The Approval from on high

by Hunter Pronovost
       The world of racing bikes was surprised in mid December when the UCI announced that it would initiate an approval process that would, in time, require all frames used in competition to be pre-approved by a technical team.
       Fans of racing bikes, users of racing bikes, and buyers of racing bikes were almost unanimous in their opposition to the idea. The UCI, long viewed by fans as an entity that slows the growth of competitive cycling and sometimes even hinders it, was accused of devising the plan as a cash grab. But a better look at the whole scene reveals that they just might be the willing fall guys, scapegoats for the real players in the industry.

Why the plan is ( not ) needed”

Founding members of the newly formed GOCEM ( Global Organization of Cycling Equipment Manufacturers ) have made reference to incidents such as the one where Alberto Contador lined up to the Volta ao Algarve in 2009 with a hot-off-the-press Specialized Shiv and was notified, just as the little pistons in his legs were warming up, that he couldn’t use it. There have been other random incidents of often forgotten UCI rules coming from the shadows to stop the use of a uniquely designed frames in competition. For the most part, though, these incidents have been isolated to time trial frames with their inherently whacky wind cheating shapes and angles. So, is a truckload of TT bikes that have pushed the envelope a little too much worth the creation of an approval process that encompasses all road, TT and CX frames? The answer is a resounding NO.
      As a side note, the incident at the Volta ao Algarve was no doubt a bummer for AC and Specialized, but any cost incurred by the team, the manufacturer or the race organization was easily made up with the extra media coverage of the event that ensued. You can bet your race entry fee for this weekend that Specialized knew this and that they got their moneys worth out of the whole bru-haha.
       Supporters of the approval process ( GOCEM, Teams and the UCI ) have also voiced concerns about the safety of equipment. The new approval process supposedly is a way to make sure that valued athletes are not put in harm's way by untested frames, wheels and the like. In theory, this is a truly valid point.

Bikes are not F1 cars....

     If you think quickly, whats the first thing that comes to mind when asked to recall a recent issue of equipment failure affecting the health of a bike rider?

     Paris-Roubaix 2006 right? Big George Hincapie breaking the steerer tube on his Trek as he was pounding out 600 watts one way, slamming his bike on loaf-of-bread sized stones the other way. What's the point? Incidents of catastrophic bike failure are very rare. Incidents of catastrophic bike failure are very rare because:

#1 – Bikes, for all intense purposes, are simple machines.
#2 – Manufacturers test the bejusus out of stuff long before handing it off to an athlete to race on. The bad press that comes from incidents like Hincapie's are just too much to risk for companies like Trek, Specialized, Cervelo, and even wheel makers like Zipp.

    As another side note, That Madone's steerer tube design would have passed the UCI inspection if it took place before that race. George would have still snapped it, crashed, and broke his collar-bone.
     As many, many readers ( reasonable people like you and me ) on Velonews have commented, if a bike company's parts are crap, no one is going to buy them. It's simple economics already keeping our valued athletes safe.

The Hidden Agenda

      So what's really behind the push to approve all frames? While it is purely conjecture on my part, it feels more like a connect-the-dots reality. First off, there are obvious remarks like the one made by Scott Bikes V.P. Pascal Ducrot, “For many years we have been pushing for such a validation process and we are glad that the UCI has decided to go this way. We are in favor of this process and will support it whenever we can.”.
      While the big time frame makers may say that the purpose of the validation process is for rule compliance, in reality, they are pushing for this regulation mainly to put pressure on smaller bike assemblers to hinder further market encroachment. Specialized, Trek, Giant, Felt, Cervelo and others who supply ProTour teams are looking to use their position at the pro cycling level to put pressure on bike makers who are stealing market share at the consumer level.

