Manx Missile Miss-firing?

British Champs 2013: Glasgow.
British Champs 2013: Glasgow.

We’ve seen Cavendish getting nowhere in the sprints at the 2014 Dubai Tour, but does this actually tell us anything about his form for later in the year. His stated goal is the Tour de France, is there anything to worry about for the Manxman with his results in February?

Early Season

The change in focus this year may have some effect on early form this year, gone are any aspirations to be competitive for Milan-San Remo. We have to remember that his victory was in 2009, when nobody really suspected he could stay in contention over the Cipressa & Poggio, they never allowed that to happen again, so regardless of the route change, there’s always going to be somebody wanting to make it too hard for the pure sprinters. He’s also written off any attempt to peak for Gent-Wevelgem, which he says would have require him to devote a substantial amount of time to prepare for. So we have a Cav who is motivated to take the yellow jersey on stage 1 of the Tour, his whole season is based around that peak, it’s no surprise he’s not on form right now, he doesn’t need to be.

Past It?

There’s often cries of Cav losing his speed, but we forget he’s only 28, hardly an old man in the peloton these days. There is a higher calibre of sprinter now, with Kittel leading the challengers, along with some experienced teams willing to make it incredibly hard for the Manxman’s lead out train. These rivals are all set up to beat Cav, such has been his dominance in recent years, they’ve hired the necessary riders to take on his team. This involves a very strong lead out team to place their rider correctly in the final 300m, this is where Cav has been suffering while with Sky & OPQS. Rather than being past it, Cav hasn’t had the dedicated teams with the perfect lead out riders he’s had in the past, while other teams have dramatically improved in this aspect. We’ve seen hints of the speed from the past, he’s not lost it, it still exists, but as we’ve seen the other sprint teams are specifically targeting him. If he’s alone they swing off near him, all part of the game, but unsettling if the team isn’t supporting you in the final km’s.

2014

We’ll see Pettachi & Renshaw as Omega Pharma Quick Step’s final lead out men, the return of Renshaw could be the difference. ‘Prince Harry’ has shown early form by finishing 2nd to Kittle on one stage of Dubai, he has the speed & the craft in a finale, ideal as Cav’s derny. The unpredictable Steegmans, once a promising sprinter in his own right, will drift from the lead out, potentially not racing with Cav very much in 2014. While other OPQS riders like Scotsman Andy Fenn are progressing their careers, he finished 3rd behind Greipel & Renshaw on stage 6 of the Tour Down Under this year, which raises the eyebrows of what he may be capable of in the future, he’s only 23!

The only doubt we may have regarding Cav’s support at the Tour is the presence of Rigoberto Uran, the Colombian climber & 2nd place finisher in the 2013 Giro. A rider of that quality deserves some support in the mountains at a grand tour, which will undermine Cav’s sprint train desires. We also have Michal Kwiatkowski who had a very impressive 2013 Tour, fighting for the white jersey for some time & eventually finishing 11th on GC. Luckily for Cav, riders like the Pole are not just climbers, riders with that kind of talent can help out in early lead out trains too.

The Gist Of It

Cav isn’t over the hill yet, he can barely get over a small one, at 28 he still has plenty of years left in him at the top. Having witnessed his form last year in Glasgow, it’s hard to see him suddenly becoming an ordinary rider in 2014, I think he’ll be more than challenging Kittel & other at the Tour, where it matters for him, February isn’t important to his goals anymore, he has enough UCI points. He’s getting back to basics, not trying to transform himself into a classics rider, but concentrating on what he excels at, bunch sprints in grand tours.

If as I suspect, his team get themselves in order, marshalled by Renshaw, then things could be very different this year. They have lacked discipline, perhaps focussed too much on multiple goals, but a dedicated sprint train will exist in July. I suspect Uran will suffer, with only Kwiatkowski & perhaps Thomas de Gendt allocated to help him in the mountains. If Uran loses a chunk of time on one stage, we can expect the Manxman will demand resources going his way, especially if there’s been a yellow jersey in Yorkshire. I suspect that this will be a good Tour for Cavendish, we’ve not seen the last of him, it looks like a measured start to the season, rather than a downfall.

Weight a minute.

Across all UCI events, there is a minimum bike weight limit of 6.8kg (that’s around 15lb to any SuperVets reading). Where the UCI got this number from is unknown, but is it really a valid rule in this day & age, where the governing body seemingly assuming there has been zero bike development in the last 10 years since they introduced this rule. What makes bikes immune from engineering advances?

