Racing’s governing body restricts innovation to create a safe, level playing field for competitors. Does that mean your bike has been dumbed down?
“I’ve never actually met anyone from the UCI, but…,” Robert Egger, creative director of Specialized Bicycles, pauses to consider the appropriate turn of phrase. “Then again, I’ve never met a Nazi. I just know I don’t like them.”
Egger, it should be noted, doesn’t actually hate the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), competitive cycling’s international governing body. He just detests its rules: a mountain of guidelines that control not only how bikes are raced but also the specs of the bikes themselves. How much a bike weighs, the shape of its frame, the size of its wheels—UCI technical regulations dictate all these things and more, stunting bicycle design over the years.
The bike you own, some argue, would be a whole lot better if it weren’t for the UCI’s interference. But, as with all subjects worth considering, there are several sides to this story.
The Mad Man’s Machine
A bike is taking up floor space at Specialized’s headquarters in Morgan Hill, California. Or, at least, it looks like a bike. Sorta. The prototype racer is a two-wheeled Pandora’s box of everything the UCI forbids. Egger fittingly dubbed it the “fUCI.”
The first thing you notice about the fUCI is its massive rear wheel. At 33.3 inches, the hoop dwarfs its companion up front, which violates the UCI mandate that all competition-eligible bikes sport equal-sized wheels. The rear wheel, however, acts as a massive flywheel, maximizing the bike’s efficiency when brought up to speed. Of course, winding that monster flywheel up to speed would be hellishly difficult—that is, it would be if it weren’t for the electric motor tucked discretely inside the fUCI’s frame, which gives the rider another UCI-banned boost of power.
We’re just scraping the surface here, but you get the idea. The fUCI is a mechanical middle finger thrust in the general direction of cycling’s rule book. But it also makes you ask: Why? Why did Egger spend six months creating the thing? What’s the point of it all?
“I’m a designer. My job is to push the limits and design stuff that blows people away. I can tell you, all the regulations the UCI forces us to live by, it stymies us. It’s hampering innovation in the bike industry.”
The Other Side of the Coin
Ben Coates, road product manager at Trek Bicycles, takes a slightly different view of things: “The UCI has changed significantly in the last year. I don’t think the UCI has fully decided that they are going to embrace technology, but they are definitely cleaning up some of the rules that were, frankly, stupid. And there is much better communication between the industry and the UCI. For instance, we’ll take a prototype, with all the technology that we want to put into the final bike, and we go talk to them. There’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting.”
Wait. Is Coates saying he’s actually met the people at the UCI who come up with these regulations? “Sure,” he says. “We just call and say, ‘Hey, can we come see you?’ And they say yes.”
“It’s always been very cordial,” says Coates. “I mean, you can’t always get the exact date you want, but they never say, ‘No, we won’t meet with you.’”
I’m flabbergasted. Coates is the first person I’ve met who can say they have a one-on-one relationship with the UCI rule makers.
The UCI has earned a reputation for being opaque. “Inaccessible” and “remote” are other adjectives that get tossed around when describing the organization. Does Trek simply enjoy easy access to the UCI because Trek happens to be America’s largest bike company?
The Times They Are A-Changing
“The UCI has definitely become much less retro-rigid recently,” says James LaLonde, global marketing manager for road bikes at Cannondale. “After years of seeming like they would have been happy if technology had stopped evolving after the Merckx years, they now seem much more open to innovation and wanting to move the industry forward.”
Andew Juskaitis, global product marketing manager at Giant Bicycles, sees a similar trend. “It used to be nearly impossible to even get in contact with someone at the UCI,” says Juskaitis. “We didn’t even have a discussion with them. Now there’s a time and place for those discussions. It’s gotten much better during the past few years.”
Both Juskaitis and Lalonde agree, however, that the UCI’s technical regulations, relaxing though they may be, slow the evolution of the modern road bike.
“Most of the UCI rules do work as a means of creating and maintaining safe and interesting races,” says Lalonde. “That said, there’s no question that the regs, as they stand now, do stifle innovation and progress. Rather than devoting engineering energy to creating the fastest bike period, we are forced to spend it creating the fastest bike that fits within the rules, some of which can seem a bit arbitrary. Things like the weight limit, or the 3:1 aero rule could easily and safely be changed.”
