UCI 6.8kg minimum: Leave It!

Hotspur Weigh-in Two

Carlton Reid recently revealed that the UCI, the international governing body for most bicycle sport, is reconsidering the 6.8kg (~15 lbs) minimum weight requirement for bikes used in sanctioned competitions. UCI’s technical coordinator Julien Carron was reported to have stated that the UCI would consider relaxing the 6.8kg rule if the resulting bikes could be proven safe by independent lab testing, with protocols stricter than CEN safety standards. Bicycle manufacturers have been lobbying for a review of the rule. The UCI originally enacted the rule as a way to prevent overly light bikes from jeopardizing rider safety and as a way to discourage the higher cost of exotic equipment from denying athletes from less wealthy areas a level field. Certainly there was some merit to these ideas. Back in 1995, the majority of the top pro teams used aluminium or steel bikes with steel steerers, alloy-rimmed wheels, etc. A 6.8kg machine was VERY light back then.

Of course today, anyone feeling a little flush can step into a high-end road bike shop and snap up a bike that’ll beat that 6.8kg limit. If you are a rich man, you can go to someplace like Fair Wheel Bikes to buy a $10,000 plus bike that’ll make any pro bike from the Tour feel like a bloated warthog. There is truth in saying that advances in composite construction techniques have led to frames and forks that are much lighter than fifteen years ago yet do not fail in the middle of races from the cyclical forces of the world’s elite athletes. In the pro ranks, riders are often choosing to use power meter cranks (once a tool strictly used for training) or heavier, deep section aero wheels to bring their bikes up to the weight limit, or team mechanics use heavier water bottle cages, handlebars, or even putting lengths of chain down the seat tube to get individual bikes to the limit. And all this doesn’t take into account the individual rider’s weight, as a 6.8kg bike is relatively heavier to a 55kg climber than it is to a 75kg sprinter.

So surely it’s time to reset the weight limit from the arbitrary 6.8kg rule, or perhaps eliminated the weight limit all together. ….well, why? What does a lower weight limit really bring the sport?

So 6.8kg is arbitrary? It’s 15lbs more or less….seems nice and round to me, but any weight number is arbitrary to some extent. Whether it’s 6.8, 14.99, or whatnot, it’s just a number but one that is already in the rule book and well established. Why change it for the sake of changing? And of all the UCI rules concerning equipment, it is perhaps the easiest to implement and regulate. Officials at the race just need a scale; mechanics just need to check the bike before they hand it to the rider. No complex jigs, no conflicting methods of interpretation. 6.8kg is the same in Peoria as it is in Paris. Don’t even bring up the idea that lighter riders are unfairly burdened with a bike heavier in relationship to their size. This is an undeniable fact, but there is no practical way to eliminate the disparity. If the UCI tried to set a graduated bike weight limit based on rider weight, the testing protocols would need to take that into account, making the proposition impractical or ridiculously expensive. And they’d also have to weigh the riders at the races, and officials would need some way to verify that the assigned bike weight minimum matched each rider. This would be just too complex to implement consistently….just plain stupid.

Sure, there are plenty of frames out there that are less than 1kg or even less than 850gr, and they may be “safe” as defined by not failing from the loads imposed by the rider whilst in the middle of competition, but if we take into account crash-worthiness can we say that these eggshell wonders stack up well against the bikes of yesteryear? That is to say, should riders/teams be put into a position where they are expected to raise their yearly equipment budgets to account for bikes that are more expensive and more likely to need replacement? Maybe this wouldn’t affect Sky or Garmin, but we are talking about a rule that would be universal. Cervelo is touting a special edition, extra light $9,000 frameset…is that where we want our sport to go? Apparently, the ones lobbying for the rule revision are the frame manufacturers, because frame weight is a big aspect of marketing. I’m willing to assume that the demand for shockingly light and expensive bikes is there amongst people overly burdened with disposable income, but how exactly does that help the athletes? It’s been a long time since I’ve taken economics classes, and I mainly remember the engineering and psychology curriculums anyways, so someone out there help me out….should we expect higher prices to increase participation in sanctioned events or maybe recreationally?….maybe in the broader sense, bikes that exceed the value of the typical automobile on the road will reduce the perception among drivers that riders in spandex are overprivileged snobs with too much free time. Because if that would be the result, then I could see the benefit of eliminating a well-established and easily enforced rule with a series of testing protocols (with the costs of formulating them and then actual testing) that all frame manufacturers would have to submit to.

Yet what would the approval actually be approving? The frameset? So let me get this straight, the frameset gets an approval sticker but the total weight of the bike wouldn’t be regulated? Isn’t that just saying to the team mechanics “Hey, the frame is in the clear, you’re free (or perhaps obligated) to take a drill and file to everything else?” At the moment, pro team mechanics often keep lists of weights so that they can present a combination of frame/wheels/components that meet the minimum weight. Perhaps they choose a chainring that hasn’t been milled out for light weight, or even toss on a length of chain down the seat tube. But understand that though the length of chain anecdote seems silly and obviously doesn’t contribute to the safety of the rider, the mechanic probably just did that because it was convenient. Certainly a length of chain is cheaper and easier to install than an SRM powermeter crankset. Conversely, a length of chain down the seat tube can’t hurt the rider’s safety, nor does it really cost anymore. And if the team was issued a heavier (and perhaps less expensive) frameset to begin with, arguably the mechanic wouldn’t have needed the deadweight to make the minimum. It’s sorta like a girl loudly complaining that wind blowing keeps lifting up her miniskirt when she could have just worn a longer skirt. Which also reminds me of the time several years ago when Cannondale made a great big publicity stunt about having to glue brass weights onto Gilberto Simoni’s bike so that it could meet the minimum. There’s marketing schemes afoot here.

The irony is that reducing the weight of the bike, even if we are assuming that safety wouldn’t suffer, may not improve the actual performance. Many independent tests have supported the notion that aerodynamics play a much greater role than weight. I am actually going to say that the current 6.8kg rule actually makes for a faster bike because the riders can bring their bike right down to the minimum weight even with deep-section aero wheels such as Hed/Enve/Zipp et all…which do consistently test out as having a performance advantage. One could argue, especially after the Tour’s windy and crash-plagued stage 6, that deep-section aero wheels can reduce safety in certain wind conditions, but light weight bikes suffer too. My point however is that the 6.8kg rule gives the rider freedom to choose equipment to suit the conditions at hand without suffering from a real or perceived performance reduction due to weight.

I can’t see any real benefit to the sport as a whole if the UCI were to relax or eliminate the 6.8kg minimum weight rule. The rule as it stands leaves plenty of room for teams, mechanics, and riders to choose equipment. The rule does help reduce the cost of equipment. It is technically easy to enforce consistently, and it is already established. And in the end, the performance advantage of even lighter bikes is arguably negligible anyways. Before we start saying that we could build a lighter bike for the same safety margins, why don’t we talk about building a safer bike at the current weight? Why don’t we talk about something that will help the sport, its perception in the mainstream, or how we can bring more participants into the cycling lifestyle?