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Back to reality?

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Have I mentioned before that I am not a big fan of the UCI’s draconian restrictions on the design of racing bicycles? Yeah, I know I have mentioned it at least once, but it has been a while so allow me to rant again. According to a New York Times article published yesterday, the UCI “abruptly alerted teams at the start of this season that it intends to clarify and reinterpret its often oblique rules governing bicycle design through increased equipment inspections.” Clarify? Really? That will be a first for these guys.

Yeah, I understand the idea behind the equipment restrictions, but I just don’t agree. All of the pro teams have equipment sponsors who are involved in the sport, not just for marketing reasons, but also to further their product development. Let’s face it; all of the pros are riding pretty nice bikes, so this whole business about fairness doesn’t add up to me. If time trial specific frames, aerobars, disc wheels, etc. are all outlawed for time trials, teams with higher budgets will STILL use wind tunnels to work with their sponsors to design modified road bikes and components for time trialing that work within the limitations of the new restrictions. It will always be a “race between the biggest budgets” as those in favor of the restrictions like to say. The only difference is that, with arbitrary restrictions that outlaw certain technologies, riding positions, etc, the product development benefit will not be as great for the weekend warriors out there who buy those high-end products that trickle down from pro level racing technology.

Carlton Reid published an article in BikeBiz about this yesterday and made a great point. In reference to the Lugano charter of 1996, he said:

“Had this charter been around in the early days of cycling we’d have had no derailleur gears and no quick release wheels. Taken to its logical conclusion we should have no MTB suspension forks; no power meters; no composite frames.”

Exactly! So, lets get the pros out there and see who can reach the finish line fastest while hobby horsing along on a vintage boneshaker with wooden wheels. Better yet, let’s scrap the bikes completely and just make those pro cyclists run…barefoot. That would make the grand tours true tests of athleticism and not just races of “technical ability”. Yeah, that is the only way to make it completely fair…we should just rid bike racing of bikes altogether. That would certainly accomplish UCI president Pat McQuaid’s stated goal of bringing “both the sport and the manufacturers back to reality.” Thanks for that reality check, Pat.

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  1. Alan@EcoVelo May 6, 2009 at 8:45 pm -  Reply

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, but how would you place recumbents into the mix? Would you allow fully-faired recumbents like the Lightning F-40s that Pete Penseyres, Jim Penseyres, Bob Fourney, and Michael Coles rode to victory in the 1989 Race Across America? They made the crossing in 5:01:08 and averaged 24.02 mph. IIRC that’s the overall fastest crossing in any category. It would be something to see a bike like that in a UCI road race.

    Lightning F40Alan@EcoVelo

  2. Jim Jones May 6, 2009 at 10:52 pm -  Reply

    I’m a blue ocean guy, not hardcore, so I only have a passing familiarity with this UCI and their rulings. I’ve seen this type of thing several times in motorsports, as well. Audi’s AWD Trans-Am cars were practically outlawed with rule changes in the 90’s. F1 had the (in)famous Brabham fan car in ’78. Any time that anyone gets too innovative, they get quashed by a bureaucratic knee-jerk. I fail to see the reason why. Anything that one team can come up with, the other teams can match in short order. I think a proper solution is to simply introduce a variety of classes — upright, recumbent, et al. If the purist movement is so strong, let them have a class of identically prepared bikes, in the manner that the IROC series was run.

  3. Champs May 6, 2009 at 10:57 pm -  Reply

    Cycling will change, but you have to explain how legends like Eddy Merckx won’t be blown away from the record books because they can’t keep up with the average rider on a ‘bent steed and components made of feathery stiff unobtanium. That’s just not the same classification.

    Besides, if you want to talk degrees, think about the restrictions of motorsport, where nearly everything short of the paint color is uniform.

  4. Anonymous May 6, 2009 at 11:38 pm -  Reply

    Who actually votes in those UCI buffoons? Haven’t we had enough yet? Find out how they get into office, and lobby the voters to put someone from REALITY into the UCI! THROW THE BUMS OUT!

