What if all professional bike racing used identical and standardised equipment? Would racing be any different if every rider and team had the same frames, wheels, tyres, and kit?
Just imagine my disgust when asked to investigate this question. Dreaming up cycling’s version of “spec series” racing seemed about as exciting as being on hold with an insurance call centre to this self-confessed tech nerd.
An eye roll or two later, my natural technophilic mind began to wonder and wander down countless deep rabbit holes. Slowly I realised the question poses a genuinely fascinating thought experiment. While it will never happen, the implications of a spec series are as fascinating as the permutations of how to implement it.
So, what would happen?
I think our brains naturally assume some levelling of the playing field, accentuating raw talent for better racing with more classically stylish bikes and riders. In other words, some form of UCI nirvana with more guts and fewer gadgets. But how likely is that scenario?
Would a move to spec equipment peg back the mega-wealthy Jumbo-Vismas and UAE Team Emirates of this world and bolster the Fortuneo-Vital Concepts and the Bretagne-Séché Environments? Would a spec series have any unintended consequences? Here’s our best guess.
Spec series racing already exists in motorsport, but as I learned in speaking with Jack Aitken – LeMans series, endurance car, and F1 driver; friend of the Escape Collective; and keen bike rider – not at the levels I expected. I assumed spec racing existed at junior-level karting in a bid to lower the barrier to entry in an expensive sport and accentuate raw talent. But Aitken explains this was only true for the very youngest racers in the Bambino (6-8 year-old) category. While spec equipment karting series do exist, “they are massively less popular than ‘driver owner championships’,” Aitken explains.
Turns out, given the option, competitive athletes are not all that interested in racing slower. “The spec championships are designed to be budget-friendly,” Aitken explains, “but as such are often considered less competitive.” In other words, while there are a limited number of spec series, the best drivers gravitate towards the open spec championships.
Perhaps tellingly for our thought experiment, Aitken further explains that while most agree a spec championship is generally a good idea in theory, traditionally, most race series have been open spec and as such, there is too much infrastructure, too vast a marketplace, and too much marketing activity to disband. Sound familiar?
Even at the Formula 4 level, where Aitken believes spec equipment does work, its acceptance and success are mainly due to the astronomical jump in equipment costs, even from the upper echelons of karting. Suddenly a chassis can be US$45,000 or more. Equipment is so expensive that only the teams are purchasing kit at that level. Teams purchase a chassis to use for four or five years. As such, these championships are only viable with spec equipment and consistent regulations allowing teams to maximise their investments without the risk of it quickly outdating.
We all know cycling is getting too expensive, but thankfully a private individual can still purchase any of the equipment used at the top ranks for a lot less than $45,000.
Even then, though, there are still some dominant teams and drivers in Formula 4. While the regulations might stipulate which chassis builder, engine, and configuration teams must use, the teams and drivers still have setup parameters to optimise and improve performance beyond raw driver talent.
Of course, cycling is not motorsport. Setup parameters and loopholes aside, standardising equipment is much easier when it’s one size fits all. That’s not how cycling works. Every rider has their own position and preferred frame size. Professional riders even favoured custom geometries right up until the mid-2000s and the mass uptake of carbon frames.
So there’s the question of what to standardise to: What geometry? And round-tube frames with 32-spoke wheels, or the latest optimised equipment of the modern-day peloton?
We probably all have a preferred direction, but would a decision one way or the other favour some riders and hamper others? Let’s assume we allow for fit adjustments, but even then how much adjustment is acceptable? For instance, sub-40 cm-wide handlebars could be considered relatively narrow and an aero advantage for a Magnus Backstedt-sized rider but could be considered normal for a Sergio Higuita.
Furthermore, what position tweaks are acceptable, and what hacks should be outlawed? Does anyone recall the prologue of this year’s Tour Down Under? The genie is out of the bottle and isn’t returning. We now know aero matters, and the Dan Bighams and Taco van der Hoorns of this world will always find an optimisation loophole. Arguably, the tighter the regulation, the greater the gains these loopholes tend to offer.
