Interview: Jean Wauthier, UCI technical advisor

The man behind the ProTour equipment rules

Jean Wauthier is the International Cycling Union's (UCI) technical advisor and in charge of making recommendations to the union's board in regards to the equipment used in competition.

With all of the drama surrounding equipment regulation in the ProTour – most of all in time trial bike technology – his name comes up frequently. But as a person he remains elusive.

Wauthier is rarely seen outside of the UCI’s headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, which often makes him, unwittingly, the scapegoat for the frustration of teams and manufacturers who are locked in a technological arms race for equipment superiority.

Born in Belgium, he spent his youth racing bicycles. After graduating from Brussels University with a degree in labour sciences and ergonomics, he first came to the attention of the wider cycling world in 1988 when he published his thesis entitled Ergonomics and Cycling, which was prefaced by the legendary Eddy Merckx. “It woke up attention in the cycling area, and from there it had the effect of a snow swell," Wauthier told us.

In an exclusive interview with BikeRadar, Wauthier comes across as a man looking to preserve bicycle racing history and, above all, promote fair competition at all costs. He responded to our questions with candour and grace, even though English is not his primary language. His answers give great insight into the UCI’s technological rule-shaping, and will possibly even change your opinion when you hear of the latest technology being banned.

BikeRadar: Do you have experience designing or building bicycle equipment?

Jean Wauthier: I wrote much about the design of the bicycle – its measurements, its structure, its form – but in an ergonomic approach. The engineer’s mind generally reduces the man-machine relation[ship] to a mathematical formula.

The adaptation of man to machine doesn’t fall within the technique, but with psychology. The body’s activity on the bike is analysed in both spatial and temporal terms from visual requirements, precision and exertive forces.

Of course, it would not be possible to be recognised as the UCI's technical advisor without knowing anything about a bicycle – not only as a technical object, in terms of design and manufacture, but also as an artefact, in terms of its history, its concept and its culture within its social environment.

Do you have experience working with professional cyclists?

I speak about the technique of the bicycle with many engineers, manufacturers and with many professional cyclists. They're always interesting meetings.

Do you work exclusively for the UCI?

I'm the UCI's technical advisor. I also have a relationship with the Olympic Committee. I'm often invited to speak in seminars or conferences relating to technology, sociology and philosophy in sport. I also write leading articles for scientific magazines.

When did you start working with the UCI, and did you start as the organisation’s technical advisor?

I was consulted for the first time by the UCI in 1994. I really integrated into the UCI in 1996 as member of the material sub-commission, under the responsibility of the technical commission.

When did it become important to regulate the equipment of our sport?

From a technical point of view, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) pointed the finger at cycling at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. It was the culmination of a drift in technical incompliance [sic] that had been moving since the 1980s.

What has been your role in defining how equipment is regulated?

After the Atlanta games, the technical commission received a directive from the management committee of the UCI to prepare a coherent and stable technical regulation guide for the Sydney Olympics. The assigned time was thus four years, and the project was called Regulation 2000.

Who did you consult before writing the regulations?

We followed the traditional problem-solving procedures used in industry for hazardous working environments – the vision-posture system. Each article was submitted for opinion, criticism and suggestions. The UCI organised information sessions. Every article was discussed, studied and commented under the supervision of the UCI Technical Commission, which was, at the time, made up of six elected representatives from different national federations.

A large-scale meeting was held on the subject in Munich in January 1997, to which the biggest federations sent their best technicians. The different options presented were discussed there. Correspondence and exchanges of views followed until 1999, and every article was presented to the UCI Management Committee for approval.

What was the first product that made regulation necessary? Graeme Obree’s bike? Chris Boardman's Lotus?

Of course, they are spectacular references, but the drift in technical incompliance [sic] was happening before they appeared. So after the Atlanta Games, a debate on the technical issue could not be avoided.

[GT produced a bike for the Atlanta games which is reported to have cost between US$30,000 and $70,000; it took two silver medals. Other 'superbikes' were used by the Australians, built by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and the British, made by car manufacturers Lotus ed]

What made regulation necessary? Was the equipment dangerous, or did it make competition unfair?

Until the beginning of the 1980s, cycle sport promoted a technical culture in harmony with the utilitarian value. The optimum position – a standard drop bar road position – was used in all individual or group cycling competitions, whether on the road or on the track.

Through the 1980s, the unity between road and track, between team races and individual races, was broken. We thus obtained hybrid positions employing hybrid technical assemblies. Logical and maximum action in a single direction – in this case, aerodynamic quality – inevitably led to recumbent positions and faired bicycles.

