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Thinking outside the box: what if there were no UCI rules?

In-depth
14 Dec 2020
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The bicycle is a vehicle with two wheels of equal diameter. The front is steerable, the rear is driven through a system comprising pedals and a chain. So sayeth Article 1, Sub-section 3.007 of the Union Cycliste Internationale’s technical regulations.

At this point, most of us are on the same page. It’s the other 55 pages of its bicycle design bible that sometimes cause disagreement.

The problems started towards the end of the last millennium. Until then bikes had been built from metal and there wasn’t much bike builders could do to create radical new designs.

But in the 1990s, advances in composite materials and aerodynamics led to a golden age of weird and wonderful bicycles that handed their riders a winning advantage – remember that Pinarello Espada bike ridden to time-trial glory by Miguel Indurain, or that Lotus bike propelling Chris Boardman to Olympic gold?

In 2000 the UCI stamped down on this flowering by decreeing that henceforth a bike should look like a bike – that its frame should be ‘of a traditional pattern’.

Its reasoning was that bike races should be won by human endeavour, not by hi-tech equipment, and so restrictions were placed on design aspects such as minimum weight, aspect ratio and rider position.

At a stroke, all wilder unibody designs, along with unconventional rider positions and aerodynamic fairings, were binned.

At the time, the UCI said, ‘If we forget that technology is subordinate to the project itself, we cross the line beyond which it takes hold of the system and imposes its own logic.

‘The bicycle is losing its user-friendliness and distancing itself from a reality which can be grasped and understood. The performance achieved now risks depending more on the form of the man-machine ensemble than the physical qualities of the rider.’

From a sporting point of view, this seems fair enough. But bikes aren’t just for racing. Some of us are happy to compete against ourselves or just to see how quickly we can go.

Yet with the UCI rules rendering bikes used in competition recognisable to any cyclist stumbling in from the 1880s, it begs the question: where might we be if they were ripped up?

Turning off the trickle

One man who knows all about radical design is British bike builder Mike Burrows. He created Boardman’s Lotus and was the brains behind Giant’s TCR compact frame, as seen on virtually every road bike now, in the period after the rules were laid down.

‘There were plans to ban the compact bicycle,’ he says. ‘The only reason it wasn’t banned was because the head of Giant Europe, Jan Derksen, was a famous Dutch speed skater and could ring up Hein Verbruggen at the UCI.

‘He had a quick word and said, “Hein, this compact geometry thing, it makes bikes a little lighter and a little cheaper. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?” That was the only reason.’

Burrows remains emphatic that the UCI’s prime aim should be to help sell bikes and encourage development, and he believes the rules are stifling that. Even more, he suggests the rules are harming pro racing by making sponsorship less attractive to bike companies.

‘In road racing you need variety to justify the claim that your bike is better,’ he says. ‘Many of the early bike races were put on to promote bike makers. But as the bicycles ceased to evolve, the bicycle makers ceased to be the main sponsors.

‘Working at Giant I saw the power of trickle-down. What wins the Tour will be noticed on the streets. And if monocoque bikes were winning the Tour, people would have been doing their shopping on them soon enough.’

So does Burrows believe that, without the rules, pro bikes would be significantly different? ‘Actually, I think broadly speaking what we have now with the double diamond frame is correct, although they should have better profiles.’

He suggests a lower top tube would leave more space to improve aerodynamics around the seatpost, ‘and an enclosed chaincase could be worth an extra mile an hour on top speed, because aerodynamically the drivetrain is a disaster area.’

These days, Burrows concentrates mainly on recumbent and utility bikes, where radical design is unaffected by the rules of any governing body, but he believes that the UCI still has a duty to consider the everyday rider as well as the pro racer.

‘The bicycle is the only piece of sporting equipment that’s more useful away from the arena than in it,’ he says. ‘It can change the world, so it deserves to be promoted as the future and not the past.’ 

Seeking approval

Not that significant innovation is impossible. Having come to a similar conclusion about drivetrain drag as Burrows, California-based Felt Bicycles had a radical solution.

When designing the US national team’s track bikes for the 2016 Rio Olympics, it swapped the drivetrain to the left-hand side. This improved the bike’s aerodynamics and centre of balance, and there was nothing in the rules to stop them.

Of course, not every bike can manage such a radical trick. ‘The rules have just become an integrated part of how we construct a frame,’ says Alexander Soria, Felt’s director of product development. ‘At this point they’re neither good nor bad, just part of the process.’

A UCI logo on a bike now means it has been approved for racing. Introduced in 2011, this accreditation process has increased interaction between manufacturers and cycling’s governing body.

Restricting racers from competing on prototypes, it means brands no longer find designs banned after they’ve sunk time and money into their production.

‘Since the rules and regulations became more stringent we’ve had to interact with the UCI much more. We have to pay, and we have to send them our designs and samples so they can check they are correct,’ says Soria.

This rule-tightening has had some positive effects for athletes. Take the stipulation that ‘equipment shall be of a type that’s sold for use by anyone’.

‘Over the past few years we’ve seen bending of the rules around athletes riding commercially available bicycles,’ says Soria.