The evidence ( connect-the-dots )

     Never before have big bike manufacturers been so monetarily involved at the elite level. Millions of dollars have been spent by Specialized, Trek, Cannondale, Felt, etc to have naming rights of ProTeams. They have done this so that they can sell bikes of all sorts around the world. But guess what, it's not worth it.
     It has been estimated that Specialized has to sell 33 thousand bikes of all sorts ( kids, cruisers, mountain ) just to pay back their estimated dues of $3 million to say, team Astana. Compare that, for example, to Simplon, who sells just 16,000 bikes all year in Europe and who sponsors the popular UCI Professional Continental NetApp team. Simplon would never be able to afford a ProTeam, because all they sell is nice, high-end bikes. But low and behold, they are getting more bang for their sponsorship buck. Turns out the exposure that comes from providing bikes to a big team primarily affects just the bike buying habits of people who buy high-end bikes. Your average mom or dad is not buying their child a $400 Specialized mountain bike because they like Alexander Vinokourov. But that's exactly the bike Specialized needs to sell to make up the huge costs of marketing and sponsorship. Adding insult to injury, the influence and marketing effect that comes from sponsorship is growing less and less effective across the board. That is because people are finally starting to let the realization that carbon road frames are pretty much the same influence their choice on what to buy, ride and race.

The enemy

    Roll up to a group training ride in any part of the country, and you will find bikes that have no name on them whats-so-ever. Or at least a name that NO ONE has ever heard of before. Websites like Alibaba and Ebay have made it easy to purchase unbadged, generic carbon frames from Taiwan that otherwise might have gotten a Bianchi or Felt sticker put on them. Consider the example of Dynatek, a bike company with under 50 dealerships in the world. Super small by anyone's standards. Last year they provided this bike to the Professional team Amore & Vita, based in Italy. It was quickly realized by some fans that the frame was actually this one. A popular Chinese frame with the model number FM015, available to purchase from a seemingly endless supply of sources on the internet, some very reputable, some not so much. Cost: Usually under $500 with shipping included, sometimes even less.
     Companies like Specialized, eager to buy and resell such cheap frames to make their profit margins, are forced to sit back and watch not only smaller companies like Simplon sell the same product, but they also have to watch as an ever more educated costumer buys the same product directly from the source.

The solution (for the Big Corporations):

     Regulation and costly approval at the level they can control: ProTeams (and then by extension, the UCI). Regulation too expensive and time consuming for the small guys, a drop in the bucket for the big players.
The second step is to turn that costly approval into an unnecessary, emotional trigger for the masses....

A frame sticker.

In the next half of the article, I'll explain why it won't work, but why it also will...


    Last week, we discussed how the biggest bike brands in the world are really the ones pushing the introduction of the UCI’s approval process.  They have determined that they are losing customers and  perhaps more interesting, they are losing sponsorship of secondary teams to much smaller companies that make a buck by assembling bikes ( Not building bikes, there’s a difference ). Big brands also see more and more consumers realizing the indistinguishable-ness of most Asian made frames, regardless of the stickers ( or lack of ) on them. How much money are they loosing because of these 2 developments? In the big picture, not much at all. But as the Big Brands are asked to spend more on sponsoring the best teams and as they are running out of gimmicky catch words to assign to their newest models, they have seen this approval process by the UCI as new type of patent. They get bonus points for the fact that it ( the sticker ) will end up being something visual, identifiable and marketable when the bike is on the showroom floor.
    It actually is a brilliant move of solidarity on the industry's part. And you can’t really blame them for it.
    The barriers to starting a bike brand have never been lower. These super small companies, who simply import whatever frames are available to them, can operate on thinner margins because they have no marketing, research, development, or testing costs. And it's not just bored guys with money to burn starting these brands. Even the teams themselves can be included. For example, Team Champ Sys riding Champ Sys branded bikes. These entities can absorb the raw cost of providing cheap frames to lower tier teams and dollar for dollar, their investment in pro cycling is making a bigger impact on their overall business then a huge multi-million dollar company gets from ProTeam exposure.
    The approval process provides validation for the countless millions spent on the normal, day to day costs of operating a real business that designs, tests, advertises, warehouses, and warranties bicycles.

