Q&A with UCI technical manager Mark Barfield: weight limit, disc brakes, motors in bikes & more

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Late last week we published two news stories from an interview with the UCI’s newly appointed technical manager Mark Barfield: one about the UCI’s “desire” to abolish the 6.8kg minimum weight for road bikes, and one about the ongoing disc brakes trial. Here now is an edited transcript of the full interview, as conducted by CyclingTips’ Dave Everett at the recent Cyclitech conference in Brussels.

DE: Your appointment as the UCI’s first technical manager shows that the UCI is moving in a new direction with regards to technology and innovation. Will we see a change in the way the UCI deals with the evolution of the bicycle? And will bikes stay they way we know them today?

MB: We are trying to make the UCI more open. I want to sit here and talk about [technology and innovation]; I want to talk to the industry.

I’m pretty certain that the two triangle rule will not be dropped. There’s a few reasons for this … Firstly the view expressed by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is quite important to the sport. We are an Olympic sport [and while] the Olympics is a less important event for us than it is for other sports … it still remains a big part of the profile and a big part of the income for the sport.

The IOC wants to ensure that the athlete is the most important component in any given competition. The reaction to Chris Boardman [ed. and his Lotus bikes in the late 1980s and at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics] rocked them.

The other big one on the political agenda is the globalisation of the sport, so ensuring people have equal access to the sport. If technology is allowed to progress at such a speed that may be perceived as out of reach by some, then we need to look at that.

So bikes are likely to stay the same. How is the UCI itself changing?

I’m saying to engineers or companies to come and talk to us before they make things out of metal — we’ll give you an indication as to if this will work or not.

Since I joined the UCI [ed. in March 2015] we’ve had about 20 genuine innovations, everything from the shark fin saddle to pedals that slide in and out — lots of things along these lines. The way we now approach it is if an innovation just arrives we will take it completely blind and fresh. We’ll ask: “Does it break the current regulation?” If it’s a “no”, then what’s the problem? Should it go to the [Equipment] Commission?

If it’s a “yes” then: “Does this address a safety concern and is there a performance advantage?” Now if it’s a “yes” to one of those two questions then it may go to the Commission; if it’s a “no” to those two questions then it’s probably not going to go any further forward so we’d write and say this product breaks our current regulations — it doesn’t address any particular issues, particularly a safety concern.

The new rule with regards to saddle position would have been through this process then?

Last week we changed the angle of inclination for the saddle from horizontal to allowing a nine-degree angle. This came as part of a proposal both from the industry and British Cycling.

New saddle regulations see that riders can now have a nine degree slop to their perch.
New saddle regulations see that riders can now have a nine degree slop to their perch.

British Cycling came to us and showed us lots of shocking information on people’s undercarriages. They showed us all the injuries that are being caused and then said this is what would happen if you allowed it to be four degrees or six degrees.

So what we have there is a rule that is currently causing injury and if we change it it has no huge performance impact, but it does take away some risk of injury.

The evidence is good, the proposal is good, it makes sense to move on.

What about old rules such as the 6.8kg minimum regulation? It always sparks a heated discussion – is there any news if this will be changed soon?

The weight limit rule is in our sights. We know at the UCI that it’s the rule that best represents the past. There’s a desire to change this. It’s a relic of the past. Secondly it doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t do what it was set out to achieve.

We’ve trawled through the archives and tried to find people who were around at the time [ed. the rule was introduced in 2000] to find if the number was really picked for safety. The answer to that is “yes”. But now 6.8kg doesn’t make a bike that is safe — 10kg doesn’t mean a bike is safe nor does 5kg make a bike unsafe.

For some manufacturers it provides some reassurance; they think that they can build aero bikes, that they can add electronic gearing or they can do whatever they like around the bike and it’ll still be 6.8kg. It is going to change. It won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen unless we take the industry with us.

[The new rule] will be a safety-based standard and not a weight. What we are looking at are the standards that are currently in place and seeing if they are fit for purpose. If they are fit for purpose then that might be a very simple and elegant solution. If they are not, then we need to see what has to be added to ensure what is fit for purpose.

I think it would be foolish of me to say it would be anything but a safety standard.

We used to see much more innovation when it came to bike design. The regulation that dictates products need to be commercially available has stopped this in some cases, but a few brands and national federations have got around it by producing high-tech bikes and then having limited or hugely expensive versions available to the public. Do you think this needs to be addressed?

We are meeting in March around the [Track] World Championships to talk about this. There is the commercial availability rule but it’s fairly easy for a manufacturer to circumnavigate this. If you go on to the UK Sport website you can buy one of those track bikes that the UK track team use — I think it comes in at £24,500 (AU$52,000) for the frame. Does it fit within the letter of it? What does “commercially available” actually mean, does this mean that it’s available through your local bike shop?

