Team Sky’s “New” Skinsuit

Much has been made of Team Sky placing four riders in the top-10 of the Tour de France’s opening stage, including the special skinsuit with talk of a special new fabric incorporating aerodynamic advantages. Here’s a closer look at the material and the topic.

New? No. The photo below is from the Giro d’Italia, the time trial stage from Montefalco to Foligno on 16 May this year. Look closely – or click to enlarge in another window – and you can see the pimples on the sleeves of Geraint Thomas’s skinsuit. So the clothing Sky had for the opening stage of the Tour de France is not new, it’s been used in competition already.

It’s not just Sky: the next photo below is from the Giro again, this time it’s Andrey Amador from Movistar on the start ramp of the Monza to Milan time trial on 28 May this year. This time you can see patterns rising out of the fabric on Amador’s shoulders and also long the panel of fabric on the side of his chest. So Movistar use a similar material.

What does it do? It helps the flow of air over the clothing thanks to “flow separation”, do an internet search for it and you can learn as much as you like from Wikipedia to a library of academic analysis. You might think a smooth surface would be most aerodynamic but it’s not always the case, it helps explain why a tennis ball with its fur or a golf ball with its dimples can travel further and faster than a plain ball. It’s not new in cycling, you might remember Zipp’s dimpled rims or the British Olympic cycling team in 2012 with “tripwires” on their kit. Look at the line running down the sleeve which helps with airflow over the arms:

There’s a story about Chris Boardman, in his biography I think but I haven’t got it to hand, where he visited the UCI to get the British kit approved prior to its use in the Olympics. Did he just ask them to approve the kit or did he ask them to approve the kit after explaining the tripwire? That’s not in the story but either way it was approved. Back to the Tour de France and FDJ’s coach Fred Grappe estimates the material could be worth as much as 18-25 seconds over the Düsseldorf course.

Is it illegal? We’ve established it’s neither new nor unique so it would unusual to penalize or even disqualify Team Sky for something that has been permitted in races already. Here’s the UCI rule in question:

Like some UCI rules it’s a bit ambiguous because of that “or” in the first line, as well as the word “items”. Clothing or items? So is non-essential clothing forbidden, as are “items”, perhaps a fin or a fairing worn over or under the clothing? Similarly the final paragraph says no mechanical or electronic systems are allowed but this implies things could be permitted as long as they’re not mechanical or electronic.

Another matter for deliberation is whether the pimples are an addition to the skinsuit or simply part of it? Presumably they’re additional, something incorporated into the fabric but for now we’ve only got two dimension images to go rather than the textile in our hands.

In an AFP interview pasted on Velonews Team Sky’s sports director Nicolas Portal say it’s fine:

“We’re not infringing the rules because the Vortex isn’t added to the jersey, it’s part of it — that’s different.”

He would say that, wouldn’t he? But it Sky rode with it then the UCI imply it is ok. When put Philippe Marien, chief of the UCI jury at the Tour de France, he told L’Equipe he didn’t have “the legal certainty to ban this type of kit“, so if he’s confused maybe it’s ok if we are too. Returning to the rule, you’ll notice it is up to the commissaires to intervene so if a rider is allowed to start it implies the consent of the UCI. So as much as the internet can debate this – and there’s nothing wrong with exploring the rules – once a rider leaves the start there’s almost no chance of the result being adjusted.

It’s interesting how things happen in May and almost nobody notices. When it happens in July it becomes a hot topic, add Team Sky it gets hotter still. This time the magic material in question may have saved a few seconds but it’s neither new nor unique to Team Sky, Movistar do too and perhaps other teams do as well if we cared to zoom in on their clothing. The rule that regulates this is ambiguous. Maybe by the time the race reaches Marseille we’ll see the answer by looking at who wears what.

58 thoughts on “Team Sky’s “New” Skinsuit”

  1. 25 seconds over a 14km course (plus wind & rain) is surely well into the realms of ‘theoretical’. In a velodrome you might see those gains, but not in the Real World.