A rider doesn’t need to optimise every aspect of their setup if they can just find one loophole no one else has spotted. In fact, many consider more regulation to favour those who can dedicate more resources to optimising within stricter regulations: the very opposite of the level playing field I think many would hope spec equipment might deliver. It could be argued that any equipment standardising to non-aero equipment would only offer an opportunity to the aero/open-minded to run smaller frames, shorter cranks, mid foot cleats, lower saddle heights, and narrow handlebars. All of which would be difficult to outlaw or standardise given person-to-person morphological differences.
Let’s assume we can agree on a morphology-matched geometry, something akin to the UCI’s new height category TT position rules. What then of tube shape? Could a shift to round tubing favour smaller riders, because they simply have less of the draggy tubing? Alternatively, would aero tubing favour the larger riders?
Xavier Disley of Aerocoach explains the smaller rider would “absolutely be at a disadvantage.” His reasoning: “given the wheels don’t change size, the proportion of bike to rider is vastly different for a smaller rider versus a taller rider.”
Running the numbers, Silca’s Josh Poertner suggests both standardising to non-aero equipment and/or a set (heavier) bike weight would unfairly disadvantage smaller riders. He hypothesises such a move could see a return to the very specialist-style rider of previous generations. Hampered by the comparative extra drag or weight versus a larger rider, such regulations might limit smaller riders’ options in bike racing to all but the highest mountains.
Poertner poses a question of his own: if the pre-1990s bikes – which, at least in terms of aerodynamics, saw everyone racing the same bike – actually played a part in the dominance of bigger riders like Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, etc. Or at least the comparative lack of smaller all-rounders compared to today.
Still, would a move to non-aero equipment change racing? It seems reasonable to believe racing might be less exciting. If we outlawed aero-profiled tubing, deep rims, skinsuits, and aero helmets, racing would inevitably be slower. In recent years, aero-aware breakaway riders have treated us to some tantalising cat-and-mouse finales as the bunch ran out of road to catch the escapees. Poertner and Disley agree removing aero gains would hand the advantage back to the peloton with its strength in numbers.
So we might have more predictable bunch sprint days. So what then about sprinters? While we have a cohort of world-class sprinters in the modern peloton, there is no single dominant force à la the Freddy Maertens or Alessandro Petacchis or young Cavs of yesteryear. Often there are as many as 10 sprinters who could win a race, and rarely do we see one rider dominate every sprint of a stage race. It’s exciting, but would spec equipment revert us back to the ways of old?
Probably not. Modern sprinters are incredibly fit, their teams and coaches know how to get the best out of them, and the lead-out trains are mortal rather than EPO-fueled actual trains of the ’90s and early ’00s. But I suggest we might at least see some tempering of the fierce competition. Dr. Disley isn’t so sure, suggesting “the decrease in speed simply by making the bike less aero isn’t enough to switch things wildly in a particular direction.”
Still, if we assume bunch sprints get even marginally slower with fewer aero aids, would the strongest sprinters naturally have more opportunity to rectify bad positioning in the final kilometre? Would slightly lower speeds favour the smaller sprinter who can fold themselves into a more aero position, like we saw with Cav’s early dominance, or would the lower speeds hand an advantage back to the bigger, stronger riders? It’s perhaps impossible to know, but it’s a fascinating thought experiment.
Again, Poertner ran some numbers for us, suggesting a smaller rider requires more power to overcome the same increase in CdA as a larger rider. Albeit with the caveat that any equipment changes wouldn’t necessarily scale to an identical increase in CdA. Still, it ties in with Dr. Disley’s rationale above.
Despite providing an interesting thought experiment, Aitken believes a cycling spec series would ultimately prove a net negative, especially at the pro level. “On a car, there is much more you can do to affect the performance, and it is much harder to get right. So the impact of going to spec equipment (in cycling) would actually be quite small,” he says.
