Tuesdays With Wilcockson: Don’t forget the blackboard man

When pro team directors complain about the UCI’s almost total ban on race radios, they say that without radios they can’t get essential information to their riders, especially when the race is in a state of flux. What they rarely mention is the role played by the motorcycle-mounted blackboard man.

There’s nothing high tech about this official’s job, which has barely changed over the past 50 years. All he does [editor's note: le Tour put into action its first female ardoisier at the 2011 edition of the race] is sit on the backseat of a motorcycle, constantly writing on the blackboard the time gaps between groups, the distance covered, and the bib numbers of the riders in the breakaways. That board is shown to the riders in the peloton before the motorcyclist accelerates up to the front of the race to give the leaders the same information — which is also relayed by Radio Tour to all the team cars.

It’s up to the riders on how to react to that information. They can make a decision on their own, discuss a course of action with teammates in their group, or call up their team car to hear what their director has to say. That’s how all pro races were conducted until 20 years ago — when teams began using radio communication, which allows teammates to chat with each other via their earpieces, or the director to give his riders tactical advice without having to drive up to the head of the race convoy.

Early in my time as a cycling journalist, I often traveled on the back of a race motorcycle, filling my notebook with race information while also working as a blackboard man. My most memorable gig was doing this double duty at the world road championships when they first came to Great Britain in 1970. The course was based on the Mallory Park motor racing circuit near Leicester, England. And my driver was the highly experienced Alf Buttler, with whom I’d ridden on races all over the country.

Doing the worlds was a big responsibility, of course, but it was also a personal thrill to be showing the blackboard to a field that included Tour de France winners Felice Gimondi and Eddy Merckx. At one point, a couple of 15km laps from the finish, Merckx whistled to Alf from the peloton, so we slowed down to give the Belgian superstar enough time to study the list of riders in a breakaway that had just formed. He saw that his Italian rival Gimondi was up there, but so was his talented young teammate Jean-Pierre Monseré — who was Belgium’s latest phenom, having won the Tour of Lombardy classic in his rookie season of 1969 — along with Leif Mortensen of Denmark, Charly Rouxel of France and Britain’s Les West.

Merckx could probably have jumped across to the break on the rolling course, but with star teammates such as Walter Godefroot, Frans Verbeeck, Roger De Vlaeminck and Herman Vanspringel still in the pack with him, he knew that his team had more than enough power to close the break down if they needed to. And he was confident that the 21-year-old Monseré had the talent to beat Gimondi and the others in the small breakaway group.

Both Alf and I were hoping that the “unknown” rider in that move, British national champ West, could surprise the others with one of his hallmark late attacks. We could see he was itching to try something, despite this being the longest race (272km) he’d ever ridden. We had the best seat in the house, shuttling between break and bunch, first showing the leaders the board, then stopping to take a time check with my stopwatch (this was long before GPS was invented!), writing the new information on the board before moving back alongside the riders in the peloton, and finally accelerating back to the break.

The leaders did stay away. West did make a late attack — but was caught in the final straight and came in fourth. And Monseré did win the final sprint to take the rainbow jersey, with Merckx coming home in 29th. (Monseré was expected to be one of cycling’s great classics riders, but the following spring, in a small Belgian race, he tragically died after a collision with a private car that had wandered onto the course.)

All of this happened long before radio communication first came to the peloton in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous by the early 2000s. Two-way communication between riders and their directors is regarded as essential by most teams, but the UCI management committee felt that the radios were taking away the element of surprise in racing, and that racers were simply following orders and losing the tactical expertise that had always been a key component of a winning rider’s arsenal.

A phased-in ban on race radios was started three years ago and led to an emotionally charged debate between the UCI and ProTeam directors through 2010 and much of 2011. Last September, the proposed complete ban on radio communication was put on hold until the end of 2012 as both sides of the argument are examined. The teams would like intra-team radio communication to be restored to all pro races, while the UCI wants them banned completely.

At present, radios are only permitted in UCI WorldTour races, including this coming week’s Paris-Nice. The team managers say that radios make the racing safer because they can warn riders instantly of any hazards on the road ahead. UCI management argues that racing is more predictable and less interesting when team directors pull the strings and riders stop thinking for themselves.

There may be a practical solution. Instead of just one blackboard man, major races could have two or even three such officials riding alongside the different groups. And rather than blackboards, they could carry iPad-type boards that could display warnings of upcoming road hazards along with the basic race updates.

Using such technology, the teams would know that their riders were not only getting the race information they needed, as Merckx and his teammates did at the 1970 worlds, but also learning of any safety concerns. Meanwhile, the UCI would know that riders were having to think for themselves again and not being treated like robots.