What is the overall goal with the technical guidelines?

Cycling is a techno-sport. The technical object – the bicycle – is used as a device that manifests the abilities of the rider. We want to glorify the rider’s abilities to the exclusion of all other factors.

In principle, and for competition, the technical object is neutral. However, the bicycle is also a consumer product in a competitive market. Competitive cycling represents a highly valuable technological and marketing shop window. This is not the UCI's business. The objectives are different. For the cycle industry, the bicycle is a product subject to the laws of the market. For the sports federation, the bicycle is an object subject to the laws of the sport's governing body.

How can such different objectives be made to coexist? It is only by putting effort into mutual comprehension and respect for our technical rules – which are a prerogative of the UCI – that a solution can be found. We call this a partner system.

Can you give us an insight into the Lugano Charter?

The first step in the resolution model was to draft a technical charter for cycle sport. It's called the Lugano Charter. From this charter, the UCI derived certain fundamental principles, which must be specifically reflected in legislation and regulations.

Why was it drafted?

Before undertaking a reform, it was necessary to say where we wanted to go.

Let’s talk about time trial regulations of the last few years. Problems seemed to start at the Tour in London in 2007, because of the upturned arm position. Was there an internal shift there, or did the teams do something that specifically incited the response from the UCI?

The rules have existed since 2000. A drift in the position that the riders were using was recorded in 2007. According to our rule (“structure” article 1.3.023) the time trial bar is in the horizontal plane, and thus the forearms too. The drawing seemed to be enough, but we saw new designs for time trial handlebars appearing that did not adhere to the guideline.

This is the reason why it was necessary to specify that the rider’s forearms must be positioned in a horizontal plane, and that the extension was designed in such a manner that the rider can adopt and maintain a regulatory position for the entire duration of the event, whatever the form of the time trial bar. It was another sort of technical drift called inciting structure.

Why was there a crackdown on the upturned arm position for time trialing?

We know that the position of the rider during a time trial race is not optimal from an ergonomics point of view. It's thus important that it does not move away more. In consideration of the position with the forearms in the horizontal plane, the main point is assured (see article 1.3.008).

Why was there a need for the practical implementation guide?

It wasn't absolutely necessary, but it was a request formulated by some manufacturers. No rules changed, but they are specified.

With regards to the Specialized Shiv, why was Cancellara allowed to ride this bike to a world championship victory in Switzerland in 2009, but not Contador in the Algarve? What changed?

For some manufacturers, the report of a technical drift was recorded during 2008. These manufacturers were informed that the bicycles must conform for 2010.

Specialized's original rendition of the shiv time trial bike, deemed illegal.: specialized's original rendition of the shiv time trial bike, deemed illegal.

Specialized's original Shiv design with front nosecone, deemed illegal for ProTour competition in February 2010

The third revision of the front end of the shiv, which made it legal for protour competition.: the third revision of the front end of the shiv, which made it legal for protour competition.

Specialized's third version of the Shiv, without nosecone and currently UCI legal

How about Trek? It seems from our interpretation that they are in violation of the Lugano Charter with their Speed Concept and their exclusive patented rights to the Kamm Tail aerodynamic design ...

I already answered you in connection with Trek. We will be attentive and we will have a direct contact with them on this subject.

[On several previous occasions BikeRadar had asked Wauthier about Trek’s use of the Kamm Tail Virtual Airfoil design. Although seemingly not in the spirit of the UCI’s technical rules, it technically complies with the regulations and is therefore allowed, despite appearing to be faster than most UCI illegal technologies ed]

Regardless of any rules the UCI may impose, there is always the potential for a technological advantage of some sort through tuning or adjustment, for instance. The American sport of NASCAR is a prime example. Where do you decide to draw the lineand how?

The technical aspect is subordinate to a project, and not the reverse. Technical regulations must take into account elements other than the purely technical, on the basis of the MAYA [Most Advanced but Yet Acceptable] formula. Acceptable technology for cycle sport is set out in the Lugano Charter. It's the job of our material unit to keep to the path and to carry out the analysis of the new materials.

Aside from the UCI's own wheel test, there's no mention anywhere of the riders' equipment having to pass some sort of safety standard. Why is this?

