Road racing has always been a bit of a cycling arms-race, with manufacturers looking to provide cutting edge technology that toes the line of the UCI regulations to give their competitors the advantage they need to be first to the line. With the wild shapes and departures from decades of traditional frame design that emerged in the 80’s, the UCI adapted and created new guidelines and rules. Not only regarding race craft and rider conduct, but more and more stringent regulations for equipment were created and instituted to keep the playing field level, and keep the focus of racing on the rider’s skill and ability – not the R&D budget of the sponsors. Without a doubt there is certainly a bit of politics and controversy behind new rules and regulations – we don’t have to look far to land on the mess of disc brakes’ introduction to the peloton, and the latest changes are no exceptions.

This 2021 season comes on the tail of a 2020 season shortened due to the pandemic, and with a flip-flopped schedule that saw the traditional road racing calendar flip flopped beyond recognition. The parcours strangely un-crowded, with few spectators if any allowed to line the barriers, the racing was… spectacular. In perhaps the strangest season ever in recent memory, riders showed that they had not spent the extended off-season sitting around and a really special grand tour season saw new faces atop the podiums and breathtaking finishes abound.

As tradition has held through years past, the UCI released amendments to its rules and regulations leading up to the start of the 2021 road season – this time with a curious twist. Where typically rule changes have circled around new technology developed since the prior season regarding aero profile ratios, minimum weights, and equipment on the body or bikes alike, this year the focus is instead on the riders, and specifically the riders’ position.

Froome Supertuck
Froome escaped and attacked the descent using the supertuck to win the stage and get into the yellow jersey. Photo via screenshot

Let’s take a moment to take a look back at the 2016 Tour de France. Think back to the days of Team Sky (now Ineos Grenadiers) helmed by Chris Froome, dominating stage races and in the midst of a three win streak in the TdF (2015-2017, with one prior in 2013). Built like a classic GC contender, slim and lithe, meant to go up at speed and leave his competition on the climbs, Froome surprised everyone when he left a group of yellow-jersey favorites and put 13 seconds into them on a 15 kilometer descent to the finish of stage 8.

Not generally known to be any more outstanding of a descender than most GC riders, Froome stunned the chasers when he assumed the now famous “supertuck,” sitting on the top tube of his Pinarello and hunching down as low as he could get his chest over the bars while still gripping the drops – periodically pedaling in what appeared to be a comically inefficient position all the way to the finish, taking the win and the yellow jersey.

Supertuck rider
Photo c. Alonso Tal/Maxxis

Since then, riders from the pro ranks to weekend warriors and KOM chasers have used the supertuck as an advantage to eek out every little bit of speed possible on their rides. Not only does the position seek to minimize the riders’ exposure to the wind and reduce drag, but the rider also reduces their slipstream and subsequently a chaser’s benefit to sitting on their wheel.

With its rise in popularity came the obvious scrutiny – plenty of us have been in a group ride where there’s that one rider supertucking as we cruise along at tempo for some reason, making the whole group question not only the reasoning behind its employ but also the riders’ ability to deal with the hazards of the road safely. This season, the UCI has banned outright the use of the supertuck in racing with a penalty of up to a 1,000 CHF (~$1,070 USD) and 25 UCI ranking points at world tour events, world championships, and the Olympics.

Hirschi TT position banned
Breakaway riders can no longer employ the TT position in racing. Photo via screenshot

Not only has the supertuck seen its day, but also the forearms-on-the-flats TT style position favored by the Marc Hirshis of the peloton and other breakaway artists is now prohibited in road racing.

What does it all mean? Swiss-Side finds out

Cycling fans and aerodynamics experts Swiss-side have utilized their extensive resources to put together a study that quantifies the real-world impact of the UCI bans, putting some numbers down to help us understand how racing is likely to change without the riders able to cheat the wind in the supertuck or TT positions. With over 50 years of Formula 1 experience backing wind tunnel and CFD data on the two now-illegal rider positions, Swiss-side have come up with comparisons of the supertuck and TT positions versus the traditional riding positions that remain permitted by the UCI.

Supertuck

Swiss Side Supertuck Data Table
Swiss Side’s testing shows descending on the top tube can give as much as a 135W advantage to the rider. Data c Swiss Side

Swiss Side’s testing, based on an 8% descent revealed that “the Super-Tuck position sitting on the top tube will bring a 5km/h higher top speed and save 30 seconds per 10km of descent.”  In road racing, where the winner is often decided by seconds, the advantage to a rider employing techniques like the supertuck to decrease their aerodynamic profile is huge.

Road TT

Swiss Side TT Position Table
With riders restricted from using the TT position in racing, they lose a potential 35W advantage over the next best posture. Data c Swiss Side

Modelling around a 50-60km/h breakaway scenario, Swiss Side found that “the aero drag difference between the two most likely used positions, – drops with half bent arms, or the TT position, can be between 24W – 41W.”  What that means to the breakaway rider is that over a 10km stretch, the additional drag induced by the next most aero (while still permitted by the UCI) position would reduce their advantage by 13 seconds or 180 meters given the same effort.  Again, more than enough to win a race by and very much significant discrepancies.

