Race radios, what next?


The weekend saw two races held without race radios. Here’s a quick review of the issues.

It matters more than ever in Belgium as positioning and tactics are vital, riders dropping back to the team car to pick up food or fix a mechanical can’t alert their team. As a result, team riders use a lot of energy. Adam Blythe, Philippe Gilbert’s “bodyguard” at Omega Pharma-Lotto told Het Nieuwsblad that dropping back to return rain jackets and gloves or fetch water bottles cost plenty of energy. Similarly when Vacansoleil’s Stijn Devolder got his shifters jammed with sand he couldn’t warn his team, both the car and his team mates. Unsure of a speedy bike change, the Belgian champ soldiered on for 30km with a faulty bike. It was a factor that explained why the bunch was shredded with 70km remaining in the Het Nieuwsblad, team mates got shelled out earlier. Tom Boonen was quoted as saying “we really didn’t know anything”. Fans were delighted.

The pre-race threat of a strike by the riders was lifted but nothing is resolved. The issue has simply been put on hold and there will be talks on the eve of Paris-Nice. The French stage race is part of the World Tour where race radios can be used.

Rabobank went retro with a roof-mounted megaphone on Saturday. If the team won on Saturday, the loud hailer didn’t have much effect with Langeveld saying he couldn’t hear things over the traffic and crowds.

Attk @ car 4 d larb?
There’s talk of hiding mobile phone technology in a bike computer. If voice comms are too obvious, Sportwereld claims there are rumours of HTC and Garmin adapting units to include SMS messages. Maybe you want to file this next to tales of electronic bikes. The idea of receiving a message, say, to attack on the Carrefour de l’Arbre section of cobbles, “Attk @ car4 d larb” sounds fanciful. Especially as the rules would forbid this. Here’s UCI rule 2.2.024, which applies to every race except the World Tour, Women’s World Cup and time trials:

the use of radio links or other remote means of communication by or with the riders, as well as the possession of any equipment that can be used in this manner, during an event is prohibited.

The fans
TV spectators had a treat, especially on Saturday. Was it the lack of radios? You can’t isolate one factor, after all the first classic of the year is always an open affair and it’s always exciting to watch racing in Flanders. But some tactical factors suggest the absence of radios means teams are less organised and riders are left to themselves.

The riders
If fans might be happy, riders have a job to do and there have been several complaints about the convoy of team cars being wild as team managers rush to help their riders, turning the back of the race into a frantic car rally. As such many riders and teams – but not all – want the radios for safety reasons.

Race radio
On or off?

The outlook
The politics rumbles on. I’ve said the pro radio team needs to improve its campaign to get fans and the media on board. This will be even more so after a great weekend of racing where many fans were delighted by lively racing.

23 thoughts on “Race radios, what next?”

  1. The best idea I’ve heard is ‘opening up’ the radio communications: make them public (hopefully they’d find their way to the internet). That’d take away any advantages in terms of “remote controlling” the riders, but still let teams warn of safety issues. It’d have to be used judiciously in terms of something like a bad bike, as other teams might catch on and attack the vulnerable rider.

  2. Why not let the riders use radios and all receive the same safety information from one source – the race organisers?

    This way their safety concerns are answered and we get some damn exciting racing.

  3. Two things:
    1. Race organisers should have radio comms with the riders to warn of true safety hazards (eg, fire trucks responding to a bushfire, unplanned changes eg weather, wet roads) and some course features (eg, ‘road furniture’, etc) but that should be it. If it was REALLY related to safety, who knows the course better than the people that put the race on?
    2. Race organisers should have radio comms with the team cars to warn them of riders with problems. Perhaps a couple of neutral motorbikes at the back of the peloton, to warn teams of riders coming back with mechanicals or for domestique duties as they pass (simple messages like “Boonen bike change” or “Cancellara battery change” etc would be all that’s needed).

    That’s rider safety covered, and that’s team responsibilities covered. It also prevents team directors controlling the race once it’s in progress.

    That seems awfully simple, really… So what’s the real problem?

  4. I think the racing is much better without radios. Without them means that the athletes will have to be even more complete. More capable and competent. The word ‘team’ will be re-discovered as something that doesn’t just protect their leader, chase in the last 30km, but as something that not only thinks for itself, but is proactive, reactive, and able to succeed on their own. Old school.