The UCI initiated a crash test for wheels – with the agreement and the encouragement of the manufacturers of wheels themselves – because the situation required it. However, you will find, in article 1.3.002, the following text: “Equipment used must meet applicable official quality and safety standards”. According to our article 1.3.001, “each license holder shall ensure that his equipment (bicycle with accessories and other devices fitted, headgear, clothing, etc) does not, by virtue of its quality, materials or design, constitute any danger to himself or to others”.

Why not implement CEN safety testing as a new equipment approval avenue, and eliminate other rules meant to achieve a similar purposelike the 6.8kg weight limit?

We're well aware of the CEN safety tests, having followed the laboratory work when the standard was still being developed as the TC333 project. The EN 14781 is a European standard. It does not apply to the other continents, and according to the CEN (European Committee for Standardisation), a worldwide standard for racing bicycles is unlikely to be developed within the next 10 years.

Now, this standard has its limits. It targets only racing bicycles used by leisure riders on the public highway. The EN standard specifies that it isn't applicable to "bicycles designed and equipped for use in sanctioned competitive events". The standard does not compete with our regulations, and implicitly recognises the UCI's right to draw up its technical regulations and to determine its requirements. The standard cannot be imposed upon the UCI – although that said, it does represent progress. It's useful because it constitutes a minimum for racing bikes, but it's insufficient for the purposes of competition.

The idea of adopting it in connection with the minimum weight of bicycles is a false good idea, because the limit was fixed not only for security, but also for practical value – taking into account sensory-motor co-ordination, stability, balance, manoeuverability, adherence, postural comfort, a vision-posture system and safety – with the agreement of the majority of manufacturers and the CPA [the association of riders]. The rule could be modified if all the conditions were met, and if there was a demand for it from all the parties concerned – but this isn't the case today.

Why not just require that all manufacturers submit their new kit or prototypes to the UCI by a certain time of the year for approval by the UCI’s tech committee, just like in golf?

It already is the case for most manufacturers. They let us know, in confidence, about their plans or seek information. However we don't give an approval for two reasons. First, we aren't able to monitor that the production will be in conformity with the project, and that the technicians of the teams, or even the riders themselves, will not make any modification. Second, the control is a prerogative of the commissaires at the event.

Now, when a manufacturer subjects a prototype for approval there is generally no problem then. With most bicycle manufacturers, that is how things go. Others do nothing and turn up at the start line with non-conforming equipment in the hope of taking the commissaires by surprise in the heat of the moment, while the seconds are counting down on the watch.

Many of the UCI technical guidelines seem written in a way that is very open to interpretation – whether by the industry or the commissaires on site. Why are the rules not written in a more concrete and technical manner that leaves little question for engineers and product designers?

There is no perfect technical regulation, for two reasons. There's always a gap suitable for the imagination of the engineer (a positive reason), but also transgressive behaviours (a negative reason) that the regulation encourages. As such, we're subject to the order of the social sciences and behavioural sciences.

Regarding the positive reason: we're happy to speak with the engineers and the researchers, because if the text of the rule is important, the spirit of the rule is more important still. They are interesting and productive conversations, generally held with manufacturers who have a history and a culture of cycling.

Regarding the negative reason: our commissaires aren't engineers. Each year, they discover new technical things never seen before, which are often borderline on the technical regulations. These things are introduced surreptitiously, in spite of our article 1.3.004. They are often presented to the commissaire at an event and they must decide in two minutes, while surrounded by people with very loud voices, what course of action to take.

It happens, of course, that commissaires react differently, and perhaps not in a good sense, with the absence of vigilance and of firmness. This spreads the idea that the product is definitively accepted by the UCI and if, thereafter, we want to make the correction, everyone is astonished, or acts astonished, when they discover that it wasn't. This, unfortunately, is reported in the media without objective analysis. 

The work of commissaires must be respected, taking account of the pressures put on them, both in good faith and otherwise. It's easy to blame them, but if everyone played the game correctly, and only for the benefit of our sport, there would be no difficulty. In short, there is a UCI regulation. There is a text. There is the spirit of the text. There are competences to explain the rule in case of doubt.

What is the role of the morphological exception, and how were the guideline measurements reached?

Our time trial regulation is an ergonomic application – the cyclist isn't subjected to body measurements. The control is exerted only on one material structure – the bicycle. The rider has freedom. Within the limits of the rule, they can ask and obtain an alternative to just one measure. Stimulation exercises show that, under these conditions, all the riders can find their optimal time trial positions. The control by our commissaires is easy and fast – essential at a time trial event. We sometimes find that there is one problem or another, but ultimately but the process is satisfying.

Related Articles

Back to top