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