    Otherwise it’s being used as a feeble excuse to beat Sky with. Which is pretty damn tedious to be honest.

  2. Surely the UCI would of had to clear the use of the skinsuit before the tour starts?
    Also the four riders in the top ten are superb against the clock.Kiry, Thomas, Kwiato and Froome. Grappe loves a bit publicity.

    • As I understand it, that’s exactly what Sky DS Portal has said. It was cleared. And, to be honest, it would be a nonsense if you went into a Tour and you hadn’t had your equipment cleared in advance.

    • Grappe is usually pretty sensible, but this is sheer nonsense. Naturally sections of the press & other commentators are taking the opportunity to turn this into an anti Sky story. Movistar (mountain train, aero skinsuits, Valverde’s doping history & astonishingly consistent form and a deeply dodgy history going back many decades etc) don’t attract a fraction of this rubbish, which just highlights the hypocrisy of those who take any opportunity, however slight, to thrash Sky.

      • Yes. I passionately agree on this Chuffy.

        I appreciate certain things may be lost in translation and countries have different cultures and views on cheating in sport – but the fact that Contador so blatantly cheated & got busted along with Valverde and both seem to get away nearly scot free of all the venom reserved for Sky baffles me. I can see Orica and others have managed themselves far better than Sky – and as I say below I’m rooting for Porte this tour, and BMC have done a decent to make themselves likeable – but Sky do seem extremely unfairly treated in general.

        I guess winners usually get hate in cycling going back to Anquetil but Sky’s treatment at times seems hysterical and as if they’re taking the pain for Armstrong’s wrongs.

        Just out of interest… were Banesto hated at the time? The seem to have been as far as I know a super team to have escaped the venom, how did they manage that?

      • I guess, the grilling what Sky gets is induced by their original claims to be a team of 100% clean racing, zero tolerance policy, etc. Many people find the combination of cheating and hypocrisy more outrageous than the cheating itself. Even more so in the context of professional sport when the rules are arbitrary therefore what is within the rules and what is out can change from one season to the other.

        • Maybe. They certainly painted themselves into a very difficult corner, which was foolish, but it annoys me that teams who promised nothing and keep a much lower profile are essentially rewarded by watching their chief rival having to deal with (mostly) ridiculous sh*t stirring. It just shows that omerta has definite benefits.

      • I like the cut of Chuffy’s jib. Grappe (and Madiot) have more to worry about than whether Sky have a marginal gain or two up (or in this case “on”) their sleeve. As if it is even relevant to FDJ – Pinot isn’t even interested in GC this year. If Madiot had his way, there would only be wool jerseys, friction shifting and a compulsory La Marseillaise sing-along at the start of every stage. I think the real point here is that Sky’s mindset of continual progress shows-up FDJ for their decades of amateurism.

        • That’s an outdated view, FDJ do a lot of work on performance, within a limited budget. They’re Shimano’s partner team for example, they helped develop the new Dura-Ace power meter. Madiot is the team’s figurehead but Grappe and others are increasingly influential. It seems over the winter Grappe and other teams were in discussions with the UCI about kit and were steered away from this vortex design, BMC the same with their new sponsor Assos.

  3. I wonder if sky’s performance was more about equipment: tyre pressure, tyre choice etc. The rich teams point totally relevant there too.

  4. Thank You so much for posting this INRNG – I’m totally with Chuffy on this, I’m a Porte fan but the Team Sky hate as if they were Postal is incredibly tedious. There’s clearly a cloud, but it’s quite a light cloud, and there’s so many contradictions/hypocrisy involved – that for me until anything is proven and we’re speaking with genuine facts it would be nice if we all just calmed down and didn’t look for the nearest stick to beat Team Sky with… especially in these comments sections.

    I’ve read SArover’s comments the last few days with a tear in my eye as they’ve both been ill informed and a bit silly – please take a breath before you post in future SArover – great that you’re here reading a brilliant blog and please contribute but don’t let you’re Sky hate disengage your little grey cells.

