Friday Group Ride #63

A year ago, I was as against race radios in the pro peloton as a French television executive. To me, the saddest moment in any race is that moment, within sight of the finish line, when the poor bastards who have been fighting into the wind all day long, their jerseys unzipped to the waist, salt caking at the corners of the their mouths, get swallowed up by the chasing horde, a pack of cackling hyenas who have spent the previous hours calculating with their director the exact amount of effort it might take to ruin the breakaway’s day.

It is not by any particular guile that this moment is effected. It is merely a matter of having your DS tell you what the time gap is and then ratcheting up the speed on your on-board cyclocomputer to the exact number which will cause the train from Clarksville to overtake the train from Cityville. It’s a math problem more than a race.

And yet, even without radios and computers, this is a fairly standard scene in bike racing. It is the cruelty of the catch, which makes the joy of the successful breakaway such honey-sweet nectar. How much effect the radio has on these outcomes is the subject of no small debate.

Regardless, this week UCI president Pat McQuaid made it entirely clear that the international governing body would press forward with a plan to phase out radios, the latest bout of brinksmanship in a conflict with the team’s union, the AIGCP, who wish the retain the use of the ear piece in all pro races. The AIGCP represents of the Pro and ProContinental Teams, not, just to be clear, the riders themselves.

And now I must confess that, having read a fairly compelling missive on the subject from AIGCP head Jonathan Vaughters, as well as a passionate defense of the technology by Jens Voigt, I find myself in a much more ambivalent place as regards radios.

I have not fully abandoned the notion that races would be better without them, but nor do I feel best qualified to tell the riders what will or won’t make them more safe. They don’t ride down to my office and throw things at me while I type, why should I, in my capacity as a fan, deign to tell them the best way to do their jobs? It is less about whether or not radios have a place in cycling than it is about how those decisions get made. Who makes them? Who has a voice and who doesn’t?

This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Given recent developments in the debate over race radios, are you for or against, and why?

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Burns

    Ambivalent. The racing seems to be better lately. The chase to track down the last escapee seems not to work in the peloton’s favor as much. Nobody has died yet, due to the lack of a radio, and God forbid that it might happen. And yet, the continuous, in your face, attitude of McQuade irks me. It was not the latest radio rule that brings me to this judgment but a series of events. The UCI needs to exist, someone needs to hold the rules. But to be the judge, jury, and executioner reeks of too much power. Somehow it need’s to be broken down and rebuilt. When I caught wind that there was a revolt in the peloton, against the UCI, it put me on the edge of my seat. I like the idea of pushing back against Tyrany.

    Regardless of what happens, I’ll be out riding my bike.

  2. dvgmacdonald

    I think I’m in the same place as Burns. The racing seems better without radios. However, I’m beginning to be persuaded that the UCI has no place in governing pro cycling. They should run amateur races, national & world championships, and have some say over the Olympics.

    I’m growing ever more fond of the 11 biggest teams’ idea of breaking away & forming their own league. I’ve got to think that if Garmin, Sky, HTC, Saxo, Leopard, Rabo, Quick Step, Omega, et. al. were to get the organizational & financial resources in place, it wouldn’t be long before Lampre, Vacansoleil, Euskatel, & the rest decided to join them. ASO & the Gazzetta could bring over their races, leaving behind exactly what that we’d be missing? The riders & teams would have more of a place at the table with the sponsors, the TV folks & the organizers. The anti-doping regime could be carried out by capable & empowered authorities (AFLD seems to be much more capable than WADA in these matters). Equipment sponsors could have a seat at the table about acceptable design parameters. There could be a reasonable system about moving teams up & down from a top division to a second division, rewarding teams that invested in their riders & infrastructure, and punishing those who are coasting buy on reputation or past success.

    All this, and the UCI could put everybody back on 32 lb. lugged steel bikes with 32 spoke 2-cross wheels for the Olympics, worlds & national championships if that’s how they think the races should be run.

    Cycling progresses, the people with the most invested in the sport get what they want out of it, and we don’t have to read Pat McQuaid’s comments every day in the trade press. If I have to give back radios for all of those benefits, I think I can live with that.

