A week before the start of the 2022 Tour de France, a letter was sent to UCI teams competing in that race and in the Tour de France Femmes, concerning the use of 'pin-less' number fixation systems.
While not an official directive, the letter, which was revealed by CyclingTips, was apparently, a "kind request" after "several cycling stakeholders" had raised concerns about the lack of rider number visibility in races.
The letter quoted UCI Regulations Article 1.3.029: “No item of clothing may hide the lettering on the jersey or the rider's identification number, particularly in competition and at official ceremonies.” and Article 1.3.076: "Riders shall ensure that their identification number is visible and legible at all times. The identification number shall be well fixed and may not be folded or altered."
It was keen to impress the need to uphold the principles of numbers being visible and legible for road stages, specifically mass start events.
The letter, from the UCI's head of road and innovation, Mick Rogers, read: "The UCI kindly request that during road stages rider numbers are fixed on the outer layer of the jersey/skinsuit and not placed in pin-less number fixation systems/pockets."
The letter was sent a day after the French national time trial championships, where third-placed rider Benjamin Thomas of Cofidis nearly lost his number out the back of his Ekoi skinsuit.
Number visibility has clearly - or not so clearly - been brewing for some time, as demonstrated in the photo finish between Michal Kwiatkowski and Benoit Cosnefroy at the 2022 Amstel Gold Race.
It’s all about believing! What a feeling 🤩 Great job Team 💪 Amazing ride @BenoitCosnefroy 👏Thank You everyone who stood by me! @INEOSGrenadiers 🏆 @Amstelgoldrace pic.twitter.com/08b5m2nh2VApril 10, 2022
The 'request' has been met with a mixed response, with Nopinz founder and CEO Blake Pond clearly frustrated by the letter: "To coin an old phrase we have been tarred with the same brush as other suppliers who are making inferior products in an attempt to circumvent our patents," he says.
"It's especially frustrating because we went through a process with the UCI in 2016 which proved our number pockets didn’t obscure the numbers in any way and we were named in the rule book as being approved," Pond continues.
He has a point. The number envelope system, found on the likes of the Nopinz Pro-1 Speedsuit, has been in operation at Le Tour since 2015, when Lotto-Jumbo donned the 'Speedpocket' jerseys for the first time, and for it to only now become an issue for the UCI and "several cycling stakeholders" does seem odd.
Unfortunately for the brand, it does seemed to have become the Hoover of the cycling world, and a catch-all phrase for any pin-less number systems.
"I think where they went wrong is when they said the 'Nopinz system or similar', continues Pond. "The similar products I have seen in most cases obscure the numbers and don't hold them securely in place so they crumple up. In that instance you cant blame the UCI or commissaires for wanting to exclude them: riders have a race number for a reason and you should be able to see them clearly".
Michael Hutchinson, Cycling Weekly columnist, Eurosport commentator and ex-national time trial champion, agrees: "It does depend on the brand of window pocket. Some numbers are clearly visible but some, where there is a mesh pocket or the numbers crumple, it becomes really difficult to see.
"In big races you can pick out most riders, but there's often a couple that you just don't recognise by their riding style and then you're stuck" he continues.
It's an issue that Eurosport and GCN commentators Robbie McEwen and José Been, have also raised her concerns over, with Been tweeting back in March about how difficult it was to make out the numbers when they are "crumbling in the pocket after rain or sweat."
So is the 'kind request' to fix numbers on the outer layer of the jersey or skinsuit just about making the commentator's job easier or wanting to slow teams down?
"The UCI aren't really bothered about us doing a job in the commentary box," says Hutchinson. "For commissaires and race radio it's much more important. So I've got a lot of sympathy for them [UCI].
"Having tested the number placement for time trials, assuming that you've pinned it in a decent position, low down close to the saddle, it really makes such a small difference, around a watt and a half, that it's not improving anything aerodynamically as it's already in the rider's wake.
"Although I suspect a pin-less number pocket would make a much bigger difference in a road race as you have two numbers, so on a smaller rider you would probably see a difference in terms of aerodynamic benefits as the number will be in the angle of yaw more," Hutchinson states.
This does line up with data Cycling Weekly gathered back in 2016 in the velodrome with Nopinz and AeroCoach's Xavier Disley.
The test measured the impact of pinned-on numbers on CdA (coefficient of aerodynamic drag) and revealed that while the difference between pinning a number on well and using a Nopinz Speedpocket was negligible, a number that had lost one pin, and therefore flapped around in the wind, could cost you up to 10 watts, or in real-world terms, 40-45 seconds over a 25-mile time trial.
There are other benefits to the system though.
"It does make life much easier and simpler for the rider, " says Hutchinson, "and if I was racing now, I would use one to stop having to stick pins in a skinsuit for a start," he laughs. "I suspect the UCI will be changing the rules at some point, so this is a sort of interim request."
So close to the start of the 2022 Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes it's unlikely that teams will have the ability to make major kit changes. But we'll wait to find out how far the UCI's 'kind request' is heeded as the riders roll out and we see just how legible their race numbers are.
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