My Answer to the UCI’s New Approval Protocol

Stick It

I understand where the UCI is coming from. They seek to level the playing field for all competitors in UCI-sanctioned events by mandating that they compete exclusively on approved equipment (1.3.001bis). I spent the day with the new Approval Protocol and came away feeling, while not entirely without merit, it's a reactionary response to progress which threatens the very engine that drives the sport.

If I was a bicycle manufacturer I wouldn't be happy. Why, because I now have a not-so-silent business partner with an agenda that's going to dramatically change what, when and how I bring products to market. I don't buy the central premise, that technology is ruining competition. Once again, golf was there first and I'm very familiar with the equipment rules of the USGA and R&A. More on that in a bit, because some of the parallels are interesting.

For simplicity's sake let's confine this discussion to road cycling. Each year approximately 180 riders line up at the start of the Tour de France. Most are part of the supporting cast with no chance whatsoever for individual glory. And then there are the gc contenders. A handful of riders who can climb, time trial and stay out of trouble for three weeks. I believe that this select group could, assuming proper fit, exchange bikes on that Tour starting line, and the best rider among them would still win. Even the much vaunted F1 project that worked to give Lance Armstrong every advantage during his reign, didn't assure him victory.

Competitive R&D already levels the playing field

The world is now too small, science and technology too ubiquitous, and reverse-engineering too easy for any one company to possess a technological advantage sufficient to determine the outcome of the race. Is any one remotely surprised to know manufacturers buy and test each others bikes and equipment? Even patents can be ingeniously circumvented if necessary. In these days of too-big-to-fail bailouts the superiority of unfettered markets can no longer go unchallenged, but cycling doesn't need a soviet-era central planning committee. I'd argue that bicycle companies have a done a good job of keeping the playing field level.

I will acknowledge that the governing bodies of sport have a difficult job. Golf has struggled with this for decades. Equipment advances, particularly in the golf ball have effectively shortened many championship courses. Over the years various proposals to create a single competition golf ball have come and gone, principally because the average golfer wants to hit the ball further. Spectators at golf tournaments want to see the ball go further too.

The average cyclist, and that includes most racers and pros, love technology. I believe they (we) appreciate that a governing body exists to establish sensible principles for the bicycle (3.2.2). We don't want the Tour de France contested on recumbents, but that's where it ends. Set the basic physical parameters so that bicycles look like bicycles, but otherwise let the industry innovate.

Inverting the natural order

The new protocol subverts the natural order of things. Bicycle companies have traditionally used the professional ranks as the test bed for new technology. In fact riders and fans enjoy the one offs and special engineering that appears for the grand tours. It makes sense to develop product this way, to have the best riders in the world torture test them under the toughest race conditions. When it works, the product or innovation makes it into general production soon after. The UCI program stands all that on its head. Bicycles and forks have to be generally available in the marketplace come race time, and one-off bicycles and components are specifically outlawed. (4.1 comments on the principles)

More disturbing still is section 3.1.2 Technical Innovations. No accessory, helmet, equipment, clothing or means of communication can be used in competition unless it has been approved by the UCI executive bureau before June 30th of the previous year. In other words if you want riders to use a new TT helmet at the 2012 Tour de France, it will have to be approved before the start of the 2011 Tour. In a word this is ridiculous. I'm not clear on whether the executive bureau means the UCI president and three vice presidents, but regardless it gives the impression that these matters will be summarily decided by executive fiat.

Time to market

Throughout the protocol the UCI seems indifferent to realistic time frames. With a maximum of one month to approve technical drawings and up to two months to approve a prototype, I don't know where the UCI thinks industry players will find an extra three months in their development cycles. The UCI would probably counter that after an initial adjustment, the industry would simply anticipate these necessary steps and build it into their schedules. I'm sure the UCI understands that development is not evenly spaced throughout the year. I'm left wondering if they're truly prepared to respond in a timely fashion when hit with a wave of simultaneous submissions. If we consider how long it takes for doping decisions to be made, I shudder to think where this might end up.

I encourage you to read the protocol for yourself. There are three basic steps: the application; technical drawing submission; prototype submission, but even here there are a couple of gray areas worth noting. First, section 5.1.1 encourage pre-application dialog, which reads to me like a formula to get turned down before you even get started.

Before the Application Form is submitted, the UCI encourages manufacturers to let them know about their ideas and concepts, in order to avoid any clear breaches of the regulations, to allow a model that complies with the requirements to be designed without delay and to avoid unexpected issues when the technical drawings are checked.