  3. Nelson

    I am both for and against radios. With them, their team doubles in size and information and a team can do some things that are near imposable. Without them, we will get to see just how smart each man/team is. I wouldn’t mind seeing a 50/50 split. One day Classics with out radios and tours with radios.

  4. Wayne Sulak

    As I understand it, in spite of its name, the AIGCP is an organization of pro teams. It is not a labor union. If it were it would have at some time in the past negotiated with and against the teams for minimum salaries, or working conditions. It seems to me the teams throw the word riders around as if they represent them when they are their employers. This is just an attempt to seize the high ground from the UCI.

    I side with the teams over the UCI in the general power struggle. The UCI’s long history of missmangement is there for everyone to see. Still as far as race radios go, I am against them. I am generally for less communication between the coach and the players during play.

    The directors want cycling to be a sports league for very small children with the parents/coaches simply attempting to control the play remotely by screaming instructions from the sidelines. I understand they want control. That may make them feel better since there job is on the line, but that does not make it better for the fans.

    John Wooden the legendary basketball coach once said that the coaches job should end when the game starts. The game will tell how good a job the coach did in teaching the players. The player must use his brain. Otherwise we could decide the races with lab tests to see who is the strongest on that day.

    Cycling would also benefit if the teams quit using the excuse of bad luck for mechanicals. If is is just luck then all equipment must be equally durable and we know that is not the case. There are quite severe penalties in other types of racing including auto, motorcycle, even cycling on the track. Why does road cycling seem to think any penalty for a mechanical is unfair?

  5. todd k

    Interesting study on whether or not race radios do affect breakaway can be found here:

    I was also a proponent of removing race radios, but for me it was based purely on the notion of it making the racing more exciting. Was interesting to see that in the case of at least one study, that may not actually be the case.

    Personally, though, I don’t like the political element of what has become the race radio debate. At this point neither side seems to be looking at facts, and race radios have become a red herring for the real issues plaguing the professional side of this sport.

  6. grolby

    The situation is a mess – a power struggle that isn’t doing the sport any real good.

    I also want to point out that the exciting racing this year has been seen in both World Tour events (where radios are still permitted) and lower-level races. How about that Milan-San Remo? One of the best, most exciting editions of the modern era, raced from start to finish with radios.

    What with this and the small sample size, it simply doesn’t make sense to attribute race “quality” (the quantification of which is fairly dubious) this season to the lack of radios. The study cited on The Inner Ring, if anything, backs this up; radios probably have little to do with racing excitement. Other factors, such as shifting technology, the increasing homogenization of talent across teams, much more scientific and specific training for riders on high-budget teams, increased specialization in rider roles, all come to mind as factors that have ramped up at about the same time that radios were introduced. There are a lot of things to consider, here.

    And of course, directors have always played their riders like pawns on a chessboard; but nowadays they don’t need to drive up into the peloton to give the orders. That strikes me as a better deal for everyone. Banning TVs in team vehicles, now, that I can get behind. But the problem there isn’t the radio.

    There’s no way that racing won’t be affected by the inevitable changes in an age of ubiquitous and inescapable telecommunication. We’d best figure out which compromises we’re willing to make. At this point, I find it hard to believe that the radio should be the central concern in cycling. I say, let them keep the radios. I don’t think they have much bearing on what I see when I’m watching a race.

  7. adam

    I like the idea of racing without radios. I like the idea that the chess match that is a bike race is played by sweaty men with tubulars on their backs, not the DS in the car. But to be fair, those are romantic groundless musings that aren’t based in reality. Voight’s opinion that radios are part of the modernization of the sport struck a chord with me. The past may be rose colored, but we don’t live there anymore.

    The radio debate has of course become about much more than the radio, and I do side with JV and crew the way things stand now, but it did bother me that neither the riders nor the managers who appeared in the media as opposition to the UCI actually addressed the point: radios allow managers to be in control, to tell riders what to do. A ban would prevent this from happening. Nobody opposing the ban seemed to publicly acknowledge this point, or further, provide credible defense.

  8. Rod Diaz

    I am just sick of McQuack, and the autocratic attitude. “France doesn’t consult its citizens to establish speed limits”. Why yes, you’re right, not directly. But they do. It’s called voting.