  5. B. Nicholson May 7, 2009 at 12:43 am -  Reply

    UCI acts in restraint of trade, true, but sport needs some regulation to prevent deleterious and adverse health consequences for race participants. That's why drugs are banned, for instance. Machines can be made specifically for events that damage athletic ability & general health, plausibly, or they may be seen as offering undue advantage, such as Gruber Assist electric calf-slapper motors in seat tubes.
    Our best compromise is to allow anything human powered for Olympic road events and uniformity by committee choice in everything else, perhaps with weight restrictions.
    Racing can be for it's own sake as well as to improve technology.
    That being said, I own one of the few Quest velomobiles in the United States with electric assist. Unassisted by me, it gets more than 1200 mpg-equivalent and keeps me dry, so it's basically an electric car. (Teenagers love it.) Why don't we make these in mass production here in the US?
    Anything goes velomobile racing with electric assist is just getting started and its slow development can be traced directly to the negative historical influence of UCI. UCI stopped recumbent and fared human powered vehicle evolution back in the 1930's in a fit of luddite regressive republicanism to save the nazi purity of the bicycle from the decadent Jewish smart people recumbent riders. Funny looking bicycles could not be tolerated.
    So can we relegate UCI to the scrap-heap of history? Obdurately old-fashioned thinking/designing need not stifle progress, but only if it is fought, in the courts if necessary, on the web certainly, and in the streets by wholesale competition immediately. If you want funny-looking bicycles to have a chance, somebody's got to design them, buy them and roll them around. It's a tough job, but I'm ready for it.

  6. springer May 7, 2009 at 7:02 am -  Reply

    fight the power!!
    open a can of worms today hugh?

  7. James May 7, 2009 at 7:58 am -  Reply

    Alan and all, I knew when I posted this that someone would bring up the recumbent issue. The recumbent ban is an early example of a bureaucratic knee jerk reaction (to borrow Jim’s wording) by the UCI. Francis Faure broke the hour record, which had stood for 20 years, in July of 1933. In February of ’34, the UCI ruled against that record time and banned recumbents from racing in the future. That was pretty much the end of recumbent development for racing and is probably a big part of the reason that recumbent designs are somewhat marginalized today.

    I do not think a full-fairing recumbent would fare well in a stage race with difficult mountain stages, but I would love to see it. A completely open class stage race for human powered vehicles over varied terrain would be really interesting to watch. Of course, a race like that would be more about the machines than the athletes, so maybe I am just making the UCI’s case for them by stating that I would love to see it.

    Despite the ranting nature of my post, I do believe that some restrictions are necessary for safety. There is a pretty good reason not to allow aerobars for mass start events for instance. My big problem with the UCI is that the rules seem to be arbitrarily applied and selectively enforced. What was the problem with Boardman or Obree’s frame shapes in the 90’s for instance? Why are we stuck with traditional diamond frame shapes today? To me those rulings have nothing to do with safety or fairness, they are just intended to squash something that is a little different. I am not saying that racing should be a free for all where absolutely anything goes, but I tend to agree that that knee-jerk is the perfect way to describe almost every thing the UCI does.

  8. James May 7, 2009 at 8:03 am -  Reply

    I almost forgot.

    B. Nicholson said, “Anything goes velomobile racing with electric assist is just getting started and its slow development can be traced directly to the negative historical influence of UCI.”

    I would love to hear more about where electric assist velomobile racing is happening. That sounds like something that I would love to see.

  9. Sean Carter May 7, 2009 at 11:07 am -  Reply

    the simple reality is that equipment restrictions level the playing field so competition is closer and fairer. i have no problem with the UCI’s equipment restrictions – i do have a problem with the UCI constantly changing them, or otherwise not enforcing the rules that are already in place.

    where equipment rules make the most sense is at the bottom level of racing – juniors, entry level categories (cat3,4,5). at this level i believe that riders should race a standard road bike with no special TT equipment or disc wheels. at this level, money can buy speed and if we want the best riders (not the richest) to prosper and be competitve this would be a step in the right direction.

  10. Chris May 7, 2009 at 1:54 pm -  Reply

    What Sean said. While no fan of the UCI overall, I’m glad they’re instituting restrictions on equipment, though they could certainly do a better job of it.

    Up until recently, most folks with a little disposable income could ride a bike that was virtually identical to what the pros were riding, with the exception of the handmade tubulars. Now a kid with a dream of being the next Contador will have a very hard time affording a Contador setup. And it’s a drag, especially when you’re young, to show up at a race where others are passing judgment on your ride, and where you’re paying a weight/aero penalty, even if much of that is psychological.

