I apparently missed a rash of front wheels falling from the forks of the pro peloton lately. I don’t really understand how. I read the news, and though I admit being a little dismissive of the tech-related yammering, I'd surely have noticed the individual and collective rider whining over this apparent epidemic. It wouldn’t be the first problem I’ve been ignorant of, though, and apparently unscheduled front wheel departures are such an issue that the UCI has handed down a new edict from on high requiring that professional riders’ forks retain their consumer-protection-agency-mandated safety tabs. Or lawyer tabs, or lawyer lips, as they’re known to shop rats on this side of the Atlantic. Improved safety is the reason given by the UCI. Not surprisingly for anyone who follows the UCI, the net safety effect will actually be the opposite.
During the overcast European winters, lawyer lips on new team forks have long fallen victim to file and rasp in service courses from Lombardy to Limburg, Girona to Geraardsbergen. Why wouldn’t they? Not only are professional cyclists exceptionally unlikely to sue a bike manufacturer should their wheel escape the comfort of its dropouts, the insidious bumps make a smooth front wheel change much more difficult.
Today, as for about the previous 60 years or so, when a mechanic hurdles from team car to tarmac, the wheels in his hand are already gapped – adjusted for the width of the dropouts on the team bikes. Ideally, the rider has already leaned out over the fork and flipped the front wheel off while still clipped in – right hand on the bars to hold the front end up, left hand on the quick release lever. Simple. Fast. When the mechanic arrives, there’s little to no twiddling with the quick release to set tension during the change. Bang it in, flip the lever, and start pushing. It’s a little luxury most amateurs, who don’t share standardized equipment with teammates and who suffer the indignities of slow, indiscriminate, wheels-in/wheels-out support, will never know. But the pros are different from you and me.
With lawyer tabs, the wheel change process becomes slightly but significantly more complex. Riders won’t be able to get the wheel off as easily -- they’ll need two hands on the quick release and an awkward posture over the bars to do so, and it’s less likely the wheel will already be off when the mechanic arrives. Slower. More importantly, once the lawyer tab rule goes into effect, mechanics will have to gap front wheels to clear the tabs and the quick release will need to be adjusted for tension on the bike during the change. Slower. By both design and pure repetition, I’m guessing mechanics will quickly memorize the number of turns it takes to get the quick release from tab-clearing width to proper tension. But regardless of the speed issue, the UCI is asking for one more step and increased adjustment on a vital component in a potentially high-stress situation. Wheel changes might be relatively relaxed in the first meandering 100k of a classic, but they’re less so 4k before the Carrefour de l’Arbre, regardless of the experience of all involved.
If you think gapping wheels is just a small touch to yield a second or two’s savings, you’re right. If you think it’s not important, though, you haven’t had to listen to the clacking as a mechanic fiddles with gapping tools in the back seat, checking and rechecking, for hours on end. Having everything set ahead of time saves time, but it also helps prevent accidents in the heat of the moment. I suppose you could argue that in the event of improper installation, the rider will have the lawyer tabs to save them, but if you think a couple little carbon nubs are going to retain a loose wheel as a rider bunnyhops his way through a Flemish traffic circle, I have some disturbing news for you.
Beyond the immediate safety concerns, slower, more finicky wheel changes as a result of lawyer lips could have ripple effects on peloton safety. Slower changes mean longer, more frantic chases back through the race caravan, which is not the safest place in the best of times. Further, in crucial situations, riders and teams might be more likely to opt for a bike change, which takes a bit longer to get the rider away, but ensures a ready-to-go machine. But bike changes can take their toll on the back end – it takes longer to put the discarded bike back on the roof than it does to toss a flat wheel in the back of a station wagon. Not much more time, but some. That means cars returning to position a from service call will be working their way back into position from farther behind – more passing, more hurry, more danger. All in response to that most notorious of battle cries: It’s for your own safety.
Do I think amateurs should go out and file the tabs off their forks? No, though that’s more because most amateurs shouldn’t be within 5 feet of a carbon dropout, much less with cutting tools in hand, than because the tabs are really likely to save them from themselves. But for pros? It’s a ridiculous notion. The sum total of safety considerations – in the context of pro racing – indicates that removing the tabs is safer than leaving them in place.
