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Is the UCI just misunderstood?

Road Bike 21 836
Eddy Merckx UMX Mexico Hour Record Track Bike

Spy shot from

I have been critical of the UCI a few times in the past  (here, here, and most recently here), but I now know it was only because I have been woefully uninformed. In a video posted today by Carlton Reid, UCI president Pat McQuaid explains that his organization is often treated as a ‘punching bag’ by cycling journalists (and I assume that includes bloggers like myself), who have a little bit of knowledge, but do not fully understand the work that the UCI is doing to make sure that the sport of cycling remains fair. In the video, McQuaid admits that the wording in the UCI’s equipment regulations may be somewhat ambiguous, and he defends the new stickering program, which he believes will clear up any confusion between the governing body and bike manufacturers going forward. The UCI also confirmed that the homologation program (sounds much better than stickering scheme) will be extended to helmets, clothing, and components sometime after the Olympics in London. The stickering program is not, however, a way for the UCI to generate a profit according to McQuaid. He says that the pricing was structured to cover the costs associated with the program and nothing more. As tempted as I am to make a snide remark, I’ll refrain and just encourage you to watch the video for yourself. As critical as I am of the Lugano Charter and the resulting equipment restrictions, I will give Mr. McQuaid and the UCI credit for opening up and directly addressing some of the common criticisms against them.

There is no doubt that the UCI is trying to improve their image among cycling fans. They hired a PR firm not too long ago, and for the past few months I have been receiving the occasional press releases about the homologation program and other newsworthy happenings at the organization. They took that PR push a step further recently by inviting a few cycling journalists from around the world to the UCI’s headquarters in the Swiss Alps (at the UCI’s expense), so that they could explain the stickering program in person. Carlton Reid was a member of that select group, and in addition to the videos in his YouTube stream, he is covering the story at BikeBiz.

One of the most interesting pieces of news to come out of this PR event, is the hint that the UCI may allow lighter race bikes soon. The UCI has always maintained that the equipment restrictions, including the 6.8kg (roughly 15 lb.) minimum weight, are in place to make sure that no team has an unfair advantage, and that the riders are not on bikes that are prone to failure. According to the BikeBiz story, the UCI’s technical coordinator, Juilen Carron, said “the limit could be dropped if manufacturers could prove their frames and components were safe.” If true, that is pretty big news. Does it mean that the UCI is actually looking at changes in materials and manufacturing in the bicycle industry and adjusting its regulations accordingly, or is it just another product test that manufacturers will need to pay for? However you look at it, Carron’s PowerPoint presentation explaining the approval procedure for frames and forks is pretty interesting…and Carlton promises to upload the video of his presentation soon.

Update: The video of Julian Carron’s presentation is now up.

One bike that probably would not have any problems getting UCI approval is the Limited Edition Eddy Merckx UMX Mexico Hour Record Track Bike (picture above). I don’t know though, that flip-flop rear fixed/free hub sounds suspect. Eddy didn’t have that in 1972, so I think an expensive independent lab test is in order.

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  1. Nick F July 1, 2011 at 2:17 pm -  Reply

    Hah, that Eddy Merckx bike is ridiculous. As everyone was quick to point out in the BikeRumor comments, the brakes, vertical dropouts, bmx pedals, eccentric bottom bracket, and cheapo crankset, and trendy deep V’s are all totally period-correct….

    WTF were they thinking?

    • James Thomas July 1, 2011 at 2:22 pm -  Reply

      They were thinking that the fixie crowd would love it and they could charge more if it’s a limited edition. Poor Eddy…this is worse for him than that cameo in American Flyers.

  2. Andy July 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm -  Reply

    It’s time the UCI just gives up and says as long as it’s human powered and has 2 wheels, then it’s a bike. Let the innovators create new designs, instead of forcing the sport to be run by only the big manufacturers that can pass the tests. There’s no incentive to create bikes prone to failure, because if you’re grinding up a hill and your frame brakes apart, you’re entire team probably just lost any chance of winning.

    Considering others have (rather expensively) created full bikes in the 7 pound range that are still functional, it’s time the UCI stopped holding back development.

