UCI Approval Labels

A recent topic of bike shop talk is the new UCI rule requiring approval labels issued by their technical committee for bike frames in races. Manufacturers are up in arms about the suddenness of the rule, which was announced last month and will be put into effect…like last week. So then, a bit sudden it is.

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Damn them UCI bastards. Always holding us down with their obsession with 19th century aesthetics. If not for the shackles imposed by those Swiss autocrats, Specialized would be able to lead us all to the promised land aboard Cancellara-replica Shiv TT bikes, Trek road bikes would weigh less than a Big Mac for the price of a single with cheese, and AOL would stop bombarding me with so-called news stories involving Justin Bieber. It’s all been explained before…the UCI hates shiny bikes. End of story.

Right?……….

Or so goes the mainstream chatter. However, I see this not as a story of the evil Swiss technology-haters persecuting the people of the world, rather as an almost inevitable collision of 4 different groups. You have the UCI technical committee as one group, the manufacturers of cutting edge bikes, the consumers/potential athletes, and then the UCI commissaires at the races.

Unless you are one of those people trolling the web with frothing advocacy for recumbents in the Tour de France, then you implicitly agree that there should be some rules to regulate equipment in bike racing (apologies to frothing recumbent advocates). And if there are to be rules, someone needs to decide what they are and just as importantly, someone needs to apply them.

The problem has been that athletes have been stepping up to starting gates with equipment that the officials have never seen before. The officials are obligated to apply the rules consistently to all competitors, but that’s really hard to do on the spot. The technical rules might seem arbitrary to many, but some of that has been in an attempt to make them easier to implement (not always successful). The new approval labels will be issued on new equipment (ie the labels will not be necessary on models introduced prior to 2011) to enable race commissaires in the field to quickly and consistently approve bike frames for participation. With the system in place, race officials should be able to find a label on the bike with a code on it that can be referenced and verified. The rub is that the UCI is pushing the approval labels into play with very little warning, but the need has been necessary for a while.

Who should be most upset about this? Well, clearly the manufacturers are upset. Companies like Specialized spend a lot of money developing bikes that push the envelop of the rules to be used at the top levels of the sport. Last year was particularly frustrating for Specialized as their much vaunted Shiv TT bike was first ruled legal and then not. But is the UCI persecuting them? I think it’s worthy to keep in mind that manufacturers receive certain marketing benefits from introducing product during big races… a long-drawn out approval process robs them of marketing punch as well as gives competing manufacturers longer to respond. So no, the rule doesn’t really help manufacturers who are looking to have an edge on their industry competition, but once in place the new rule does give manufacturers reassurance that their product will get entry into sporting competition.

What about the potential customers, the athletes? Well, after the dust settles, I can’t see how this will hurt them. Sure, athletes are always looking for some advantage, but the new rule should go a long way to reducing the chance that an athlete might show up to the start of a race only to be denied participation at the last moment. Keep in mind that the label system alone will not guarantee participation. The frame will still need to be set up properly in regards to areas such as wheel gap distance (the infamous Cervelo incident) and aerobar extensions, but a rider with an approved frame won’t need to worry if the frame rules will be interpreted differently in Quebec vs California.

The one issue that would totally f’up the system is if the UCI changes the rules in such a way as to categorically eliminate a design, such as when they outlawed bikes with 2 different size wheels (aka funny bikes, low-pro). Perhaps though the labels will then act as a grandfather clause.