Sky's 'vortex generator' skinsuits questioned by Tour rivals but permitted by commissaires

FDJ coach Fred Grappe has questioned the legitimacy of the 'vortex generator' skinsuits used by Team Sky riders during the stage 1 time trial of the Tour de France, but the commissaires have decreed that the skinsuits are legal as the rules stand.

Team Sky placed four riders in the top eight of Saturday's 14 kilometre time trial in Dusseldorf, as Geraint Thomas claimed the first maillot jaune of the race and Chris Froome gained more than half a minute on his principal rivals in a startling display of collective strength.

The Sky riders were wearing a new Castelli skinsuit, which featured textured patterns on the shoulders and upper arms, designed to act as vortex generators, which smooth the airflow around the body.

On Saturday evening, Fred Grappe took to Twitter to question the legality of Sky's skinsuits. Citing a study into the use of such vortex generators, Grappe estimated that riders using the skinsuits might have gained between 18 and 25 seconds as result.

"We already tested vortex generators three years ago in the wind tunnel and the effects were very advantageous," Grappe told reporters before stage 2 in Dusseldorf. "I went to see the commissaires and reminded them that this was a rule modified during the winter. The rule said that new materials were now authorised for using skinsuits, so we made a lot of different skinsuits with our partners, modifying the textiles used so as to penetrate the air better.

"But in no case would we have been allowed to insert a vortex, because it's written in the rules that any aerodynamic addition that modifies air resistance is not allowed. That's written clearly in the rules."

Article 1.3.033 of the UCI rules forbids the wearing of non-essential items. In a clarification to the regulations issued at the beginning of the season, the UCI stated: "It is also prohibited to wear clothing or skinsuits to which non-essential elements have been added with a view to improving their aerodynamic properties such as, for example, 'wings' under the arms or an extension between the helmet and the jersey or skinsuit. It is obligatory for clothing to follow the cyclist's body shape."

Philip Marien, the head of the race jury, told RTBF that he and his colleagues had examined the Team Sky skinsuits after the stage and decreed that, strictly speaking, there had been no violation of the rule.

"We called the team to the race headquarters after the stage," said Marien. "We examined the skinsuits and it [the vortex generator] is integrated into the fabric, so it's not really a violation of the UCI rule. I can understand the rationale of other teams, but for the moment, we have no real way of forbidding it."

Unclear rules?

Grappe interprets the wording of the regulations differently, and suggested that the UCI needs to provide a clarification of its clarification, so to speak. "The problem isn't Sky, the problem is that it's a rule that's been changed, and everybody needs to know it," Grappe said. "Everybody is looking for extra percentages. If the rules allow us to do certain things, then we'll do them, but only within the rules. And this clearly isn't within the rules as they stand."

Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal defended Sky's skinsuits and suggested their use had already been cleared before the stage. Team Sky reportedly already used earlier iterations of the vortex generators during the Giro d'Italia and the Critérium du Dauphiné.

"Everything was approved. We wouldn't take a risk like that," Portal said. "We're looking for performance gains and we're not the only ones. It's legal. Everybody knows the rules and it's up to everybody to adapt to the rules. These aren't things that make a difference of many seconds, but it's a small detail it can help."

Asked if the time gained by Sky as a result of using the skinsuits had been, as Grappe suggested, as much as 25 seconds, Portal demurred. "I don't know exactly, it's not my job. I'm a directeur sportif, not a coach or a technician, so I'm not going to respond to Fred Grappe," he said. "I don't know about aerodynamics. It's very complex. In the world of cycling there are a lot people better able to talk about it, like [Sky coach] Tim Kerrison."

Asked if the rule could be altered ahead of the Marseille time trial, Marien told RTBF that the commissaires would "reflect on it." Grappe, meanwhile, warned that the decision to rubberstamp Sky's skinsuits in the Tour's opening time trial could lead to the employment of more extreme modifications from other teams in the Marseille time trial on the final weekend of the Tour.

"The commissaires should do their jobs and apply the rules. If not, we'll go to Marseille and we'll see skinsuits that modify the shape of the back and the shoulders, and they'll be going quicker," Grappe said. "You will be able to modify the shape of the body by inserting pads into the skinsuit, and they'll say that if it's integrated as part of the skinsuit, then that's ok."

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