Whether it be the UCI, Cycling Time Trials, or triathlon, most cycling regulations governing aerodynamics are a series of written rules designed to enforce an already accepted unwritten rule: Thou shall not ride a recumbent or use fairings in a cycle race. Not since the early days of the Hour Record with Oscar Egg and the Velocipede has anyone truly longed for the UCI to drop the rules prohibiting riding with a fairing or a recumbent. The understanding is “you just don’t go there.”
Unless that is, you are a recumbent rider or a Human Powered Vehicle rider explicitly targeting the Recumbents Hour Records (aka the “Streamlined Recumbent Bicycle Enclosed in an Aerodynamic Shell Record”) currently held by Francesco Russo with a distance of 92.43 km (57.43 miles), in which case, have at it.
Recumbents and fairings are acceptable in Human Powered Vehicle racing, because that’s a different a sport; there’s a clear distinction between it and cycling. But controversy is rumbling in the UK this autumn as fairings have crossed the sporting distinctions and entered the domestic time-trialling scene.
Several riders in the UK’s recent Cycling Time Trial “National 10” used chest, calf, and arm fairings, leaving many unhappy and calling for action. But given no rules were broken, is the use of potentially very cheap yet effective on-body fairings exploiting a loophole or darn right wrong?
I’m hesitant to say a controversy is rumbling because 1) almost everyone we spoke with agrees on some level that fairings might not be the best direction for the sport to take, and 2) in true CTT style, everyone I’ve spoken with on the matter has been so polite, thoroughly enjoyable to talk with, and understanding of each position. Very much the opposite of the social media battles the world has become accustomed to. Nevertheless, a controversy it is becoming.
The question of purpose
Discontent was already murmuring with the progressive increase of riders stuffing inflated hydration bladders down the front of their skinsuits and hanging two bottles off the rear of the saddle in shorter time trials in search of an aerodynamic gain rather than for hydration purposes. Think potbelly pig rather than CamelBak. It’s very unlikely these riders needed hydration for these events, especially not multiple litres worth in a 10-mile time trial. Most turned a blind eye until now, presumably because the hydration bladders had some defensibility given one could point to their hydration-aiding primary purpose rather than purely an aero hack, and they are mostly out of sight.
That simmering discontent eventually boiled over following the National 10-mile Championships, where many riders had taken the step from potbelly pig to stuffing polystyrene blocks inside their skinsuits and overshoes to create fairings behind their biceps and calves. The National 10 FairGate is seemingly the straw that broke the camel’s back, with one internet forum thread title describing the “rampant use of body fairings at the National 10,” with the ensuing discussion growing to 21 pages at the time of publishing. In contrast to the hydration bladders, the calf and bicep fairings have only one possible primary purpose: manipulating the body to be more aerodynamic.
But still, such an understanding for everyone’s opinions even given such a divisive topic, shouldn’t be surprising, given it is the UK TT scene we are discussing. There are numerous examples of technology and innovation “trickling-up” from CTT time trials to the WorldTour and many more examples of the world’s best time triallists testing themselves on this domestic scene.
As CTT chair Andrea Parish told Escape Collective this week, CTT events are a “grassroots sport, at a domestic level, with elite-level innovation.”
Nevertheless, despite being the global epicentre of time trialling, TT tech and innovation, the entire scene is run by volunteers and policed by each rider’s moral duty rather than strict rules enforcement.
To be clear, there are rules. But they seem to exist because something must, rather than a necessity to keep riders in check. In fact, the regulations themselves somewhat show their age and general level of acceptance with a reference to Spinaci bars in the chapter governing the “Competitor’s Machine.”
There are no pre-start checks, no frame approval processes or conformity jigs; the CTT doesn’t even have a sock height rule. The riders adhere to the rules because it’s right to do so, not because anyone is checking.
That may get us part way to the crux of the problem: According to Bryce Dyer, Deputy head of the Design and Engineering department at Bournemouth University and a sports technology development researcher with a PhD in Sport Ethics, not to mention a CTT regular and home aero tester, fairings are already banned under current CTT regulations. Article 14.B of the CTT Regulations states: “The use of recumbent machines, protective shields or windbreaks is prohibited.”
That rule has ensured that on-bike fairings have never entered CTT time trials. But that rule does not mention on-body fairings, and the chest, arm, and leg fairings the riders used at the National 10 are not protective shields or windbreaks. In Dyer’s opinion, that’s simply an understandable oversight in the rules, given no one could have predicted the fairings might end up on the rider’s body. Rather than an intelligent loophole, Dyer sees on-body fairings as an oversight that can be, and should be, quickly and easily remedied.