And all of us can get to see what happens in races this spring. Will the non-radio races, such as this coming Saturday’s Strade Bianche classic in Italy, be more exciting than the with-radio WorldTour events? Will the WorldTour races be safer because of radio communication? The debate is on … and maybe high-tech blackboards are the solution.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @JohnWilcockson

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15 comments

  1. Steve Wilson

    I say ban the radios. The blackboard men are a good idea as are the ipad vs blackboard. I think there is way too much whinning in the peloton today both from the riders and directors. Any time a course doesnt suit their guy the whinning begins and its all puffed up with imaginary concerns just like the rider safety argument. Frankly Im tired of it. I dont think we need to bring back the days of riders carrying their own spare tires draped over their shoulders but I would like a little more of the intrigue that used to be in the sport. Good piece here.

    http://hillsandheadwinds.blogspot.com/2011/12/stupid-little-rock.html

  2. Steve

    Hi-tech blackboards may be a solution, although they’d likely be pretty hard to see. LCD displays do very poorly in bright sunlight, so they’d likely need a special display.
    I wonder if one-way, open channel radios might be another solution: The race director could give warnings, and accurate timing information could be relayed. Who knows.

  3. Brian

    I say keep the radios banned. They take so much of the personality out of racing. Cyclists become reduced to a pair of powerful legs on a bike, instead of the great characters that cycling used to have. I want to see a rider’s personality come through in their riding, not how well they can follow orders. Normally the UCI’s rulings are fairly ridiculous, but I’m totally on board with this one.
    One solution could be one way radios that are connected to a central Race Director channel, which could give gap times, safety warnings, etc… But of course, there’s nothing wrong with a blackboard. If it worked for Merckx, it can work for any of today’s riders. Teams need to stop whining every time they don’t get their way. These guys get paid to ride for a living. We should all be so lucky. Shut up, do your job, and acknowledge how lucky you are.

  4. 68GT

    There is yet to be one shred of empirical data to support the argument that racing is better without radios than with, nor that there is a discernible difference in how races unfold. To whit, both races this past weekend went pretty much to script. That Sep Vanmarke won on Saturday neither proves nor disproves anything just as the perfect Sky led out win for Cav likewise proves nothing.

    The radio argument to me opens a slippery slope, especially when interjected with the halcyon views of days gone by. The radio, and ability for directors and riders to communicate with one another is product of evolution and development, in the same way that Tulio revolutionized riding with a quick release and derailleur and continues today with aero bikes or scientific nutrition and recovery methods.

    Regardless of how fast a bike can be made, a rider still has to ride it. Same goes for information. In the end, the rider still needs to deliver.

  5. grolby

    The disregard for rider safety and rider demands that I see from some fans is pretty disturbing. That isn’t to say that I am necessarily convinced that radios make for safer racing, but when I read comments like “These guys get paid to ride for a living. We should all be so lucky. Shut up, do your job, and acknowledge how lucky you are,” I am distressed.

    Pro cycling does, in some ways, seem like a dream job, and is for many who love the sport. But it’s also a very difficult job, and it comes with a lot of risks and uncertainties, both physical and financial. It’s no walk in the park being a pro rider, and most aren’t taking home a fortune. A serious accident could be truly life-altering in a very negative way for most riders. A professional cycling career lasts, at most, into one’s late thirties and early forties, so chronic health problems resulting from accidents and injuries could have significant effects on the ability of former cyclists to make a living. And that’s just looking down the road; obviously, the immediate concerns for keeping riders safe involve avoiding trauma or even death.

    It is also unclear, as 68GT points out, that getting rid of the radios necessarily makes the racing more exciting. It can just as easily make racing more boring, as teams either stage slow-downs (as in the Tour a couple of years ago) or keep escapes on a tighter leash. Radios certainly could make racing less predictable, but the link between excitement and predictability isn’t completely obvious to me.

  6. Dan

    Great article John. It was actually the 2010 TdF that had the first female ardoisier, Claire Pedrono. We saw her in Antwerp on stage 1, in Haveluy on stage 3 and the start town of Cambrai on stage 4. The tradition of the ardoisier is a big part of what makes the TdF noteworthy. I’ll leave the radio debate for those who are much more knowledgeable than I am.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DzKiynW_Wo
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ibike_ltd/4870202290/

  7. Jesus from Cancun

    I raced until ’95 and never got the chance to use radios. I thought they were a great idea for motorpacing and for many race situations.

    But over the years, I saw how racing changed. Riders in a break knew exactly who was chasing, who was coming across, what were the gaps, and they were told when to stop riding.

    Riders in the chasing pack knew exactly who was in the break, and could hide in the peloton until they were radioed to move up.
    Team directors were not shy to be shown on TV watching the race from their in-car monitors and telling their riders what to do.

    I think that racing was becoming more and more predictable. Breaks were caught within the last 15k 99% of the time, champions didn’t need to patrol the front of keep an eye on the race. They were just told when they could relax and when they should go ahead. Not as exciting as without radios.

