Tech letters, November 16, 2004
Readers respond to 'How light is too light?'
These readers didn't necessarily come down on one side of the debate or the other, but made some interesting points in their analysis of the issues. [Any misinterpretation of letters from readers who were trying to come out strongly for or against is entirely my fault - let me know if your letter in wrongly placed here - JS]
Limit for ams, not pros
I have a split view on the subject. As someone that loves technology, I love seeing manufacturers continue to push the bounds of cycling technology. It's also why I love Formula 1. They push technology to absolute extreme. However, as a racer I appreciate the fact that money can buy speed, and there is only so much money I can invest in this hobby. I believe amateur racers should be on a level playing field, both physically (through the category system) and financially.
When I raced radio controlled cars as a kid there were two classes, stock and modified. Racers in the stock class all used the same, inexpensive motor. You weren't allowed to tamper with it in any way. Modified class racers, on the other hand, could buy any type of motor they wanted and tweak it in any way they wanted -- a much more expensive proposition. Both classes had great competition, which is ultimately what matters.
There are similar types of people in bike racing, but no stock and modified classes. This is most visible at amateur time trials. Equipment can make such a difference in a time trial that money literally can buy speed. If a guy rolls to the start line with a time trial frame, aero wheel package, and full apparel package and I show up with my standard road kit, he will toast me if we are of the same physical ability. Even worse, he might be able to beat me even if I'm in better shape! Is it fair that he wins because he is willing and capable of spending more money?
So what can be done? At amateur levels, I believe regulations need to be put in place to limit financial differences. Time trials should be conducted on the same bike you ride in a road race. Perhaps the only addition would be a set of aero bars. Nothing else, keep it cheap and simple. As for bike limits, I propose increasing the weight minimum to 16 or 17 lbs for amateur races. A person should be able to go into a bike shop, spend a reasonable amount of money and have a bike that is every bit as competitive as the top guys in the peloton.
As for the pros, drop the weight limit. Manufacturers will continue to push techology and keep things interesting. Amateur riders could still purchase they latest ultra light bike, but would just have to add weight for competition.
If Trek spent a million...
I am not a racer, but I do understand the desire for lighter and faster bikes. All other variables being equal, a lighter bike will be faster and some races more exciting. However, to me, bike racing has been exciting for as long as I have been following the sport, and going back to Lemond's TdF victories, the races were thrilling yet achieved on bikes quite a bit heavier than the current 6.8kg limit. As to the question of how the weight limit relates to safety, keeping the current limit (or any limit above rock bottom) allows bike companies to focus on safety, durability, and function. If the companies were simply in a race to be the lightest, they could cut corners in other areas. With the current weight limit relatively easy to reach, the bike companies can add strength and stability to their bikes without having to make the judgment call of weight vs rider safety. This does not mean bike companies were (or are) ignoring bike safety, but rather to point out that if the bike companies now have a few grams extra to play with, they can add to the performance of the bike without the worry of a competing company having a weight advantage. If everyone comes to the race with a 6.8kg bicycle, then the bike with the best setup and best rider has the best shot at victory. Lance Armstrong usually has that top setup, and he is a top rider, so he is a threat to win every time. Teams now need to be creative in how they outfit their bikes and where they choose to seek advantages. They can now trim weight from the cranks, pedals,wheels and tires to reduce spinning weight, while adding some reinforcement to other parts to increase stiffness or use a stronger but heavier fork. With a zero sum goal (6.8kg), the more creative teams will have an advantage, but that advantage will not come at the cost of rider safety.
Finally, we need to avoid the "Formula One" style of racing where skyrocketing costs keep smaller brands out of the market. If Trek could drop a million dollars to build a single insanely lightweight bike for Lance, could the other makers keep up? By keeping the race weight low, but not out of reach for normal sized bike companies, the consumer can ride a bike like Lance without mortgaging their house. Let's keep the sport open to most riders and manufacturers. Let the talent, skill and training of the rider be the deciding factor, not the weight of the bike. Every few years, the UCI should evaluate the limit and adjust if needed, but it shouldn't abolish the rule outright. If that can be in conjunction with some sort of safety evaluation, the end result will be safer and better overall bikes for everybody.
Rules are rules
I think alot of people are unclear on how this whole weight rule thing works.
I used to race cars. The rules are just that. The rules. We didn't question them, just built the cars to the LIMIT of the rules. In "street stock" racing, you have to use street tires. But you can shave the tires down to 3/32(!) of an inch in tread and they still qualify. So tire manufacturers make car tires in ultra soft racing rubber compounds knowing full well that we would shave them down to the limit of the rule anyways.
