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UCI Could Deal “Crushing Blow” to Bicycle Manufacturers

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In the ongoing saga of what constitutes a “legal” bicycle according to UCI rules, UCI president Pat McQuaid said components must comply with standards by July 1.

This date is a push back from an earlier attempt (in the middle of the Tour of California of all times!) to begin immediate bans on equipment, including complete bikes.  Given that teams are already fit, training and racing on their bikes…and that manufacturers have filled bike shop racks and inventory pipelines…could deal a “crushing” blow to the industry, according to Cervelo’s co-founder Phil White.

In a NY Times article, White was quoted as saying “I’m quite concerned” after reviewing the the UCI announcement. He said even recreational cyclists tend to shy away from technology that’s banned in racing, even if they never race, which can kill small brands or niche products (remember when everyone had aero bars on their road bikes?)


scott-plasmaproto42Most of the controversy centers around a seemingly rarely enforced 3:1 ratio rule that concerns the shape of bicycle frames and components.  That rule states that the shape of something can’t exceed a ratio of 3-to-1.  For perspective, a basic round bicycle tube is 1:1.  Create a more aero the shape, and one cross section becomes longer than the perpendicular cross section, increasing the ratio.

Think about what this means…can you imagine limiting crank arms to a 3:1 ratio rule?  While many probably fall within that guideline, there are some aero versions that are awfully thin.  Or what about flat-top road bars…some of them have some pretty wide areas.

Time trial bikes in particular could face some problems.  With the now omnipresent carbon fiber frames, the shapes are clearly able to provide a technological advantage (Scott Plasma, shown in prototype form is a perfect example).

Read ‘more‘ for lots of discussion and info, like WHY RAISE A FUSS? and  the ACTUAL UCI RULES complete with pictures and diagrams of legal frame measurements, and some BIKES THAT PUSH THE LIMITS


Apparently, some of the less well funded teams are crying foul over the advantages that bigger teams can afford during the off season, like wind tunnel testing.  The UCI developed the current warning letter after discussions, presumably with different teams, late in 2008.  Upon sending out the recent notice, McQuaid had this to say:

“We decided to bring both the sport and the manufacturers back to reality,” McQuaid said in the NYT article. “The sport needs to be a sport of athletic ability, not technical ability.”

Believe it or not, some of the top riders on big teams agree.  NYT claims that Marco Pinotti (Columbia-Highroad), the current Italian time trial champion said he wishes riders would have to ride regular road bikes and wheels in time trials.


We spoke to a few people and pulled together some diagrams to help sort this mess out.

Tyler Pilger, Road Product Manager for Trek Bicycles, said all of their products, including the TTX time trial bike and all Bontrager components fall within UCI guidelines.  Beyond just the 3:1 ratio rule, he said there are also rules about the curvature of tubes and the placement of that could affect some manufacturers.  

UCI union cyclist internationale official bicycle measurement guidelines for legal bike frame and tube dimensions

Looking at the center section of this diagram, which came straight from the UCI rule book, actually shows a ratio of 8cm to 2.5cm, or 3.2:1.  (Incidentally, contains 10 pages of rules regarding bicycle design…starts on page 56 if you’re interested)

For those of you unfamiliar with the metric system, 8cm is about 3-3/8 inches.

The shape of the tubes are allowed to be oval, round, tear drop or whatever, however they must fall inside the rectangular guidelines shown above, and they can’t really have multiple bends.

Let’s look at some bikes:


At first glance, one would think the Look 596 breaks two rules just with the top tube: It’s not straight, and my hunch is it’s pushing the limits of the 8cm “rectangle.”  However, I spoke with Chris Wehan at Look Cycles, and he said that they’ve discussed this bike with the UCI and it is within their guidelines.  Further, he said that all of their frame designs discussed with the UCI prior to production to ensure they’re within spec.


Trek’s Equinox TTX time trial / triathlon bike.

cervelo p4 time trial triathlon bike

…and Cervelo’s piece de resistance, the P4.  A culmination of three years of aero design, wind tunnel testing and expensive R&D.  No wonder they are now “quite concerned.”  Unless my interpretation of the UCI rules is way off, there’s no possible way this falls within the guidelines.  It is pretty bad ass, though.

Another gray area is the use of the aerodynamic shapes on the fronts of forks that look like external steerer tubes.  The UCI specifically prohibits any device “added or blended into the structure that is destined to decrease, or which has the effect of decreasing, resistance to air penetration or artificially to accelerate propulsion, such as a protective screen, feselage form fairing or the like.”  Exhibit B (click to enlarge):



My opinion, if you want it, is they should leave technology free to develop better, faster bikes.  Some limits and guidelines are good for safety’s sake and what not, but I don’t agree with the argument that the best funded teams benefit solely from the advanced technology they can afford.  Last time I checked, it was largely the bike manufacturers footing the bills for the wind tunnel time to develop their frames…not the teams.

