The Torqued Wrench: Technical populism

The UCI should rewrite the technical rulebook to free up innovation and benefit riders, manufacturers and fans

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Professional cycling is unique, and beautiful, in its populism. With public roads as its canvas, the battlegrounds of cycling’s heroes are the same front lines used on the local lunch ride. The torturous climbs of the Alps, Pyrenées and Dolomites, or the numbing cobbles of the classics can be ridden by anyone, anytime.

Any consumer can purchase the bikes, too. Unremarkable riders can sit astride roughly the same machines as the world’s premier athletes. Try swinging by your Mercedes dealer and picking up Schumacher’s F1 car, or hitting a fastball in Fenway Park. You’ll end up sorely disappointed.

This is an ideal worth protecting, but how to do so? The current methodology looks set to change dramatically, and not necessarily for the better.

Written ideals

So vital is this populism that the UCI has carved it into its technical rulebook. Article 1.3.007 states simply: “Bicycles and their accessories shall be of a type that is sold for use by anyone practicing cycling as a sport. The use of equipment designed especially for the attainment of a particular performance (record or other) shall be not authorized.” The rule requires professional teams to use equipment available to the general public — meaning no prototypes, no pre-release testing, nothing.

While there is certainly value in keeping the bikes used by professionals somewhat similar to the rigs we amateurs can get ahold of, the rule, as written, has always been simply unenforceable.

That has made it one of the most frequently ignored rules in pro racing — at least for now. And for good reason: pro teams are often used as testing grounds for new equipment, honing prototypes so the final version will be ready to take whatever us amateurs can throw at it. Plus, the buzz generated by a team’s use of new equipment is vital to brands, and is a significant motivation in their decision to sponsor a team. Both are important parts of the manufacturer/pro team relationship, and always have been.

“When I was working with the Trek-VW mountain bike team years ago I realized how much damage pros can actually do to equipment,” Mavic PR man (and former VeloNews tech editor) Zack Vestal said. “The pros go so fast, put out so much power, that they accelerate the wear and tear on equipment in ways that are impossible for engineers to foresee or duplicate in the lab. Therefore, the input they offer is really priceless in the development process. We absolutely use it in developing our wheels.”

Prototype and one-off gear is found everywhere in the pro peloton. The technically illegal paraphernalia ranges from custom-built wheels (which, if they have deep rims, officially need to pass the UCI’s wheel destruction test to be used) to modified frames, to custom carbon layups. According to the letter of the law, the custom-built Cervélo Muds with extra mud clearance used by Garmin-Barracuda at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday shouldn’t have been allowed, for example. They were built for a “particular performance.” Garmin is certainly not alone, nor should their frame modification matter to the UCI.

Thankfully, there has long been a sort of loose agreement between manufacturers and the UCI premised on a promise from the former that the components they are placing underneath their pro riders will eventually make it to market. The UCI has turned a blind eye, assuming that while the equipment may not be “for use by anyone practicing cycling” right at that moment, it will be at some point. Or, at the very least, it’s not much different from what is actually available.

When Mavic rolled out their M40 wheels last spring, the hoops were still well over a year away from making it to market. (They still aren’t available.) What is more, they were certainly not in their final iteration; Garmin riders used the wheels in the midst of the design process, helping Mavic improve the design before sending them to market. The UCI didn’t bat an eye.

Solving nonexistent problems

The UCI has always relied on their commissaires to make informed decisions regarding anything new they may come across. But with the current frame sticker program, and the upcoming sticker programs for wheels and other equipment, this lax enforcement may begin to stiffen up.

That is, after all, the stated purpose of the “UCI Approved” sticker programs: to take the onus off commissaires in the field by having equipment approved long before it ever makes it to a race. The stickers take the guessing game out of start line checks: equipment is either approved or not. All that is left to check is position and weight.

Requiring more equipment to be pre-approved for the UCI race circuit will severely cut down on the use of prototypes in competition. We’ve already seen this with frames. The technically illegal Paris-Roubaix Cervélos notwithstanding (and we imagine that the UCI simply didn’t know about them, or didn’t care because the R3 is grandfathered out of the sticker approval process), the time between a new frame’s first use in competition and its official PR launch has already narrowed. The Trek Domane and Specialized’s new Roubaix are just two examples from recent weeks. The UCI lets the cat out of the bag with their Approved Frames list — which is how we knew about the Domane well before its launch — and manufacturers are forced to tighten up their release timelines.

Running early prototypes in races is out of the question, because they would have to be approved and the public would then find out about them. As the sticker program spreads, so too will this trend.

If wheels required approval stickers, Mavic’s prototype M40 could not have been used until its final iteration, unless Mavic was willing to pursue UCI approval for multiple iterations throughout the design process. That’s an expensive proposition.

This brings us back to the populist ideal. Is the goal of having professionals on exactly the same equipment as the rest of us more important than the collaborative prototype and development process as it stands now? The current system, which relies on commissaire judgment (not something I’d normally recommend), seems to be working quite well. Dangerous prototype equipment isn’t flooding pro fields now, and so I see little problem with allowing the current prototype test process to continue.

Perhaps, rather than creating a vastly confusing and expensive system that makes the current rules easier to uphold, which is the precise purpose of the sticker program, the UCI should consider scrapping the whole book and starting over. Reject the rules that simply don’t work and refine those that do. Build technical guidelines with engineering precision, rather than writing them “philosophically.” Instead of stuffing innovation into a box built over a decade ago, write the rules so they allow for some measure of experimentation and advancement. Riders, manufacturers, and fans would all benefit.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.