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Tech letters, November 16, 2004
Readers respond to 'How light is too light?'
Here's a sample of letters from readers who feel that the UCI bike weight limit is a good thing.
Some limit is needed
Some sort of technology limit, in competition, needs to exist. Although safety is cited as the primary concern for the weight limit, the spirit of the rule is to maintain as level a playing field as possible by curtailing "one-off" technologies available to one racer and not another.
I don't think the 6.8 kg benchmark is necessarily a fair determination, but there does need to be some stipulation to keep the bikes as "stock" as they can be and keep the deciding factor, in competition, among the athletes themselves. Perhaps that means only being able to utilize "production" equipment. Equipment that has been in production for at least a year prior to the event you are entering. Unfortunately, any limit or stipulation that is imposed will be arbitrary and have to be reviewed each season as technology continues its progress.
As far as safety is concerned, with the current revelations in doping all across cycling, it's pretty evident that racers as more than willing to sacrifice safety for increased performance.
In touch with cycling's roots
I am an ex-GP technician who come from a long family of cyclists, and as much as I relish the challenge of building some machine to be the lightest possible, I consider that unlike in motor racing, cyclists are the motor and racing should be much more between man, than about machines. Also do not forget the sport base was a blue collar one but slowly "la course a l'armement" is turning this into a sport for the more fortunate. So to keep this sport well in its roots I turn a deaf ear to the constructors who see the possibility to expand their price tags into the stratosphere "in the name of technology" with their right hand on the heart and their left one on their wallet.
Sorry to be a little cynical but age gives you more than just crows feet. At 55 years old I am still taken by our sport and to be at a starting line early in the morning is not to marvel at all those beautiful machines, but to share a moment of pain and "bravoure" with some unknown "amateur de la petite reine". (Sorry for my French, but it is better than my English.)
Maybe at some time when prices have stabilized and most racing bikes need to have 1 or 2 kg added to be legal, and conform to a crash test like in F1, then maybe we should consider lowering the actual minimum weight, but by then we are going to see prototype bikes with carbon disk brakes and wheels, on tubeless tires with different compounds to match the weather. I can foresee the future, but can our sport survive it? This a very serious question .
What about me and the Bolivians?
I think the 6.8 kg limit is too low now. How can Bolivians afford them? Or me? The bike companies feel otherwise because they want to sell more expensive bikes, not because they are turned on about innovation per se. Let them innovate in other areas, if they wish to do it for the sake of doing it. I would love to have round, rather than lumpy, sewups, and have them easily repairable. I would love to have better shifting, and more comfortable seats, and handle bars that don't break. I would love to have better paint, smoother, more long lasting bearings, a chain grease that worked, tires that grip better and a heat seaking rocket that goes up the exhaust pipe of cars that run you into the ditch...
I also want the best athlete to win; not the best bike; not the best drug store...
Kudos to the UCI on this issue (not the new cycling circus competition-talk about putting a big barrier between the haves and have-nots!)
Name withheld, USA
Leave the weight rule where it is. Here are five reasons why:
1. Most pro racing bikes are well heavier than the minimum - your article suggested that pro bikes are usually 7kg or more. If the weight standard were too high for the pros, we'd see a lot more bikes flirting with disqualification for being too light.
2. Weight is not a stand-alone criterion for bike safety - it's one of a few standards to which bikes must conform to be UCI-legal. (For example, the wheel certification standard.) Dropping the weight standard without bolstering other criteria would compromise the overall safety standard.
3. The problem with putting featherlight bikes in the hands of consumers is one of maintenance. It's one thing to put an exotic, unobtainium frame in a stable of dozens of bikes that are serviced daily by pro-team mechanics. It's quite another to put it once a year in the hands of a random bike-shop wrench or - worse - a consumer who does most of his wrenching himself. ("What was that clamp-on derailleur diameter again?") Perhaps Cannondale 6.13's should be "legalized" when they come with a torque wrench...?
4. Even in the hands of team mechanics, high-end components and frames are failing at an alarming rate. Some commentators have suggested that the high number of crashes at the 2004 Tour de France was due in part to carbon components that don't hold up under stress as well as alloy or steel. For example, carbon wheels still don't brake as well as machined aluminum wheels, especially in the wet. And carbon handlebars that are overtorqued will crack catastrophically, whereas alloy bars will merely crimp or bend; cracked carbon handlebars were responsible for at least one massive pile-up during a sprint finish at the TdF. And those bars were under the care of pro-team mechanics!
