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.