Value add - all the graphic appeal of a bar code

After approval, manufacturers need to consult with the UCI to find out where they can place the official sticker. If it were me I'd be looking to put it somewhere unobtrusive since I like my designs clean. I doubt that will pass muster and I'll wager somewhere on the front-facing seat tube is where they'll all land. I won't get into the silliness that insists the stickers are applied at the time of initial painting and that after-market, third-party repainting can't reapply the sticker to the frame. If that's not restraint of trade I don't know what is.

Smaller manufacturers and artisan builders will be afforded a simpler process by virtue of the fact they don't produce monocoque frames. Frames that are assembled from individual tubes, welded, brazed, glued etc. appear to be exempt from the full technical drawing package and the prototype requirements. They do still have to pay a fee, much smaller but still substantial (approx. $800 + VAT if applicable) per model.

One piece frame submissions, covering up to eight discreet sizes, will cost manufacturers a whopping $12,000 + VAT if applicable. Compare this to the schedule of fees from the USGA golf labs where certification of a set of irons (max 10-12 clubs) costs $500. Granted the rules for golf clubs are simpler with fewer variables but the relative cost just feels more realistic. If the UCI argues their analysis involves much more complex measurement and evaluation, I'd ask... who's responsible for that?

If the oil spill in the gulf and the meltdown in the financial industry have taught us anything, it's critical that there must be barriers between industry and regulators. The protocol does make clear the importance of confidentiality and secure communications. It does not specify that regulators, those who test equipment, cannot cross over into industry. I would like to see a clause which prevented any individual involved in UCI testing from assuming an industry position for two years after leaving the employ of the UCI or it's delegates.

Might it actually compromise safety and increase differentiation

The UCI declares that protocol approval has nothing to do with safety certification, and that they assume no responsibility for any approved product that is rejected by safety standard organizations or for any injuries that result from protocol-approved bicycle usage. That's fine and to be expected. What's not good is that it's easy to imagine the protocol actually hurting overall safety. Here's why.

Manufacturers currently have unlimited scope to improve production of a given model. As product comes off the line, random samples are subjected to routine QA. Often these tests yield valuable insights that are cycled back into production improvements immediately. I worry that these kind of optimizations may not happen when the manufacturer has to consider whether the change constitutes a new model with the associated costs and delays under the protocol, or whether the modified bicycles could be disqualified at a later date after UCI scrutiny.

I'll also argue that the protocol may actually produce more differentiation between manufacturers than the intended effect of narrowing it. By staging innovations to appear after June 30th (provided they've been approved one year earlier), a manufacturer could conceivably have a window of 18-months of exclusivity on the innovation before competitors can respond. If this interpretation is correct, perhaps large manufacturers would embrace this as a competitive advantage, but it would be terrible to be on the outside looking in as your teams and riders complained about missing out on a key feature. One final note on this point. Given that the UCI is so innovation averse, perhaps this point is moot... nothing will be approved.

No thank you

In conclusion, I believe it's time that manufacturers collectively stand up and refuse to abide by these regulations. If they all refuse what's the UCI going to do, hold meaningless races where no one shows up because none of the bikes are approved. Riders, teams and manufacturers need to realize they hold all the cards and its time they assumed their rightful place at the table. Under the guise of collaboration and dialogue the protocol is an expensive take-it-or-leave it ultimatum that serves neither the racer nor the consumer. Going along is the worst thing that manufacturers can do.

21 Responses to My Answer to the UCI’s New Approval Protocol

  1. SQUADRA says:

    excellent in depth analysis of the UCI approval program.

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  3. Minh says:

    Wonderfully worded! I could not have said it any better! Except I would’ve sneaked in “F*CK the UCI” somewhere in there. =)

  4. pieh0016 says:

    I have a solution for you:
    TRIATHLON

  5. neilwheel says:

    How many riders affected by the UCI rules who actually pay for their bikes? 0.
    How many bike manufacturers supplying Pro Tour Teams that can’t afford £12,000? 0.
    Reasons to get in a kerfuffle over UCI rules? 0.

    FFS, it’s a marketing exercise!
    It does not affect the average bike rider, or even the above-average bike rider. It doesn’t stop anyone riding a bike who wants to ride a bike or infringe civil liberties or contravene human rights. No one will lose their jobs, no hospitals will close;, no one will die.

    In short, get over it – if there was anything to get over in the first place .

    • Hi Neil,

      Thanks for keeping score, representing the minority side of things, and being generally dismissive. Indeed, you may have a future at the UCI.

      It’s not just pro tour teams that are affected, but let’s go with that example. Manufacturers provide them with at least two and in many cases three different bike models (road, tt, cobbled classics) so that means $36,000 to get those models approved. Add a couple for the women’s teams, cross bikes etc, etc.

