Radio Interference

March 25, 2011

I guess we should all be very happy in pro cycling-land. Finally we’ve found a topic that gets more press than doping: radios. I won’t add my point of view to the mix, but I would like to point out the misconceptions that are dominating the discussion and are preventing the sport from finding a good solution:

  1. Riders are remote-controlled by the sports director in the car. There are certainly teams and riders where this applies to some degree, but in many teams it doesn’t, especially in the classics. There the team car is often miles behind, with a sports director watching a tiny TV with crappy reception. During the race, you need an Andreas Klier near the front of the peloton much more than a Jonathan Vaughters in the car. In this episode of Beyond The Peloton Klier explains his tactical role in the race and you can here him use the race radio – much more than the sports directors. Those that argue the sports director does nothing other than hand out water bottles are also molding the facts to support their position of course, it’s not so black and white. Fact is, the information from the car makes a difference, but it doesn’t completely alter the race.
  2. Radios may have a bigger effect in sprint stages, where the peloton now often catches the breakaway with laser precision. However, those who think a radio ban will give the breakaway a bigger chance may be mistaken, the tactical adjustment from the sprinter teams would likely be to run less risk and shut down breakaways sooner, leading to a less interesting race.
  3. The safety aspect is often misunderstood. Most teams have cars in front of the race, and they give information about dangerous situations to the team car which then parlays it to the riders. This is a function that could also be performed by a neutral entity, it fact one could argue that it is the duty of the race organizer and the sanctioning body (the federation) to provide this information, but at this time that simply is not the case to the extent needed. If a decision is made to take the radios away, then it should be coupled with an extremely strict liability for the race organizers and sanctioning body that the course be safe. Judging by the number of parked cars on the route this weekend, there is a long way to go there. Regardless of where you stand on the radio issue, it’s unfortunate that the decision to take the radios away was taken without taking the steps to safeguard safety in other ways.
  4. The radio ban makes the races dangerous because the sports directors now have to make crazy maneuvers to talk to the riders. There is actually no rule written anywhere that sports directors have to drive like idiots. It is allowed to use common sense and realize that bike racing is not worth endangering anybody’s lives. I remember a situation last year at Paris-Roubaix (with radios) where one team’s service car drove away from the Arenberg forest at 100+ kmh on a road that was not even part of the course, while spectators leaving the forest on foot had to jump out of the way to save their lives. Bottomline, stupid driving behavior has little to do with radios, it is ingrained in this sport where the people driving cars (sports directors, soigneurs, journalists, etc) sometimes feel way more important than they really are in the grand scheme of things. A radio ban would certainly increase the number of opportunities they have to act stupidly, but it’s not the real cause. BTW, Maarten Ducrot wrote about this aspect much more eloquently than I, so if you read Dutch, check out his blog.
  5. Maybe the biggest misconception is of a different kind, the idea that this is about race radios. This conflict is not about the radios, it’s about changes being made without proper input from those involved. Now, the teams and riders are not without fault here. The teams, organized in the AIGCP, have been too busy with in-fighting instead of presenting a united front. They also have been absent when the federation has made decisions in the past without proper input. For example, when the federation changed the technical rules governing bike design, they did so without input from the manufacturers. The AIGCP, represented at the crucial meeting by just one team, chose the UCI’s side (BTW, that team told me they did so not because of any high-minded conviction, but because they thought their bikes would pass the new rules so they saw an advantage). Same with the riders, they have been asked for their opinion by their “union”, the ACP, several times and never responded in great numbers. And now that it’s almost too late, they wake up.

I hope all AIGCP and ACP members understand that this is not about the radios, but rather about having a say in how this sport is run. I also hope the bike manufacturers’ organization joins the AIGCP and ACP, not necessarily with any opinion about the radio but to support the right to provide input. For me personally, I don’t like the radios, but I will support any movement in favor of radios if that’s what the majority wants, on the basis that it’s the bigger picture that counts. I hope that everybody in cycling, UCI, AIGCP, ACP race organizers and manufacturers will take some inspiration from Voltaire’s most famous quote (which ironically he never uttered and wasn’t “invented” until after his death): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. It’s high time to leave the narrow interests behind.

As always, let me know what you think, either here in the comments section or to my Twitter account @gerardvroomen.

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