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Commentary: It’s time to take on the UCI

We small framebuilders apparently should all be overjoyed that the UCI has agreed to make it easier and cheaper for small framebuilders to get UCI approval for their frames and forks for use in UCI-sanctioned races, and the approval rolls over year after year. But I just see it as more power-grabbing from an organization that has no oversight and cannot be removed by recall election.

UCI bike design regulations: They might work for some, but don't work for all. | Illustration by Mike Reisel.

Sure, it’s better that it costs less for a framebuilder to get a UCI-approved sticker than it did last month, but the fact that certification is required at all for frames that are made out of metal tubing in designs that are very little changed from those of 100 years ago I find to be ludicrous.

I believe that it simply amounts to a tax by an unelected governing body on all framebuilders for building frames that might be raced in UCI-sanctioned events. Add to that the fact that the UCI’s frame dimension rules don’t take into account riders at either end of the size spectrum on bikes that are designed rationally for them, and the fact that the UCI is extending its tentacles to control ever more events and finding new ways to expand the number of cyclists and events that it can extract money from, and you can begin to see why I have my hackles up about it.

The UCI “homologation” procedure’s cost per application for molded frames was originally announced in January at 12,000 Swiss francs (CHF) + VAT (Value Added Tax) = $13,500 US.

If a builder needs to make “minor changes” to a design, add in another $1,600 and $900 for each model of tubular-construction frames. After considerable outcry, that fee was later reduced to $6150 for the “full procedure,” $3500 for the “intermediate procedure,” and $615 for the “simplified procedure” meant for tubular-construction frames.

These charges for molded frames are all for a single model, and up to eight sizes, which of course hardly describes the line of a custom framebuilder making practically any size. Generally, frames from small builders are eligible for approval using the simplified procedure, but that $615 is still a substantial barrier to entry for small builders making tubular-construction frames, as is the submission of documentation to the UCI via an encrypted network called OpenTrust.

Enter the Framebuilder’s Collective (TFC), a two-year-old organization formed to share framebuilding information. The TFC has negotiated a 20 percent discount with the UCI, so framebuilders who submit their application through the Framebuilder’s Collective pay $450 and the TFC would submit the documentation to the UCI via a secure connection. At least this single fee will cover most small builders’ full range of bicycles, as opposed to a per-model or per-size cost, and the approval generally rolls over year to year, acknowledging the fact that small builders generally make little change to the overall design and materials of their frames.

Since the UCI intends to enforce the requirement for a UCI-approved sticker on road, track and cyclocross frames in UCI-sanctioned events, it looks like builders will at least have to pony up $450 to be able to have their bikes raced in events like national championships, NRC, USGP, etc. races. It looks like it will soon include a large number of Gran Fondos as well, too.

I find the fact that the UCI-approved sticker would even be required for bikes that are little different than those raced in Fausto Coppi’s day to be aggravating to say the least. Anybody with any knowledge of bicycles could look at a frame from a small builder of metal frames and see that it has all of its required tubes and that each tube fits within the UCI-mandated 8cm-tall “box” and that the tubes are not overly flattened, and they sure wouldn’t need to charge $450 to see that.

While it may be possible to use highly flattened metal tubes whose aspect ratio is greater than the UCI-mandated 3:1 ratio of depth to width, no framebuilder that I can think of does it, and that’s mainly for the reason that the frame becomes a noodle, just like flattening a cardboard toilet-paper tube makes it torsionally and laterally far less stiff than it was as a round tube. Add to that the fact that framebuilders recognize that they can’t compete on aerodynamic shaping with molded carbon fiber frames, and there’s no point whatsoever to requiring frames made out of metal tubing to even be subjected to the approval process.

All framebuilders do not share my opinion. Famed Italian builder Dario Pegoretti, one of the TFC’s charter members, says, “I think it (the UCI bike homologation approval system) is good for us as a community. We (small builders) have the same rights as the big companies. Like them, we’re building bikes for people to ride. If we decide to not participate in this process, then we don’t get to be in the game; we will be relegated to a niche on the side.”

