More on the UCI Protocol – A Little More Stick

A Little More Stick

I'll admit, I like writing these harder-edged pieces as a change of pace from the generally positive tone of this blog. Like ticks, bureaucrats just naturally get under the skin, and you have to scratch back. Comments on the original UCI post raised a number of interesting questions that may only be answered in time if the protocol is accepted by manufacturers. In the meantime here are a few more thoughts on the matter and a stab or two at those difficult questions.

The Real Costs

I've given more thought to the question of what this is going to cost manufacturers, both in currency and time. It's not clear how many models a manufacturer will want to have certified for UCI competition but if we look at the current top-end norm, many pro teams are provided with road, cobble-specific road and tt frames. Philosophies differ on womens' specific models (Specialized vs Cervelo for instance) but let's count one, plus a track and a cross model. This brings our total to six at the high end of the market, with no inclusion of the 2nd tier bikes that have been promoted to smaller teams and racing on a budget initiatives.

Let's assume that only one third of this 6-model lineup is updated each year, so we have $25,000 in UCI testing fees payable annually just for bikes. The protocol's documentation requirements are significant with both profile and sectional views for each of the eight possible frame sizes in two formats STEP and PDF. These drawings must anticipate the manufacturing tolerances of production which will be tested later during the prototype phase and eventually spot-checked by commissaires at races on actual production bicycles.

Several readers have expressed well-founded doubts about whether the UCI will be sufficiently staffed to live up to the detail of their own protocol but it's also quite evident that manufacturers will have to devote additional resources towards the preparation and administration of their responsibilities under the requirements.

Given the stakes, manufacturers will not simply spit out the documentation package and send it off to Switzerland hoping for the best, nor I imagine will they designate the task to their Taiwanese factory if that's where their frames originate. This is not a negative reflection on those factories, I just believe the compliance work will remain the responsibility of the bicycle company's home office and engineers.

If we include the murkier area of technical innovation as it applies to helmets, clothing etc. it's easy to see this taking 50% of one employee's time to oversee all stages of preparation, tracking and internal testing. I highlight the last point because no manufacturer is going to produce technical drawings or prototypes for certification without careful internal scrutiny. I'll argue this is different and in addition to normal QA testing no matter how rigorous.

Up to now, manufacturers have simply been able to change designs if QA found issues, moving forward the UCI-influenced picture is not nearly as simple, so it will require a profound level of confidence that all engineering/production issues have been anticipated and allowed for. Not so much because of cost overruns, mold changes are always very expensive, but because getting a submission wrong could totally destroy marketing timelines and associated budgets.

I'm not privy to engineering salaries in the bicycle industry but let's assume $80-$100K for a mid-level engineer, fully loaded that employee costs the employer $150K. If that employee spends half his or her time on the UCI protocol, that's $75K. Add the $25K for the two bike submission and you have $100K.

I may be overestimating the percentage of time an employee would have to devote to the issue but I've got plenty of experience estimating complex projects. If it were me allocating resources given all the unknowns and the historical difficulty working with the UCI, this is what I'd budget for.

Monocoque or Not

Reader Touriste-Routier brought up a number of interesting points, one of which was dependent on the specifics of frame assembly. The UCI protocol clearly differentiates between frames that are assembled from tubes and single-piece (monocoque) production, but I'm not sure if manufacturers could bypass the heavy fees and process of the latter by being clever about production. For instance if they produce a bike in two pieces; in other words circumvent the requirements by being able to argue that their bike is not a single-piece construction. Bikes like BMC's Impec are as sophisticated as any on the market. I assume they will benefit from the simplified approval process and fees since they are not single piece constructions.

I'm left wondering if a host of manufacturers switched production methods, would the UCI amend the protocol fee structure? Right now their motivation for extending the simplified rules is to help small and artisan builders, not necessarily to help large bicycle companies that choose multi-piece construction have an easier time with the protocol.

To the question of whether bicycles that originate from a common frame model and supplier (Taiwan) require individual certification; my reading of the protocol is yes.

Tip of the Iceberg

Reading between the lines it would appear that the UCI wants to extend its hegemony far beyond bikes and forks alone. There's too much at stake here for manufacturers, particularly the biggest ones, to cut a check and appease the UCI. Competitive cycling needs a healthy bicycle industry, free to deliver the innovation that racers and enthusiasts thoroughly enjoy. Time for the bicycle industry to check the lay up schedule on its collective backbone. If we ever needed more stiffness in that backbone now's the time.

4 Responses to More on the UCI Protocol – A Little More Stick

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  2. Touriste-Routier says:

    Another point I failed to make yesterday is that of security of documents and non-disclosure.

    The documentation provided will be proprietary and in many cases could contain trade secrets.

    The UCI doesn’t have a good track record in terms of information leaks pertaining to doping. What assurances are there for the manufacturers that their proprietary information will remain confidential?

    • They actually do have a detailed plan for document security… over an encrypted OpenTrust network (includes email and document exchange). Hard to say if it’s foolproof. I’m more worried about leaks or defections from the test group to industry taking intellectual secrets with them.

  3. Inner Ring says:

    I’m still struggling with the basics. Why?

    By all means offer the service as an option for big companies to get their bikes validated as UCI-compliant. This way they don’t suffer the embarrassment of seeing their new model declared invalid, and their star riders relegated to using last year’s model. This is a big risk for the larger manufacturers, it makes them look stupid and devalues an entire product range.

    But why make it compulsory for “every licence holder” and even the most basic diamond frame? It’s fine to have rules governing dimensions but compulsory approval smells of monopoly, licencing and merchandising.

    I do wonder if the scheme existed ten years ago whether Cervélo would have just stuck to triathlon and Felt to BMX?