    Stifling innovation? Yes. But nearly all of the recent innovations have little practical carryover outside of racing where aero and a few lbs don’t mean much.

    So I’m all for double diamonds, limited aerodynamic aids, and a weight limit–the latter should be even higher so that the components will be more durable.

    If there’s then another racing league that’s entirely open, that might be ok too. I just don’t want to see the biggest stars of the sport riding throwaway 12 lb. bikes that require extreme flexibility and that cost as much as a car. We’re far to close to that already.


  11. James May 7, 2009 at 3:49 pm -  Reply

    Sean and Chris, I understand your points, especially about Juniors…and maybe even U23 riders. I have no problem with gear restrictions for Juniors and all of that kind of stuff. The way it is structured now though, USCF riders only need to follow the UCI bike restrictions if they choose to compete in events that select them for the national team or if they break a record at Nationals (someone correct me if I am wrong on that because it has been a while since I have held a USCF license). Otherwise, amateur riders here in the US only have to meet the USCF regulations for equipment, which are much less restrictive (and don’t outlaw non-traditional frame shapes).

    Chris, you are right. The cost of equipment has escalated quite a bit in recent years. When I started racing in the late eighties, 1,000 bucks (or less) could buy a dream bike that was just like the ones all of the pros were riding. Today, the price of a pro level bike is out of reach for most people, but I think the technological benefit has trickled down to the point that riders who chose mid range road bikes benefit from racing technology . Personally, I would rather be riding a new 105 equipped bike today than the Dura-Ace equipped bike I rode back in the 80s. The second and third tier groups from Shimano, Campy, and SRAM all work pretty well these days, so their should be no shame in racing with a lower end group.

    Yeah, the elitist roadie snob factor is there, but it is possible to use that to your advantage as well. I remember a guy in the early 90s who used to race an old, extremely dirty yellow Torpado with worn out Campy 6 speed, torn bar tape and mismatched used tubulars. That bike looked like a beater, but no one was sneering at it when he was consistently winning races from a solo breakaway. I guess my point is that equipment is great, but it doesn’t make THAT much of a difference. Yes, if you can afford it, it is nice to have a slight edge. If you are younger though, it is great to be able to just train a little harder and beat all those older (and richer) guys on their top of the line bikes. By saying that, I am not at all knocking the masters racers who show up at local races on pristine 8,000-dollar bikes. I would do that too if I could afford it, but a pro level bike is certainly not something you NEED to compete.

  12. Anonymous May 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm -  Reply

    James, I agree with your last comment regarding less expensive equipment not being such a hinderance. It’s probably only at pro level that it matters. For the rest of us, training more effectively has a much greater benefit.

    Also, weight limits do not ensure safety or reduce costs, they just allow the freedom to decide where the weight will be. For example by using power measuring equipment during races.

  13. Anonymous May 8, 2009 at 2:51 am -  Reply

    UCI or humans don’t like innovations?
    I think UCI is the last of the problem.
    All of us believe that bicycle is the most efficient vehicle. Big SHELL declares that a prototype car run more than 3000 km/lt of fuel at 30 km/h.
    That is to say: less than 20 Watt!!
    Look at the Shell Eco Marathon website.
    We ride a very efficient bicycle at the same speed with 150-170 Watt.
    Or if you like an ebike is equipped with a 250 watt motor for assisting the rider for maximum speed of 25 km/h.
    Let’s think about it.

  14. Anonymous May 8, 2009 at 7:46 am -  Reply

    Maybe the stage races could have a stage or two where all the riders get the same bike, in their choice of size.

  15. Duncan Watson May 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm -  Reply

    if you want to see electricified velomobile racing (with power limiters btw), you can at the ePower Challenge which is held at Portland International Raceway on the weekend of Memorial Day. It is co-hosted with the Oregon Human Powered Challenge.

    Recumbent racing was marginalized by the 1934 post facto decision of the UCI. But it is going on, and it also has numerous rules, mostly classifications so that like bikes race against like bikes. Like any classification there can be some interesting discussions about them.

    As a recumbent rider and recreational recumbent racer I am interested in how this recent UCI decisions fall out.

  16. fitnessbikes July 8, 2009 at 2:54 am -  Reply

    I am keen too to hear about electric assist velomobile racing.

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