    Just last weekend, it was widely known that Philippe Gilbert complained about not knowing when Hushovd got dropped from the break and caught by the pack. He is one of my favorite riders, but I think he probably has to re-learn how to read a race, how to always keep an eye at what happens ahead, and how to communicate with the rest of his teammates or allies in the group who might know what is going on.

    I know, it is easy for me to say. But before radios, there were no excuses like that after a race. If you said you didn’t know what happened ahead, you team director would embarrass you to death.

    I agree about radios being useful for safer racing in a few situations.
    How about giving some riders in each team a radio set for one way to their team director, and one way from the race marshals? Then riders would be able to ask for assistance when they need it, and they can get all the safety info they would need. But no tactital directions, that would be up to them.

    With this compromise, safety issues would be covered, and the riders would have to race with their heads too. Smart racers from smaller teams would be rewarded with a big win every now and then, and I think this could only be good for the sponsors and therefore for the health of the sport at professional level.

    I don’t think there is a perfect solution, but I believe this would work very well, and we would see bike racers race, rather than team directors radio control the races and have race outcomes decided and maybe agreed with other teams, behind the wheel.

  8. Wayne

    “How about giving some riders in each team a radio set for one way to their team director, and one way from the race marshals? Then riders would be able to ask for assistance when they need it, and they can get all the safety info they would need. But no tactital directions, that would be up to them.”

    That is great idea.

    Team managers always want more control. I don’t blame them because their job depends on the race results but that doesn’t mean it is better for the sport. Address safety and keep the riders thinking was well. This is one thing tennis gets right. Limit coaching during the match. If the sport is really just about who is strongest then lets just have them test them on trainers.

  9. Scott Kingsley

    I have always been on the fence. On one hand, I agree with the ban, but I also agree with the safety concerns. I have always had the idea, as Steve mentioned above, of the one way communications with the race director. What I would change though, is to have the riders be able to communicate back to the Race director. That way, if there is an emergency, they have a way to let people know. Or if they have a mechanical/flat, they can call it in, and the race director can relay it back to only their team car.

    I also agree with the idea of higher tech blackboards, but there display can be an issue with sun glare, and even polarized/non-polarized glasses. I say keep the traditional chalkboards.

  10. Touriste-Routier

    Let me preface this by stating that I work/have worked for a number of UCI events on the technical crew in a variety of capacities.

    Safety & Race Radios are mostly a red herring. The race directors are behind the peloton in their team cars. They will only know what was in the “tech guide” (the race bible published by the race organizers), which everyone has a chance to review prior to the race. If a hazard isn’t in the tech guide, and if nothing is announced over Radio Tour (the report of race action over a designated channel of the communications radios provided by the organizer, also broadcast from behind the peloton) or on the officials channel, or phoned in from a 3rd party they aren’t going to know about.

    Considering this, just how are race radios creating a significantly safer race? The answer is they are not.

    However in front of the peloton are the moto marshals; these are the guys that block roads, stop in front of hazards, waive flags, blow whistles etc. The moto marshals can report hazards to the officials and race organizers, but Radio Tour is the exclusive domain of the car following immediately behind the main group.

    The tech staff (particularly the routing & signs crew who mark the course) also do their best to mark hazards with paint, signs, etc.

    If anything is going to make a race safer, it is going to be larger budgets for tech staff and marshals. However, the bottom line is that bike racing isn’t 100% safe regardless of what precautions are taken, and that the competitors need to pay attention to their surroundings. If something is crucial enough, the riders and/or staff should do a reconnaissance of the course prior to the race.

    As far as competition info goes, the blackboard works well, although it isn’t as instantaneous or current as other means of communications. Surely this can be improved with newer technology, without changing the nature of competition.

    Where race radios excel are in alerting team directors of punctures, and crashes, as the riders can report these before Radio Tour or the officials can. And of course they are mandatory for the ubiquitous “move-up” command to the riders; after all, by the time a rider turns pro, one can’t expect them to have figured out that they actually need to be in the front in order to win a race ;-) Of course if everyone moved up, then everyone would be at the front…

  11. Bruce E

    The UCI is idiotic at times, especially with the radio ban. The Daytona 500 not only had radio and in-car cams live on TV, it had 8 more choices online, live. It was fascinating.

    But no, cycling can’t be that fascinating.

    We need to step up our game. The tech is there, just use it. Watts, HR, GPS, bike cams. Just do it.

  12. SWells

    @Touriste-Routier – I totally agree with your post. Thanks.

    Adding – imagine you’re a rider in what looks like the winning break with, say, Fabian Cancellara…who just opened a 3″ gap on your front wheel. You hear a crackle in your earpiece…”Fabian’s attacking, go with him”. I don’t think the radio’s are always a good idea…just adds to your demoralization.

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