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The Explainer: Olympic aspirations and disc brakes

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Nov. 19, 2008
  • Updated Nov. 3, 2009 at 11:50 PM EDT
‘Cross king Sven Nys had to switch to a mountain bike in order to realize his Olympic dreams.

Photo: Graham Watson

Dear Explainer dude,
I know that most of us talk as if this time of year is known as the “off-season,” but for some of us — and me in particular — this is the height of the cycling season. I love ‘cross. When I ride on the road, I’m thinking of cyclocross; when I ride my mountain bike it’s because I’m working on my ‘cross technique.

Well, there have always been a couple of things that have bothered me when it comes to cyclocross.

One is: why isn’t cyclocross an Olympic event? It seems to me that it would be the perfect way for cycling to get into the Winter Olympics. It has a huge fan base in Europe and no one would disagree that it’s growing here in the States. How come the UCI doesn’t push for it?

Two, why doesn’t the UCI allow riders to use disc brakes in cyclocross? I use ‘em and I love ‘em, but you never see riders like Sven Nys or the biggies using them. As I understand it, the UCI has banned them from ‘cross. How come?
Jay Whorton
Detroit, Michigan


Dear Jay,
You’ve hit upon two questions that have bothered us for a long, long time, so we appreciate your letter.

First, let’s tackle the Olympics question. To start, tere is one major, major urdle in that the Winter Olympics requires that included sports are normally contested on snow and/or ice. While many of us who have been to U.S. nationals in Kansas City or the 1999 worlds in Poprad, Slovakia, know that ‘cross can be contested on ice and snow, it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s assume that ‘cross gets over that issue and the sport is presented as either a Summer event or it is introduced as some snowy version of ‘cross that ensures that it makes it into the Winter Games. Even if ‘cross fans got past that problem, they would still face the problem of getting a new discipline introduced to the Games. The International Olympic Committee has some pretty stringent requirements for the introduction of new sports. Both the Summer and Winter Games have established upper limits on the number of events that can be included.

IOC president Jacques Rogge has made it clear that the organization’s policy generally dictates that if a new event is to be included in the Games, an existing sport needs to drop out.

“For every novelty, we will need to give up a discipline,” Rogge said in 2004. “Nothing can be added.”

We’ve seen that occur in the past, with the elimination of some track events — the women’s 500-meter time trial, among others — in favor of the inclusion of BMX in Beijing. BMX is a good example of a sport being added by allowing the affected governing body to shuffle its deck and change the type of disciplines contested within its own number of allocated slots.

As we know, cycling doesn’t have any Winter Olympic slots to play with. The inclusion of cyclocross in the Winter Olympics’ schedule would, therefore, have to come about by heavy lobbying on the part of the UCI, not only to introduce a new sport, but to eliminate some other governing body’s allocation.

Now folks, here in the U.S. we’ve just finished what some would define as the longest presidential campaign in history. But as far as politics goes, you ain’t seen nuthin’ until you try to keep track of the goings on in the Lausanne headquarters of the IOC. Indeed, if you want a look at the inner workings of that august organization, I would recommend a good read in Vyv Simsom’s 1992 exposé, The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics. It’s full of amazing stories, some of which would make even Machiavelli blush. I believe it’s out of print now, but you should be able to track down a used copy on eBay or Amazon.

That said, cycling does have at least one major player in the upper halls of power at the IOC in former UCI president Hein Verbruggen. Verbruggen, fresh off of his chairmanship of the Coordination Commission for the Beijing Games, has considerable pull in the IOC. Just don’t expect that he’ll be cashing in any of his political capital to push the cause of cyclocross.

Back when he was president of the UCI, we would often ask him about the Olympic prospects of the discipline, usually when we were watching events at the world ‘cross championships with him. He didn’t seem all that receptive.

Verbruggen argues that ‘cross is still too geo-centric to fit in the “global strategy” of advancing all aspects of the sport.

“It’s often dominated by riders from one or two countries,” he said right after another top-five Belgian sweep in Monopoli, Italy, in 2003. “It has increasing appeal in the U.S, maybe Canada, but it’s essentially limited to a few European countries: Belgium being the first, with the Netherlands, France, Italy and the Czech Republic. It really isn’t a global sport, now is it?”

A sound argument, we concede, but we do have an equally sound one-word response: Curling?

What about them brakes?
As for the second issue, the absence of disc brakes in UCI-sanctioned cyclocross events, the answer is an interesting — albeit convoluted — one.

