The Tour de France 2017 began on 1 July 2017 and, in amongst the cyclists’ battle for the Un Maillot, the Green Jersey, the Polka-Dot Jersey and the White Jersey, a controversy began to emerge over Team Sky’s ‘Vortex’ skin suit. The controversy arose as a result of the jersey worn by the Team Sky riders bearing small pellets built into the fabric that create minuscule vortexes when the cyclist moves and therefore improving air flow. In other words, the pellets make the rider more aerodynamic. Team Sky’s opponents claim that such a fabric is a clear infringement of the clothing regulations of the sports’ governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale. Team Sky state that the outfits have been validated by the UCI.

So is the Vortex an example of ‘technical’ doping: the use of technology to create or obtain an unfair advantage over others? Or is it simply Team Sky doing what they have consistently stated they will do: searching for 1 percent improvements everywhere that push the limits of the Regulations but never breach them?

The UCI Regulations at 1.3.033 state (emphasis added):

“It is forbidden to wear non-essential items of clothing or items designed to influence the performances of a rider such as reducing air resistance or modifying the body of the rider (compression, stretching, support).

Items of clothing or equipment may be considered essential where weather conditions make them appropriate for the safety or the health of the rider. In this case, the nature and texture of the clothing or equipment must be clearly and solely justified by the need to protect the rider from bad weather conditions. Discretion in this respect is left to the race commissaires…

…Equipment (helmets, shoes, jerseys, shorts, etc.) worn by the rider may not be adapted to serve any other purpose apart from that of clothing or safety by the addition or incorporation of mechanical or electronic systems which are not approved as technical innovations under article 1.3.004.”

The Clarification Guide of the UCI Technical Regulation 01.01.2017 version (which has as its objective to ‘…offer a definitive interpretation in order to facilitate understanding and application of the Regulations by international commissaires, teams and manufacturers’) states, in respect of Regulation 1.3.033 (emphasis added):

Garments must not be adapted in any way such that they diverge from their use purely as clothing. The addition of any non-essential element or device to clothing is prohibited. The use of mechanical or electronic systems with clothing is prohibited.

It is also prohibited to wear clothing or skinsuits to which non-essential elements have been added with a view to improving their aerodynamic properties such as, for example, “wings” under the arms or an extension between the helmet and the jersey or skinsuit. It is obligatory for clothing to follow the cyclist’s body shape.”

Though the Clarification Guide On is expressed not to ‘replace’ the Regulations, it is a ‘definitive interpretation’ and therefore, on a literal reading, its interpretative provisions must be applied by the relevant commissaires, teams and manufacturers without alteration. Therefore, it could be argued that the Vortex suit was in breach of the Regulations as:

  • The suit has been ‘designed to influence the performance of a rider [by] reducing air resistance’;
  • The suit includes a ‘non-essential’ element (the pellets); and
  • The pellets have been added ‘with a view to improving [the jersey’s] aerodynamic properties’.

Certainly, this was the view of Team Sky’s opponents who statedThe rule is very clear. Any aerodynamic addition to the jersey is banned. Sky have clearly infringed.’.

However, the Tour de France’s race jury president, Phillippe Marien, in finding that there was no infringement of the Regulations, stated that ‘[w]e summoned the team’s sports directors to check the jerseys. Nothing was added to them’.

Interestingly, Mr. Marien seems to have been of the view that as the pellets were built into the jersey by its designers and manufacturers (as opposed to being subsequently added to the jersey by Team Sky) then that means the shirt is not in violation of the Regulations. To this author’s mind, that view relies on an interpretation that the first sentence of Regulation 1.3.033 which states it is (emphasis added) ‘forbidden to wear non-essential items of clothing or items designed to influence the performances of a rider such as reducing air resistance’ cannot be applicable to the Team Sky jersey as a jersey is an essential item of clothing. That interpretation is difficult to reconcile with the Clarification Guide’s definitive interpretation that Regulation 1.3.033 also prohibits the wearing of clothing or skinsuits (emphasis added) ‘… to which non-essential elements have been added with a view to improving their aerodynamic properties…’. There is no limitation that this rule only applies to non-essential clothing or skinsuits.

Reading between the lines of Mr. Marien’s comments, however, it appears that he has in fact relied on an interpretation of the Clarification Guide that the word ‘added’ is inextricably linked to an action on the part of a rider or his team and, therefore, so long as the rider or team have not personally taken any action to add a performance enhancing element to the item of clothing then the performance enhancing garment is not a breach of the Regulations. By way of example, that would mean, irrespective of whether the rider/team: (i) partnered with a clothing manufacturer to design and create a shirt that enhances performance and/or (ii) bought a shirt incorporating performance enhancing technology from a store, there would be no breach of the Regulations provided that the rider/team did not themselves make any addition to that shirt past the point of purchase/receipt.

To this author’s mind, such an interpretation (of a definitive interpretation of the Regulations…) and the use of such technology run contrary to the spirit, even if not the letter, of the Regulations. However, when it comes to marginal gains and crossing the line first one could argue that all that matters is that the performance is within the letter and the only persons complaining about the spirit are those trailing the Un Maillot. On the assumption that Team Sky’s jersey is not in future found to be in breach of the Regulations, that’s the margin call other riders and teams will now have to make.