But, nevertheless, the riders using fairings at the National 10 broke no rules.
Wait, what? Why?
The juxtaposition of having such innovation and competition without overly restrictive regulations or commissaries inevitably leaves the door open to new developments and technology that won’t please everyone. Arguably, a CTT rider’s moral compass is only matched by their love for going faster.
If anything, it’s surprising it’s taken so long for this controversy to erupt. I don’t need to repeat the merits of improving your aerodynamic efficiency in improving your time-trialling performance.
As Xavier Disley of Aerocoach explains, there are two types of aero drag: Pressure and friction. As such, riders can get more aerodynamic in two ways. 1) by reducing the pressure drag on the system by making the shape of the bike and riding position more aerodynamic and/or 2) by reducing the friction drag on the airflow over the body e.g. trip strips, fancy fabrics, skinsuits, aero socks, etc.
Typically, we have focused on reducing the pressure drag by manipulating the tubes on the bike into profiled aero shapes and the body into aerodynamic and progressively more aggressive positions. Attempts to reduce friction drag have mainly focused on the fabric used in skinsuits and overshoes with the careful placement of trip strips and roughened surfaces designed to manipulate the airflow over the body.
That actually gets to the core motivation behind the initial aero socks and why they are so effective: we cannot manipulate the terribly un-aerodynamic cylindrical shape of the lower leg to reduce pressure drag, but the textures and strips on the leading edge of aero socks condition the airflow over the leg, reducing friction drag and helping the flow reattach behind the cylinder. In other words, all our modern aero garments are effectively making the best of bad shape.
On the other hand, fairings attached to a rider’s leg, arm, or chest take that bad shape and make it much better. Fairings manipulate and improve the aero profile of the body, and so they can create a powerful reductionary effect on pressure drag (there is also some reduction on friction drag). We all know: less drag equals more speed.
Better yet, such fairings, or on-body aerostructures as I prefer to think of them, are potentially very cheap and accessible, sometimes as simple as stuffing a bottle down your skinsuit and a piece of foam down the back of your aero overshoe. Furthermore, according to Disley, “the chest fairing is pretty universally an improvement for those we have tested.”
What’s the problem?
Before we delve into that, it’s important we first hightlight the time-trialling tech arms race that has exploded in the past few years and endangers the sport in many people’s minds. Never has the sport been so expensive and nowhere is that more obvious than in time trialling.
The mention of “being in the (wind) tunnel” is as common and blasé as the mention of power numbers at CTT time trials these days. Not to mention the hideous price of new bikes and some of the new time trialling tech.
Fairings, on the other hand, are usually free to make or as cheap as a hydration bladder. So what’s the problem then? The people who like to go fast are spending ludicrous money anyway, they’ve found a new way to go even quicker, and at least this time, it doesn’t need to involve an exorbitant financial outlay. Perhaps even better, is there a chance the humble DIY fairing’s pressure drag reduction is so powerful it renders the high-tech and costly aero garments attempting to fool the airflow into creating a similar effect into nothing more than a very marginal gain?
As UK time trialist turned World Tour pro and Hour Record Holder turned back again, Alex Dowsett of NoPinz told Escape Collective, we now have an era where a rider with 200 watts and £20,000 to spend on their sport might well beat the rider with 300 watts and zero budget. In a world where riders are already spending copious amounts of money in the marginal gains rat race, is the maximal gain in a free fairing fair?
This is where things get complicated.
Bryce Dyer told us the problem isn’t where or how much fairings cost now but more about how individually specific and costly they might become. Dyer does see the merits and excitement in pushing tech innovation boundaries and acknowledges time trialists will always chase speed, but ultimately determines the calf and arm fairings at the National 10 a step too far.
A step too far because, as Dyer referenced in that Time Trialling Forum thread, fairings amount to “technological coercion.” If one rider uses them, everyone else is forced to just to retain position on the results sheet. Everyone gets faster, but the results stay the same.
That said, Dyer, like everyone we spoke to, recognises that hydration devices serve a functional purpose for the CTT’s prestigous 50- and 100-mile time trials where hydration is key. There is a common acknowledgement that the “hydration devices” provide aero gains. But conversely, there is seemingly also a common consensus that said “hydration fairings,” if you will, should be permitted for the CTT’s longer distances. Furthermore, why should riders be forced to wear said devices on their backs and not be free to wear them on their back or front.