The bigger problem, Aitken explains, would be an almost inevitable crippling loss of income for all pro teams. Aitken explains the reason most top-tier motorsports are not spec is due to the difficulty such regulations pose in attracting manufacturer sponsors.
Simply put, motorsports attract manufacturers’ sponsorship dollars because they can use success in these categories as marketing tools. Spec equipment removes the opportunity for manufacturers to showcase their products, innovation, and expertise and thus the marketing opportunity. That connection is even more potent in cycling, where we, the fans, can walk into a shop and buy the very bike the champions are riding. Imagine if the entire peloton had to ride Shimano or Mavic neutral service bikes. Everyone has a bike, but even Shimano, with all its might, could never match the financial contributions the teams currently receive from their individual bike sponsors. That’s a pretty big hole in a team budget.
This is exactly what happened when the UCI loosened its rules around the Hour Record, dropping the “Merckx rules” and allowing bike brands to get involved again. Lo and behold, after almost two decades without much interest in the record, we’ve seen over a dozen new men’s and women’s records (and almost twice as many unsuccessful attempts) since the rules were relaxed in 2014.
What about the youths?
Is youth racing one area of our sport that might benefit from spec equipment? Could standardised, budget-friendly equipment lower the barrier to entry to our expensive sport and get more kids into bike racing? Chad Cheeney, a longtime junior coach and co-founder of Durango Devo, a junior development program boasting over 800 kids, suggests it’s more complex. “Yeah, it could be good if there was an entry-level, one-time purchase where you could buy this bike at a really low cost,” Cheeney explains, but also “bikes are half the fun” for riders already in the sport, regardless of age.
Cheeney further explains the sport needs more quality ~$500-$1000 race bikes and more fun, rather than spec bikes. As a highly experienced youth coach he has seen too many kids grow disillusioned with the sport thanks to overly focused parents or extremely serious competitors. Power meters, social media, and Strava all provide opportunities to compare themselves with others.
“I can’t honestly see it for any elite-type juniors just because bikes are so cool to upgrade and tweak,” Cheeney says. “Half the fun is to put your own personality to it.”
As unlikely as a spec cycling series might seem, the opinion of everyone we spoke to suggests it wouldn’t even be desirable. Of course, we have already seen bike racing akin to a spec series. Just watch any bike race pre-1989. Aerodynamically, the round-tube, steel-frame bikes of that era with 32-spoke tubular wheels were as close to a spec series as we will ever see.
The idea that standardised equipment might improve our sport is a fascinating one, but I can’t help but feel the calls to ban power meters, radios, aerodynamics, and modern tech are a misguided solution to a longing for a bygone era. As mentioned earlier, the genie is out of the bottle. No regulations or standardised equipment can force riders and teams to unlearn the laws of physics. Spec equipment might decrease racing speeds, and that could be enough if it translates into an improvement in safety, but it won’t change how riders use said equipment.
Furthermore, pro racing drives innovation. While we might not agree on which innovation is good and which is just marketing, I for one believe the demand from pro teams for the best equipment is a net benefit for all cyclists. Take away the brand’s motivation to innovate, and we are left with the Athlete’s Hour Record. How boring was that?
All things considered, Aitken’s “net negative” description sounds a little generous. If we accept a total spec series is undesirable, what if we just outlawed the marginal gains? Would a ban on ceramic bearings, waxed chains, and oversized pulley wheels etc., while standardising tyres, help to level the playing field?
I put the question to Poertner of Silca who explains that … it depends. Unlike aero drag, drivetrain losses are mostly linear. Adding or removing them for all riders equally wouldn’t inherently change racing, depending on the linearity between rider size and power. If a 10%-bigger rider produces exactly 10% more power, the gain is the same for all, but if a 10%-bigger rider produces 11% more power, these drivetrain marginal gains could again favour the bigger rider.
As a cost-saving element, regulating the marginal gains could be worth considering, but like weight and aero, a standardised approach would seem to unfairly hamper the smaller, lighter, less-powerful rider.