Regardless of what you believe, it is certain that riders will seek out new ways to cheat the wind – with UCI regulations to follow. Swiss-side present a compelling opinion that “certainly there is an element of risk involved in riding either position, because the level of control on the bicycle is reduced. It could be argued that professional cycle racing is not just about the physical abilities of the riders but their technical skill and abilities to ride their bike. This certainly is the case in mountain bike and cyclocross racing, why should it be any different in road racing?”  They claim that objectively, the UCI’s ban on the supertuck and TT positions will “increase aerodynamic drag and decrease speed” and assert that racing’s excitement and entertainment aspects will suffer as a result.

Is new equipment on the way?

Jan-Willem van Schip looking fast
Photo c Speeco

Speeco ABB Studio with computer
Speeco ABB give riders a UCI compliant option for getting as aero as [legally] possible. Photo c Speeco
Personally, I suspect (and secretly hope) that this ban pushes cycling industry engineers and designers to look at new ways to give the rider an aero advantage while toeing the UCI rulebook line – we’ve seen this happening already with products like the Speeco ABB featured here on BikeRumor last December.

It is certainly a challenge to balance regulations that keep riders safe and those that keep the playing field level, but any way you slice it the UCI’s ban on the supertuck and TT positions reduce the number of tools that teams have to employ in race tactics. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you – let us know your thoughts in the comments!

25 COMMENTS

  1. Really unfortunate decision with far too much detail about how one can ride and race a bike!

    I believe the limits of the bikes themselves are more relevant. Chris points out the intent to keep the playing field fair (ish) by limiting sponsor influence.

    What is the intent of allowing our disallowing rider positions?
    Super tuck ban = rider safety? (And race organizer liability) Ok perhaps
    TT position = ?

    Breakaway, either in group or solo, is never a certain bet. As riders train in the TT position and use it, it only adds to the dynamic of racing strategies.

  2. They ban this but keep ear pieces and power meters in. I’m all for warning about crashes and road issues but man is road racing boring these days. I love riding my road bike, but watching races? Nope.

  3. Easy fix time to drop the top tube a bit and put a dropper post on. Unless thats already banned I am not a UCI rule expret

    • Some of the TDF neutral support spare bikes have had dropper posts, so AFAIK they haven’t been banned – yet. I’d expect those Speeco bars to be banned any day now, and maybe some sort of minimum bar width rule; the UCI seem determined to make things technically uninteresting.

    • Exactly my thought. Let’s see what manufacturers come up with. Current dropper posts would not convince any pro considering their obsession for weight. Wait and see

  4. Scott Drop-ins, had liked them. Got past the ‘can’t add anything to make the bike aero. Depending on how you angled them it would give you a bit of the Super tuck or a puppy paws feel.

  5. i find that if i hide my wrists as much as possible behind the bars when at the top of the drop (but not the hoods) with arms bent its a good bit faster than if i dont. feels safer than arms flat on top too.
    I assume a handlebar could be made to make sure your wrists and hands are behind the bar just right

  6. You know, I bet that the super tuck and the puppy paw position will be banned for a far longer time than Patrick Van Gansen and that speaks volumes about the UCI.

  7. interesting to see their results in Watts. but they make a huge mistake when they conclude that because of the ban chances of escapers get reduced: that would only be the case when the chasers would not have made profit of these positions too. and that is obviously wrong!
    it’s similarly weird as stating, that aerohelmets or aerowheels only help escapers. come on swissside, you can do better! (i hope)

  8. interesting data on that controversal topic.
    but Swissside makes one huge mistake by concluding that chances of escapers are reduced because of this bad. that’s rubbish! that would only be the case, when all the chasers wouldn’t have made profit of these positions too. and that’s obviously wrong. same advantage/disadvantage for everyone.
    as if one would assume that aerohelmets or aerowheels would only help escapers… come on Swissside, you can do better! (well, i hope…)

  9. those bars with super long reach means your kneee will hit the bar rather easily when out of saddle. i suspect the way to go, beofre uci catches on, is the use of gravel style bar but specific to road use, so hood position width is now 36 or even 34cm, but then drop will be offset like Enve AR or Vision Metron to 42/44cm. (the dropped flat section will still be parallel to the bike not like some earlier flared out gravel bars).

  10. Some positions come with disadvantages that you cannot see in the wind channel. In the super-tuck I imagine it would be a bit hard to pedal at all, so how do you measure the effect additional pedalling in other positions can have? Or TT positions: The added compression of the lower abdomen tends to make breathing a bit more tricky, so, what is the added impact on stamina?

  11. I hope you realize that there were “breakaway” artists before these riding positions were a thing. And just a few days ago Mathieu van der Poel won a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico with a 50km breakaway. It seems that breakaways are still possible.

  12. I imagine part of the reasoning for banning the supertuck is the same reason they banned skin suits in DH racing: aesthetics. That riding position just doesn’t look cool, and racing is a product to be sold. Aesthetics matter.

  13. This study assumes that you can put out the exact same max power in all these positions. I’m pretty sure I can’t put out my FTP power in the supertuck position with my ass sitting on my top tube. And I’m guessing neither can Froome. With the puppy paws the disadvantage in power output might be negligible, depending on how flexible you are.

  14. The first time I saw the classic movie Breaking Away, it spoke to me about fairness. Each team with the same type of bike with the same equipment. Seems such a foreign concept… the best team of riders wins, not the team with the deepest pockets. Ah well, technology.

  15. Supertuck ban could arguably be done in the name of safety but the TT position ban is just plain ridiculous. Next they’ll ban high cadence pedalling. And I thought rules on saddle position were over the top. UCI done gone too far this time.

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