  3. Duncan Watson July 1, 2011 at 5:09 pm -  Reply

    The UCI is misunderstood… hah. As a recumbent rider and fan of hpv speedbikes, velomobiles, etc, the UCI is just a dinosaur holding back the entire industry. Take a look at the hour record data for instance plotted over time – , there has been even more recent movement in the 12 hour, 24 hour and 1000kilo records as well. Considering that most recumbent, speedbike, and velomobile records are set by weekend warriors instead of professional athletes the difference is quite stark.

    It sure would be nice to see this change. The UCI’s ideal of an ideal bike is silly. The bike is already engineering used to make human power more efficient and fast. If they want pure human effort they should be the organization in charge of naked running.

  4. Ross Nicholson July 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm -  Reply

    UCI should disband and it’s officers prosecuted for their petty crimes against humanity. How many more people must die at their hands before they give up their unsavory demands? Riding slow and unstable vehicles designed in the 1930’s is a recipe for accidental death and dismemberment.
    Any fool concedes that bicycles themselves and any similar contraption are intrinsically unfair for competition. Fair would require identical people as well as identical machines.
    People who care about the future improving should work to unseat those who cling too much to intolerance to allow the rest of us our own time’s future. Down with UCI now. Down with UCI for the future. Down with UCI forever.

  5. Robin July 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm -  Reply

    Slow and unstable vehicles? Which would those be, eh?

    The UCI is the majority blame holder in the “history of stifled bike development”, eh? That’s a ripe load of BS. First, bike development was proceeded along at quite a rapid pace. Just because new bikes don’t look like your pet bike doesn’t mean that development hasn’t happened. Materials science as it applies to bikes has exploded. Aerodynamic advances likewise have made huge strides. Moreover, advances beyond the scope of the myopic peanut gallery (i.e. bike frames) have been happening with a very high frequency.

    Then there’s the frequent carping about how the UCI limits development by limiting the type of bikes their spec that race together. Guess what, kiddies: damned near every racing organization limits what machines can race in given class. Formula 1 cars don’t race NASCAR lumps. MotoGP bikes don’t race dirtbikes. In air races, P-51’s don’t race against helicopters.

    If anyone is to blame for any perceived lack of development it is the consumer. Full stop. The manufacturers will gladly follow the money. Alas, apparently there isn’t a mob of recumbent riders threatening to rush the gates of Castle Trek or any other such manufacturer. Wanna know why? It’s because interest in recumbents isn’t there.

    Disc brakes? They’re making inroads in road cycling (certainly this happening in cyclocross and touring bikes). Again, though, the dollars are driving the application. Moreover, in most road cycling conditions, disc brakes don’t offer any clear advantage. Most includes, by the way, riding in dry conditions.

    Last, let’s look at that ol’ tidbit about inherently “unstable vehicles designed in the 1930’s”. Please, define the conditions for stability. There is no stated or universally accepted metric for stability. Both recumbents and diamond frame bikes will fall over if not balanced. How terribly unstable! It’s hard to believe with the massive instability that diamond framed bikes must have that so many folks can ride them no handed! Alas, claims of instability are much like claims about vaccinations causing autism and the president being born in Kenya: they are made without a single fact to back them up. They are pure fantasy and made to serve someone’s self interest.

    Lastly the idea that the record book somehow supports the idea that cycling innovation and development has stagnated is, well, not worth the photons emitted from the respective monitors people are using to read that idea. It’s an entirely apples to gravel comparison. The realm of records is replete with records defined by vehicle type and specification within that type. Bicycles are no different. Quite often, and rightly so, a record speaks to development and effort within a class type and specification within that type. It matters not one wit whether Bob Smith on his super aero composite framed and skinned totally enclosed recumbent goes faster in the hour than Ondrej Sosenka did. The power required to accomplish those records, and thus the effort require, are different. One is not comparable to the other, not in the slightest.

    • Ross Nicholson July 3, 2011 at 10:33 am -  Reply


    • station44025 July 9, 2011 at 4:47 pm -  Reply

      “If anyone is to blame for any perceived lack of development it is the consumer. Full stop. The manufacturers will gladly follow the money. Alas, apparently there isn’t a mob of recumbent riders threatening to rush the gates of Castle Trek or any other such manufacturer. Wanna know why? It’s because interest in recumbents isn’t there.”