Here is a link to the Formula One car rules. FIFTY pages covering everything from tire and engine size to how flexible certain chassis parts can be. In past years the cars were turbo charged. Then they changed the rule. The car owners complained and then promptly built cars without turbos that were just as fast as the turbo charged cars were. They used to used full slick tires. Then they changed the rule. So the tire manufacturers went out and redesigned their tires to meet the challenge.
In car racing we don't complain about rules, we exploited them. I see opportunities in the weight ruling myself.
Look at the area of wheels. If the weight limit is 6.8kg, why waste time on the frame??? I distinctly remember Basso of CSC having to use deep dish wheels on the Alpe TT to make weight. With the weight at the wheel being 3 times as important as static weight, it would seem obvious that you want the weight ON THE BIKE, not at the wheel set. What is the sense of having of 900g bike frame when you end up giving up 45g at your wheelset with the added disadvantage that goes with it?
Armstrong would still be fastest
In terms of competition, whether cyclists are riding 6.8 or 5.8kg bikes, there really isn't a difference. Armstrong would still be the fastest up the hill, regardless of the minimum weight of the bike. Does it matter to the spectators if the average speed of a 200km stage of the tour is 39.5 or 40.6km/h? I doubt it. Nor do I think anyone cares if the winning time up Alpe d'Huez is 30 seconds faster. Yes, we like to see improvement and development and records being broken, but I don't think the sport is losing out by bike weights being pegged at the current level.
So from a spectators point of view, I don't mind what a bicycle weighs, as long as the racing is competitive and exciting to watch. And I don't believe weight is a factor in either of these two points.
What are the real reasons that bike manufacturers are pushing for a reduction or elimination of the limit? Do they believe more teams will use their bikes, and win on their bikes if they are the lightest? Or do they want to build the lightest bike to capture the high end consumer market, and need endorsement of these products by professionals.
I believe there are two valid reasons for having a limit. Firstly, it levels the playing field for smaller manufacturers to compete with larger, richer ones. And secondly, it allows for some level of safety control. Yes there are other, possibly better, methods of ensuring safety, and these should also be considered.
This isn't to say I'm not against development of stronger, lighter bicycles. This is important. We wouldn't want bicycle manufacturers to become bored and focus their attention elsewhere. With the design of a bicycle very much limited due to the Lugano Charter, weight is one of the only real areas where manufacturers can continue improving. Perhaps the UCI has to revisit the weight limit on a periodic basis to see if technology (across all bike manufacturers, not just the select few) hasn't caught up and overtaken the limit. If most manufacturers are producing a safe 6kg bike that is available to the public, then why not lower the limit to cater for these.
The UCI should allow the market to guide the limit, rather than have the limit dictate the market.
Look at Formula 1
In my eyes this issue is similar to what is happening in Formula 1: initially technological advances drove up speeds, which were then found to be somewhat unsafe. Also, the different sizes of the development funds of the various teams meant that competition on the race track threatened to become dominated by technology and distracted from the spectator-appeal.
In terms of bike development, I think that manufacturers should continue to push the envelope. However, safety has to be a given, so certifications seems to make a huge amount of sense. (I'm talking the public at large as well as professionals.)
From a competition point of view, I see nothing wrong in actually limiting certain areas (just like F1 - see tyres, turbo's, traction control, automatic gearboxes, weight, single engine weekends, etc.) in the interest of drawing attention to the skill and endurance of the athletes. Again, safety, surely, has to be of primary importance (specators? Athens, Alpe d'Huez?)
Good points on both sides
This is one of those situations where both sides of the argument have very good points. I like the idea that the pros are riding on equipment that is as near as possible to the same specifications in terms of weight and so on so that no one can really have a mechanical advantage.
Scott Montgomery's comments are a little skewed as he wants his company to sell a lot of bikes and take advantage of the obvious R&D they have invested in their carbon processes. He feels that the UCI wants to be heavy and slow. Well I remember watching some races with Sean Kelly, Gianni Bugno et al that were sensational and all on bikes quite a bit more weighty than my own current bike.
A certification system for safety aspects would be great and of course costly to put in place. That cost would ultimately be bared by the manufacturers and none of them have mentioned (in the article) if they are prepared to pay for such a system. This could lead to a situation where only the larger manufacturers can afford to certify their bikes and thus move ahead of the competition and hence go against the spirit of the Lugano Charter.
It is a difficult call to make and will possibly be ultimately a mix of certification for safety and weight limits for an level playing field.
What about cost
The spirit of the rule seems to be to limit the cost of a bike. Why not make the rule based on cost instead of weight?