Why All the Rules in the First Place?
What’s the UCI trying to achieve by, among other things, restricting how aero a bike can be or how much it can weigh?
We went straight to the source—Mark Barfield, technical manager for the UCI—to find out. Since March 2015, Barfield has managed the UCI equipment regulations, checks, and approvals processes.
“Safety is the ultimate concern,” says Barfield. “On the other hand, we want our sport to be attractive to our fan base and broadcast as a show and a performance, and to innovative businesses that invest in cycling, such as manufacturers. At the end of the day, we have to strike a balance between the safety of the athletes and the popularity of the sport.”
“There may be some rules in place that restrict innovation,” concedes Barfield. “However, they are generally in place for a good reason and with some safety or historic concern behind them. Our approach now is to work with our stakeholders and develop a close relationship that enables us to identify some of the key rules that may be seen to place a design restriction.”
Of course, the UCI also wants to level the competitive playing field. “The rules are designed to make sure that racing is a human competition and not a technological competition,” says Coates.
Your Last Formula 1 Race Car
It’s hard to argue with the idea that victory should go to the best racer, rather than to the bike the racer pilots. At some level, however, every bike company that sponsors a team of pros does so in the hopes that you, the consumer, walk away thinking that their victories are the result of the bikes. That’s what sponsorship is ultimately all about—selling the product.
“The ‘all bikes are equal, level playing field’ stance? Let’s be clear about this: That is the UCI’s standpoint,” says Juskaitis. “We have a very different view of things. Our goal is to build the best goddamn bikes in the world that give the best athletes an advantage so they cross the finish line first. We have to play by the UCI’s rules, and we do, but, yeah, there is a tension and a give-and-take here between the UCI and bike companies.”
But here’s another question: Do you actually want to ride the same bike as the pros?
When you go shopping for your next car, will you look for a stripped-out Formula 1 machine? Do you care whether your next vehicle meets NASCAR regulations? Most of us prefer something very different—something with air conditioning, radios, a backseat, and suspension that doesn’t rattle the fillings from our teeth. Why should bikes be any different?
The UCI might not be ready to accept the lightest, quickest-stopping, most comfortable bikes ever to hit the road, but isn’t that exactly what a lot of serious riders are looking for these days? Why don’t companies offer both UCI-sanctioned bikes and hopped-up, no-limits bikes for the rest of us?
“That’s already happening,” says Trek’s Coates. “What was once the road-riding fringe has grown and grown. Niche is the new normal now. Endurance riding turned into Minneapolis-style gravel riding, which turned into adventure-style riding, which is turning into bike camping. Diversification is the trend. Now, every company has to make choices about how deep into that trend they want to go.”
Of course, cost is a consideration, and it’s often easier to justify the hero technology in the very highest-caliber bikes.
“It’d be nice,” says Juskaitis, “if we made our TCR road-racing bike for professionals and also offered a lighter, stiffer, and more aerodynamic TCR Unlimited version, available to anybody who wants a bike without limitations. But for us to do that, we’d have to open up special molds that cost between $75,000 and $100,000 per frame size. We just wouldn’t sell enough of them to warrant those costs.”
More Than Just Another Bike
Back in Morgan Hill, Egger ponders the fUCI, his protest on wheels. The prototype stands as an embodiment of what a bicycle might become if there were no restrictions placed on its builders.
“When people see this bike, their eyes go wide,” says Egger. “Even though this thing is really just a model—they can see the possibilities.”
“Why did we make fUCI? It’s a message for the UCI, sure,” says Egger. “But it’s also a challenge to us—Specialized—and the rest of the bike industry to shake things up. We’re located next to Silicon Valley, where all this tremendous change is happening, and here we are, still producing models that look like safety bikes from the turn of the last century. There is so much technology out there in terms of motors, spoked wheels, aerodynamics, and the bike industry considers disc brakes on road bikes to be a big deal? We’re just scraping the surface of what’s possible.”
“Your bike,” says Egger “doesn’t even have to look like a bike at all. It can be better.”