WHY DOES something get banned?
The answer is really pretty simple. Usually something gets banned because it is harmful. Catholic school was happy to introduce me to the concept of banned things, a certain apple and 10 things etched in stone, to start with. You can believe what you want about the whole garden of Eden thing, but those 10 Commandments are generally considered to be pretty solid. The problem is, people tend to get enthusiastic about banning things, have you read boilerplate OACs?
To wit: In 1999 Softride Bikes were banned by Union Cicliste Internationale (UCI). The UCI is the world governing body for sports cycling and oversees international competitive cycling events. The UCI is based in Aigle, Switzerland. Switzerland: bastion of neutrality, home to fondue and banks that say “you do you, just let us hold the money in secret accounts for you”, or so I imagine that’s what they say. The UCI implemented a Double Diamond Frame standard for all bikes competing in international events. Softride bikes do not have a traditional seat tube nor seatstays, therefore did not conform to the Double Diamond Frame standard implemented by the UCI. I’ll come back to this a little later on. First a quick history of Softride.
A little background. Way back in 1989, James Allsop and David Calopp launched Softride suspension (SRS) at Interbike in Anaheim, California. The SRS was a kind of foam-filled-carbon-fiber-sandwich-beam-spring-thingie you could attach to a bike frame, fit a saddle to it and smoothly ride off into the sunset. SRS seemed to make a good impression since it was awarded “Most Innovative and Technically Significant New Product” at the show.
A couple of years later, in 1991, Softride introduces “The Powercurve”, their first mountain bike equipped with the SRS. The Powercurve was fitted with the SRS plus a coil spring loaded front suspension stem affectionately nicknamed the Frankenstem, so it was a dual suspension bike. Early adopters of the SRS were no less than mountain bike royalty; Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Tom Ritchey.
From the beginning this bike caused controversy. It didn’t look or ride like a normal bike. And, it started a whole “Suspend the Rider vs. Suspend the Bike” debate. The debate was decided in the marketplace of ideas by public opinion and engineering. A magazine review or two affected public opinion: alluding to fearful descents with the beam acting as a catapult, launching the hapless rider over the handlebars. I don’t know if this actually happened or if it was just mountain bike myth. I do suspect a soupcon of editorial hyperbole was added to the articles’ recipe. How else can you reconcile that myth with actual race results? A Softride suspension bike was the first dual-suspension bike to win the Downhill World Championship aaand, Team Ritchey managed to win 4, count’em FOUR, XC World Championship titles using SRS. Hmmmm? Maybe someone just needed to work on their skills. It doesn’t matter because the seed of doubt was planted in the riding public’s mind. As far as engineering’s effect upon the debate, all you have to do is look around. Motorcycle and F1 auto racing suspension have made dual suspension bicycle design and riding better. Thank you Mert Lawwill and Jon Whytte. But, the SRS design still has immense relevance and value. SRS is extremely light, simple, cheap and effective.
In 1996, Softride introduced their first aluminum framed SRS equipped road bike, the Classic TT. The lack of traditional seat tube and seatstays made the bike aerodynamically superior and combined with the beam suspension, deflecting road shock, resulted in faster speeds ridden over longer distances, more comfortably. Its’ one quirk is it gets bouncy on aggressive in-the-saddle climbs, not too high a price to pay for an advantage over traditional frames.
So, why would the UCI ban this bike and its ilk in three short years? Who is harmed? Hmmm? Why would a European-based sports governing body, regulating the sport second in popularity only to soccer/futbol; a sport that is traditionally dominated by European athletes revered as national heroes by some of the most rabid fans; a sport that drives international industries for huge contributions to European economies? Why would such an organization ban an American made product that completely disrupts how a bicycle looks and acts; a patented innovation that puts competitors at a disadvantage; a bicycle that simply by adopting in use, produces faster race times; a product that would have every athlete in the sport changing the bike they ride; a product that would shift the buying preferences of recreational cyclists wishing to emulate their professional idols thereby shifting ridiculous amounts of money away from European and larger American producers, toward a little company in Washington state? I think I see who is harmed. “But, but, the UCI would never be motivated by economics or to maintain a Euro-centric cycling hegemony”, you say. Well of course not, the UCI chalks it up to fair play and safety. Shame on anyone thinking otherwise. Whether economics or fairplay was the motive, the result was the same, Softride was denied access to the biggest stage in the industry, er, sport.
The UCI doesn’t control everything cycling. Softrides were able to be used at home at USCA events. Right about this time a little cross-discipline sport involving races that combined swimming, running and cycling called Triathlon is exploding in the US. Triathlon racers quickly learned anecdotally what we now know scientifically: if you ride an aerodynamically superior bike your race times will drop. In a current 2020 Bicycling article Joe Lyndsey writes: “while ultralight bikes were fashionable 10 to 15 years ago, every bit of recent scientific technical data suggests that if the goal is to be fast, bike weight simply doesn’t matter nearly as much as aerodynamics on anything but a pure hill climb.” If you wanted to win at Triathlons, you rode an aero bike. Softride tested their bike against the closest rival Cervelo in a wind-tunnel and the results were astounding. All things being equal, a rider on a Softride bike would finish a full minute and twenty-two seconds ahead of a rider mounted on the Cervelo. Sit back, look at your watch, if you still wear one, and wait for a minute twenty-two seconds to pass. That is an exceedingly long time to be able to exalt in your triumph over the also-rans.
Sadly, being the best Triathlon bike was not enough to keep Softride afloat. In 2006 Softride ceased producing bicycles. They now focus on a less regulated much more lucrative aspect of cycling...getting bikes to and from places...bike racks.
There are whispers the UCI may be thinking about doing away with various aspects of the Double Diamond frame standard that they have enforced since 1999. GASP. Maybe all the big guys in the European cycling industry are feeling hemmed in by the standard now. Tech has become democratized. The field has become pretty darn flat, grab your $20 laser level and measure for yourself. In 2020 everyone has access to CADCAM, 3D printing, CRISPER FOR GOD’S SAKE! Is the staid UCI starting to believe in the interest of fairness and safety that a bicycle might be bio-engineered? “Could a bike be made from an organism?”. Why not? It’d be perfectly awesome with a capital A to create bicycles from organisms existing in nature. Unless...they gain consciousness and seek revenge upon their riders. That would be bad and should probably be banned.