-month window within which the equipment must be made available. All of the team’s cycling equipment is now available through the U.K. Sport website. Sort of.

The site itself is full of stipulations: “The equipment outlined in this document is manufactured in the U.K. to order by hand consequently lead time from order to delivery can sometimes be long,” and “the very low volumes of equipment produced, the construction methods outlined above plus the use of the very best materials means the price of these items is in line with their specialist nature.”

What sort of prices? A full price list is not available, but we were quoted £3,000 ($4,700) for the aero helmet.

Frankly, that’s a bit absurd.

I pick on Team GB specifically because it has been more vocal, and more successful, in its pursuit of marginal gains, including those achieved through custom equipment. Success should be applauded, lauded, and celebrated. It should also be scrutinized.

The gear used by the British squad, as well as the Germans and others, conforms to the letter but certainly not the spirit of the UCI rules, which open with “cyclists will compete in competitions on an equal footing. The principle asserts the primacy of man over machine.”

Each country has made the necessary motions to stay legal, however closely they toe the edge. Blaming them for pushing the envelope would be akin to blaming an Olympic athlete for training harder than his competitors. Claiming that British victories are a result of the equipment is equally foolish.

The problem, if it is a problem at all, is with the vaguely written rule, not the national federations that skirt it.

But do we really want parity?

The question is whether we truly value equipment parity and commercial availability at the Olympics.

We should.

When equipment is commercially available, any athlete can use it. It has generally been developed with the buying public in mind, meaning it is likely a more well-rounded, versatile item rather than one aimed squarely at a specific event. The manufacturer has likely made some compromises for both cost and design aesthetic. They have to actually sell the stuff, after all.

Custom equipment carries no such burdens. It does not need to be commercially viable. In fact, it is perhaps best that it isn’t — the team has, after all, paid heavily for the marginal gains a certain item may provide, and it does no good to place it in the hands of a competitor. A $4,700 helmet is a good example. U.K. Sport clearly couldn’t care less if it sells anything.

For normal professional racing, the current rules hold up quite well. That’s largely thanks to the commercial interests inherent in a sponsor-driven sport: the teams will almost always ride commercially available equipment simply because sponsors have something they are trying to sell. Prototypes are occasionally used, but they come from a company that, in theory, will want to sell the prototype equipment down the line.

The Olympics, with requirements for minimal branding and stringent rules regarding athlete/manufacturer promotion, are of less interest to equipment sponsors and of much more interest to national federations, which often see funding based on medal counts. Rather than sponsor-funded professional teams lining up, the races are country against country, with funding as wildly disparate as each nation’s GDP.

It is at the Olympics, therefore, that we should see the strictest equipment regulations within the sport. Unlike professional racing, there is no check on the pockets of a national body; there are no sponsors to keep happy, no consumers to entice. Engineers can put out their very best without the burden of cost or aesthetic. The potential performance differences between equipment are far greater. The marginal gains might not be so marginal.

Where to draw the line

But where do we stop? Do we set maximum allowable wind tunnel time, as done in Formula 1? Or require “Merckx” bikes, as with the hour record? The line has to be drawn somewhere, and within it, teams will always find any small advantage they can.

It seems the UCI has four options, from one end of the spectrum to the other:

The first is to simply let national bodies loose on the Olympics, and make the Games as much a battle of engineers as athletes. But that goes against just about every Olympic principle.

The second is to maintain the status quo, and continue to allow marginally commercial, purpose-built equipment to be used in the Olympic Games, provided the federations put forth a good-faith effort to commercialize.

The third is to alter the rules to truly require commercial availability. Perhaps a minimum sales figure could be put in place, specifying that a certain number of units must be sold before an item is considered “a type that is sold for use by anyone practicing cycling as a sport.”

The fourth is to standardize bicycles completely, as has been done with the hour record. This isn’t feasible either, since riders could no longer use the bikes they use for the rest of the season.

Given that the current rule works quite well within professional racing, without the influence of non-commercial national federations, the logical direction is option three — make a few tweaks to get government-funded bikes out of the Olympics.

If we are to hold commercial equipment up as a sort of standard of parity, as we do within pro racing, then the same should hold true at the Olympic Games. There is nothing more equal than truly making every piece of equipment available to everyone.

An American in France

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