Special rim-brake S-Works Roubaix framesets shine light on UCI’s opaque commercialization rules

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Specialized outfitted Tom Boonen with a custom S-Works Roubaix for his final appearances at the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, a gleaming pearlescent white-and-gold machine that is wholly befitting the king of the cobbles. Yet Boonen’s bike at Flanders, as well as the bike he and Peter Sagan will use at Roubaix, is also special in two other critical ways.

For one, Boonen’s bike features the radically long-and-low geometry that Specialized has long provided to Belgium’s favorite son. But second, it is also equipped with rim brakes, whereas the production Roubaix is exclusively disc-only.

Want one for yourself? Be prepared for a long wait.

The UCI has long been on a mission to temper any advantage a rider or team may gain via equipment, and part of that has been the exclusion of one-offs. UCI rule 1.3.007 clearly states that any bike used in competition must be made available to the buying public.

Bicycles and their accessories shall be of a type that is sold for use by anyone practising cycling as a sport.

Any equipment in development phase and not yet available for sale (prototype) must be subject of an authorization request to the UCI Equipment Unit before its use. Authorization will be granted only for equipment which is in the final stage of development and for which commercialization will take place no later than 12 months after the first use in competition.

For the most part, the rule has been adhered to fairly faithfully (at least as far as we can tell).

For example, in April 2014 Trek quietly rolled out a racier version of its Domane endurance bike under Fabian Cancellara that was completely different from any production version at the time, marrying the ride quality of the Domane with the geometry of a Madone. In keeping with UCI rules, Trek released the frameset in August of that year as the Domane Koppenberg — in extremely limited quantities, a limited size range, and only one paint scheme, but it was commercially available nonetheless through Trek’s Race Shop Limited program.

One might rightfully assume that the special rim-brake Roubaix framesets used by Boonen, Sagan, and their teammates, would fall into the same category as that Domane Koppenberg, but as is so often the case with UCI rules, it seems that some aspects are open to interpretation.

For its part, Specialized is apparently leaving itself a back door to the rule, and isn’t committing to producing the bike for the public, in any quantity. The frames were made by request of its sponsored teams, Specialized claims, not because riders don’t want to ride disc, but because they weren’t willing to risk slow wheel changes at the most important races on the calendar.

“The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are unique and beautiful races, and at the same time, extremely technical and exhausting,” read an official statement from Specialized. “The many infamous cobbled sectors in these monuments increase the possibility of a tire puncture, and managing the replacement of wheels is one of the main issues for all competitors — especially those aspiring to a great result.

“In a time where bikes with disc brakes have not yet been adopted by all teams, there exists a discrepancy in mechanical assistance along the course. For these technical and strategic reasons, working closely with our teams and riders, we’ve decided to supply Tom Boonen… and all of our riders competing at both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, with Roubaix bikes that have traditional rim brakes. This is a platform that’s UCI-approved and could be commercialized, that is if it’s determined to have enough consumer demand.”

In other words, Specialized might offer these rim-brake Roubaix framesets for sale, but only if there’s enough public interest.

Yet how can that be, given what seems to be a very clear UCI rule?

Even the UCI’s own rule, it appears, leaves some wiggle room. According to that same rule, “prototypes” are open to interpretation.

The manufacturer may request a single prolongation of the prototype status if justified by relevant reasons.

Nevertheless, that wording — prolongation means “to extend the duration of” — implies that even prototypes must be offered for sale to the public eventually.

However even then, there are no guidelines for minimum quantities (as was once the case with Group A auto racing). In theory, then, a bicycle manufacturer could potentially sell a handful of team-only one-offs to connected insiders and still satisfy the UCI’s wording.

For its part, the UCI insists that it monitors the release of such team-only bikes, but also that the situation is murky and difficult to properly police.

“We define commercialisation as an item that is available to be purchased,” said UCI press officer Louis Chenaille. “This may be widely available through normal retail outlets or through a specific retailer (online or physical) – the principle is that it can be purchased by anyone that rides a bike.

“We do monitor the release of products on to the market and ask for intended launch dates,” Chenaille continued. “As the bicycle becomes an increasingly complex piece of equipment, we need to acknowledge that development of technology can, in some cases, take a lot longer in prototype and pre-production phase than would normally be allowed. We also understand that prototype items, by the very nature, may not be pursued to full production items. We are now having dialogue with the industry and finding the best way to allow and encourage innovation while retaining control of items in use.”

It’s also unclear what consequences there would be if a manufacturer or team fell afoul of UCI rule 1.3.007, or who specifically would be punished. Would the offending team, or manufacturer, be fined? If a custom or special bike was used, but never commercialized, and was deemed to offer its rider some sort of unfair advantage, could that rider’s result be nullified after the fact? Chenaille only stated that such a situation would be referred to the UCI disciplinary commission.

Either way, if you want a rim-brake S-Works Roubaix, you’d likely have to set aside a fair bit of cash as such a rare beast will invariably be pricey — but be aware that there’s no telling how long that money may be sitting in limbo, or even to whom that money should eventually be sent. If you’ve really got your heart set on one, waiting outside the Quick-Step and Bora-Hansgrohe team buses in the Roubaix velodrome parking lot on Sunday evening might be your best strategy.

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