    I love this post from INRNG because I (probably like most!) had no idea what this debate was all about, and now I do – plus hopefully it’ll just stem the Sky bashing in the comments for a few days..!

    (This was the comment I’m referring too: SArover July 2, 2017 at 6:28 pm
    Saw this
    This is how professional sport works. I respect inner ring and will ask for a take on this.
    The difference between the Dauphine results vs Tdf results in the ITT appear to be found in the new Sky jerseys. That’s how 4 riders can be in the top 8. When 4 riders finish top 8, it’s less about the legs or athlete physique than about the technology sadly. Legal or illegal.. that’s for the uci to rule on. Any truth that other teams have the same clothing vortex design? Are we headed to or already at a time when winning is about the team witg the best technology rather than best athletes?)

    • SARover’s comment is simplistic and naive as if skinsuits in a wet ITT with so many other variables were solely responsible for the results. Even if a relatively sane person stopped and thought about that for 20 seconds it should seem ridiculous. I’m glad that Inrng had made the time to point out just how silly it is in his summary of the issues.

    • Team Sky hate as if they were Postal

      Yeah, four in the top-20 of the TT happens on clean teams all the time. Not that there is any way at all to know who is/isn’t clean other than the passage of a great deal of time and unexpected changes in fortune.

      • Yeah, four in the top-20 of the TT happens on clean teams all the time.

        I thought it was 4 in the top 10. The Olympic pursuit gold medalist, the former world TT champion, the 3 times tour winner and the former road race world champion. Yeah, teams field line ups like that all the time.

  5. I’m guessing that other teams ran way, way too much pressure in their tires, resulting in crashes or near crashes.

  6. Note that Kwiatkowski didn’t have the incriminating suit and still placed 8th at 15 seconds.

    The suit was the same as the one run at the Giro and Dauphine.

    There is no “added” bit on the Castelli suit. It’s all textile.

    Inrng–Outstamding post on the issues here. You know way more about this than you would learn from Wikipedia. Nice smoke screen but I’m trying to guess who your source is. And if he’s told you this much then you know a lot more you’re not telling.

    • Pretty sure the fuzz on a tennis ball slows it down a lot. Golf ball definitely the better analogy. I’d really like to have a way of doing “ballpark” estimates of aero effects that was the least bit useful. They focus on the shoulders because they think they can make a difference there, bit how big could the difference “really” be?

      Must say the results do provoke one to look for Sky’s secret sauce, but I can’t get past tires (sic) and per-corner risk management as my main factors (before going back to: legs).

  7. Why on earth wouldn’t Kwiatkowski wear the dimpled suit? Does he have a separate skinsuit sponsor? I’m really struggling to understand why he’d be allowed NOT to wear the same kit the rest of the team were wearing. Anyone know?

    • Because only 4 people have them (not the full team) and the Tour rolled around before Kwiato’s suit was ready. We tried to postpone the Tour but that didn’t work and he had to race in the already super fast Castelli suit that was only good for 8th place. You may want to bet on him for the Marseille TT though

      • If only 4 people have them then it makes more sense, I thought it was just him. That said I can’t see why they (Castelli) wouldn’t make suits for the entire team beyond the TdF squad.

  8. From what I have read here and elsewhere, I get the feeling that the commissionaires would have quite liked to ban the jerseys but didnt feel that they could within the rules as they are, to quote the Head of the Race Jury “but for the moment, we have no real way of forbidding it”. There certainly seems to be some ambiguity in the rules.

    I would be very dubious that this sort of thing makes any significant difference on a stage like yesterday, in perfect calm conditions it might be a different matter. Tyre choice & how much to inflate them plus luck with the wind was far more important. The aero dots didnt help Movistar stay on their bikes.

    The UCI / commissionaires certainly need to clarify things before the final TT

  9. They used to wear baggy woollen jerseys, then tighter polyester, then really tight, then really light for heat. It’s just a bit of innovation – like with gears, derailleurs, electronic shifting, alu frames, carbon frames. If it goes too far it will be banned by the commissaries. I’m fine with it.