If you’ve ever seen the TV program Ice Road Truckers, there’s a good parallel to cycling’s lawyer tab issue. When the trucks leave the land road and enter the seasonal road across the floating icepack, the drivers remove their seatbelts. For almost every other automotive application, it’s commonly accepted that wearing a seatbelt is safer than not. But when you’re likely to slide off the road, break through a sheet of ice, and plunge into arctic waters, it’s better to be able to get out of the truck as fast as humanly possible. For most cycling situations, from childhood cycling to recreational cycling to amateur racing, lawyer tabs might have some safety advantage. But for professional cycling, the situation is different. Recreational and amateur racing cyclists, for the most part, don’t deal with high-speed wheel changes, caravans, and a livelihood based on getting back to the front as quickly as possible. They also don’t have the support of the best bike mechanics in the world. To subject a professional racing the world’s biggest events to the same equipment standards as a five-year-old is absurd.
Does this post overstate the safety implications of the lawyer tab rule? Probably so. As always, pro cycling teams will adapt to whatever oddities their governing body throws at them. But the lawyer tab issue highlights an increasing UCI tendency to make decisions without regard to the various contexts of pro cycling. And that's ultimately more dangerous to the sport.
So why is the UCI doing it? They’ll cry safety, and note that the tab removal ban is consistent with their prior edict that equipment used in pro cycling should not be modified from its factory condition. Again, for safety’s sake. All of that, of course, ties into the UCI’s much ballyhooed certification program for bikes and wheels, widely recognized more as a shakedown of the industry than a genuine effort to protect riders. Where’s it all going? If I don my long-neglected tinfoil hat for a moment, I can imagine the UCI trying to gradually force pro racing toward a “showroom stock” model, where any and all equipment used would have to be consumer available, all while setting itself up as the authority on what’s in and what’s out. The more they can push things that direction, the stronger the shakedown of the industry becomes. No UCI sticker on your pedal spindle, on your jersey collar, on your tires, no pro race exposure. Want a competitive advantage in the marketplace? Maybe your product is approved, but your competitor’s isn’t, for a price. But, as an increasingly money-grubbing UCI should see, if they did that they’d be effectively lessening the value of pro team sponsorship for bike and equipment companies by removing the R&D component, as well as the marketing glory of “spy shots” and teasing new, soon-to-be-released equipment in the pro ranks. Pure hands-in-the-air shots still have value for endemic sponsors, but it ain’t what it used to be with the rise of the internet. Sure, the UCI and the sport could hope that non-endemic sponsors would step in and fill any financing gap, but how’s that sponsor hunt been going lately?
- A friend pointed out that among other hilarious supporting arguments, the UCI has noted that filing the tabs off forks voids the manufacturer’s warranty. I immediately had visions of Abdujaparov stumbling into Battaglin’s offices, wad of bent steel in hand, and opening with “I was just riding along…”
- So, what’s a gapping tool, and if it's a real thing, why isn't it in the Park Tool catalog? Gapping tools are basically the dropouts, front and rear, from whatever bike a pro team is currently using. They’re either provided by the manufacturer/sponsor or cut from a damaged bike, and they ensure that mechanics know exactly how wide a quick release has to be set for the equipment they’re using. Close observers of pro cycling know that replacement wheels don’t typically come straight off the roof of the car. A wheelset is always in the back seat with the mechanic, where he or she uses gapping tools – usually stuck on a keychain – to correctly space the quick releases for the team’s frames. That way, little additional tensioning is needed during a change. Roof racks on the cars, storage racks in team trucks and at the service course, and simple vibration can constantly change the settings while wheels are off the bikes, so wheels to be used for race service have to be checked regularly.
- The VeloNews article linked above also notes that the UCI plans to limit sock height to half the distance between the ankle and knee. Predictably, outrage erupted, fueled by cycling fandom’s usual inability to recognize that the vast majority of us are not pros, and therefore are unaffected by the UCI’s various stone tablet carvings. So settle down, Gianni, you can keep wearing your goofy socks.
- The same UCI proclamation will ban shoe covers in track cycling as of October 1. Ha, ha, trackies, now you have to actually wear whatever crappy shoes your national federation signed you up for. Just kidding. Sort of. Actually, I’m wondering if that rule will see a return of the top-of-the-shoe flaps that used to cover shoelaces, this time with an aerodynamic bent.