      This is EXACTLY the line of reasoning that Detroit used for decades to justify their sole focus on SUVs and gas guzzlers, btw. We all know how well that worked out. Consumers pick from among the choices they have, and the major manufacturers don not have an incentive to expand those choices. I recommend reading Tim Wu’s Master Switch for a historical look at how corporations undermine technological innovation to preserve their market dominance, usually through the use of regulatory bodies, and always with the claim that they’re looking out for the customers’ best interests.

  6. Bryan Willman July 3, 2011 at 3:15 pm -  Reply

    The real issue is that UCI is a racing control body, and shouldn’t ever be viewed as much else. Like many such bodies, they impose ever more rules (see F1, sportscars, nascar, sailboat racing) which have the effect of creating ever higher barriers to entry, until there are no more entries and the edifice collapses.

    Probably better to focus on persuading consumers they don’t care if their bikes are UCI legal, and setting up more races where the UCI is ignored.

    • Nick F. July 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm -  Reply

      Couldn’t agree more… It would be interesting to see a class of races that regulated a ‘conventional’ rider position and nothing else.

      Or, the real equalizer – a race where anything goes as long as it’s human powered and available as a retail product for less than say, $5000.

      Either of these would inspire far more innovation than UCI races, and the trickle down tech would be far more beneficial to casual and commuter cyclists.

      • art July 4, 2011 at 9:52 am -  Reply

        “Or, the real equalizer – a race where anything goes as long as it’s human powered and available as a retail product for less than say, $5000.”

        These kinds of fringe events have been going on for a long time without your predicted “trickle down” effect. I’ve been following the Battle Mountain speed challenge for ten years now and have run into exactly one person out on the road who seemed to have benefited from the technology. I’ve even built vehicles for similar races using technology that I wouldn’t bother with on an every day bike. This is probably because trickle down it’s a failed economic theory in general. Mainstream bicycle design doesn’t trickle up or down, it goes back and forth. It may look like manufacturers are putting all kinds of space age development into their Tour de France squads, but engineering at a company like Trek or Shimano doesn’t do anything that marketing doesn’t tell them will sell to consumers. You can only push the limits so far before you can’t sell enough units to make up the development cost.

        • Nick F July 4, 2011 at 9:59 pm -  Reply

          Right, but in this case, the UCI doing something like allowing thicker tubing sections, or allowing something like a beam bike back into races *wouldn’t* add any development cost and *would* benefit the consumer tremendously.

          And of course technology trickles down. I wasn’t able to buy a cheap used softride for commuting on rough roads because thousands were made for that particular use… I was able to buy one cheap because for a while, they were allowed in races, and my frame is a cast-off from that era.

          I don’t think softrides are the greatest bikes ever made, but they certainly have a lot of advantages and it is a shame that the technology never had a chance to mature because of a rule change.

          • art July 5, 2011 at 10:25 am -  Reply

            Were allowed? Beam bikes are still legal for almost all triathlon events as well as local, non-USCF road and time trial events. The number of racers for whom these bikes are illegal is a small percentage of the market. So, most of the thousands of amateurs who bought those bikes to race would probably still be doing so if they weren’t so terribly heavy. The technology trickled more sideways than down to get to you.

            • Nick F July 5, 2011 at 1:51 pm - 

              Sure, but even in triathlons, the highest level follow UCI frame regulations… and I think it is the nature of the competitive athlete to at least hold on to the possibility that they may one day perform at that level… making it less desirable to have technology that will eventually be unusable.

              At this point in the argument, the specifics become irrelevant, and it hinges on whether you think the UCI, as the biggest driver of bike companies’ effort and the biggest reason a consumer buys an expensive bicycle, should be pushing for innovation or keeping things static.

              I simply think that given the enormous potential for bicycles to improve both the infrastructure of the world and the human experience, everyone involved with them should push to advance their technology and make them more accessible to all.

            • art July 5, 2011 at 2:13 pm - 

              The problem is that you’re looking at this from the very narrow perspective of an amateur racer. We really aren’t as important as we think we are, and the UCI is not the biggest driver of most bicycle companies’ efforts. The average customer walking into a bike shop simply doesn’t care what’s race legal. Most of them aren’t even buying road bikes. Saying that the UCI has anything to do with “infrastructure of the world and the human experience” is like saying that NASCAR really should be doing more to push hybrid development.

            • Nick F July 5, 2011 at 2:25 pm - 

              “…is like saying that NASCAR really should be doing more to push hybrid development.”