5. Even if it's a bad idea for the above-mentioned maintenance and safety reasons, there's nothing stopping bike companies from marketing lighter versions of pro-race bikes to the masses. If Scott makes a 900-gram frame for Saunier-Duval, how about a 500-gram frame for the guy who buys a Ferrari but never drives over 55MPH? If the market truly wants insanely light bikes, surely the UCI can't hold back the flood. (I'm not sure the market really cares all that much, but that's another discussion.)
Storm in a teacup
It would seem to me that this is a storm in a teacup, driven more by bike companies looking for a marketing edge. The UCI (I'm guessing here, but I think it's a safe guess) aren't doing this for cynical reasons. It's a bit like minimum weights in Formula 1 and so on- everyone knows they could be lighter, but that's not the issue. The issue is access to the sport (and here the F1 example falls away like so many 500g carbon road frames...) and ensuring that it's a riders heart, lungs and legs, not their rig, that gets them to the front of the peleton.
The point raised by Joseba Arizaga about MTB's is a good one. The point should not be to build a bike that is ultra-light, the point is making a good bike.
MTB riders have benefited from the no assistance rule- bikes have to be tough and self-serviceable. Roadies don't have this, but what a minimum weight might bring is durability and aerodynamic efficiency otherwise neglected. If engineers know they have a certain weight they have to work with, they may well still push the structural elements to the limit in order to be able to afford themselves extra material in other areas (in particular I think aero forks, rims, down tubes, seat tubes and seat stays). This will lead to better bikes.
Extra material will be able to be put into other areas too, and eventually we may find that a rider can buy a top raceable bike for less. Imagine, an enthusiast cyclist being able to go and buy a bike as sweet shifting and as light as their pro heroes, but for a fraction of the cost...
Make bikes heavier!
I read your column with some disgust at the complaints of the weight limit. As a college student, I know I won't be able to afford a 15lbs bike for some years, and I am a bit jealous of all those who can. Somehow, despite my engineering and physics background, I favor traditional bike designs. I love pictures of Eddy Merkx and Lemond and such riding those bikes with cables popping out the tops of the brake hoods and levers on the down tubes. Cycling is far too much of a rich man's sport, and racers can get too caught up in trying to get an edge through their equipment.
If the UCI let me write the regulations, all road bikes would have downtube shift levers(if any) and weigh at least 20 lbs. I think downtube shifters would make the racing that much more exciting since racers would have to anticipate moves, gear choices for steep climbs, and when to go in a sprint, requiring that much more skill and adding another element to the strategy of racing. I think it's a bit too easy to pop into a lower gear when you're suffering on a climb, no thought or anticipation to the pace you'd like to keep on the hill, simply a response to those around you. And almost anyone can afford a 20lbs bicycle with downtube shifters, leveling the playing field for everyone. Though I would be willing to comprimise and have some sort of rider size based weight minimum. I think those two traditionalist rule changes would make cycling more of a sport and less of a game.
Prices are crazy
Push the weight limit up.....To what, I don't know ! When you start having to pay $ 6,000 - $ 8,000 for a bike. It gets a little crazy. How and why do bike companies continue to produce lighter and lighter bikes each year. I would like to see the sport get bigger in the USA....But, when people find out the cost of good equipment...It becomes a negative for the sport. We are not all rich, or have big sponsors that give us equipment.
You can't tell me that a bicycle should cost more than a new off-road motorcycle.
Yes, it's time to draw the line.
Cost discourages juniors
I think the UCI rule is a good idea, and would like to see the minimum weight requirements extended more into amateur racing categories. I realize the advantage of a light bike is more psychological than real, but it can be a factor is discouraging juniors and starting riders when they feel they need a $4000 bike to be competitive.
The role of bicycle racing is not to sell bikes for manufacturers who continuously push the latest innovation, but to give individual riders the chance to pit their abilities against each other. Sure you can build a strong reliable 850g frame, but it is also really expensive and out of reach for many of us.
A good example is NASCAR racing where the rules are carefully controlled to avoid giving any one car an advantage. This does not seem to discourage car manufacturers from participating.
Ultralights benefit few
What is the point? Ultra light bicycles really only benefit a few lightweight gifted climbers. Most ordinary riders and racers would benefit more by spending the money on a coach, not a lighter bicycle. There are limits to how light the bikes can be made with durability, why not leave a safety margin.
Weight matters more in bike racing
Minimum weight standards exist for most competition using machines, be they automobiles, motorcycles, etc.
In almost every case the weight rules are designed to maintain safety, keep costs under control and provide a more level playing field, thereby improving the competition.
