Professional cycling is in a heated struggle among its governing body, its teams and the companies that manufacture expensive equipment over what is a legal racing bike.
The International Cycling Union abruptly alerted teams at the start of this season that it intends to clarify and reinterpret its often oblique rules governing bicycle design through increased equipment inspections.
The announcement was an unwelcome surprise. Bicycles and accessories may be banned within weeks. That could leave teams scrambling to find new bikes for top riders, and the manufacturers could find it harder to sell their merchandise.
“When I initially looked at it, I wasn’t too worried,” said Phil White, a co-founder of Cervélo, a Toronto-based bicycle manufacturer, which also sponsors a European professional team. “But now I’m quite concerned. This could be quite crushing.”
The crackdown and the renewed debate over bicycle design are not entirely unwelcome. Some prominent cyclists say that recent advances made possible by new materials and manufacturing techniques may be unfairly penalizing teams that have limited access to the latest technologies.
The cycling union first told teams about its plans through a warning letter sent in January, after the teams had accepted delivery of their bikes for the season. A month later, in the middle of the Tour of California, cycling union officials said that they would begin banning equipment immediately, although they backed down after protests. Now, the cycling group’s president, Pat McQuaid, said components must comply with standards by July 1, which means after the Giro d’Italia, which starts Saturday, but before the Tour de France. Enforcement of other standards, however, would not begin until next year.
Exactly why the cycling union decided to raise the issue without giving notice is unclear. McQuaid said the warning letter came out of discussions at the end of 2008.
“We decided to bring both the sport and the manufacturers back to reality,” McQuaid said from his office in Switzerland. “The sport needs to be a sport of athletic ability, not technical ability.”
The dispute largely involves bicycles and parts designed for time trials, the individual race against the clock. Because time trial rules ban drafting, aerodynamics are thought to significantly boost a rider’s speed. During the off-season, well-financed teams use tests in wind tunnels to evaluate bicycles and to optimize riders’ positions. What emerges are expensive and exotic bicycles.
The cycling union has long banned the use of anything intended to cheat the air. But the increasing use of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic resins, which can be shaped into a variety of forms, during the 1990s created new issues. In the ’90s, the British cyclists Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree broke the distance record for one hour — the sport’s gold standard — using bicycles with unusual designs and aerodynamic riding positions. Obree broke the record twice, on two bicycles he built himself (one used bearings from a washing machine), only for his designs to be banned later by the cycling union. In “The Flying Scotsman,” a 2006 film based on Obree’s life, the role of the villain is played by officials from a thinly disguised International Cycling Union.
In 2000, new rules included requiring bicycles be the traditional diamond shape and not weigh less than 6.8 kilograms (about 15 pounds). But another rule is more ambiguous, referring to “a fuselage form,” which the cycling union defines as an “extension or a streamlining of a section.” Whatever that may be, it cannot have a ratio that exceeds three to one. (For comparison, traditional bicycle tubing is round and has a ratio of one to one.)
Until January, manufacturers assumed the rule covered only the individual sections of a bicycle frame and went to great lengths to increase that ratio without breaking the rule, or so they thought. Giant, Scott and Felt make time-trial bicycles with elongated front ends for better aerodynamics. But in a bid to stay within the ratio, those bikes connect the forks and handlebars to the rest of the frame in unusual and complex arrangements. On its Web site, Felt asserts, “Our design created an effective airfoil shape with approximately a 6:1 aspect ratio, that is still U.C.I. legal because it does not rely on a fairing-instant speed.” U.C.I. are the cycling union’s initials in French.
In an interview, Jim Felt, the founder of Felt, an American company, said he was still confident the bicycle would pass inspection. Giant, however, had doubts and redesigned it. The biggest surprise for the industry was the announcement that all the parts of a bicycle would be under the ratio rule. Many handlebars and some cranks greatly exceed the limit. Cervélo’s White said that many of his company’s seat posts also violated the rule.
White was initially unconcerned because most of Cervélo’s customers do not race or they compete in triathlons, which are not governed by the cycling union. But he said that when a clip-on handlebar extension was banned for road-racing bikes in 2000, the popular product’s market evaporated.
Even recreational cyclists, White said, shun products once they are banned for professional use. That, combined with the current recession, he said, could ruin some companies.
Some riders say they would like to see not only stricter enforcement but also more restrictive rules for time-trial bikes.
Marco Pinotti, the current Italian national time-trial champion who rides for Team Columbia-Highroad, acknowledges the special equipment has benefited him, but he also says that it gives an unfair advantage to teams with large budgets for wind-tunnel testing and sophisticated equipment.
He favors forcing riders to use conventional bicycles without aerodynamic handlebars or wheels for time trials. That is unlikely to find favor with bike makers, who rely on time-trail bicycles to generate publicity — and sales.
Pinotti’s American teammate, Craig Lewis, agreed, saying in an e-mail message: “It was first named the race of truth for a reason. Now it’s just a race between the biggest budgets.”