Wellens’ forearms and padded bars: UCI loophole or breaking the rules?

Has Tim Wellens found a loophole in the UCI puppy paws rule?

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As the saying goes: “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Tim Wellens has seemingly found a way to adapt his beloved puppy paws position, which was outlawed by the UCI less than 12 months ago, into something that can get past the commissaires.

Wellens often enjoys early-season success thanks to a combination of good early form, solid tactics, and solo moves. While many of Wellens’ attacks culminate in the popular Belgian raising his hands in celebration, those same hands were usually draped over the front of his handlebars for many of the preceding kilometres. That was until last year when the UCI banned his favourite “puppy paws” position. 

Tim Wellens at the Vuelta a España, using an aerodynamic arm position that has since been banned.

As Tim Wellens chased down Nairo Quintana in the final kilometres of stage two of the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, we spotted a rather peculiar shape on the tops of Wellens’ Deda bars. Closer inspection reveals Wellens has a significantly raised section of bar tape immediately behind his inward angled Dura-Ace levers. It looks like there’s some padding underneath the bar tape. The combination presumably is designed to allow Wellens to resurrect the horizontal forearms position, but with added control. While Wellens didn’t adopt the full aero position in his chase of Nairo Qunitana, the intention of the padded tops is seemingly clear.

In an update to its regulations on February 8 2021, the UCI updated article 2.2.025 on the conduct of riders to include a section on the positions riders can adopt. The update, which came into effect on April 1 2021, states: “Riders must observe the standard position as defined by article 1.3.008. Sitting on the bicycle’s top tube is prohibited. Furthermore, using the forearms as a point of support on the handlebar is prohibited except in time trials.”

The UCI subsequently published a safety guide in a bid to clarify exactly which positions are deemed acceptable and which are now seemingly outlawed. 

“To help ensure the safety of everyone in a race, riders need to be in total control of their bike at all times, while setting an example to less experienced cyclists. Riders must observe the standard position as defined by article 1.3.008. This position requires that the only points of support are the following: the feet on the pedals, the hands on the handlebars and the seat on the saddle.

The intention of the updated regulations was clear: to improve safety by ensuring riders had control of their bikes at all times and could easily reach their brakes when required. Confusion arose when commissaires at the Tour of Belgium disqualified Jan Willen Van Schip for adopting an illegal position using his Speeco aero drop handlebars. Van Schip hadn’t draped his forearms over the centre of the handlebar as depicted in the UCI safety guide, instead, Van Schip was deemed to have broken the rules by using his forearms as a point of support despite also having his hands near/on the brake hoods.

At the time, Van Schip and his Beat Cycling team claimed commissaires had approved the use of the bar before the same stage Van Schip was disqualified from. That wasn’t enough, though, as UCI HQ weighed in on the disqualification reminding Van Schip of article 2.2.025. The UCI also published slides from a presentation made to “all teams” which included an image of Van Schip and the Speeco bars (alongside an image of Chris Froome) in a practical example with the text “using forearms as a point of support is not allowed.”

Clear as day, it seems. Until today.

Although Wellens didn’t seem to adopt the full horizontal forearms position today, he did at the Challenge Ciclista Mallorca in January.

By the letter of the law – “using the forearms as a point of support on the handlebar is prohibited except in time trials” – Wellens’ padded tops are looking for trouble. But crucially, Wellens can wrap both hands around both brake levers while in the new aero position. Undoubtedly, though, questions arise as to whether Wellens has found a loophole where Van Schip didn’t or if Wellens may be breaking the rules.

How much, if any, forearm contact is deemed acceptable? Clearly, Wellens’ position poses no extra danger and he can easily apply the brakes as and when required. Furthermore, his forearms likely have little to no steering effect on the bars, unlike the Speeco bars. But one must wonder what Van Schip thinks when he sees other riders forearms in contact with their handlebars.

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