  10. Re: Sky’s strong performance in the TT, their Pinarellos look more like a regular bike than many other TT rigs, fewer slab sides etc. Could they be easier to handle, and therefore quicker cornering in the wet? Maybe that’s where a lot of the performance came from?

    • There are a lot of cycling fans who can spend countless hours, figuratively speaking, viewing and rewinding and reviewing sections of mountain stages with a time-keeping device in their hand – so there should be at least some cycling fans with a deep enough special interest in time-trial stages who could time such things as corner speeds, entries and exits and so on?
      It would be nice if we wouldn’t be left guessing and/or free to speculate each according to our own particular prejudices!
      PS Not that the apparently haphazard way that TTs are televised helps. the camera angles and views are never consistent, there are seldom good fixed points for timing riders etc.
      PPS If UCI and/or the commaissaires do not soon enough manage to draw a sharp line somewhere, it will become a hugely controversial issue, costly to the teams and nasty to the fans. (Ski jumping has been there for quite a long time and if it weren’t for the big TV euros from mainly the German market (and the oil NOK) the sport would be – pun intended – in tatters.)

  11. People forget that Sky are still broadly disliked by the older more traditional teams. Their entry into cycling was brash and arrogant, then their method of and ability to dominate the Tour has riled many. On top of that, having the budget to sign 4-6 riders who would be leaders on a smaller team, and put them in a train for Froome. It creates rather broad resentment.
    They and the other big spenders, and their pushing of the points system, actually directly contributed to some teams folding as they couldn’t compete at all as Sky upped the ante for everyone.

    And whilst a lot of what is said and written is petty, I actually think they and Brailsford deserve plenty of it. You can’t have that aroogant air of superiority and of being whiter than white and not expect people to take shots when they think there’s a chance to.

    • Their entry into cycling was brash and arrogant

      Not particularly, no.

      Maybe I’m wrong though.. If you want to go back to Brailsford’s claims of wanting the most transparent, clean team, ever, and then doing the exact opposite, I agree with you.

      • I forgot that they were going to be the most scientific team ever…. Which turns out to be fiction as well.

        I was wrong. Brash was correct.

  12. This all sounds bit like the ‘shark suits’ that were used for a couple of years in swimming before being banned.

    I expect that nothing will happen in the tour, we’ll see a number of teams adopt them for the Vuelta and then they will be banned next season.

  13. The rain _reduces_ the relative differences between skinsuits.

    World champion from 2015, on a course which suits him, places in top 10 in TT shocker
    Multiple Olympic medal winner in TT on course which suits him, places in top 10 in TT shocker
    Multiple world/olympic gold medallist in pursuit places in top 10 in TT shocker
    Polish national champ, who beat Bodnar and Bialoblocki, both regular top 10 in world champs, and one of those two the fastest person ever over a flat 16km TT in the UK places top 10 in TT shocker
    Welsh guy wins bike race in rain shocker.

  14. Here is an idea – rather than ifs and maybes – Why doesn’t someone test the different skinsuits? and then see what the results were. From what i can see this is definitely not the same skinsuit used by sky in the dauphine as in the tour and i am surprised thst you couldn’t get a closer picture of the new sky skinsuit to really show the difference.

    • What makes it not the same? The pimples look the same as the one Thomas wore in the Giro to me. The main difference is it’s white, not black.

  15. 2 Points:

    1) If you actually have tried optimizing your own ITT performance, you’ll know that those dimples or Nairo’s “mesh” will not have been enough to put 4 riders in the top 8 at a TdF opening stage. If you follow cycling you will also know that click bait and controversial headlines to get your name in the news has become part of cycling.

