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Divergent design — the UCI’s bike rules are less relevant than ever

A mechanic sticks a small expandable plug draped with lead weights into the bottom of Ryder Hesjedal’s bike, which hangs from a digital scale. It reads 6,809 grams — just over the 6.8-kilogram minimum mandated by the UCI. Ready to race.

Adding useless weight to a bike to comply with a rule intended to prevent the use of dangerously light equipment illustrates just how out of touch with reality much of cycling’s rulebook now is. And though the UCI recently announced its intention to do away with the 6.8kg rule, there are other examples: a wheel test that doesn’t evaluate strength but, rather, how far the spokes stick out after failure; a ban on socks that rise above the middle of the calf (but no ban on full-length tights).

Cycling’s rulebook was written “philosophically,” former UCI president Pat McQuaid told me three years ago. For a decade, those philosophical and often frustrating rules were a roadmap for the sport’s engineers and innovators. They built walls around racing bicycles, defining what they could and could not be. And because the industry followed a model in which pro racing led all other road development, those rules effectively limited what everyone else could buy.

That is changing. Road disc brakes, mixed-use road bikes, and super-aero triathlon bikes all break numerous UCI rules, yet these are the areas witnessing massive development and investment. By setting up regulatory walls around the bicycle, the UCI banned large-scale innovation in race bikes. So the ingenuity went elsewhere, following road cycling as it diverged. Pro racing and amateur riding mirror each other less than ever before. Instead of limiting innovation, the UCI’s efforts merely held pro bikes back while the industry, through consumer demand, left them behind, by focusing on bikes built for a purpose rather than to regulation.

In 1996, the year of Bjarne Riis’ Tour de France victory, a technical revolution blasted from aerospace to cycling. Metallic frames that barely evolved over the course of a century suddenly gave way to carbon fiber and a rate of innovation that the sport had never seen.

In 1989, Greg LeMond confirmed the supremacy of aerobars aboard a steel Bottecchia. In 1997, Riis rode a $20,000 carbon fiber monstrosity. (You’ll remember him throwing it across a field after a series of mechanical mishaps.) Radical carbon “funny bikes” like Miguel Indurain’s hour record Pinarello popped up everywhere, each a further departure from previous bikes than the last.

Then the UCI stepped in. The Lugano Charter, written in 1997 — in direct response to the composite boom — and approved in 2000, was designed to uphold some noble ideals: that cycling would be a sport of athletes, not machines; that bikes should look vaguely like they did in cycling’s Merckxian era; and that equipment should be available to any rider, pro or amateur. It became the sport’s rulebook and has changed little since its inception.

The charter expressly outlawed the use of prototype equipment in competition. It also set parameters for the shape of bike frames and components and put limits on rider position. It is the origin of the 6.8-kilogram weight limit, the 3:1 tube profile, the horizontal saddle rule, and a host of other regulations created with the goal of preserving the classic racing bicycle.

For about a decade, that’s exactly what happened. Innovation continued, but it happened inside a very small box. Then consumers and manufacturers realized that few bikes ever see the start line of a UCI race.

Chris Yu has just stepped out of Specialized’s in-house wind tunnel, where he and a team of engineers refined the concepts that would become the Venge aero road bike and Shiv time trial and triathlon bikes. As an aerodynamicist, he builds bikes for racers. Ten years ago, that meant light and stiff frames made of carbon fiber, with room for a 23mm tire and external cabling. Today, it means light, stiff, and aerodynamic, the new holy trinity of modern race bike design. But even in Yu’s realm, where professional racing heavily influences design, things are changing.

“We’re always going to follow demand,” Yu says. “In the past it was, ‘You race on it on Sunday and sell it on Monday.’ But nowadays more people are into experience and adventure. So the goal now is producing a bike that is optimal for the job. Sometimes that’s racing. More and more often it’s not.”