Poertner sees much more potential in regulating tyres. “Higher rolling resistance or slower tyres are usually also less grippy and so a shift to crappy tyres might bend everything in favour of bike handling skills,” he says. It’s an exciting suggestion. Modern tyres offer exceptional grip and predictability. Would crap tyres develop a whole new area of strategy and training to hone bike handling skills? Would they further encourage downhill attacks from the best descenders and/or uphill attacks from strong climbers who struggle on the descents?
Perhaps both, but most will agree that making bike racing less safe for our entertainment is probably not the way forward. As Poertner explains, “there’s this added element of danger and a massive incentive to do that dangerous thing.”
What if we took it in the opposite direction and made tyres even better, with a tyre war like we have seen in some motorsports? Aitken explains that for all the negative consequences, “tyre wars generally lead to better rubber.”
Would a ban on tyre sponsorships, forcing teams to shop around and buy their rubber, then force tyre manufacturers to further ramp up their development to persuade teams to choose their tyres? If tyre brands couldn’t simply sponsor a team, would chasing the marketing opportunity provide the knock-on effect of better tyres for all?
Would 20% more grip make Tom Pidcock, Matej Mohorič, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel even faster on descents and force others to preempt the descents with more attacking on the climbs? Furthermore, as expensive as top-performing tyres have become, they still offer the most effective intervention we could make without bankrupting teams.
Or would a tyre war and an increased dollar spend on R&D merely drive tyre prices even higher and eventually hand another advantage to the teams with the deepest pockets? What if Ineos or Jumbo found some wonder tyres and paid a multiple of the market value just to buy up all the stock?
I haven’t yet found an option without some pretty negative consequences, but perhaps there is a middle ground. Aitken points to the “balance of performance” (BOP) used in motor racing’s World Endurance Championship. Effectively an artificial levelling of the field, BOP maintains parity between cars by limiting horsepower, increasing ride height, or adding drag where necessary while still allowing for innovation.
Aitken suggests allowing manufacturers to build bikes to a set specification – which admittedly does already exist – before using wind tunnel testing and bike weights to add ballast and drag, could be an option. While perhaps just as fanciful as a spec series, in theory, a cycling balance of performance might still promote innovation and marketing/sponsorship activities while also seeing pro riders race on what is effectively spec equipment in performance terms.
Those of a similar age to myself might remember Cannondale’s “Legalise my Cannondale” campaign in 2004. The Cannondale Six13, as used by Team Saeco at the time, was below the UCI minimum weight limit and so the brand developed a marketing campaign off the back of having to add weights to the bike. It was marketing gold and something brands could repeat if their bikes were deemed too aero.
Similarly, could Formula 1’s Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions (ATR) provide a model for cycling to follow? ATR restricts wind tunnel time and CFD analysis for the most successful teams and affords more testing time to the lowest-ranked teams from the previous season. While that particular model would prove almost impossible to implement in the open-market world of bike development, what if we limited the aero equipment the most successful riders could utilise?
Win the Tour de France? You are restricted to using <30 mm rims for the following season. Top-ranked team one season? No aero helmets or skinsuits for the next season. Like so much in cycling, this could prove damn near impossible to implement given the wide array of rider and race types, but again it’s a fascinating thought experiment.
Again, though, cycling is not motorsport. In our world of “stars and water carriers,” even an Aerodynamic Equipment Restriction (AER) would unfairly hamper the water carriers merely trying to carve out a career for their star teammate’s successes.
Heck, I would argue that the one standardised regulation we already have applied to all bikes for all riders – the 6.8 kg minimum – already unfairly penalises smaller riders and arguably stifles innovation. #Savetherimbrake campaigners will surely agree.
There is one final option: a cycling prototype series. Like in F1, teams and manufacturers would develop and build their own prototype equipment. Given the huge budget disparity that already exists between the biggest and smallest teams, such a move probably wouldn’t be a good idea, even if it would be fun to see what teams might develop.
It seems the fairest option for cycling is the unfair solution we have right now. Either that or a budget cap, but that is an entirely different discussion.