Bicycle road racing, by virtue of requiring a relatively inexpensive machine compared to an F1 car or GP motorcycle, should be MORE concerned with keeping a minimum weight standard so athletes of modest means can train and race on machines available at reasonable costs to anyone in the world.
In a sport where the goal is to select the best athlete the emphasis should be on creating MORE potential competitors, not less.
There should be no surprise that the bike makers don't like these ideas. THEIR goal is to continue to promote the idea that the bicycle has some great affect on the race outcome.
They're the last people to admit that Lance Armstrong would most likely have finished first in the 2004 Tour de France and Jimmy Casper last, even if they'd traded bicycles.
When I was in bicycle retail we used to joke to a prospective customer that we sold everything they'd need to be a great bicycle racer... except the legs!
As Lance said in his first book, "It's Not About the Bike" no matter how much the bike makers claim otherwise.
Weight rule forces different emphasis
From a consumer standpoint, I think the weight limit is a great idea. It will force bike companies to make durability, rigidity, and aero dynamics more important. It might even make people realize that taking half a pound from your bike does not make the slightest difference if you are twenty pounds over weight. I also really enjoy the more aero dynamic frames and wheels. I know the UCI is rather picky when it comes to these types of advances but a more aero bike is far superior to a lighter bike, ask anyone in physics.
Thanks for the great article.
I'm sorry but all this seems like a bunch of complaining to me. Just ride the bike. Guys 5 years ago rode heavier bikes. Guys 25 years before that rode ones that compared to modern standards are tanks. Who cares? Stop whining! You want a project to work on to improve performance of your bike? I'll give you one. Follow US Postal and a few other of the D1 teams and look WHERE the weight of the bike is, not what the total gram count is. Do you ever see a Postal Trek or T-Mobile Giant with "heavy" wheels like Mavic Ksyriums? Nope. But you see lots of these on "ultralight" bikes from other teams all the time. Why is this? Why make your frame and kit so light that you have to spec out relatively heavy wheels to meet the limit? You wont see many of the big budget top pros falling victim to this. Remember its not so much HOW HEAVY a bike is but rather WHERE that weight is. Enough of the sub 1000 gram frames... use lighter wheels.
Riders not equipment
In cycling, the competition should be between the riders and not the equipment. Yes, we love the bicycles they ride and dream of the day when we can buy the same bikes, but once the race begins we want to see the best riders win races, not the best bicycles. For this reason, a weight limit is helpful to ensure that no one rider has too much of a technological advantage and wins races not because of his skills, but because of his team's deep pockets. However, a limit should not impede technological progress. Every so often, whether every one year or three years, the weight limit should be re-evaluated. If enough bike makers can prove that they can build lighter bikes without sacrificing safety, then the limit should be lowered to a new level that still ensures that riders have an equal footing. Frames should also be subject to mandatory stress testing to make sure that safety is not sacrificed as weight limits get lower. This would be a good compromise keeping manufacturers and fans happy without sacrificing the safety, integrity, and philosophy of the sport.
It's the rider not the bike
I love new technology and consider myself a new tech geek but when I read your website race results, I'm more interested in the cyclist than the bike. When it comes to the Spring Classics or the Tour, I don't care if the riders are riding 6.8 kilo bikes or 12.8 kilo bikes. I'm more interested in the "battle" between the personalities.
Also, I like the 6.8k rule because it allows the Division III teams to ride very similar bikes as the Division 1 teams. I think it is good for the riders, fans and consumers.
Keep the limit
Keep the weight limit; for now.
1. It IS great for technology. Wheels, cranks, components... They have come a long way since the weight restriction.
2. Use of SRM. Riders are using the SRM mostly due to the fact that thier bikes are already lighter or close to the limit can get away w/ the extra weight of the cranks. Ask THESE riders what is more valuable, a lb. lighter bike, or the data from the SRM?
3. I'm not some retro grouch, but really, an old steel tubed frame w/ chrome just looked so, so much nicer than most of the bikes out there now, and Rode better.
4. What do the athletes want? I've seen enough handlebars, stems, saddle rails, and wheels break.
5. But what do I know? I ride a 15 lb bike. Or I DID. Get it over 45 mph on a descent and it wasn't pretty. It's gone now, and I don't miss it...
Alternative weight saving
Forget Ti spoke nipples and carbon cages, just go to the toilet.
If you have a wee before you go out riding you can easily lose 500g this is more then a lightweight front wheel. Better still have "a movement", I've done some that push upwards of 800g. This is almost a whole frame!