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« Just a human juke-box | Main | Open secrets the major bike brands wish you didn’t know »

Does the UCI stifle innovation?

Does the UCI prevent innovation with its regulations? The answer might surprise you.

In my last article that touched on the modern carbon fiber frame and its design, I mentioned that companies were basically sticking with the old geometry that has been around thirty or forty years.

No one seems willing to tweak the design a little, to A.) Place the rider in a more efficient riding position, and B.) Make the bike handle better when going around corners, and at extreme speeds when descending steep hills.

Thirty or more years ago all racing frames were lugged steel, built by craftsmen. There were certain restrictions on frame geometry because it was not cost effective to make lugs in a wide range of angles.

I got around this by altering the angle of the lug as I brazed the joint. (Picture right.)

I did this with the aid of a small hammer in what I describe as, "A little refined blacksmithing."

However, I was just one builder who had taught myself certain individual skills; my methods were not practical for most larger production facilities.

Today frames are either molded from carbon fiber, or they are welded steel or aluminum; there is no restriction on what angles the various elements of the frame need to be. Within what is allowed by UCI regulations that govern competition.

There is a misconception that the UCI somehow places strict restrictions on what a frame builder or manufacturer can design, and as a result are stifling innovation. This is not true.

When I built frames, although I didn’t necessarily follow what everyone else did; my bikes were being used in UCI sanctioned events, so I always designed and built within the UCI regulations.

I needed to check to see if the UCI had changed those restrictions since I retired. Yesterday I emailed the UCI in Switzerland asking for a copy of their frame specs, and was very surprised to get a prompt reply back this morning, in less than 24 hours.

As I suspected these are mostly the same set of rules that have been in place for years. I would hazard a guess that these haven’t altered since I first became interested in frame design in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The only changes made recently were those pertaining to the cross-section of the frame tubes. I wrote about these in two articles, Part 1. on June 17, 2009 and Part 2. on June 19, 2009. The reasons for these changes I think I addressed fully in these previous articles.

However, there is no UCI rule that says head and seat angles have to be 73 degrees, or any other angle for that matter. No UCI rule that says a fork rake has to be 43 to 45mm. Which today seems to be the industry standard.

All the UCI does in this case is lay down maximum and minimum measurements between certain points on a frame.

Within what I consider these generous parameters, frame designers are free to do whatever they want.   

Below is a drawing from UCIs regs; notice it is an old school level top tube frame because this drawing has been around for years. The various dimensions are marked with article numbers and these are described below the drawing.


1.3.012 A bicycle shall not measure more that 185 cm (72.75 in.) in length and 50 cm (19.081 in.) in width overall.

1.3.013 The peak of the saddle shall be a minimum of 5 cm to the rear of a vertical plane passing through the bottom bracket spindle. This only applies to road and cyclo-x bikes. Track bikes can be less as long as the nose of the saddle is not forward of the BB center. 

1.3.014 The saddle support shall be horizontal. The length of the saddle shall be 24 cm minimum and 30 cm maximum. (Between 9.437 in. and 11.081 in.) Interestingly saddle length and BB height is the same; see below.)

1.3.015 Bottom Bracket Height, The distance between the bottom bracket spindle and the ground shall be between 24 cm minimum and maximum 30 cm. (Between 9.437 in. and 11.081 in.)

1.3.016 Front and rear centers. The distance between the vertical passing through the bottom bracket spindle and the front wheel spindle shall be between 54 cm minimum and 65 cm maximum (Between 21.25 in. and 25.562 in.) 

The distance between the vertical passing through the bottom bracket spindle and the rear wheel spindle shall be between 35 cm minimum and maximum 50 cm. (Between 13.75 in. and 19.687 in.) 

1.3.018 Wheels of the bicycle may vary in diameter between 70 cm maximum and 55 cm minimum, (Between 27.562 in. and 21.625 in.) including the tire.

For the cyclo-cross bicycle the width of the tyre (measured between the widest parts) shall not exceed 33 mm and it may not incorporate any form of spike or stud. (In other words, no mountain bike tires on cyclo-cross bikes.) 

The reason for these UCI regulations is simple. They are there to ensure that no competitor has an aerodynamic or mechanical advantage over another; either by riding in a reclining position or making the bicycle itself aerodynamic beyond that which is allowed.

