Aside from the competition, part of the fun of watching big races like the Tour de France is to check out the latest bikes and equipment that the pros are using. Keep your eyes open and you’ll occasionally spot stuff that has yet to be released, so what are the rules here and why are brands keen for riders to use products that no one can buy yet?
Pic above: ASO/Pauline Ballet
Most people were expecting to catch a glimpse of the updated version of Shimano’s top-level Dura-Ace groupset at this year’s Tour de France after it was spotted on Team DSM bikes a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t made an appearance.
We’ve seen plenty of unreleased Shimano wheels, though, along with new Vision Metron 45 and 60 SL Disc aero wheels on EF Education-Nippo (above, pic: Bettini) and Team Bahrain-Victorious bikes before they were officially launched, and we’ve spotted some mystery wheels from Hunt being used by Sergio Henao of Qhubeka NextHash.
Members of Team Bahrain-Victorious are riding the yet-to-be-launched Merida Scultura 5, Jumbo–Visma riders have an updated Cervelo R5 (or maybe it’ll be called the R6), some Movistar and Alpecin–Fenix riders are using a new Canyon handlebar/stem…
There are plenty more examples of unreleased equipment being used in the 2021 Tour de France, but you get the idea.
The UCI has strict rules ensuring that all bikes and components used in competition are available to the public.
Rule 1.3.006 of the UCI Cycling Regulations says, “Equipment shall be of a type that is sold for use by anyone practising cycling as a sport.”
Why? Largely because it wants cycling competition to be relevant and accessible to as many people as possible, it wants to guarantee “the primacy of man over machine”, and it doesn’t want an unregulated technology arms race that favours those who can invest the most. Of course, there’s always going to be a bit of that but the idea is that it’s kept within limits.
Brands can’t wiggle around the rules by making a product technically obtainable but virtually inaccessible; it must be available for delivery and “shall not unreasonably exceed the market value for equipment of a similar standard”.
We can be almost certain (more on the ‘almost’ in a sec) that anything we spot being used in the Tour de France will be released to the public sooner or later, then. However, brands can supply team riders with prototypes ahead of release provided certain criteria are met.
Pic: Damian Murphy - Getty Images
“You can apply to the UCI for authorisation to use equipment in the latter stages of development, with a caveat that the commercialisation of the equipment takes place no longer than 12 months following its first use in competition,” says Ollie Grey, Brand Manager at British brand Hunt which supplies the wheels for Team Qhubeka NextHash.
“You can apply for a longer time period in certain circumstances, but 12 months is more than long enough for most component manufacturers given that by the time WorldTeam riders use the equipment in competition, they’re usually nearly the finished article.”
Pic: Damian Murphy - Getty Images
As mentioned, we’ve seen Qhubeka NextHash’s Sergio Henao using an unreleased Hunt wheelset in this year’s Tour de France so it’ll need to be on sale by July 2022. If it isn’t made available by then the pros will have to stop using it.
The chances of a brand investing the R&D time and money necessary to take a product to the point that pros can use it and then being unable to make the final steps necessary for commercial availability are slim. In reality, we’ll almost certainly see Hunt’s new wheelset launched long before next summer.
Shimano’s Ben Hillsdon says, “Basically, there are two types of prototype that can be registered with the UCI: either the next iteration of existing products/technologies or a product with new technologies/innovations.
“Whichever route you go down, a big concern for all parties is safety compliance and fairness of sports performance. [As well as going through the UCI application process] these products are also checked by commissaires to make sure they still meet certain standards.”
Prototypes need to fall within all of the UCI’s usual rules. With wheels, for example, there are regulations on rim depths and spoke counts that need to be followed.
A brand has to give the UCI information about things like the materials used and the manufacturing process (fans of forms you can check it out here; if you really want to, like). The UCI can ask for plans, drawings and further information, and guarantees that everything provided during the approval procedure will remain confidential.
In other words, although Cervelo will have had to fill in a form earlier in the year to get permission for Team Jumbo–Visma to use its next-generation R Series road bike, there’s nowhere that nosey journalists – or anyone else – can go to check out that material.
There’s a cost involved in making a prototype application, ranging from 250 Swiss francs (around £200) for something like a stem, saddle, or seatpost up to 1,000 Swiss francs (around £800) for a frameset.
That’s how prototype products can be used in races like the Tour de France, but what’s in it for the riders?
“The team want to enjoy the performance benefits of riding wheels that are at the cutting edge,” says Hunt’s Ollie Grey. “If we can provide them with equipment that delivers results on the highest level, well… really that’s what we’re all here for!”
Jordan Roessingh, Director for Road at Trek, adds: “Riders tend to want to race the cool new thing as early as possible.”
Understandable. And what are the benefits from a brand’s perspective?
Ben Hillsdon says, “Shimano works with a number of professional riders on its prototype development and team usage is part of our development process prior to mass production.”
That’s Shimano’s standard response whenever we ask about unreleased products. The brand never confirms or denies that new stuff is out there and will tell us more when it’s good and ready.
Hunt’s Ollie Grey says, “The first and perhaps most obvious reason is the significant mileage under load the wheels will experience.
“Compared to a month with a couple of Qhubeka NextHash riders, to achieve the same level of stress on a wheel under a normal rider might take six months, or even more.”
Brands often tell us that they use feedback from the teams to help shape final products and we’re never quite sure how much of that is down to marketing, but Ollie Grey says it’s completely true.
“The feedback you can get from the breadth and depth of different riders in a WorldTeam is invaluable, and we provide them with a direct link into our engineering team so that the feedback loop is as short as possible. Meeting their needs helps us develop better wheels for all riders.
“Sometimes you might be looking for qualitative feedback, and that’s something you can get from riders at the very highest level. Guys like Victor Campenaerts could tell you if you took a few PSI out of their tyres almost immediately, so when you’re looking to understand how seemingly small changes in spec affect the riding characteristics of a wheelset, then a WorldTeam rider is about as accurate a gauge as it’s possible to get.
“They’re not all that dialled in, but when you partner with a team it’s part of the fun – finding out who the riders are in their ranks who really have that eye for detail and want to be on the absolute best equipment.”
It’s not simply a matter of getting the pros racing on new equipment as early as possible, though.
“In general, we try to limit putting the team on prototype bikes/parts in races,” says Trek’s Jordan Roessingh.” We have a pretty regimented process for how they participate in our development process, and when in that process they can start to race on the bike/parts.
“The teams regularly and continuously provide feedback on how they'd like to see current product improved. This is hugely valuable to us, as they are some of our most discerning and expert users. Since the inception of the Trek Segafredo Women’s team, we have both primary (men’s and women’s) road teams involved equally in this process. Feedback from both is hugely valuable to us.
“During the initial R&D or concept phase of a project, we’ll gather their requests for performance parameters (think weight, aero, stiffness, etc), features, and intangibles.
“We’ll bake that feedback into prototypes of progressively more refined bike/component designs, and have them ride test multiple iterations of those prototypes to ensure stiffness, handling, and performance characteristics match their expectations, and iterate again and again until we get to a product that we’re all satisfied with.
“Finally, we will typically have the team race a product pre-launch and/or prior to a major objective (like the Tour de France) to do a final vetting. In that case, we will typically have them race the Tour de Suisse and/or Dauphiné to make sure there aren’t any issues prior to the big dance.”
Although high profile technical issues do occur in big races, no brand wants to risk a product performing less than perfectly in the Tour de France so you can be sure that there’s a lot of confidence in anything that has made it this far.
If you've spotted any other prototypes being used in this year's Tour de France, let us know in the comments below.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.