Because time trials in races like the Tour de France are such a huge marketing platform, major manufacturers used to make all of their TT bikes UCI legal. That’s no longer the case. Specialized’s fastest bikes aren’t for road racing. They go to triathletes, whose sport isn’t beholden to the UCI. These bikes feature integrated storage and massive downtubes that double as an internal water bottles, all while decreasing drag dramatically compared to the UCI-legal version of the same frame. The bikes are faster, more practical, and more comfortable — better in basically every measurable way.

The company’s most popular bikes aren’t for racing, either. The Specialized Roubaix, launched in 2004, brought racing attributes to a more comfortable frame, built for amateur riders. It had increased tire clearance and higher handlebars and ride damping inserts. By the end of the decade, it sparked the creation of an entire category. Sales of the Roubaix now equal, and have occasionally surpassed, sales of Specialized’s traditional road frame, the Tarmac.

This all points to a clear divergence between what pro racers ride and what everyone else buys. “The real world and the racing world don’t match up as much as they used to,” says Ben Coates, Trek’s road product manager. “When a road bike was just a road bike, and all you did was ride on the road, then it made sense to attach that to racing. They were made for the same purpose. But the capability of the bikes has changed, and the world has changed a lot. The way that people ride bikes has evolved, while racing hasn’t.”

Nowhere is this more obvious than with disc brakes, a consumer-first innovation that is now trickling up to the pro peloton. Racers and their teams weren’t eager for a technology that slows wheel changes, and major disc benefits like the ability to run larger tires don’t necessarily fall in line with racing’s goal of ultimate speed.

But for amateurs, those who ride for fun and for whom a few extra grams or a few extra seconds to swap a wheel are inconsequential, discs offer a better, safer and more enjoyable experience. Because they’ve become such a massive part of the industry, equipment sponsors — and a few pioneering pros — have pushed the UCI to relent a bit.

This is new. Previous innovations like carbon fiber wheels, aero helmets, and time trial bars all began at the top of the sport. Jan Ullrich ran early Lightweight carbon prototype wheels at the Tour de France, and Fabian Cancellara proved carbon could handle anything when he ran Zipp 303s at Paris-Roubaix. For many people, their first glimpse of an aero helmet or bars came with LeMond in 1989. Consumers only demanded things after seeing the pros use them.

Disc brakes have followed the opposite path. Frame and component manufacturers certainly sensed consumer interest — given how quickly disc brakes transformed mountain biking — and also saw an opportunity for a breakthrough technology that could drive bike sales the way the introduction of carbon had. SRAM and Shimano, especially, were developing road and cyclocross disc systems with no idea whether or not they would ever be race legal.

Still, racing matters. Even consumers who would probably be better on non-UCI bikes feel better if they know they’re riding the same thing as the pros. Four years ago, a coalition of cycling businesses — including Shimano, SRAM, and most major frame manufacturers — began working through the World Federation of Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) to lobby the UCI to legalize discs. Even if the sport’s governing body wouldn’t lead the way on discs, these brands knew it could further legitimize them for consumers who were on the fence.

Though progress came in fits and starts, WFSGI was ultimately successful. The UCI relented, first with cyclocross and, in late 2015, road cycling. But the response from professionals has been tepid, some vocally in favor of the technology, like Taylor Phinney and Tom Boonen, and others vocally opposed, like Philippe Gilbert and Alex Dowsett. The CPA, the closest thing riders have to a union, complained in late 2015 that it had never been brought to the table as the UCI and WFSGI discussed the introduction of discs, and asked that the pro peloton test period be put on hold. So though the road disc revolution is consumer-led, there is absolutely no guarantee that pros will follow.

Cycling’s technical populism — our ability to buy the same bikes as our heroes — won’t go away. But choice is at hand, for the first time. Consumers aren’t following the pros and the pros aren’t following consumers. Design is diverging, and becoming more purpose-driven. Pros will ride what makes sense within their narrow, well-defined setting, and we have better bikes now, because they’re built just for us.