              This is exactly what I’m saying.

              If cars were as popular as bikes (meaning: not very – only a few percent of people used them to commute) I think NASCAR would have an obligation to use their racing “product-development machine” to make cars which could eventually improve the comsumer’s life.

  7. art July 4, 2011 at 9:41 am -  Reply

    Let’s just put this in perspective. The UCI governs a “sport”. A “sport” by definition is some competition held under a set of arbitrary rules. For about seventy five years, every professional baseball game has been played with a ball of the same size, weight, and construction that has been rubbed off with mud from the same riverbank. If the UCI is really holding back technology, why aren’t we racing on 75 year old bikes? Some rules evolve, but for the most part for a sport to really remain the same sport, they must be somewhat static.

    Some people just need to accept the fact that the whole idea of a bicycle as a piece of sporting equipment, or even a vehicle, is absolutely archaic. The UCI is tasked with outlining a consistent definition of a “bicycle” for the purposes of racing. In reality, racing a bicycle around France is no more noble or relevant than lining up to see who can piss farthest into a stiff breeze. Racing does not need to drive the consumer market. UCI rules certainly aren’t worth the effort to take personally unless you really feel the need to ride the same bike as some guy you’ve never met but can’t rationalize the fact that it’s not really the bike that you want.

  8. station44025 July 6, 2011 at 1:55 am -  Reply

    The comparison to sailboat racing is interesting, because it illustrates exactly what the “problem” is with the UCI. While sailing can’t possibly be as ubiquitous as bike riding in the world, there are hundreds of recognized sailboat classes of all different sizes, shapes and budgets (raced in any number of combinations) compared to a relative handful of bicycle “classes.” It is interesting that the UCI requires all equipment to be available to consumers, unlike F1, NASCAR, America’s Cup, etc., and obviously this symbiotic relationship with the major manufacturers is part of the equation. There is no room for “one design” upstarts to compete with Trek and Specialized et al. for a reason. In my opinion, the requirements of the courses and tactics would probably keep bike designs relatively close to where they are even if the UCI were to open up some of the more arbitrary seeming restrictions like seat tube angles. TT seems to be where the real technical arms race is, and maybe that should be allowed to become more of an incubator for new design. For whatever reason, the UCI has far more influence over general bike design than any of the other racing organizations do over their respective technologies. This is partly economic, and partly cultural. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “if X is so great, then why don’t they use it in the Tour de France?”

    BTW, as for triathlons, USAT rules specify “Any unusual bicycle construction or equipment to which the specifications in Section 5.11 cannot easily be applied shall be illegal unless prior approval is received from the Head Referee before the equipment is used in the event. Any violation of this Section shall result in disqualification.”

    and ITU rules state “j) Non-traditional or unusual bicycles or equipment shall be illegal unless prior approval has been received from the Chief Race Official prior to the start of the competition.”

    Even tri bikes from years past now fall afoul of rules governing different wheel sizes, fairings, geometry, etc..

    • station44025 July 7, 2011 at 11:45 am -  Reply

      To put it more succinctly, there is no other governing body that I can think of that has such influence over an entire category of sport and an industry. The IOC might be the only other organization with comparable influence over multiple sports. There is no global organization issuing rulings for, all motor sports, all sailboats, all sports-played-with-balls, all-kinds-of-running, sliding-on-snow-sports, board games, etc.. But nearly all kinds of bicycle racing, from BMX to TT to CX to velodrome are controlled to a large degree by decrees from a single organization, and that fact necessarily stifles innovation and protects business interests. A bike is not like a soccer ball in that it is a functional mode of transportation first, and an arbitrary piece of sports paraphernalia second–much like a car or a boat. All sports have to have arbitrary rules, but it is unfortunate that due to the structural reality of cycling, the sport ends up effectively holding back development elsewhere instead of pushing it forward.

  9. epicyclo July 6, 2011 at 3:58 am -  Reply

    If he is telling the truth, could he explain why they were down on Graeme Obree like a ton of bricks.

    He was using technology that was available to anyone and operating on a lower budget that the cost of most pro bikes?

    I call bullshit!

    • station44025 July 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm -  Reply

      “He was using technology that was available to anyone and operating on a lower budget that the cost of most pro bikes?” …Exactly why they had to shut him down.

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