Change the limit over time
I believe there should be an established weight standard for bicycles. When it comes to competition, I'm a bit of a traditionalist and see bicycle races as human competition. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons I find the time trials the most interesting of events--it's mano a mano, nowhere to hide, let the strongest survive. The introduction of different technologies to different riders simply confounds who is truly the strongest cyclist and this could be a drag on the fans. Imagine how the complexion of cycling (and perception of riders) would change if some riders could afford to ride 10lb rigs up a chrono escalada whereas others were stuck with 15lb. rides. As those winner ascended the podium, I don't want to have to think, "well, if rider X had technology Y, he'd most certainly be on the podium." Just for kicks, I'd like to see some of the rides ride steel just to make a point--bikes don't make riders, riders make bikes. Where was Trek before Lance? In fact, didn't he even use a Litespeed TT bike in his 1999 Tour?
That said, I realize that professional team sponsorships are a big way that bicycle manufacturers get their names noticed and loved. As innovation progresses, I believe so should the weight limit, but that any changes to the limit be fairly conservative. By lowering the weight slowly, many teams will remain competitive, even if they have limited budgets. Furthermore, if safety remains a concern, slow drops of the weight limit would discourage any risky use of yet unproven technology (hopefully!). And perhaps most important to the manufacturers, a changing weight limit would continue the incentive to innovate. There are my two thoughts from a recreational cyclist!
David M. Tom
Columbus, OH, USA
The discussion of weight and safety is arbitrary at best, with no meaningful standard of durability attached. Any mechanical engineer will tell you that its not the amount of material used but how and where its used that counts. Simply put, a minimum regulation for strength and durability needs to be established for all weight bearing COMPONENTS. This would include frames/forks, wheelsets/hubs, bars/stems, seatposts. Failure of any of these at speed is potentially catastrophic.
Once these standards have been set, the UCI could leave it up to the manufactures to develop systems and products that best satisfy the standards and the needs of the riders. These would give the customer/racers crucial information when considering components and their worthiness to stand up to the rigors of racing or casual recreational riding. The counter argument is that if the UCI set the limit to 8 lbs. Would 8 lbs bikes magically start showing up in the bike shops over night? I think not. Would people be willing to pay for, mush less trust their hide to a 8 lbs bike? Not likely. So a number is nothing without some meaningful data and requirements to quantify the values. Cyclist tend to be extravagant in their desires and unrealistic in their motivations. Are you spending $5,000 on that new bike because you think its going to make you faster? Or, are you buying it because everybody else has one? In truth, if we would lose the extra 20 pounds or so and train harder instead of worrying about how much your frame weighs, we would all be a lot stronger and have a lot more cash in our wallet. Eddy set the hour record on a regular steel bike with no aero aids at almost 30 MPH at the end of his career! Next time your out on your carbon/Ti wonderbike, try pedaling 30 mph for just 2 minutes. Think about it. Whew... all this typing has made me hungry, pass me another donut!
San Diego, CA
Durability for big guys
As a current racer and avid cyclist it is fun to see new trick component groups that lower weights with composites. I myself have both a light composite bike and groupo but there comes a point of durability. As being a larger guy of 195 pounds, I am scared to use a lot of these components because of their light weight. It does not justify the expensive purchase if someone will break them if they ride the product to much. I can understand pro's wanting to go lower and lower because they can get new product if it breaks and are educated about the product. I think that weight limit helps give the uneducated person a safe footing and gives the suppliers a responsibity to the people they sell their bikes too. I agree that it is cool at shows to see lightweight bikes and having seen some Giants down to 13 pounds build from a shop but I believe that you should let them race on what they have and let the best man win.
Rider size, weight and safety
I can see both sides of the coin regarding minimum weight limits. One of the disadvantages of no weight limit on bikes is it penalizes in some regard, big riders like Magnus Backstedt. He will not take the risks and ride a superlight bike like that of Mayo. Therefore, Mayo might be on a 5kg bike and Maggie might be riding one over 8kg. Is this fair? Maybe the bike should be a portion of the riders body weight? Maybe the UCI weight rule should be abandoned only for mountain time trials like up Alpe Dhuez or the Mont Ventoux in May of this year?
In the end, the argument for heavier bikes is safety, if bike manufacturers can prove (through stringent testing) that 5 kg bikes are as safe as 6.8 bikes, then what's the problem with light bikes?
Perhaps then, the weight minimum rule shouldnt be thrown out the window, what should happen is that a certain manufacturer has testing done on their frame/fork/bike and then submits those tests to the UCI, the UCI then allows only those frames/bikes/etc that have passed a certain level of stiffness, durability testing etc. It would cause a massive amount of R&D to occur within bike manufacturers to submit their weight weenie bikes, a sort of race to the moon, if you will in bicycle design.
Light bikes are still expensive
J. Stevenson begins his article by stating that not much can be done to mitigate one of the two impediments to greater speed, namely the air. Actually, something could be done, but that would be a breach of yet another UCI rule...
I think S. McLaughlin hits the nail on the head when he contends that 7 kilo bikes are, in the real world, still fairly uncommon and above all, expensive. Pretty damned expensive, in fact, and some components may have a limited durability that only compounds the problem. While there's no doubt today's bikes are much better performers than the bikes of 12-15 years ago, the prices have increased very substantially, well more than the majority of other consumer goods.
