I never thought I'd say this but I think the UCI is doing a good job. In many respects it's still a micro-managing busy body with its governing org nose in places governing org noses need not be but on the technical side - once the UCI's weakest link - it is now much more responsive and, dare I say it, adaptable.
The bicycle industry is keenly focussed on the rules and regulations created by the UCI. The organisation's dictats, done wrong, can have huge financial implications for manufacturers. Amazingly, the organisation did not have an engineer on staff until the appointment of Julien Carron in October 2010. He's the UCI's Technological Coordinator and is an expert on carbon composites. Crucially, he talks the same tech language as the engineers at bicycle companies.
Carron may have with the UCI since 2010 but he only really started to become visible in 2011, with the creation of the UCI's homologation programme, the approvals process for certifying frames and forks prior to mass manufacture.
The approvals programme kicked up a lot of stink in 2011, with manufacturers large and small (but mostly small) complaining about the costs of the process. However, with the approvals process now in full swing, manufacturers' fears about spiralling costs have not materialised. The costs of the programme are a lot less than the losses that would accrue if products already in the shops had to be withdrawn following a UCI decision at a race, for example.
Carron is proving to be a key hire, somebody bike companies can go to with concerns, and get them answered by an expert.
The all-important stickers - i.e. frame decals - certify that frames and forks are compliant with the UCI's technical guidelines. The complex and open-to-interpretation rules on the weights and diameters and shapes of bicycle frames were first codified in the 1996 Lugano Charter, with technical regulations spelling out the charter's concepts completed by 2000. These rules have been policed poorly over the years with some UCI commissaires banning certain bikes in some races, and other commissaires allowing the same bikes in other races. Manufacturers have produced costly frame and component innovations only for the UCI to forbid them. To prevent such on-the-starting-line rule confusion, the UCI consulted a select group of bicycle manufacturers to create the homologation programme.
The programme's introduction was handled badly, with the UCI underestimating the number of players in the global bike industry, which meant the costs of the programme was more expensive than it needed to be.
"Our original study was based on getting frames from twenty manufacturers," said Carron. When the homologation process went public, many more manufacturers said they would require approvals, too.
"We made the calculation with the wrong number," admitted Carron. "We needed to add many more manufacturers, so we corrected the numbers, and the costs came down."
The UCI's approvals programme now consists of 71 manufacturers with a total of 119 different models approved, from Argon's E-118 to Wilier's Twin Foil, via Ridley's Noah and Trek's Madone.
Carron, formerly of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, works with another engineer at the UCI HQ in Switzerland. Where before tech queries went into the abyss now there's an intelligent and knowledgable answer in reply. Carron is always available at the end of a phone line, and promptly answers his emails. The UCI's tech dictats are still loopy at times but at least we now have somebody sensible to talk to about it.