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Why regulate at all?

  • By Charles Pelkey
  • Published Mar. 3, 2010
  • Updated Mar. 3, 2010 at 12:52 PM EDT

Dear VeloNews,
I’m sure this question has been answered before, but I have never been given a satisfactory answer. What is the reason for all of these UCI regulations on road and time trial bikes? Is it a safety thing? To my knowledge, there are no such rules for mountain bikes in the World Cup circuit. What gives?

Thanks,

Cyrus Dreyer
Santa Barbara, California

Dear Cyrus,
It’s a question that comes up quite often and the short answer can best be summed up in one word: “tradition.” But that’s an admittedly incomplete answer.

If the UCI were guided entirely by tradition, of course, we’d still be riding heavy steel bikes without derailleurs. While the rules are often viewed as arbitrary, they certainly haven’t stymied innovation. One look at my first racing bike — a beautiful 1979 Pinarello, with Nuovo and Super Record components — reminds me of that whenever I go into my own garage. Nonetheless, the rules have cause no end of frustration among teams, riders and, above all, manufacturers.

It's the juncture at the headtube that caused the Shiv to be banned.

The UCI itself says that the guiding principle behind its technical rules is to “assert the primacy of man over machine,” and the governing body goes on to say that adherence to its rules ensures both “sporting fairness” and “safety.”

There are rules governing mountain bike design, but the UCI has historically been much, much easier in accepting innovative ideas in the fat tire world than it has when it comes to road bikes. Indeed, UCI regulations specifically exclude mountain bikes when it comes to the strictest application of its rules:

Except in mountain bike racing, no technical innovation regarding anything used, worn or carried by any rider or license holder during a competition (bicycles, equipment mounted on them, accessories, helmets, clothing, means of communication, etc.) may be used until approved by the UCI executive bureau.

Nonetheless, the technical rules do refer to an “official standard for mountain bikes,” (although it hasn’t yet fully promulgated that standard) and we suspect extreme designs may not pass muster.

On the road side, the UCI’s most recent example — and probably what triggered your question — is its ruling that the Specialized Shiv doesn’t fully comply with rule 1.3.024, which limits tubes to a 3:1 aspect ratio. That rule has been around for a while, but the UCI announced last year that it would begin strict enforcement in 2010. The Shiv’s problem is that it initially appears to comply, but that’s only if you measure the tubes themselves. If one measures the juncture of the head, top and down tubes, the ratio is exceeded at points. (There are unconfirmed reports that the issue came up when a tape-measure wielding director of another team pointed that out to the men in the gray coats.)

As you might recall, much of the current debate can trace its roots back to those heady days in the ’80s when bike designers looked at the then-applicable rules and began to think of ways they might push the envelope. The basic rule said that the bicycle was a two-wheeled, human-powered machine without fairings or other equipment designed to “cheat” the wind.  The UCI ban on fairings had been widely viewed as a ban on added equipment, but the questions began to arise when those fairings were integrated into functional equipment.

Moser's hour bike at the Sanctuary of Ghisallo. Was this the start of the trouble? | Ben Delaney Photo

Until Franceso Moser hit the track on January 19, 1984, to attack Eddy Merckx’s 12-year-old 49.431km hour record, road and track bikes were pretty much double-diamond-shaped steel rigs, with traditional drop-design handlebars. Moser showed up on the track with two disc wheels, a frame with a radically sloping top tube and bull horn handlebars and promptly hit 50.808km. Four days later, he came back with an even weirder bike and clocked 51.151km. The results, however, invariably led to the question of whether the bike or Francesco should be credited with breaking Merckx’s record.

No matter what the answer, the proverbial barn door had been opened and we saw a host of “funny bikes” show up at the L.A. Olympics later that year. The design changes just kept coming and the UCI wrestled with each, with race commissaires often unable to decide whether to allow a new design or piece of equipment or ban it. There was often little direction from headquarters in Switzerland and a lot of the decisions that were made on-the-scene would have ramifications that were felt for years afterward.

Boone Lennon patented his aero bar design in 1987, further complicating the question of fairings, given that the biggest object on the bike — otherwise known as a rider — was suddenly doing a lot to cut through the wind. While Moser’s bullhorns looked aero, those bars essentially mimicked a rider using the drops on his traditional bars. These new-fangled aero things changed the position entirely. That rider-as-fairing issue was highlighted by Greg LeMond’s famous eight-second victory at the 1989 Tour de France, when he used the Lennon-designed Scott clip-on aero bars in that final time trial into Paris (For purposes of full-disclosure, I have to admit to declining Boone Lennon’s offer to sell me a pair of some weird-looking handlebars before the 1987 national time trial championships. Okay, okay, so I was wrong.).

We all know of the records and ensuing battles fought by Graeme Obree, who set two hour records (51.596 in 1993 and 52.713 in `94) using that famously weird scrunched up “praying mantis” position for the first and the extremely stretched “superman” position for the latter.

To say the least, the traditionalists were outraged. During my tenure as technical editor of VeloNews, back in the ‘90s, I would often attend the UCI management and technical committee meetings that coincided with world championship events (when they weren’t in executive session). To say the least, they were quite concerned about the flurry of changes taking place in bike design. They had visions of the UCI turning into a variant of the Human Powered Vehicle Association and that, they said, would not represent the “spirit” of the sport.

Then UCI president Hein Verbruggen said that he “would hate to see cycling become a competition of manufacturers and designers, where the role of the cyclist is secondary, becoming something like an operator or a driver, rather than an athlete.”

Wauthier's nightmare?

Okay, so it’s a bit of hyperbole, but we get the point. Ultimately, the UCI appointed Jean Wauthier as its technical director. I’ve said before that I believe that to have been a poor choice. Wauthier is an industrial ergonomics specialist, but he’s not a bike designer. He has, in the past, come up with some very, very strange rules — applying universal measurement standards to bikes no matter what their size, for example.

Having attended a couple of his lectures, I thought my confusion was largely based in the fact that I wasn’t an expert in the field … until a friend with a solid engineering background once looked at me and asked “do you have any idea what this guy is talking about?” Then I got worried.

While I still believe that Wauthier’s appointment, and the often-arbitrary rules that resulted, represent an over-reaction to the design changes of the ’80s and ’90s, I think things have settled down at the UCI and the technical committee is actually beginning to issue clearer standards. They’re far from perfect, but they are better.

The ideal is for the UCI to issue a clear and consistent set of guidelines that leave little doubt in designers’ minds. The last few years have shown that even with relatively stringent rules in place, innovative designers can come up with a host of really cool ideas that still fall within the parameters of those restrictions. Furthermore, there should be a schedule of committee sessions whose sole agenda is to review design applications that come close to the line. Clear rules and the timely means by which those rules can be applied would save companies from investing valuable capital in designs that are subsequently ruled to be in violation. (Legal or not, though, I would still give my left arm for a Shiv… that thing is pretty cool.)

I like the idea of certain restrictions applying to competitive road racing. I actually buy into the idea that it should be more about the rider than the bike. I, too, would shudder at the sight of fully-faired recumbents contesting time trials in the Tour or the Giro. I think most of us can agree on that, without being regarded as Luddites whose ideal might be guys in wool jerseys plying roads on single-speed steel bikes with a spare tubular looped over their shoulders. I also think that in order to be fair, economical and sensible, the rules need to be as clear as possible and that anyone who has a shred of doubt can get a quick and definitive response from the folks in charge of the sport.
Charles


Email Charles Pelkey

“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.
 

FILED UNDER: Explainer / No Spoil

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