That is, of course, an argument we could make about any aero intervention and presumably the exact same argument bandied about in 1989 when Greg LeMond changed time trialling forever in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat to Laurent Fignon thanks in no small part to his decision to race with aero extensions.
Arguably the most dominant rider in the UK scene of the 21st century, and champion of all things time trial in the UK and Ireland, Michael Hutchinson shares the concern for where fairings might end up, fearing CFD and 3D printing might lead to all new barriers to entry for those looking to try time trialling, but also suggests there are bigger problems at hand.
Dr. Hutch, as he is known, explained, “the big reason for banning something is if it’s dangerous or expensive. I don’t see how fairings are either right now. Perhaps that will change,” before pointing out the juxtaposition in being ok with riders spending 12 grand on a bike to go 10 seconds quicker but calling for a ban on fairings that cost nothing and provides a similar gain.
“If it stays cheap, its potentially a way for those without the deep pockets to claw back some of the time lost to those with the biggest equipment and R&D budgets.”
-Michael “Dr. Hutch” Hutchinson
Former pro and Hour Record holder Alex Dowsett, who participated in the National 10 and has used a hydration bladder down the front of his skinsuit throughout the season, is equally conflicted. Dowsett is clear he thinks it’s wrong to ban hydration devices, but he can see the argument against arm and calf fairings. Pipped into third place in the National 10 by a fairing-wearing Rich Bussell, Dowsett is gracious in defeat when we spoke with him and applauds Bussell’s innovative thinking rather than question the merits of Bussell’s results.
Recently crowned 25-mile and 10-mile CTT national champion Kate Allan of Team Bottrill, on the other hand, told Escape Collective she doesn’t use body fairings, taking a much more pragmatic approach. As Allan explains, she has once tried the hydration bladder down the skinsuit but isn’t going to start using such devices and fairings in training, and as such, quite wisely, is not prepared to introduce new and untested things into her race-day setup.
Perhaps Bussell’s and Dowsett jostling for national medals provide some food for thought. Outside UCI and Championship time trialling, time trialling is arguably less the so-called “race of truth” and more some sort of a self-reflection challenge.
Arguably, regardless of whether fairings are permitted or banned, the positional results probably won’t change a great deal. Again, it may come down to “technological coercion.” What might change is the finishing time and average speeds. Be it aero frames, disc wheels, silly helmets, or five grand skinsuits, every time triallist’s ambition is always to go faster, and every upgrade is made or purchased with that in mind. Going faster is only partly measured in results sheet positions and mostly measured by the time on the results sheet. The beauty of time trialling is that no matter what your finishing position relative to others, the race is always with yourself; that’s the race of truth.
“You have to separate the speed increase from the competitive ranking. The competitive ranking doesn’t change, everyone just goes a bit quicker and the whole sport just looks a bit more inaccessible. I’m more concerned about how accessible the sport is.”
-Xavier Disley, Aerocoach
With that in mind, is there a compromise solution where bicep and calf fairings no wider or longer than the rider’s bicep and calf are permitted for standard time trials where finishing time is usually primary? Allow each rider to make their own choice as to when or if they want to make that upgrade. In contrast, the use of said fairings could be banned for championship events, where the placing is primary.
Perhaps not for Joe Laverick, who was more emphatic but arguably also even more conflicted in his opinion, telling Escape Collective that much like Alex Dowsett, he thinks a “bottle down the front is fair game.” Before making it abundantly clear what he thinks of “F%#king dumb” looking calf and arm fairings in one breath while admitting he will be using fairings for his upcoming “Loop of London in a 9-5” time trial challenge with the very next breath.
Laverick perfectly illustrates the complexity running through the entire fairing debate. He doesn’t like fairings but knows they are faster. He knows it potentially presents a problem for time trialling, but has taken the free aero gains from stuffing a rolled-up jacket down the front of his skinsuit. He’s employed the free upgrades that are potentially ok, but, as if to highlight the potential pitfalls, he is 3D printing a more considered and presumably expensive approach within an hour of our call.
Who goes there?
Xavier Disley perhaps best sums up the issue with on-body fairings: “In contrast to putting a skinsuit on, or tinkering with the bike, unnaturally modifying the rider’s shape seems off.” That perhaps best sums up everyone’s conflicting emotions on the topic of fairings. The problem with fairings is the very essence of their brilliance.
