“We’re definitely not going to take a backwards step” – The UCI’s take on 29ers in downhill

Are big wheels here to stay?

The introduction of 29ers has led to many a sweeping statement on the future of downhill but, if we’re being honest, there’s only one organisation with the power to change things – the UCI.

Photos: Dan Griffiths and Seb Schieck

As it stands the UCI allows a free-for-all in mountain biking to allow teams to develop whatever they want – if you can find a technical advantage then you’re welcome to exploit it. The only regulations from the UCI are that your wheels need to be the same size and you can’t use road handlebars.

But will this always be the case? Can downhill stay a hotbed for development and technology or will we have to start building a parc fermé at the end of each track so every bike can be pored over with a tape measure and a set of scales?

We spoke with Simon Burney, the mountain bike sport co-ordinator for the UCI, about how 29ers will fit into downhill racing and what the UCI plan to do about them.

Dirt: How aware were the UCI of the 29inch wheels prior to the Lourdes World Cup?

SB: Obviously I was aware that the technology was being developed but we hadn’t been approached by anybody about it at all. From our point of view, it’s quite open for people to do anything they want on the bikes. The only rules we’ve got are the wheels have to be the same size and no road handlebars.

I was never thinking that it was going to cause any big issues in the same way that 650bs didn’t or 29ers when they came into cross country.

The only team that contacted me was Mondraker They basically just sent me a mail three or four weeks before Lourdes purely checking if the UCI was thinking about changing the ruling.

Why do you think more teams weren’t in contact with the UCI?

Historically they’ve always been quite wary of the UCI, it’s not been a great relationship but that’s definitely changed in the past few years.

Dan Brown (right) Atherton team manager is the main point of contact between the UCI and the teams.

If I was a team manager I’d be looking at the regs, seeing there was nothing in place and working to that. You’re trying to push the limits of what you can do based on what the regulations are. 

So the ball is generally always in their court?

Yeah, and I think that’s one of the beauties of what we’re doing. I think that manufacturers tend to use mountain bikers as the first port of call for developing stuff because they know that they can – then they roll it out into other disciplines after mountain bikes.

What would it take for the UCI to cap the wheelsizes of downhill race bikes?

I think from my point of view it would probably need to be quite industry led or quite industry involved to put a reg in place that would limit development. 

Unless the industry is the one that’s really pushing to say: “come on UCI we need a reg because we can’t keep up with the requests from the sport,” it’s not likely to happen. 

What might that regulation look like?

This is purely a speculation but I don’t think we could take a backwards step. We’ll draw a line under where we are now so you can go to 29ers the biggest but you can’t go any further.

What I can’t do, and I don’t think it would be fair to anybody that has put time and money into R&D, is to say: “right, you can’t do 29 you’ve got to go back to 27.5 as the biggest.”

If there was anything happening in the future, and right now there isn’t until there’s a general opinion from the sport that we would benefit from having a limit on development of equipment, then we’re definitely not going to take a step back.

I personally like the idea that people can do what they want to try and go faster and it’s not like the road where there are tonnes of rules about what you can and can’t use.

What about removing the regulation that states the wheels have to be the same size? A smaller brand may not be able to build a new frame but they can fit a 29 specific 40 or  Boxxer to help level the playing field.

I can see that being changed. I think that rule even came into the UCI from a road time trial perspective – there were people on massive back wheels and 24 inch front wheel. That reg was nothing to do without mountain biking, it was just for cycling in general. It’s obviously affecting the discipline from a reg that was put in place 30 years ago.

I think Chris Ball from the EWS has been chatting about trying to get the reg changed on the equal wheel size because there’s a feeling in enduro that having a different wheel size would be a benefit to them. I don’t think it’s something that’s cast in stone. If we wanted to do it we could certainly start that one in motion.

Could Chris Ball and the EWS lead the way on downhill wheelsize regulations?

How long does the process take to change a regulation? Could we see a change before the end of the season?

There are two opportunities here to make rule changes, that’s the road World Championships at the end of September and the Cyclocross World Championships at the end of January.

We’ve got a mountain bike commission meeting the day after the Lenzerheide World Cup, if the commission said yes then it would go to the September management board and then the reg would be changed ready for the 2019 season.

Unless it was something like a safety issue or a glaring error in the rule book, we’d never change something mid-season it would always be trying to change in September either for the following season or for two seasons following so that people have got time to make a change.


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