I’m sure the UCI would claim this frame sticker is not a tax meant to fatten its coffers from heretofore-untaxed members of the cycling community, but I certainly see it that way. With this “homologation process,” the UCI suddenly found a lucrative new source of income outside of the teams and race promoters, its traditional money fountain.

If the UCI claims it’s not making any money on the certification, even if by going through TFC that it’s now “only” $450 for a rubber stamp of a frame design that it knew would pass beforehand, it is a remarkably inefficient bureaucracy. There can be no other explanation for the high fees than creating a new source of revenue to keep paying all of those people in the beautiful metal UCI headquarters building in Switzerland. A rubber-stamp certification of this sort makes a lot more sense if it’s a $25 or $50 fee; then the UCI can stand on high ground and say it’s doing this for the community and not to enrich itself.

Look at what the UCI is now doing with masters world championships – it’s now going to make it a Gran Fondo, and its going to use a series of 15 or more Gran Fondos as qualifiers for it. “The UCI World Cycling Tour (UWCT) is a series of UCI-sanctioned races that will be held all over the world. The UWCT will comprise a maximum of 15 qualifier events, leading to the UWCT Final, the former UCI Masters Road World Championships. The top 10% in each age group of the qualifier events will automatically have the right to compete in the UWCT Final and race for the coveted UCI rainbow jersey.”

To me, this means that the UCI looked at the success of Gran Fondos and said, “Look at all of those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of cyclists that aren’t paying anything to the UCI, as well as those huge events that also aren’t paying us anything. If we use them as Masters Worlds qualifiers, we can get those riders to buy UCI licenses and the race promoters to pay us a fee, too!”

There is nothing about technical requirements of the bicycles in these UWCT events on the UCI site, but I’m betting that the little UCI-approved sticker is going to be required on bikes ridden in the selected Gran Fondos. As Specialized’s head of bike R&D Chris D’Alusio says, “We have to get the UCI sticker on all of our models. We have no idea what the customer might want to do with the bike, at any price point. And if a guy wants to do UCI Gran Fondos, and one bike in the shop has the sticker and another one doesn’t, he’s going to buy the one with the sticker.”

And then, don’t get me started on the technical regulations that do not take into account riders who are far outside of the norm of human body dimensions. I happen to be one of those on the edges of the bell curve of body size and know that a bike built to fit me would be downright dangerous to race on if it also were built to conform with UCI rule number 1.3.016, which states that, “The distance between the vertical passing through the bottom bracket spindle and the front wheel spindle shall be between 54 cm minimum and 65 cm maximum (1).”

Lennard Zinn's personal cyclocross bike design. | Drawing by Lennard Zinn
Lennard Zinn's personal cyclocross bike design: It's not only big, it's illegal. | Illustration by Lennard Zinn

Take a look at the BikeCAD drawing is of my own personal cyclocross bikes on which I race many local races, including USGP and other UCI-sanctioned ’cross races. You can see that the distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the front hub is 683.9mm – well beyond the 650mm (65cm) mandated by the UCI. It’s also a millimeter longer than the maximum allowed wheelbase.

Yet if you look at the design, it’s not that far out of the ordinary. The seat angle is 73 degrees and the head angle is 72 degrees, and it has a standard aftermarket carbon cyclocross fork with a fork offset (rake) of 47mm; there are a lot of cyclocross bikes out there with similar frame angles and fork rake. My bike simply has a long top tube, due to my height, and of course that’s going to make the front center dimension long.

I think that you’d find many builders would make a ’cross bike for a 6-foot-5-inch or taller rider with a longer front center than 65cm. Furthermore, in addition to new orders, once I get tired of the color of my frame or for some other reason want a change, I sell my own `cross bikes to other tall `cross racers who also race UCI-sanctioned races on them.

Obviously, if I were to submit a bike design to the UCI so I could get UCI approval stickers to affix to them, ensuring that my customers could race them, I would submit a design for a rider much shorter than me so that it conforms to all of the dimensional regulations. I’d be crazy to do otherwise, or I’d be throwing my $450 application fee down the toilet. But since I build bikes primarily for very tall people, that average-size bike design would actually not be representative of the majority of bikes that I actually build.