The Rule (UCI Article 1.3.019)

Most manufacturers can build a bike much lighter than 6.8kg, probably many of us own one lighter than that race in ‘race trim’, so why is there a rule to stop us racing a commercially available bike that we can ride on the road any day of the week. The original rule was reported to have been introduced to allow developing cycling nations to compete on a level playing field with rich cycling nations. We now know that it wasn’t the bikes where the performance advantages were generally coming from, but that issue was too tricky for the UCI to deal with, so they focussed attention on bike weights & positions to show they were doing something to even things up.

Here’s the actual rule below: LINK HERE

The minimum weight of the bicycle (in working order) is 6.800 kg, considered without on-board accessories in place, that is to say those items that may be removed during the event. The bottles, on-board computers and GPS systems must be removed during the weight check. However, the bottle cages, fixture systems and clipped-on extensions are part of the bicycle and stay in place during the weighing. This is the mainly UCI regulation that is solely concerned with safety. This minimum weight may be reduced or withdrawn in the future, but only when it is possible to prove that each of the constituent elements of the bicycle conforms to specific safety standards that apply to competition.
The UCI has received several complaints concerning the quality of carbon frames, forks and handlebars that fracture immediately in a crash. It would be irresponsible to remove this regulation without putting a reliable system in place to promote the riders’ safety. Work is currently under way with the cycle industry to move towards a solution that is more in line with the current situation. Above all, the UCI wants to avoid competition between manufacturers to reduce bike weights to the detriment of safety.

Who does it benefit most?

Lets take two examples at the extremes of pro cycling to get an overall view, a 55kg climber & an 80kg sprinter. We’ll assume those are the clothed weights for this example & we’ll stick them both on a 6.8kg bike. We now have the climber with a total weight of 61.8kg & the sprinter with a total weight of 86.8kg. By adding the minimum weight bike, our climber increased his overall weight by 12.4%, the sprinter only increased his overall weight by 8.5%. So we can deduce that a minimum weight limit handicaps lighter riders more than heavier riders, what makes it more absurd is that frame breaking ability is much more likely to happen at sprinting wattages than at climbing wattages. By this UCI rule, the rider most likely to break a frame has a frame less able to withstand his maximum power output than the climber. If we take a guess at the climbers peak power of 1000 watts & the sprinters peak power of 1800 watts, both riders have an equally strong bike, but the climber has no ability to take it anywhere near the level required to cause damage. Surely the lighter riders should be able to race on lighter bikes?

In Practice

I understand that this may throw up additional & more complicated problems if we base it on rider weight, you’d have riders taking part on boxing style weigh-ins to hit the lowest weight possible & risk dehydration, so that’s not practical. What makes this rule even more unfair is that the UCI now have their infamous frame stickers to show which frames (and other components now) are strong enough to be allowed to be raced in UCI events. The weight limit is still in place, so bizarrely we can have a frame which has passed the UCI strength test but still cannot be built into a bike weighing less than 6.8kg.
Take another example: 2 sets of identical components, 2 different frames. Both frames have passed the UCI strength tests, record the same results & have a UCI sticker to prove it. Frame one weighs 100g more than frame 2.
Our build on frame 1 comes out at exactly 6.8kg and the bike is ok to race. The build on frame 2 comes out at 6.7kg, but this bike is banned, even though it has recorded the exact same strength measurements as frame 1. It throws the safety argument out, weight is not a measure of strength or safety, the UCI have this one very wrong.

The Answer

Hopefully we can get to a point where there is a solution, in the past pro teams have been found to place ice cubes in the seat tube for the weight-in, then the melted ice will flow out the bottom bracket holes during the very early part of the stage and the bike will be below the weight limit. Ingenious, but the UCI are onto that one now. Many track riders will also have found their steeds getting measured at national competitions around the UK, which is another absurdity, track bikes have no brakes or gears, yet have the same UCI minimum weight limit. It’s unlikely we’ll see any over zealous officials in Scottish events getting their scales out at the local Cat 4 road race, but they have every right to do so under UCI rules. The rule is plagued with badly thought out errors & does not account for any engineering material developments over the last decade, where stronger components & frames can be manufactured for less weight using state-of-the-art materials in the correct manner.
Please UCI, level the playing field, open up more technological bike development & stop placing a handicap on our skinny wee mountain climbers, they won’t break many frames, they have trouble just opening jam jars!