Random is good

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

There’s an argument between the teams and the UCI over the use of race radios, with the UCI wanting to ban their use in every race bar the World Tour calendar.

For me, there are advantages and disadvantages to race radios. Some say the radios allow teams to control a race. Writing for cyclingnews.com, Jonathan Vaughters said “the lack of radio communication was simply randomizing the outcomes of races” adding that a guest in the team car told him “Good communication increases the likelihood of the best team with the best rider winning“.

I’d agree with this. Yet I’d say that sometimes fans want a random outcome, we want to see a rider slip the relentless grasp of sprinters, to see a long range attack escape calculations made in the team car. Maybe sometimes we want to see a chancer on a small team have his day?

Lady Luck is up the road

Random can be good for spectators. Remember last summer’s Tour de France? The exciting points of the race came when riders crashed in the Ardennes, when the race crossed the cobbles of Arenberg, when Andy Schleck attacked, only to drop his chain. Or the Giro, when Nibali crashed on the strade bianche or the big breakaway on Stage 11 that owed its genesis to Vinokourov stopping to take his rain jacket off? And what is Roubaix but a festival of punctures, mechanicals and post-race “Shoulda Woulda Coulda” comments? Random is good.

Before you leap to the comments below, of course races are not decided by random moments alone and nor should they be. And plenty of good racing happens without unfortunate incidents. It’s just that an element of suspense can add to the drama. I fully appreciate that this can undo the plans of well-organised teams and that random outcomes can generate unworthy wins as well. It’s just that drama and tension make bike racing what it is for spectators.

Teams want predictability, they want to know that spending $X million = $Y million of publicity. That’s understandable but I quite like a little bit of chance and so too do the TV viewing figures. Extrapolating the argument to the ridiculous, if bike races were simply ergo competitions where a rider producing 6.32W/kg wins ahead of the guy with 6.29W/Kg then nobody would watch.

Finally, if random is good then this doesn’t mean we need to ban race radios. We’ve seen some fantastic races in 2010 with radios. Later today I’ll return to the subject of the race radio ban and the looming confrontation between the teams and the UCI.

Photo: Cycling Weekly

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{ 18 comments }

Gavin January 18, 2011 at 10:21 am

In F1 the communications between the pits and the drivers are open. Would something like that be the answer. If every team could (if they wanted to) listen into the other teams it may at least restrict what they are telling their riders to safety/course info. Obviously in F1 the pit teams are static and the area of the circuit isn't that large so the logistics of setting up the radio communication is fairly easy. If the UCI had a couple of radio cars in the convoy and issued out the radios to the teams at the start of the race I think it could work.

CJ January 18, 2011 at 10:27 am

Contrast F1 and MotoGP. F1 = boring, processional racing where the team with the biggest budget always sledgehammers the small fry. MotoGP = edge of seat unpredictability, with even rookies and unknowns getting the odd podium spot. Doesn't mean that over the course of a season (or, in cycling, a stage race) the strongest overall won't come out on top, though. Of course managers, being control freaks, love radios. But an individual rider's tactical judgement is, or should be, as important a part of their talent as their power output. Watching some overmuscled bonehead win everything because a wily old bloke in a car is pulling the strings would be very disappointing and dull.

TheInnerRing January 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

Gavin and CJ: good comparison. But what I'm trying to say is that chance makes the race exciting… but also that it's not just race radios. We've still seen plenty of excitement with race radios, no? I just wanted to comment on the difference between a team manager (as CJ points out) who wants as little risk as possible and the fan who can enjoy moments when upsets happen more than a big budget DS.

Irish Peloton January 18, 2011 at 10:44 am

"if bike races were simply ergo competitions where a rider producing 6.32W/kg wins ahead of the guy with 6.29W/Kg then nobody would watch."

A bit like track racing then eh? ;)

I agree with CJ. Intelligent riders have been stripped of some of the advantage that comes with being race savvy. Riders that are 'physically gifted' are entitled to bear the fruits that this gift may bring, but riders who are mentally gifted are stunted by race radios in how they can use their intelligence to defeat less clever riders. It's an advantage which race radios suppress and is sad for the riders who are on the ball.

thingswelike January 18, 2011 at 11:23 am

I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above. JV's guest's "best team with the best rider" cannot only be about money/watts/form. 'Best' could also mean – most alert, most willing, least to lose, etc, etc.
Mixing business with sport is always going to come to this though – when ROI is required from teams and sponsors – then conservatism rules.

Neil January 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Random is good. Races get very predictable and boring with the DS's controlling everything like a chess match. It could mean that when a break slips away they get an extra few minutes before the peloton reacts.

In Armstrong's first year back Contador attacked when he was told not to and that was one of the most exciting moments of the tour.

This whole safety angle strikes me as bollocks too. Races have been run without radios in the past without disastrous consequences. I ride amateur races with 80 riders on open roads without anything bad happening. If there's a oncoming problem the riders in-front shout to inform the riders behind to ease off. It's not rocket science. Radios didn't help them avoid the dangers in the Ardenne region in the tour.

Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Another voice to say "Yes". We don't always want to see the strongest guy win every day, to see the sprint trains get their way.

Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I guess the history of cycling consists of a long string of random winners by this argument. Eddy demonstrated this, randomly winning everything. Anquetil, Coppi, etc. The best teams with the best riders sure missed out. Nonsense. I don't race, and I don't claim to know much about race strategy, but I would wager that the old guys could read a race better and had better instincts than today's radio dependent riders.

TheInnerRing January 18, 2011 at 2:51 pm

All good comments, thanks guys.

Let's not just look at this within the debate of the radios alone. With or without radios we still need random elements, that's what sport is all about.

Anonymous January 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm

"TheInnerRing":

But the problem is that there are still too few random circumstances/events in most races. For every day in the grand tours where something exciting happens, I can provide you 3 -4 boring days in the flats, where essentially it all comes down to the 2 – 3 sprint teams putting their trains together, because they were able to chase the 3 – 4 riders who attacked early and broke free.

Want excitement – make it so that for once, someone like Cavendish actually has, to you know, push himself in a flat race for a chance at the line. Make it so that attacking early in a race is more than just a chance at some sponsor air time.

Think of it this way…now when the peleton is chasing a lead group, they have it so dialed in, that there is little if any decision making on the part of the teams and riders as to when to push it near the end. But imagine if you will, a complete lack of mathematical precision, and instead, each team of riders would need to decide when to chase. Maybe a team chases early, and the rest of the peleton decides it is not worth the risk of blowing up…or maybe they never catch the gutsy team or two which initially chase, rewarding the gutsy move.

Want to make that 210 km ride through the flat stages of the TdF fun again…get rid of the radios.

Touriste-Routier January 18, 2011 at 3:41 pm

The whole safety argument is overblown. The DS is reading from a tech guide (the booklet issued by the race organizers) while driving a team car, and talking over a race radio, while listening to radio tour (the official's radio communication) and possibly watching the action on TV, from behind the peloton. Talk about hazardous!

With the tech guide, the teams can go over primary concerns before the event. In front of the riders is a fleet of cars and motorcycles. Road furniture? There is usually a moto marshal with a flag and a whistle in front of it… The DS won't see this in the tech guide. Dangerous descent; I think the riders will remember this, or can heed the highway signs. Tight turn? Did you not see the caravan in front of you disappear around the bend with their brake lights on? KOM summit in 5k? The race organizers are required by the UCI to have these signs. 20k to go? Did you not notice the inflatable arch you just rode under? Cross winds? Look at the trees & flags, as well as the echelon forming in front of you…

Where teams will miss radios most (outside of dictating the tactics) is when a rider has a mechanical, and the rider can't call for specific help, and will need to see him standing on the side of the road, or wait for radio tour to announce it.

Since the riders made it out of the amateur ranks, with significantly less infrastructure, they should be able to be safe among other seasoned pros.

Julian January 18, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Couldn't the "safety" issue be addressed by allowing the riders who so choose to have a one-way radio that receives only communications from the Commisaire's car? Further, the DS of any team could radio to the Commisaire to request a broadcast, no?

Greg January 18, 2011 at 5:49 pm

It seems that a major part of what makes radios so important to teams is the sheer size of the motor vehicle caravan in modern international-level races. Without radios, it devolves into chaos. That's a big part of what I got out of JV's op-ed.

I'm not suggesting reducing the number of race vehicles, I don't know if this is a problem that needs solving or what, just an observation.

Irish Peloton January 18, 2011 at 6:16 pm

What about the potential for the radios to actually have an adverse effect on rider safety?

If every DS is yelling in to the radio that there's a tight bend coming up, and the team need to be in the first 20 riders. How much unnecessary chaos will that cause?

TheInnerRing January 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Anonymous: I'm with you there, the way the race can chase a breakaway to perfection owes a large part to radio coms.

T-R: yes, but it's a good "moral" cause, ;-)

Julian: that's possible. Maybe worth exploring.

Greg: yes, I sympathise on that point. Being a DS used to mean having ace rally driving skills precisely to find a way through the chaos.

Irish Peloton: true and there have been accidents too because riders couldn't hear others signalling obstacles because they had noise over the radio.

Alex Murray January 18, 2011 at 7:10 pm

F1 team radio isn't open. It's fed to the broadcast feed but it's not open to all teams as far as I know. Each team radio is encrypted, hence each team having technology providers who specialise in comms. They get radio from FIA control but not between each other:

http://www.f1sa.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=23671:f1–all-formula-1-team-radio-traffic-transmissions-now-eligible-for-broadcast&catid=1:f1&Itemid=157

bikecellar January 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Great debate, all the pro's and con's, what a pity this isn't what happens within the UCI.

ave January 19, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I very much agree with random being good.

I don't want a sprint finish on every sprint stage.
Indeed bike racing is much more than power/kg.

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