Opinion: Pro cycling should be the Formula One of bicycles

As frustrated apparel brand Endura pulls the plug on its Movistar sponsorship, isn’t it time professional cycling better embraced technology and took performance to a whole new level?

“We have chosen to avoid the developmental dead end currently being enforced by the UCI.”

That was the official line from Endura when it shocked the cycling world last month by terminating its high profile sponsorship of the Movistar pro team. It sent a serious message to the industry and left many questioning whether it could be the first of many big players to cut ties with the pro peloton.

After the Scottish company, one of the sport’s biggest apparel brands, invested heavily in developing state of the art, super-aero ‘Silicone Surface Technology’ for its team kits, the sport’s governing body subsequently banned its use in competition. The reason? It fell outside the UCI’s strict technical regulations for clothing. In other words Endura’s kit was deemed ‘too fast’ to go racing.

Endura has sponsored the Movistar team since 2014. Credit: Shutterstock

Why? Surely making technological advances in performance at the highest level of the sport should be rewarded and encouraged, not penalised. There was no cheating here – just innovative new equipment that pushed things forward.

The professional echelons of any sport should be the undisputed pinnacle of performance – not least in those where technology plays a central role. At the top level it should be the cutting edge of human and mechanical innovation, when man and machine come together to break new ground. It should see the world’s finest athletes utilising space age equipment, harnessing the latest data and world class resources to push the boundaries in every aspect of speed. In cycling terms that should mean the lightest, fastest bikes at the absolute limits of design and performance, and the most aerodynamically advanced clothing that compromises on nothing regardless of what’s gone before. The only limitations should be in having no power assistance and, of course, no performance enhancing drugs.

It’s no secret that all of the major bike companies have the technology and resources to make much faster bicycles for professional racing. They could shave significant weight from the current 6.8kg minimum limit, and far more aero rigs that do away with the traditional ‘boxes’ design (a UCI term – effectively the same double diamond frame template that we’ve seen since the 1870s). When you combine that with the sometimes archaic limitations seen on clothing (sock length anyone?) surely it’s time to move on.

With super-light bikes like Canyon’s Ultimate CF Evo tipping the scales at just 5.8kg (yours for a snip at £12,000) and brands like Endura selling clothing that’s faster than the rules allow, it seems bizarre that in an industry that markets itself on innovation, average punters are able to use higher performing equipment on the Sunday cafe ride than the pros are in the Grand Tours.

When you look at other global sports that bring human and technical performance together, it’s clear pro cycling could take some big learnings. Formula One for example is without question the pinnacle of motorsport and of the automotive industry as a whole. The fastest and highest performing cars on the planet – a culmination of the world’s brightest engineers using the latest data to create the ultimate driving machines. It’s also the testbed for breaking new ground in car technology, some of which eventually trickles down to the cars we drive on the road. The skill of the drivers is in extracting every ounce of performance from that technology. That and good old fashioned ‘big balls’, as legendary 1976 World Champion James Hunt would say.

Why would it be an issue if Peter Sagan was riding a £100,000 Specialized in the Tour de France? How exciting would it be to see a world class rider pushing ground breaking technology to its limits, competing at speeds never conceivably thought possible on a bicycle?

Of course there are some who would challenge the F1 analogy by saying that if there were no restrictions on technology, then the bikes the pros would be riding would be completely out of reach from the bike buying public and very different to the kind of machinery most of us ride. That is true, but why would it be an issue if Peter Sagan was riding a £100,000 Specialized in the Tour de France? How exciting would it be to see a world class rider pushing ground breaking technology to its limits, competing at speeds never conceivably thought possible on a bicycle? Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes F1 car is worth tens of millions and will never be bought by anyone, yet Mercedes sells a lot of A-Class hatchbacks thanks to his success. The term ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ applies to bicycles as well as premium german cars. Having a largely unattainable ‘halo’ product for a company to demonstrate what’s it’s truly capable of has a massive effect on brand perception and sales.

Of course, Formula One’s technology is restricted by a governing body, but as much as anything, this is largely to keep costs under control. The top F1 teams are spending hundreds of millions a year, and if there were no cost controls only one or two teams would be able to race. Cycling teams are not spending hundreds of millions to go racing, and in many cases the technology is already there, they’re just not allowed to use it.

Imagine if one day, the pro peloton’s bikes looked like this? Credit : Local Bike Chop / Instagram @localbikechop

As a result, professional cycling – the shop window of our sport – sends out the wrong message in my view. More importantly, from a commercial perspective, its success is entirely dependent on the sponsorship revenue it brings in. The bike and clothing sponsors are in it to showcase their tech and innovation credentials on the world stage. Placing such tight limitations doesn’t give these brands that opportunity, and as we’ve already seen with Endura, this can and will turn them away.

More than anything, such a low ceiling for development at the top of the sport ultimately means that the trickle down effect is dramatically reduced for the millions of us that just like to ride our bikes. It’s this reason, unless anything changes, that we’ll all still be riding bikes with a traditional ‘box design’ in another 100 years when we could be riding faster, further and more comfortably than ever before. And for many of us, isn’t that what it’s all about?