And if you think the bikes are the reason some teams aren’t performing as well in the time trials, just compare times for the TT stage of the Tour of California.  The difference between 1st and 5th in the Stage 6 time trial was 30 seconds. By 12th place, the gap was 1:09. Last place was a whopping 5:49 off the pace.

Most companies discuss aerodynamic advantages in terms of seconds, as in 5 or 6 seconds, off a 40km time trial when discussing their frames or wheels.  At that rate, every major part on the bike would have to offer that type of advantage to justify the difference between a podium finish and being ignored by the flower girls.  For the record, ToC Stage 6 was only 24km.

So let’s get down to it.  The teams that are bemoaning the seemingly lax enforcement of bicycle legalities should just argue for salary caps for the teams.  Then no single team can have too much top talent.  Obviously that works for other pro sports, right?


1) You’re never going to balance the power to weight of athletes that are 6’0″ / 160 lbs versus one that’s 5’5′ / 130 lbs with technological limits on the bike.

2) Some coaches and Director Sportifs are just better than others, and they’re not going to start rotating teams every year.

3) Because aero bikes and shapely tubes are sexy and they sell better.

4) They also make you appear to be a better cyclist.

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14 years ago

Well, if you totally throw out the rules, with maybe a few exceptions for safety, then you end up with everyone riding fully faired recumbents (no joke, that’s the fastest form of human powered vehicle by far). Nobody wants to watch that, or at least I don’t think they do, and the UCI is in the business of getting people to watch (and pay to sponsor/advertise at) bike racing events.

It could be that they’re totally wrong about what the general public wants to see, but if you take as a given that the casual cycling fan wants to see people on something that approximates their idea of a “bike”, then you do want to make rules like this.

I don’t see the competitive advantage argument here. Even a super-aero setup will only beat a regular bike with aerobars by a few seconds a mile. Makes you wonder why anyone who isn’t a pro racer would ever buy a TT bike, actually, but don’t get me started on that…


Bryan Willman
Bryan Willman
14 years ago

There’s actually a “moral” argument in favor of not only allowing, but encouraging technical development of racing bikes. The world needs better bikes, we need for people to like bikes more, and we need for bikes to come in a wider variety of shapes and flavors to support people’s needs. No a commuter bike won’t look like a P4, but the development of the methods and means to build such a bike imply raising the available technology to apply to other biking needs.

People complain about doping, technical advantages, etc. But being born super strong, having big sponsorship, etc. are just as “unfair” – life’s not fair, get over it.

Pat Franz
14 years ago

This is nothing new. The UCI has been holding back bike development for years. I understand the “let’s make it an athletic competition” angle, but realistically, if you want to be pure about it, you have to stop all development. Clearly, no one wants to do that, so it’s clearly a mixed athletic and technological thing. Until they learn to really live with that, they will be holding the entire industry back. Unfortunately, there is so much pressure from so many parties that it’s too contentious to manage.

I think a rolling, steadily improving technology element is the way to go. Let it happen, but put a lid on it. They are sort of doing that, but there isn’t an obvious plan or any kind of roadmap. Everyone is left feeling slapped upside the head by arbitrary seeming rules.

–Pat Franz

14 years ago

You gotta love that the illustration in the rule book violates the 3:1 rule.

Jim Kozak
Jim Kozak
14 years ago

The UCI has a long history of making up the rules as the game is being played as well as arbitrary enforcement of those rules that are in the book. Graeme Obree was one of the UCI’s biggest victims. I also remember the fiasco it caused when they decided to rule the “praying Landis” arm position was “illegal” in the TDF after allowing it in previous UCI races. Sounds like a bunch of old farts that want to have everyone riding 40 pound Wal-Mart bikes so nobody has a technical advantage. Who wants to watch that. Stifling technology kills the sport and the bike industry. -J. Kozak

Jerimiah Blazzay
Jerimiah Blazzay
14 years ago

not that the economy is bad enough right now,,, im laid off and have a 2year old time trial frame that is now illegal !!! i paid for that technology why cant i use it 2 years later? i cant afford a new 4000$ frame!
the uci is a horrible group of idiots!!! any decent union will take care of the big guys under thier wing just the same as the low guy on the totem pole
i would love to see rules on time trial bikes removed, let technology take over design, not some idiots that cant keep thier rules straight! give some basic guidelines such as the overall dimensions:rider height and let it rip!

14 years ago

Hey there!! very interesting. I’ve just started doing Time trials and luckily I have not yet spent thousands of dollars on bikes, I have just converted an old road bike into a TT bike, so the frame is not a problem. But apparently my bull bars (is that what you call them, the ones that the aero bars clip onto) anyway they are apparently too thin…. they are about 5 cm wide and 1.5 cm ish at the thinest part. recently I was tld by race officials that they are illegal.. so had to tape some foam onto them to make them thicker. this time it passed but next time foam is not allowed. would you or anyone out there know what the rules on the bars are?? is it still illegal if the foam is on there?/ if its only the aero aspect thats the prob then bit of padding should solve that right….
anyway any advice would be good, as these bars are worth more then the bike frame heheh


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