The not-so-secret goal therefore is twofold:

#1  That silly sticker, that technically means nothing to the millions of bike riders who will never own a UCI License, and therefore never need a UCI approved frame, will perhaps cause them to see value in the approval and the sticker when it comes time to buy a bike. My prediction: Many, but not all, will. And further down the road, the sticker will end up being a symbolic after-thought in this game. I would be willing to bet that there will be some frames that Big Manufacturers get immediately approved that will not even get the sticker put on them.

#2  This is the one that stings people like you and me. Some of those small bike assemblers will get out of the sponsorship game, whether it be on an individual or team basis. And for the smallest guys who are unwilling to play with the big brands, and get their models approved, their eventual fate will be to close up shop. Even some legitimate, mid sized bike builders ( Jamis, Ridley, Norco, etc ) will be forced to rethink what frames they officially make available to racers. The end result, less choice for people like you and I. And higher costs for getting bikes built with the racer in mind.

    So score 2 for the big brands. They will indeed succeed in driving away certain “brands” and logos from the racing crowd, which will, due to a weird reverse trickle-down effect, keep a small but meaningful number of non racers from buying them as well.
    Again, you can't really blame Big Business for trying this. Big Brands need to watch out for themselves,  and cycling in general needs the big brands. Fans need them, bike riders of all sorts need them. But to involve the world-wide sanctioning body of bike racing in this is wrong. Here's why:

Collateral Damage

    For the small cross section of riders who will end up shopping for their approved frame out of necessity, of which I am included, the UCI is creating an environment were breaking the law out of necessity makes it a conscience-able decision. This of course devalues not just that particular law but the whole agency tasked with enforcing it. Similar to laws currently on the books making it illegal to use a cell phone while driving. Much to the dismay of those who follow the rules to the letter, studies have shown that those laws are doing zilcho toward preventing distracted driver accidents. Instead they have turned most decent people into law-breakers who become numb to the rules. Something similar might just happen with bike racers.

     As soon as the announcement about the “sticker” was made, UCI haters all over asked, “isn't a sticker copyable?”. The answer is of course, yes it is. The UCI knows this and doesn’t care. In fact, in a surprising F.U. type of move, the UCI isn't even providing the actual decals to builders who get approved. Builders get a simple email with the artwork attached. It is up to the frame manufacturer to produce the labels in the approved 3 cm by 3 cm size. Well surprise surprise, it didnt take long for some law abiding bike rider to find a work around to this.  Forging decals a little too risque for you? No problem, all one must do the next time you're questioned by a UCI official is state that the bike was purchased before 2011. Voila! That is a get-out-of-jail-card that surely will work for a few years to come.
     I don't mean to sound so anti-establishment with this. But in reality, this rule needs to be seen as something that benefits the Big Brands primarily. From the racers perspective, it is a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. As the wise frame builder Jonathon Greene stated, “ the greater issue by far is the ( body's ) position ( on the bike ) and no decal will approve that.”. I believe that ultimately, history will show the rule to a be a failure on the part of the UCI to pursue it's directive.
    The UCI should be looking out for the real interests of the racer and of the sport. If this is disappointing to you, the best recourse is of course, voiced by one's wallet. Do not buy frames made by the Big Brands. Support the handmade builder who is connected to the racing community mostly thru the growing cyclocross movement. Support companies like Cutter to continue importing affordable parts and frames. Encourage Taiwanese business men who go thru the trouble of making factory frames available directly to the rider.

Feel free to leave your comments below.


FredCast said...

good stuff

A fan of the generic! said...

Sheer genius! Well said!
Boycott the Big brands!

UCI SUCKS said...

Should I change my name to CORP bike co's suck? For pushing this they do.

but I still think the UCI sucks. Example - Cross tire width rule.

C.A.N.R.S. said...

It's true, the UCI has made some decisions that truly leave one scratching the head.

Anonymous said...

This article is proof of the shortcomings of blogs in general.

Just like a guy at the pub, flapping his yapper.

Irresponsible, misinformed and poorly thought out.

C.A.N.R.S. said...

Would love to hear why you think the rule is a good idea.

kfg said...

[intents and] purposes