But wait, isn’t that the same Xavier Disley, whose history with using fairings goes way back to 2008 and whose company and team employees and supports National 10 fairing-wearing second-place finisher Rich Bussell. Why yes, that is the same Xavier Disley, and his stance on fairings came much to my surprise.
Bussell’s second place in the National 10 is perhaps the most high-profile example of fairings in use this season. Disley explains that while he and Bussell were motivated to optimise as much as possible for the National 10, they decided to take the fairings to a new extreme in a bid to highlight the potential issue developing and kick-start a discussion on the topic.
“We wanted Rich to win National 10 and go as fast as possible, but we don’t feel sticking fairings down your suit isn’t the way the sport should go, so we thought sod it, let’s do everything without breaking the existing rules and let the everyone decide if they like what they see.”
Disley is resolute in his opinion that fairings are not good for the sport, but rather than keep the secret gains simmering under, he and Bussell decided to jump years ahead in fairing development to motivate a discussion on the topic now. He does not intend to sell fairings and says he is perfectly happy for fairings to get banned this winter, explaining he is much more concerned with making the sport more inclusive and welcoming to new riders. He believes start lines crowded with transformers and expensive unobtainium has a marginalising and exclusionary effect he’d rather the sport did without.
Disley points to the road bike time trial category as the perfect example of how regulation can be for the betterment of the sport. Aerocoach had been a strong advocate for the road bike category before officially being included in the CTT rules. Disley explains that while the fastest can still push and innovate as much as they like, their equipment is at least recognisable to the new rider turning up to the start line, and there is less of a “perceived barrier to entry.”
Disley’s hopes for a conversation on the matter have worked. The fairing debate will likely go to the CTT’s National Council or AGM later this year, but is there a chance the sudden shock at the National 10 might provoke a knee-jerk and ultimately negative reaction?
As Hutchinson points out, one of the worst things the UCI ever did was ban the “really simple, cheap, and yet effective” Team GB skinsuits post-2008 Beijing Olympics, a mostly plastic construction which proved “phenomenally difficult” to replicate in fabric. The genie was out of the bottle, though. Team GB knew of the gains available and so went on a spending spree to find those gains in fabric.
Could we find a similar scenario unfolding with fairings? Setting the hydration bladders aside for a moment, what are the majority of these fairings but cheap, simple, homemade, yet effective aero interventions? For all the talk of their exclusionary effects, my own mind looks at these fairings and thinks “I could make that at home.” Compare that to the exceptionally complex skinsuits and aero overshoes of today, custom-made to the rider and wind tunnel-tested for the optimal placement of every last stitch, and I’m left thinking there is not a cat’s chance in hell I could afford or replicate such gains.
This bigger question for Hutchinson, who also helps national federations with wind tunnel testing, is how well fairings actually work. We know aerodynamics are highly rider-dependent, and what works for one rider might not work for another. Hutchinson questions if the gains really are universal, and if data emerges suggesting such fairings are perhaps slower for some, might that quash the feeling of technological coercion some are feeling now. There’s nothing that catches on quicker than the latest aero trend in time trialling. The facts, though, are, as Joe Laverick said, “if you’re not testing, you’re guessing.”
“Testing costs is one of the problems. If someone wants to test, they will test, and that is usually looking at options that only add more costs. At least this way, we could be testing items that are fundamentally cheap.”
To his credit, Dyer has seen the other side. He has used a chest fairing and puts the gain at around 15 watts. Such a gain didn’t sit right with him, and he has since not only decided to ditch the fairings for his own racing, but petitioned others, with success, to do the same in some club tens since.
ERO Sports tested several riders earlier this year and found a similar 15 watts (6% at race pace) for one rider, but considerably less with other riders. Like anything aero, hydration fairings seem highly individual. I’ve seen riders testing within a single watt, and the margin of error, with and without a chest fairing.
Going back to my earlier question, though, I’m curious if fairings could prove less of an evil and more of an equaliser. Is the fairing pressure drag reduction more significant than the friction drag reduction offered by modern clothing? Could the fairing actually level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots of expensive aero tech? Unlikely, explains Disley, who suggests riders won’t replace their expensive kit with simple fairings and cheaper, basic kit. They’ll simply add the fairings to the already faster kit.