To be fair when Aero-bars became popular with triathletes in the late 1980s the UCI eventually sanctioned them for use in time-trials and certain track events. The only restriction placed on aero-bars is that the hands be no further than 75cm. (29.5 in.) maximum, from the center of the BB.

So there you have it; it is not the UCI who are stifling progress or restricting what the manufacturers can build; it is the manufacturers themselves either playing it safe, or cutting costs by limiting what is available.



Reader Comments (8)

So I wonder,
No one seems willing to tweak the design a little, to A.) Place the rider in a more efficient riding position, and B.) Make the bike handle better when going around corners, and at extreme speeds when descending steep hills.
Superimposing on top of the same picture, How would you position the angles to achieve to above goals. I 'd just like to see the results.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Skeen

I would design the frames in the tried and true geometry of the Fuso and others I built. Don’t ask me, if the bikes ride better; modesty restricts what I will say here; rather ask the people who still ride them.
If any manufacturer wants to contact me I would be happy to show them for a modest consulting fee.

February 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Once again Dave gets us closer to the truth and it is why I appreciate your blog/writings so much. Thanks for the extra info but I think both the manufacturers and the UCI stifle innovation. The "bicycle must be accessible to all participants" and the added value is mainly PR, not design, are just two examples.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

I think that the UCI regs also help to level the playing field, much the way that Formula One is governed by FIA.. It helps to make it so that the team with the best riders, rather than the best technology (and most money) can win the race. There has even been some discussion in the past about trying to equalize training budgets. That isn't likely to happen but its an interesting idea.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTimJ

It’s important for the long term health of cycling that entry into the sport is affordable. It’s intimidating enough for a novice. If pro bikes are no-limit, yes, we racers will pony up for something close to what pros have, even if it’s $10K.

Then beginners think they have no chance – it isn’t even worth trying to compete against ‘us racers’ unless their bike also has electric shifting, weighs 13 lb, and costs over $10K- just to try out cycling or learn to race. The sport shrinks.

One reason UCI slows down technical change is so that the gap between the pro’s bike and the public’s stays small. Then racing is easy for an average person to enter, and fans can relate to the athletes because it’s closer to their own experience of riding, even if remotely so.

The impossible trick for UCI is to achieve a balance for amateur cyclists, manufacturers, fans, countries, commissaires, pro cyclists, and sponsors. We (like UCI) need to look at all the reasons for and against limits, and what the big-picture results would be. UCI have my sympathy. They must walk a very fine line between a whole lot of interests, where where no matter what they do, they look like the bad guy to someone, who will tell the world. But that’s the (human) nature of politics.

Hope this helps explain why cycling is this way, and why it might be a good thing after all.

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlan Schietzsch

The UCI have just released another restriction that pertains to frame design. They now have a toe overlap rule, where the distance from the center of the pedal has to be greater than 89 mm to the closest point of the tire, effective 4/1/12. For criterium and track bikes for smaller riders, this can be a problem. Bikes that I have raced for over 40 years are no longer legal (I'm at 75 mm with my 50 cm frame). Was this in the interest of safety or equalization? Larger riders are not affected. I will have to find some combination of increased fork rake, shorter cranks, shallower head angle, longer top tube with shorter stem, wider Q factor, spacers in the pedals, smaller diameter tires, so that I can add 15 mm in this area. The bike will handle worse and therefor be less safe. Another arbitrary rule that negatively affects smaller riders and therefor unlevels the playing field.

March 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterL Space

L Space,
You are absolutely right on all points, this is going to get interesting.

March 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

They also have rules on saddle length, and position relative to the bottom bracket center, as well as a range of acceptable saddle angles which is slightly more arbitrary. This means that shorter riders aren't able to be forward enough, and taller riders can't get enough setback. Compression socks and clothing have also come under regulation, and they're relatively inexpensive and unexclusive items that now fall under UCI control. I think a rather large amount of cyclists think the UCI have jumped the shark!

This example is particularly glaring, as it is of a 6'8 cyclist who would otherwise bang his knees off his handlebars in a UCI position due to a maximum allowable reach issues;


February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMing
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