Even when long-term resistance to wear and tear is satisfactory, ultra-light componentry exacerbates this problem in the event of a crash. It has never been cheap to replace crash-damaged parts, but when you are replacing carbon rims, bars/stem or perhaps a saddle, it becomes onerous in a big way. Can you trust a carbon handlebar or stem that has been in a crash? It seems that cycling journalists have a way of proclaiming that this is the year of carbon, or titanium, or this or that, but that may be the result of distortions in perception arising from too many Interbike shows and sneak peeks at pro bikes on workstands at European races. Every manufacturer there may show his version of the carbon fiber miracle, but how many are going to be bought by unsponsored racers, particularly the younger ones?
Racing is becoming pretty costly, a respite would be nice, but as long as the riders I compete against have light bikes, I'll have to more or less keep pace. By the way, I'm not a complete luddite; my bike, with race wheels weighs in at about 15.5 pounds.
Pierre C. Lacoste
John Stevenson responds: Good point re the air. Yes, we could all slice through it better if we were on recumbents or even standard bicycles with fairings, but I thought the weight rule was something worth discussing as the UCI seems to be prepared to listen to attempts to change it, whereas I think we'll be booking skiing holidays in hell before the UCI accommodates faired or recumbent bikes.
Bike vs rider weights
I never thought that it was fair that a 200lbs rider could ride the same weight bike as a 130lbs rider.
Rather than having a fixed weight, the UCI should adopt an entirely new policy; rider-to-bike weight ratios. Therefore a lighter rider would be able to ride a lighter bike. Example:
Rider Weight: 150lbs
Bike Weight: 15.5lbs
Rider Weight: 130lbs
Bike Weight: 13.43lbs
Though I'm no scientist, a heavier rider puts more stress on frames/wheels/components compromising the safety and durability of their bicycle. Implementing this rider-to-bike ratio increases safety considerations and levels the playing field for all riders.
Bikes don't make performance
I'd guess that when racing bikes began to change over from fixed gears to derailleur equipped machines, someone opposed the innovation with much the same argument - that racing should be a contest between racers, not a technological arms race. I believe that the manufacturers should develop new, lighter, more competitive machines for the professionals with minimal interference from the UCI. The pros are the best judges of the safety of a particular design. If it isn't safe, they'll undoubtedly reveal that in training and the early season. Who could do better product testing than a professional racer, putting in more hours and harder miles than any amateur?
Besides, if there's a super-skinny bike constructed of unobtainium, even if you or I scraped together a big pile of cash to buy it, we still wouldn't be competitive with many of the local racers let alone the pros. Training, racing experience, and - though I hate to admit it - youth, play a much bigger role in the amateur ranks. You could put me atop a USPS Trek, and I still couldn't stay with the slowest guy in any of the pro tours. And if you stuffed me into a Formula 1 Ferrari, I couldn't stay with the slowest driver in F1. Small technological innovations may benefit the fastest riders in our sport, but for the rest of us, it's training, training, training. And in my case, at least, maybe a little less ice cream!
What about handling?
I think manufacturers should now turn to addressing an issue that has become buried in the mad dash toward the one kilo frame: what ever happened to the rigid fork?
In my opinion, steering performance has suffered greatly as companies introduce lighter and ligher forks. The 1" carbon steerer gave way to the 1.125 standard to reduce weight AND improve stiffness, but after riding many brands it is easy to see that weight is the only real concern, and as long as the fork doesn't break during testing, it's ready for the market.
Why can't a company like Scott, TIME or Cannondale take this opportunity to rethink and redesign a fork that might weigh 400g and out-perform anything else available? Overall weights for framesets are still phenomenally low, and the manufacturer could tout the durability and ride quality of their more robust fork. It seems to me like a marketing bonanza. Those who remember how amazing it was to ride one of the first carbon fork offerings from TIME or LOOK will remember that those forks weren't light by todays standards, but they were an enormous improvement over light weight springy steel like EL-OS.
By the way, I am not a 250 pound recreational rider, or a Kilo star on the track. I am an average 165 pound racer looking for a sub-500g fork that isn't going to roll over and die when I jam it into a corner at 30mph.
Demand better handling from your new bike.
I think if all frames had to pass EFBe lab tests to be race legal, this factor would definitely improve the general safety of products on the market. I think consumers would be very surprised about the large numbers of frames on the market today which can not pass these tests.
1. Regardless of weight there should be a universal durability "crash" standard.
2. Weights should be equalized to level the playing field.
3. The minimum weight should be lowered.
4. Costs shouldn't be prohibitive to prevent the situation of baseball or F1 where only few well heeled teams have the potential to win.