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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.