      We’re talking $100,000 per year now plus the associated internal costs of preparing the submissions, prototypes, shipping both ways for dozens of bike frames. Then there’s the impact on development schedules assuming the UCI can meet their own deadlines.
      Who do you think is really going to pay for this? Consumers. And at a time when cycling is having a terrible time finding sponsors, it doesn’t make sense to add to the expense of outfitting teams or taxing consumers.

      Marketing exercise? I assume you mean for the UCI. If you were in business I’m sure you’d be happy to pay the $100,000 for the privilege of marketing the UCI on your bikes subject to their approval.

      And I believe I’m in a “lather” not a kerfuffle over this.

      ::M

  6. There is a band of brands now joined together under the umbrella to take them on but frankly it seems more hot air than anything else. The wheel farce saw regular club riders being refused to start races in Oz last year and now they want all frames and forks to be UCI approved at a huge cost to brands. The UCI is simply a bunch of clip board merchants who never made it at racing who do nothing but look after themselves and their cronnies. They do nothing to promote sport or even simply implement a doping system that would wipe out most of todays pro riders.

    • Steve,

      It does seem that this may be the tip of the iceberg and the UCI will ultimately seek to control everything in the bike race. I get the feeling that there’s a truckload of new clipboards on the way to Switzerland.

      ::M

  7. franco says:

    This is another of those ideas that sounds good at the conceptual level…but, implementation and long term impact are not fully thought through and considered. I suspect the UCI is not ready with budget or manpower to administer these reviews and issuance of stickers.

    And, if the UCI does and is successful in pushing this through, the longer term result could be a class of professional race bikes that are well beyond the reach of consumers in terms of cost. In addition, some manufacturers will choose to NOT play in the professional race bike arena and stay more mass consumer focused. So, fewer choices…for professionals and consumers. The aspiring professional cyclist could well struggle with using UCI approved equipment if costs are higher; so, entry into the professional sport will be impacted as well.

    Not good…

    • Franco,

      If this does gain acceptance from manufacturers I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with concern about the UCI bureaucracy administering their own creation.

      thanks

      ::M

  8. Touriste-Routier says:

    Excellent analysis of the situation, especially in regards to prototypes, testing, and time-to-market.

    In terms of production product, the real question is will the rules be enforced outside of professional races? While all UCI affiliated federations are obliged to enforce the rules at UCI sanctioned events, domestic rules sometimes vary. The answer to this question is pertinent because it affect an albeit small, segment of consumers.

    The whole thing stinks, but to keep things in context please consider:

    1) Since the racing market (all racing, not just professional) is still a very small market. Only a few models from each manufacturer need to be certified. If it is only going to be enforced at the pro level, this shall only affect relatively few models.

    2) Many frames that look like they are 1 piece are not actually 1 piece. I haven’t read the regulations (and won’t waste my time on it), but perhaps this will soften the financial impact.

    3) This program could actually help the large manufacturers more than it hurts them. It could reduce competition from the smaller mid level brands, and since they only need to certify bikes that they expect (or want) to be raced. It could help with up-selling. The fees and associated internal costs can be easily borne by the larger companies.

    4) Long gone are the days of the small brands dominating the racing market. At the top pro level, the artisan builders don’t have the deep pockets to sponsor the teams. The large brands now rule both the pro scene and the entry level scene.

    Furthermore, the brands and the manufacturers are not always the same. Most carbon frames come out of the same 5 factories, mostly on a contractor/outsource basis. Some designs are proprietary to one brand, others are shared among many brands. So do the manufacturers need to get certification or the marketers? If Giant Bike A and Trek Bike B are identical and both made in Factory C, do they each need to be certified?

    5) The UCI doesn’t organize races; independent promoters organize races. The UCI merely sanctions them. Boycotts (and don’t count on them) hurt a lot of people much more so than the UCI.

    6) Problems faced with certification are more likely to affect the TT bikes more more than road bikes. The TT market overall is not a UCI/road market; it is dominated by triathletes, who don’t need this certification. Unless they have pro teams, expect many manufacturers to say screw the UCI… If they do have pro teams, and don’t have a large market for TT bikes, they might source them elsewhere (see point 4).

    7) How the hell is the UCI going to manage this? They will have an immediate backlog of certifications, and won’t be able to get out of their own way. If they can’t get the certifications processed, they will have a hard time enforcing the rules

    8) The larger bike brands are huge sponsors of the pro scene, from teams, to events, to TV coverage. If they work together against this, they have a lot of weight to throw around. The UCI will need to back off in order to save itself.