    2) Most optimization especially for TT performance focus purely on rolling resistance (perfectly logical). Now what if the Sky R&D budget stretched to having done some in depth testing and optimization to identify better tire compound/ tire pressure combination for riding optimal ITT’s on complex / wet / slippery city circuits ? Not illegal to do this, just might be a sensible investment if you have entered a race with few opportunities to gain time. Apart from the 4 riders having “quite good pedigree” it might be worth paying attention to the weather conditions on the day. Did all the teams bring two or more sets of TT wheels each set with different tires/compounds? Have you ever stripped and replaced your tubs the night before a race to match the weather forecast? There may be a reason Team Sky have 10 Lorries, 20 Vans, 4 buses and 30 cars filling a car park at TdF

    Something else for the armchair observers to pay attention to…

    Disclaimer: Not a Sky fan, nor a Sky hater, just following cycling because I like riding bikes

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if Sky had a system of predicting optimal cornering speed and tyre pressure based on weather conditions, rider weight and degrees of each turn and had the DS call these out to the riders. It’s not a complex formula for a team like Sky to come up with and would be a benefit to every rider to get optimal performance in a TT.

      • It’s a very sophisticated, organic processor, implanted in the riders at an early age that has closely monitored their every ride since first putting foot on pedal. The Bicycle Regulation Internal Assessment Nodule or BRAIN for short.
        Sky have successfully harnessed this raw computing power by careful indoctrination into the world of cod psychology. Consequently the riders seem able to control their BRAIN using the CHIMP (Cycling Heuristic Interference Mechanism Programme). I’ll get my coat…

  16. I don’t think Fred Grappe complains about the skinsuit as some people seem to think in the replies(however, I’m happy to be told that I’m assuming this wrong). He was asked if the gains matched the potential that it brings and he agreed. L’equipe interviewed a professor in aerodynamics that also said that over the course of a flat 14kms TT, gains of between 18 and 25secs were in line with the skinsuit’s aerodynamism.

    It seems that BMC and FDJ complained that the part of the aerodynamic fabric was not part of the skinsuit but added afterwards, which seems to be the illegal bit. If you compare the second photo of the article of Thomas at the Giro and a picture of Froome at the TT on Saturday, you can see a difference and it does look like it’s just a bit added under the skinsuit( However, I don’t believe it has but just looking at the picture, it does look like the skinsuits are different. Like us, BMC and FDJ only saw images on TV and probably haven’t seen or touched the real thing, so can’t really comment.

    • “If you compare the second photo of the article of Thomas at the Giro and a picture of Froome at the TT on Saturday, you can see a difference and it does look like it’s just a bit added under the skinsuit”

      Exactly – “looks like”. It looks to me like the main difference is the colour. The white fabric and black fabric are different opacities when stretched, making the panelling more noticable on a white suit.

  17. Sour grapes? Where do you draw the line? Post-ride food, types of energy gels used during each stage, tyre pressures? Would this story have been given any air time had Team Sky not dominated on stage one?

  18. Rob Hatch just suggesting reading this blog to get more info on this subject, he even called the blog “brilliant”. More pats on the back to Inrng 🙂

  19. If it wasn’t legit, Moviestar would’ve/should’ve been done for their dimpled speedsuits. It’s therefore ok. Aero helmets – textured and shaped for aerodynamic advantage – this is no different. The ‘furore’ is just Sky baiting.

    • It’s not as black and white, which is why there’s a debate over it. The furore aspect does arrive because it’s July and Sky but there’s still uncertainty over exactly what the rules are trying to say and what is allowed and what is not. Like many UCI rules they’re full of grey areas because they’re badly worded.

  20. Looking at the winner photo of Sagan on the BBC, his tops got some nice dimples in it. Probably more for keeping cool than for aero but how do you differentiate? Wind tunnel testing for tops?

  21. It’s this blatant commercialism around professional sport. Controversy can be harnessed to make money, ergo, journalists go looking for it and then do all they can to fan the flames.

  22. TT apparel likely a ruse (red herring) by Sky to draw away attention from other “enhancements” that may surface once a few jacks are removed from the house of cards.

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