The stuck bidon

The UCI has rules on “sticky bidons”, the practice of riders holding to a water bottle passed up from the team car for too long, thus getting a short tow from the vehicle. But now it seems the bottle itself is coming under regulation. The UCI’s Technical Coordinator Julien Carron has written to teams informing them that it will standardise the measurement of saddle angles in 2012 and bottles for 2013.

Last year several teams were fined in the Tour de France after bikes were found to have saddles sloping at an angle. Hardly the most sinister act although I’ve been amused by the idea that “UCI to enforce its own rules” has been a news story in recent days. But there is a point where a sloping saddle becomes a lumbar support, allowing a rider to push against the saddle to counter the force of the leg extension during the pedal stroke. The UCI will present a standard method of measuring the saddle angle, effectively putting a fancy spirit level on the saddle.

But the biggest change is rule 1.3.024 for 2013. Currently the rule says the following

Any device, added or blended into the structure, that is destined to decrease, or which has the effect of decreasing, resistance to air penetration or artificially to accelerate propulsion, such as a protective screen, fuselage form fairing or the like, shall be prohibited.

But for 2013 this will move to specifically include water bottles. As Carron puts it “bottles have been increasingly moving away from their original function of allowing riders to rehydrate towards an alternative use as aerodynamic elements which are integrated into the design of frames in order to improve riders’ performances”.

Schleck gets the hump

Earlier this year we saw Fränk Schleck taking this a step further, using a Camelbak inflated with air to improve the aerodynamics not of his bike but of of his body. Now I find this a step too far.

But a water bottle? Isn’t it about time water bottles were redesigned and used with the frame? You can spend a lot of money on a pricey frame and aero wheels, only to find the aerodynamics thwarted by the addition of a $3 bidon; in fact you don’t have to spend much money to get an aero frame and wheels these days (actually some say the addition of a bottle helps improve airflow on the bike as can divert the airflow around the rear wheel instead of into it).

Bottles are a fact of cycling and incorporating them into frame design makes sense. They have barely changed in size since the days when Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali rode up the Iseran. Now that’s partly because they are a winning design. But I don’t see the harm in manufacturers making improvements here, the gains are small and nobody will win a race because of their bottle design. Indeed the UCI is insisting that “there must be a space between the bottle and the tube to which it is attached” which sounds like a real attempt to deliberately make things unaero, to prevent the marriage of frame and bottle.

For sure some might take licence with outrageous fairings – it’s happened in triathlon – and claim they were bottles but even the onboard bottle of the Cervélo P4 (NB already banned by the UCI) is modest marginal gain. I’m sympathetic to the idea of allowing riders of all budgets and backgrounds to compete equally but in that case, frames like the Specialized Venge, Cervélo S5 and the Scott Foil, to name just three, surely offer greater advantages and the basic rules on fairings should be tightened to eliminate these designs? Moves to incorporate the bottle into the frame sound like progress and they need not be expensive.

Boasting about breaking the rules
Flouting the UCI rules is now a marketing angle. Cannondale started glueing weights to its bikes in 2003 in a publicity stunt to say “our bikes are so light that we have to add kitchen weights to make them comply with the UCI rules”. More recently Specialized have a new version of the Shiv time trial frame that is proudly non-UCI compliant, the Californian firm can sell consumers a bike more aero than Tony Martin gets to use.

UCI compliant?

In time we could see a whole twin-track approach of UCI compliant bikes ridden by pros and elite racers whilst everyone else, the 99% for want of a better term, ride around on Sunday mornings and in cyclosportifs on bikes that are faster than the pros use (this need not be a $5,000 carbon TT frame, you could build a steel frame that is shaped to house a profiled bottle). Remember the only reason bike manufacturers sponsor pro teams is because they can show their wares by used by the world’s best. If they cannot promote their best bikes, they’ll spend their money elsewhere.

The rules need to ensure that wins are attributable to the rider and not their bike and to offer a level playing field. Talking of level things, the new rules on saddles look like progress given the measurement and methodology has been spelt out for all to see.

But I’m less encouraged about the regulations on bottle design. I’m not convinced forbidding harmony between bottle and frame is worthwhile, legislating to force a space between the bottle and the frame sounds too much. Yes I like the aesthetics of road bikes and welcome some stability and continuity in bike design. I’d be horrified to wake up one day and find Philippe Gilbert on an aero recumbent. But bottle design seems marginal.