    9) The only asset the UCI has is it’s affiliation with the IOC. The only power they have is to ban parties from competing in UCI sanctioned events. To have something called a race, all you need is 2 riders to line-up to compete. If enough promoters and riders/teams agree to say screw the UCI, races will still happen, and the UCI will die.

    I expect this program to at least be delayed, if not go down in flames.

    • Great addition to the thread, and lots of unanswered questions that will only be decided if this actually plays out. I’m going to take a stab at addressing a few of them an update to the original post.

      ::M

  9. kurt says:

    Velo,
    There seems to be much debate on the UCI regulations and the process and how the regulations will affect manufacturers. It seems few people understand the effort expended to produce a quality product let alone introduce new products to the market place. There is no doubt that the expense will immense and will come at the cost to us, the everday cyclist. The timelines will be offset by increased resources (more people, more money), increases on priority shipping (more money), timeline pressures will increase waste and rework(more money). How do you expedite the approval process when the UCI falls behind? Smells like graft to me. The UCI seems to be setting themselves up for a windfall.

    It is one thing to mandate policy, law, rules and regulations;it is quite another to enforce them. These regulations are enforced by what, a sticker (just what I wanted, a bike covered in stickers). I mean how hard is it going to be to make a look-a-like product with the right kind of sticker?

    Is the new method really a better alternative to the current practice? Are we really seeing a flood of illicit innovation at the start of every race? Will the new regulations eliminate the need for the same pre race inspection that exists today? This really sounds like a solution looking for a problem. Just another form of empire building.

    My recommendation to amatuer racers…buy up those discounted 2010 models now.

    Thanks for the detailed report.

    • good questions Kurt, if I was being funny I’d say that pre-race inspections will amount to examining the sticker very, very carefully to see if it’s legit and hasn’t been tampered with. A comedy routine.

  10. It’s the same in most sports sadly, in Scotland we have The Scottish Football Association SFA we let them take power and now they live in an Ivory Tower dispensing largess and rules down to the masses who watch on cable and satellite TV instead of going to games.
    Give them an inch and they will take over your sport. The big boys will go along because they make big money, the small man has to follow. Get together and deny them what they demand as “their right”.

    Dougie

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  12. Yep just as I suspected Ole George Orwell was right.. Big Brother hath strewn his Barcode control .. and VAT is VAT…

  13. Chris says:

    Great analysis Michael. I’m curious to see this progress, and hopeful that the UCI will quickly realize they’re trying to manage something they know too little about. Trouble is, I’m not sure if they’ve left themselves a way to back out without looking rather…well…you know. Hopefully they just put these rules in a book someplace and then enforce them like they enforce their TT aero rules.

    What kills me the most about all of this is the obvious and transparent nature of it being a cash grab. They aren’t doing this so they can take any legal safety liability, nor are they doing it to ensure that riders get access to better equipment. Ironically, some of the bikes riders currently ride will be outlawed by these rules. Many pro riders use bikes that are considerably heavier and stiffer than the production models they are painted to appear to be. These rules seem to outlaw those bikes.

    If it works, I wonder if they’ll try to apply the same logic to mountain bikes. And by “works”, I merely mean “UCI gets money”, since that seems to be the only raison d’etre here.

    Dear UCI: please stop. Go solve something else. This wasn’t a problem in the first place.

    • Hi Chris,

      I don’t think they’ve left themselves an absolute out, and only a stiff response from the bike industry can stop this train from heading down the tracks. Unfortunately as the race radio issue demonstrates it doesn’t seem to matter to the UCI what anyone else thinks.

      They’ve given themselves some wiggle room by allowing a big loophole for 2011; frames that are in production do not have to be submitted for approval. I imagine they’re hoping that a few manufacturers fall into line (or are coerced) during this year to follow the protocol, and then they’ll push aggressively for every one else to comply in 2012. If manufacturers completely ignore the protocol in 2011, that may send a message.

      You make a great point about the heavier, stiffer, one-off frames constructed with different grades of carbon or lay up schedules. I don’t believe the UCI would have any way to prevent this in the future provided the dimensions don’t change, even though they specifically outlaw one-offs. Weight is not mentioned anywhere in the documentation. Most surprisingly there’s no mention of the word “tolerances”. No precision specification is complete without plus or minus tolerances. This is how the aero space industry works, and how Boeing and others determine if supplier parts are accepted and paid for. The fact tolerances are not mentioned reinforces your point that they’re attempting to manage something they know little about.

      I fear that mountain bikes and the annexation of Poland will be next.
      thanks for reading.

      ::M

  14. Matt Nixon says:

    Great post, I would have said something along the lines that the UCI is a F^&king monopoly that needs to be shut down.