Those tall frames accounting for the bulk of my production would not conform with UCI rule number 1.3.016, yet they offer no mechanical advantage to their riders to justify the ruling against them – indeed, one could argue that the longer wheelbase making the turning radius larger is a disadvantage in cyclocross. But those bikes are safer for their riders due to the longer front center, and the UCI has always claimed that it makes its rules with the safety of the riders as its first priority. If that’s true, UCI, then change the rule! Everybody knows that the only reason that front-center maximum exists is to prevent people from racing on recumbents, but they could make it 70 or 75cm and still eliminate those bikes.

Who gives the UCI the right to tell that rider that he’s too tall to race? That is essentially what the UCI is doing with rule 1.3.016. It is the same with the companion rule 1.3.023 mandating a maximum of 80cm (800mm) for the “distance between the vertical line passing through the bottom bracket axle and the extremity of the handlebar.” And 80cm is the “morphological exception” that’s supposed to take care of tall people; the standard dimension is 75cm; see the drawing illustrating the UCI dimensional rules. This 80cm dimension, too, will be violated by any rider taller than 6-foot-5 or so who slaps an aero bar on his bike. It’s a simple function of the top tube length, and that guy needs that long a top tube because he’s so tall. To force him onto an unstable bike and into a disproportionately cramped, curled-up position that other riders are not forced to ride in is not only unfair and unsafe, it’s downright mean-spirited.

When I wrote an article in the fall of 2008 in VeloNews pointing out the shortcomings of the UCI’s bike-dimension rules and how they discriminate against riders on both extremes of the spectrum of human sizes, I received a letter in March 2009 from UCI technical consultant Jean Wauthier saying, “We acknowledge your point on the practical aspects of applying the rules in the field … We have passed on your observations to the department concerned. Steps have already been taken. A major effort will be made next season.”

Well, I’m still waiting for an adjustment to these rules that indicates that steps have indeed been taken.

When the UCI mandates certain rules and then puts perfectly well-meaning people who have become UCI commissaires out at the races to enforce those rules, those people are obliged to do so (and riders should accept their findings, as officials are only the messengers).

If commissaires look at a bike and know from personal experience that there is nothing about that bike that gives its rider some sort of unfair advantage, yet it falls outside of the allowed front center dimensions, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They wouldn’t have gone to all of the trouble to become UCI commissaires if they didn’t want to make it possible for riders to compete, yet here is a bike that is simply scaled up proportionately to fit its rider (or scaled down for a small rider, thus violating some other rules), but the rulebook says it’s illegal. The commissaires could turn a blind eye to it, and probably no one would be the wiser, but it means that they would be violating their credo as officials by letting a bike into the race that they knew does not fit within the UCI’s requirements.

I’ve been a framebuilder for more than 30 years, and I don’t like being taxed by a self-appointed governing body to do something that framebuilders have been allowed to do since the beginning of bike racing, namely build bikes that people race on. Worse yet, I do not like being told that a bike that I have made is illegal by exceeding some arbitrary dimension the UCI in its infinite wisdom has mandated, when the only thing I have done “wrong” is to make the bike fit its rider.

Beyond that, I don’t like the UCI essentially telling me and people like me that we’re too tall to race bikes. One of the wonders of a bicycle is that it evens the playing field so that all body types can be successful at the sport. I personally would like to race cyclocross nationals in Madison this coming season (not to mention the UCI-sanctioned races that come to Colorado), but there’s no way I’d go if I thought that there was any chance whatsoever that I would be told that I couldn’t race on my safe, quite conventional-design bikes.

Unchallenged, the UCI will continue to operate as a de facto dictatorship with no oversight, and the only way to get rid of it is for its “subjects” to become ungovernable, just like the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria have become. Only then can it be overthrown and replaced with an elected governing body whose directors can be replaced by vote of its membership when it overreaches, as I, for one, believe it already has.

Here’s hoping that the huddled masses of cyclists and cycling businesses have had enough and are finally going to stand up to the UCI and stop its onward advance into yet more unconquered frontiers.

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