We can’t turn away manufacturers. The earliest days of the sport saw manufacturers create teams to sell their bicycles and it would be a shame if pro cycling no longer became the shop window and laboratory for bike tech.

8 thoughts on “The stuck bidon”

  1. “The rules need to ensure that wins are attributable to the rider and not their bike” — Is that true tho? I mean moving away from single speed bikes, wooden wheels, steel and then aluminum frames were moves to specifically make the bikes better and help the rider? Would Contador stand a chance on the climb to Luz Ardiden against, say, Riccardo Chiarini (the most obscure rider I could think of), if the Spaniard were riding a 1928 single speed, 40lbs bike and the Italian was on his team issue Bianchi Oltre?

  2. Maybe in protest riders should go back to the tricks of the ol’ days and grab bottles filled with lead for the steep mountain descents. (or maybe that’s just a bit of myth from cycling lore?) If they can’t be aero, they can be heavy when it helps!

  3. I guess it becomes more of an issue as bike manufacturers get more involved in the bankroling of teams.

    Ultimately the technology available to make faster bikes has moved beyond what’s practical and good for road racing, hence the dichotomy.

    From a fan’s perspective I would like the bikes to matter as little as possible to a race result. From a amateur rider perspective – as long as there are ‘road’ diamond frames available, I’m happy > I prefer the sensation to, say, TT bikes or recumbants, and they’re more social.

    Though surely faring bottles can be quite expensive if it forces companies to spend hours in wind tunnels?

  4. @ Skullcrusher,
    The idea behind regulations is to control competition. Every rider in the current UCI competition has to use a bike that complies with the regulations to ensure they all have an equal chance of winning. Therefore the best rider should win.

    @ Pavé,
    Making a bike heavier for a descent does not make it go faster. It actually makes it slower because of the poorer handling (longer braking distances) and higher rolling resistance. Galileo and Newton figured that out for you so don´t try it at home. 😉

    @ INRNG,
    Thanks for keeping the blog up-to-date and essential reading on cycling. Merry Christmas!

  5. I remember a story about Bahamontes using a lead-filled bottle on descents. He was like Andy Schleck going downhill I guess, and they cooked up an idea to hand him the heavy bottle at the top of the hill, then retrieve it at the bottom for next time. Someone other than the designated “picker-upper” got their hands on it and the scheme was revealed.
    As to the UCI, I hate to open this can of worms but I truly believe the bike industry does NOT need any help from the UCI. The race organizers have battled with the industry for decades over control of the sport. As much as I dislike the corruption in the UCI, the last folks I want controlling the sport is the likes of Trek and Specialized! We’ve all seen the “give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile” tactics as they exploit the rules to gain any (mostly marketing in reality) advantage over their rivals. The water bottle issue is no different. If they don’t control things “water bottles” could end up looking like the old dustbin fairings on roadracing motorcycles of the 60’s! Any form of streamlining that is not part of the supporting structure of the bicycle should not be allowed. For me this includes the pointy helmets as well. With all the whining about costs involved in fielding a pro team, ditching these expensive, limited-use chrono bikes should be something the teams would welcome. The guys who are good against the watch do just as well racing on their standard road bike in places like Qatar where nobody is allowed to use special chrono machines due to the costs of shipping all the stuff down there. Besides this, there’s the universality of bottles, any cage can hold ’em, they can be handed up from teams or neutral support, etc. with no compatibility problems with carrying them on the bike frame – do we really want to make these specific to a make/design of frame?
    In the end, SPORT is nothing more than a contest under rules that require built-in ineffiencies – otherwise why not simply use a motorcycle?

  6. I’m in two minds on this one. On the one hand I don’t want to see things getting out of hand, and at times I feel as though the UCI are a little dogmatic in the application of the rules but I also enjoy seeing some of the aero innovations that companies come up with for their TT bikes.

    At the same time the UCI seems to be in a habit of making rules; then being poor at enforcing them; maybe if they stopped changing the rules this wouldn’t be so much of a problem.

  7. “If they cannot promote their best bikes, they’ll spend their money elsewhere.”

    Agreed. You’ve already covered the double application of the word Breakaway in road cycling and I expect to read more on this subject in 2012. Fans, team owners, race promoters, bicycle manufacturers. The list of people who are talking about a rival league is growing. While I doubt another league will be created in the short term, it all adds pressure on the UCI to change for the better.

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