The UK Sports track bikes are out of reach for most cyclists at £24,000 a frame.
The UK Sports track bikes are out of reach for most cyclists at £24,000 a frame.

What they’ve done is in theory made it commercially available. Does it mean that somebody has had to actually have bought it? If you remember the Group B car rally days of old they had to sell 200 of those cars to actually use them in competition. Is that something that we should do?

Track is quite openly not a commercially viable way to sell your product. You sell some in America, some in Australia and the rest of the world it’s very little. So does the commercially available rule even belong in track cycling?

So let’s talk about the current hot topic: disc brakes. Teams will be able to start using them in all races from January 1 …

This is without a doubt a trial. We are in no way changing the rules until we get the results back from this trial and that we are satisfied that there are no risks.

People feel very strongly about this and to be honest I can’t work out quite why. I suspect it’s tradition, but it’s undoubtedly an emotional response. What I’ve found out over the years is it’s very difficult to argue and put over a rational answer to an emotional response.

The other argument is the danger involved. I have had to put together a lot of information primarily for the [WorldTour reform] discussions that are taking place in Barcelona at the moment.

First of all I was asked about mountain biking. The thing is that you don’t usually get big bunch crashes but when you do crash the injuries from discs are no more common or uncommon as that from a chainring or spokes. If you take those components out you do get some injuries from them but actually most of the injuries you get are from the impact with the ground. And so I think that’s worth bearing in mind.

How did the whole disc brake revolution in road cycling come about? Who came to who?

The Equipment Commission would usually receive a proposal. It’s very rare that we internally would generate a proposal. Proposals would usually come from the industry: a single manufacturer, a national federation or anther one of the stakeholders or parties. That’s not to say that even you as an individual rider couldn’t propose for a piece of equipment to be allowed.

2016 will see the continuation of the trial of disc brakes in pro road races.
2016 will see the continuation of the trial of disc brakes in pro road races.

For [disc brakes] it was very much the industry that proposed via the WFSGI (World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry). The two really interested bodies were SRAM and Shimano but as soon as you begin to scratch the surface every frame manufacturer wants this, every wheel manufacturer wants this. They’ll sell more stuff obviously but I don’t think we should be too dismissive of that.

A healthy sport involves selling goods — manufacturers will then reinvest that money in the sport. If all of those manufacturers sell more stuff they’ll invest in the sport which means more people riding bikes and more bikes out there. This is not a bad thing.

The initial proposal came at a time when you have a president that says he wants to encourage innovation — the timing is right for it. But it’s also a very good well-structured proposal.

Any of the objections that have been thrown up around neutral service, different braking capabilities, the dangers of a hot disc — all of that they’d already tackled. There’d been a huge amount of testing done — and independent testing as well. We are very keen now to make sure that the Equipment Commission only makes a decision based on evidence.

There will obviously have to be a standardisation of disc brake equipment in the peloton. What standard will we see?

It’s not a standard; that word is to be avoided. It’s a common agreed specification, and the main reason for that is for neutral service. [This agreement is: through-axles, 142mm x 12mm rear axle, 100mm x 12mm front axle and a 160mm rotor]. This common agreement is across both the manufacturers and neutral service. This means that any rider can get service.

The next consideration is [whether] a wheel change will take longer. Yes, it probably will but you’re talking maybe 15-20 seconds for an experienced mechanic. When we review this in September next year and we see that this guy lost the race because he was running discs and he had a puncture and it was a slow change, and this guy had a problem with discs and he couldn’t get a change then maybe disc aren’t going to work.

But if you look at who provides the neutral service then you start to understand that they have a vested interest for this to work. It’s a trial — the UCI is allowing the use, not forcing the use.

Lastly the talk of motors in bikes has been a huge topic of late. This year we saw the UCI test multiple bikes for motors. Is the UCI continuing with this and do you think it’s an issue that needs addressing?

I’ve done a lot of work in the past 10 month on this. I’ve spoken to a lot of engineers. I’ve tested 75 bikes this year for motors. But firstly I’ll state that I don’t believe any current WorldTour rider or team would be currently cheating on a product like this. I think it may have gone on in the past, but the fact that we test and will be testing in a more rigorous way from next year is encouraging.

New methods of checking for hidden motors will be used in 2016 by the UCI.
New methods of checking for hidden motors will be used in 2016 by the UCI.

We are changing the way we test. All I can tell you is it’s based on magnetic resistance. There is a lot of work to be done. We’ve done our first trial and we have more trials in February. Its first outing, fingers crossed, will be the World Cyclocross Championships.

I personally think it’s more a problem at Gran Fondos [ed. which the UCI actually holds a World Championships for] and that level of racing. The testing we will have will be so easy to use that every commissaire will be able to use it. So [testing] will be able to go on far beyond the WorldTour races.

We’ll probably do our first test in women’s racing next year because we need to extend. We now have the ability to test more bikes more often.

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