The potential for some compounding effect of clothing and fairings is a certainty, as evidenced by the National 10, but my question is more akin to disc wheels: take a rider with a basic, older generation disc wheel probably bought second-hand for a fraction of the cost of a new one. Because of the nature of disc wheels, said used disc will offer this rider the majority of the aero gains available. Should a fellow competitor purchase the newest, most expensive and cutting-edge disc wheel, it may prove faster, but it will almost certainly prove marginal at best as the most significant gain is in the initial change to a solid disc wheel. With fairings, only testing could answer for sure; again, it could prove highly individual.
What to do? What can you do?
As mentioned earlier, the fairing debate is almost certain to come up at the CTT AGM where there is an opportunity to propose updates and changes to the racing regulations. But it’s far from simple what to do and, as strange as it may still sound, it is further from a certainty that fairings will get banned. The varying nature of discontent with regard to fairings, the hydration requirements of the various distance categories – the likes of 12-hour and 24-hour which we haven’t even mentioned – and the reluctance to put more burden on volunteers means finding a workable resolution and regulation quite difficult.
As CTT chair Andrea Parish told Escape Collective this week, there are 21 regions within the CTT and numerous clubs within each region. Clubs may discuss the matter, propose regulation updates at regional AGMs, and nominate delegates to travel to the national AGM on behalf of their region. Each region is awarded between two and four delegates, depending on the number of clubs in that region, and these delegates vote on each regulation proposal at the National Congress. There must be a 75% majority for a proposal to pass.
That 75% is a considerable bar to pass given the theoretical possibility for anything up to 21 different proposed regulation amendments on the fairing debate. As such, there is a chance even with a general consensus on banning fairings, given the many views on how to do so and how strict a ban should be, there is no consensus on how to ban fairings. Afterall, it took 10 years to mandate the use of protective helmets through the same channel.
Parish is understandably not willing to provide her opinion on the matter, explaining it would be wrong to influence the discussion given in her position. Still, she does envisage a complicated path regardless of the general consensus or outcome. That’s before we even get into the aero bottles off the saddle debate.
Unlike Andrea Parish, I do not have to retain a neutral position. I am equally conflicted by the entire fairing debate. My sole motivation to train and time trial these days is to see how fast I can go with all the training and experience I have amassed in 20 years of cycling combined with the advancements in human understanding of all things performance. I’m not motivated to push myself within the boundaries of what someone in Aigle thinks cycling should be, only for the goalposts to move in the future when I can no longer compete physiologically.
So, with a few generally accepted exceptions, i.e. doping, recumbents, and fairings, I’m game to try any potential new gain. Wait, I said I was conflicted, right? Right! For me, fairings are shields and windbreaks to hide behind. The calf and arm fairings Richard Bussell used in the National 10 are right on the threshold of what my own moral compass would permit.
I don’t think it looks any sillier or inhospitable than we time trialists with the pointy helmets and barely able to stand up straight in our three sizes too tight skinsuit already look. And I truly believe regulation only ever favours those with the deepest R&D pockets capable of searching out the next gain. Let them innovate, and let us imitate is my motto.
Given the genie is now out of the bottle and, as such, the desire with some riders to seek out loopholes and recreate the fairing effect will always exist, combined with the suspicions that will inevitably arise with another portion of the community to any suspect shapes, perhaps my gravest concerns are the potential for creating a new rule which A) might require officials to peer inside a competitors skinsuit for a definitive answer and/or B) bring riders physiques to trial in the court of social media.
That said, I also understand the legitimate concerns raised by all. As such, I’ve devised a compromise proposal I might suggest if I was a CTT member at a local AGM. I’ve tried to keep it as unintrusive as possible and based on the idea riders are self-policing, with a simple means to test if someone is taking it too far. Perhaps naïvely, I feel time triallists can still be self-policing and are not the kind of people to take a mile if the rules give an inch.
- Riders may use hydration equipment for hydration purposes. Such hydration devices are permitted on the rider’s back or stomach/chest. Hydration devices are not permitted on any other part of the body.
- Riders may attach water bottles to the traditional mounting points on the inner side of the down tube and seat tube, outer side of the down tube, between the elbow rests on time trial extensions, or a maximum of one bottle (maximum 1.5L capacity) horizontally or vertically behind the saddle.
- Body fairings are banned for use in championship time trials.
- Calf and bicep fairings no larger than the adjacent limb are permitted in non-championship events.
All the gains aside, if a fairing helps keep an aero sock in place, that can only be a good thing aesthetically. Cast your vote in the comments.
What did you think of this story?