    I’ve been angry at the UCI so much in the last year it’s not funny

    – Over the lack of transparency in its activities. Any other sport has its athletes “donating” hundreds of thousands of dollars?
    – Over eliminating some great events from the olympics (pursuit, for crying out loud!)and now attempting to team up with skateboarding. I am not kidding. Union Cyclo-Boardiste International?!?!
    – Over the ridiculous cash grab that is the frame approval process.

    About time someone pushed back. Yes, the radios are just a nominal resistance over much larger issues, but it is something at least. I think there are other things that have a much larger influence over a race (like the existence of teams as opposed to individuals riding on their own).

    I say it’s about time someone tried to push back.

  9. randomactsofcycling

    to stick to the radio issue, I used to be dead against radios but now am a little more ambivalent. It’s definitely part of the power-play, but the main arguments for radios seem to be regarding rider safety. Hello, I still see professionals running into road furniture every year. All the rubbish coming from Vaughters (purely with regard to radios, not the other stuff) is crap. ‘Closed Circuit Race Radio’ would be able to cover all the ‘safety’ angles being talked about. And to say that not having radios is limiting Cycling’s ability to use the latest technology….again, crap.
    But there should not be a mandate on this issue. It does need to be an agreement between all of the associated parties. This includes the Riders’ Union, not just the Teams’. That’s what I dislike specifically about this argument at the moment. Too many people saying that the Riders need a voice, but the people saying it are representatives of the Teams, who really only represent the sponsors.

  10. iowakathy

    Feels to me like next they will ask riders to race without helmets. If race radios make races more safe and riders want them, then I support the riders. They are the ones taking all the risks, not the UCI. Cyclists should be allowed some say in their safety. I believe the people arguing for radios have done themselves a disservice by polluting the argument with more issues besides safety.

    I do not believe race radios make or break a race. And why would we move backwards instead of forwards with technology? I like the idea of being able to tune into a team channel to enjoy the hours of banter and minutes of frantic discussion.

  11. The_D

    Interesting that Voigt and Gilbert, maybe the two hardest men in the peloton, have opposite views on radios. Robot’s right: as a fan, ambivalence itself is the principled position. This question should be decided by referendum of those whose livelihood depends on it.

    As a side note, the question of which type of racing is better “entertainment,” perhaps the radio discussion misses the point; the real issue is TV. No, I don’t mean riders need to be video-linked. What I mean is TV needs to approach a bike race, which is inherently more epic in scope than most other human-powered sports, more like a reality show. The experience of watching, say, Paris-Roubaix, should draw on elements of US Super Bowl coverage to explain tactics, and elements the Amazing Race to express preparation and difficulty to even the uninitiated; we can’t judge a race on TV from the romanticized perspective of standing course-side like a hard-core fan, or by analogy to simpler universally appreciated racing formats like, say, the Olympic 4×100 relay. It’s time we used a more suitable narrative for bike racing coverage. A Sunday in Hell is a start. Now, to do something like that in real time? That’s the ideal. We can only build toward it.

  12. sandycyclist

    Still against use of radios between teams and riders. I find the most compelling argument for the use of radios to be that they increase safety by permitting a DS to advise the cyclist of coming hazards. However, this could be accomplished by other means. The DS typically learns of unforeseen hazards from the commnissaires or race officials. If radios are necessary for safety, allow the riders to use a radio directly from the race officials, which would then not be used to influence the strategy of the race.

  13. Bikelink

    Just read JV and Jen’s essays and I think I see the discordance. Radios decrease random events hurting, helping the best riders/teams win. Now…as fans (or governing bodies), here’s the question: do we want the best rider/team to win (competition to see who is truly the best), or do we think random events leading to upsets are more ‘exciting?’ (I agree with others I haven’t heard JV/Jens/ others explain how having everyone hear warnings from the race director directly won’t solve the safety issue). Personally I’m on the fence on it in general, but have to admit I enjoy an ‘upset’ (as long as it wasn’t from someone getting hurt).

    Perhaps a separate point: yes the riders are the ones racing, but we the fans are the ones essentially paying them to race. Definitely we shouldn’t take away things that increase safety, but we do of course have a say (by watching or not watching) in the shape of pro cycling.

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