First off, the UCI rules are really important to a small core of the upper elements of the sport. There are maybe about 150 to 200 riders who are directly affected by the rule. The rest of us can pretty much use any darn brake we want to.

We’re pretty sure that everyone who has heard the fingernails-across-a-chalkboard sounds coming off their rims after riding through muck and mire and applying their brakes hasn’t thought of how cool it would be to use disc brakes on a ‘cross bike. It’s a solution that has worked nicely for mountain bike racers, although some weight weenies still opt for V-brakes when gram-counting is an issue.

By now, there are plenty of manufacturers willing and able to produce disc-braked ‘cross bikes, since there are plenty of them on the market. To be sure, disc brakes are not the perfect solution to braking problems in mud, but from our own experience, they’re a heck of a lot better than cantilevers in the sloppiest conditions.

It ain’t rocket science: Cannondale is one of several manufacturers who’ve produced disc-equipped ‘cross bikes.

Photo: Cannondale

Admittedly, disc braking systems are somewhat heavier, but that is slowly changing as companies further refine the designs. We’d sure like to see riders at the upper levels of the sport have the option.

Anyway, you can certainly use them in ‘cross events here in the U.S., unless it’s a UCI-sanctioned event. Actually, the UCI has not actually banned disc brakes in cyclocross, it just hasn’t approved their use yet.

There are two factors at play here. One is regulatory and the other … well, it seems to depend on one personality in particular.

First off, UCI rules do require that new innovations be approved by the UCI executive committee. Specifically, UCI rule 1.3.004 bars the use of any innovation, whether it is “used, worn or carried by any rider or other license holder during a race (bicycles, equipment mounted on them, accessories, helmets, clothing, means of communication, etc.)” without prior approval of that panel.

The idea has been floated a couple of times, but it’s been shot down, largely on the recommendations of the UCI’s “technical consultant” Jean Wauthier. Wauthier, whose technical expertise in cycling comes from his background in industrial ergonomics, is also the guy who advanced the rule changes that shot down some of Graeme Obree’s innovative approaches to time trialing.

It was Wauthier, for example, who proposed a blanket rule limiting the distance of handlebar extensions in an effort to eliminate the so-called “Superman” position. Whether that was a laudable goal or not, his approach was arguably off-the-mark. By adopting a uniform standard, with no allowance for the rider’s height, the net result was that short riders still had access to what amounted to the Superman position, while taller riders found themselves scrunched up in something akin to the fetal position while racing against the clock.

Wauthier is also the guy who killed Cinelli’s “Spinaci” bars, those small extensions that allowed road riders to assume a more aero position while trying to escape on a break. Again, the goal may, or may not, have been valid, but the result is, of course, that we now see riders using their shift cables — or nothing at all — to achieve the same position.

You might guess by now that we’re not huge fans of Mr. Wauthier. We’ve tried interviewing him and it’s nearly impossible to do so. He just doesn’t make a lot of sense from the technical side of things. At first, we thought that perhaps it was because of the language barrier, so we brought along a French-speaking colleague with a strong background in the technical side of cycling. Nope, it didn’t help. After a 30-minute interview in French, our associate looked at us and said, “I have no idea what the hell the guy’s been talking about.”

So, it may just be that the UCI regs in general and Wauthier in particular are just two more hurdles ‘crossers will have to get over before we can see discs make their way into the top-levels of cyclocross.

More news from the ‘cross committee
The good news is that one – or both – of those hurdles may soon be cleared. According to American Adam Myerson, a member of the UCI’s cyclocross commission, there is a movement afoot to allow the use of discs in ‘cross. Myerson reports that the proposal has been largely driven by manufacturers, and from MTB riders who are also racing ‘cross and prefer disc brakes.

The UCI ‘cross commission voted to allow disc brakes. Now the ball is in the management committee’s court. The management committee will meet again in January during the world cyclocross championships and the disc brake question is on the agenda. For them to approve it, they would have to find a way to separate out a rule allowing for disc brakes in ‘cross but not for the road, or decide to allow disc brakes on the road as well.

If approved, you could see disc brakes in UCI events as soon as next season.


“The Explainer” is a regular feature on VeloNews.com. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling that our editors might be able to answer, feel free to send your query to WebLetters@CompetitorGroup.com and we’ll take a stab at answering. Not all letters will be published and some questions may be combined with those of other readers. Please include your full name and hometown.

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