‘Making the TA FRD Olympic track bike commercially available was a huge undertaking. We could have just stuck a button on the website saying click here to buy, then taken six months to build you one and charged $50,000.’

Although he’s too polite to say, this could well be termed ‘the Team GB method’. In the end, Felt’s bikes went on sale for $25,999 – expensive, but with nothing stopping another team buying up a fleet, not as expensive as running your own Olympic-level R&D and production.

Flagging breaches of the commercial availability rule is one area Soria says bike makers now have more influence with the UCI. Yet, with regards to the rules themselves, the relationship remains more a ‘Moses and the tablets’ type arrangement.

Employed as Felt’s engineering manager, Jeremiah Smith is less enthusiastic about any form of regulation: ‘I’m not such a fan, because they restrict what I can do,’ he says.

‘I can appreciate the intent, but the statement about seeking to preserve the traditional look of a bike? I’d question its logic.’

Working across the brand’s non-regulated triathlon bikes and its UCI-certified models, Jamie Seymour also often finds himself butting up against the rules regarding aero profiles.

‘You have maximum depths for the head and down tube, but these don’t necessarily coincide with the best airfoil shape for those areas,’ he says.

Yet just because the crazy designs of the 1990s have disappeared doesn’t mean that advances aren’t happening.

‘That same level of innovation is still happening today,’ says Soria. ‘With material technology, the period between 2005 to 2015 saw an increase in performance that’s easily worth the same consideration as the 90s.’

Strict machines

While bemoaning the restrictions, Smith does admit that the current regime may actually have led to the development of better bicycles.

Given cycling’s obsession with weight, the 6.8kg minimum has steered our bikes in a healthier direction than they might otherwise have taken, allowing engineers to focus on things with greater real-world benefit such as aerodynamics and comfort. The machines we ride are all a product of this regulation.

‘If the industry hadn’t embraced disc brakes I think lowering the weight limit would have been reasonable, but it’s about right for where we are now,’ Smith says.

Soria adds, ‘When designing a frame, there’s a sweet spot that balances frame weight against the performance metrics we want. It’s pretty easy to make a light frame. It’s harder to make one that’s also stiff and handles the way you want it to.’

At the moment, the bikes most companies want to make tend to weigh in at around the UCI’s limit, and if they dip under, a couple of added accessories easily solves that. And, as with weight, so the pursuit of the most aerodynamic bike is not necessarily a sensible course.

‘Even within the rules we could make a more aero bike,’ says Soria. ‘But would there be compromises in other areas? Maybe the compliance, weight or stiffness wouldn’t end up where you’d want it to be.’

Smith points out that designing inside the box (literally, see below) comes with frustrations.

‘Designing our AR aero bike there were shapes that fell outside the permitted boundary boxes, or once I’d got them in the boxes, some aesthetic element would fall outside again.’ Yet he’s not sure scrapping the rules would have resulted in the bike being any faster, perhaps only better looking.

A world without limits

Turns out, when you ask designers what they’d do if freed from all rules, the answer isn’t build some fantastical freak-bike.

In reality they might tweak tube shapes, drop the seatstays, maybe adjust rider position. Right now a lot of innovation comes down to materials, with software also emerging as a potential battleground.

It’s hard then to see the rules as hugely stifling design. Bikes improve year on year to the extent your next one might make you a few seconds faster than the previous model.

However, in an imaginary 25-mile race where World Champion Rohan Dennis rides his Pinarello and I turn up on a fully faired recumbent, I’d be into my second slice of cake before he crossed the finish line. Clearly, some regulation is needed to keep things fair.

The truth is, if you want to see a fundamental re-evaluation of the bicycle, sport isn’t really the place to look for it. While brands may grumble about the rules, few are looking to radically redesign the road bike, and no one is agitating for a recumbent Tour de France.

Much as the anarchist in us hates to admit it, in sport there have to be rules. Given the enjoyment provided by the bikes these rules have shaped, they seem to work OK.

Rules is rules

Just a few of the UCI decrees regulating race bike design

  • The weight of the bicycle cannot be less than 6.8kg
  • A bicycle shall not measure more than 185cm (length) by 50cm (width)
  • Wheels of the bicycle may vary in diameter between 70cm maximum and 55cm minimum, including the tyre... Wheels shall have at least 12 spokes; spokes can be round, flattened or oval, as far as no dimension of their sections exceeds 10mm
  • For road competitions other than time-trials and for cyclocross, the frame shall be of a traditional pattern, ie built around a main triangle
  • Tube dimensions: the maximum height of the elements shall be 8cm and the minimum thickness 2.5cm. The minimum thickness shall be reduced to 1cm for the chainstays and the seatstays. The minimum thickness of the elements of the front fork shall be 1cm; these may be straight or curved.

For a full list of rules visit uci.org

Inside the box

The rules governing frame shape and tube dimensions

Triangular shape

The frame and forks must be able to fit entirely within the template formed by seven rectangular boxes of 8cm width, as shown by the diagram right.

Sloping top tube

The top tube may slope provided that this element fits within a horizontal template defined by a maximum height of 16cm and a minimum thickness of 2.5cm.

Illustration: Rob Milton