  5. I just want to add, that if no-radio’s is the future then there’s going to be a learning curve for the teams. Just like a blinded person must learn to read braille the riders and teams will need to learn to communicate in other ways.
    “Greipel blamed the lack of organization in his team. “The problem was that there was no train,” he told Cyclingnews.”

    If response to your “Tactics” section I don’t see a problem with teams using energy to retrieve equipment or food. If everyone is doing it then it becomes part of the game. The idea of relying (too much) on bodyguard(s) takes away from a true champions’ abilities, in my view.

    For a moment the idea of text messages on bike computers seemed like a good idea. That is until the thought of guys squinting in the sun to read tiny screens at 60+kph came to mind.
    I think the best solution (thus far) seems to be a centrally controlled radio network where riders can get safety info and–if monitored properly–a raised hand or perhaps some kind of alert button can get a team car for a mechanical (for instance).

  6. All of the information that people think the cyclists should now get from technology used to be derived from hand signals, officials on motorbikes, calling up or dropping back to team cars, other cyclists of the peloton, and a reconnaissance of the course by the athletes weeks before, and sometimes the morning of the race by a soigneur, and the racing was done safely and effectively. Not too sure why people think radios solve a problem that was never there in the first place.

  7. In UCI races, the car following the peloton is called Comm 1 (Commaisaire). It is driven by a designated driver with the Comm in the passenger seat. The official has a radio that is in communication with various channels, including teams, officials and the race organizer. Other cars and motos with officials have similar radios, they follow other groups, breaks, etc.

    In the back seat of Comm 1 is someone who announces “Radio Tour”, a race wide play by play just the facts broadcast, including attacks, people coming off the back, mechanicals, etc. It is broadcast in French, and in the national language where the race is taking place, and often in English. At a minimum, 2 languages.

    It would be very easy to adapt this functionality into something the riders could hear.

  8. To everyone: the neutral race radio sounds interesting. A language barrier could cause problems, do you broadcast in the UCI languages of English, French *and* the local language, eg Flemish or Italian? Not to say it’s impossible but some details to be worked out.

    But as I’ve said before it’s about a lot more than safety. Using this as the reason lends a firm moral purpose but the team managers want control of the sport and money and power underpin this. That’s not to ignore rider safety at all, the riders do want the radios for their job.

    Hairy: it’s more that dropping back to the team cars takes a lot of energy, having the radio allows you to warn the team and so the driver can move up to help the rider.

  9. I remember when this issue came up a year ago or so it was less then clear that a majority of the riders were against the ban. In fact it seems that they were in favour of it. Now this has apparently changed, could it be because the teams (who pay the riders salary) have put pressure on them? Or just that they know what’s good for them.
    Let’s not lose sight of that aspect of things; I think that behind this debate lies a power struggle between the incompetent borderline corrupt UCI and the team owners. Perhaps the riders are lost in the shuffle.
    And yes, watching a pro race without DS’s controling riders via radios is clearly more exciting! And safety is a red herring as demonstrated in the above posts there are alternatives.

  10. Several people have asserted that in the past, sans radios, things were “just as safe”. I think you’d need to back that up with statistics and examine if there are other factors that have changed as well.

  11. qwerty: thanks. Click on the photo and you can see a fantastic gallery of images.

    Oliver: I certainly think a poll of every World Tour rider would be a good idea to settle the matter. Let riders vote in private, free from team pressures and the UCI and teams can review the results.

    David: anecdotally a DS used to be a rally driver and accidents in the convoy happened; with radios this has relaxed a bit. But as you say, if we want to discuss safety properly we need stats and to account for the size of the field, the increasing use of street furniture, roundabouts and more.

  12. some interesting comments regarding radios.
    I prefer to watch races where riders have to live with their own choices, good, bad or simply ugly.
    Races are too often dictated by a sportdirector watching tv coverage in the cars, and making ‘suggestions’ which determine the outcome.

    Some will say, thats the modern life, technology, why go backwards ?
    To me, riders racing on their own instincts with their teams, and reacting is far more honest and interesting to watch, in this manner.
    Suggestions to broadcast to all race radio comms is unlikely to work – i have known some teams who re tuned into rivals radio channel and transmitted ‘other’ instructions…
    As for race directors broadcasting to all, and controlling the systems, again, that is a system nightmare to administer.
    Frequently, race radio comms to teams, is very poor on some races, and something teams simply have to put up with.
    This weekend saw the Belgian season start with a typical gritty cold raining Omloop,
    followed by ‘easy’ weather, Kuurne Brussels Kuurne which finished in a sprint.

    Some great racing expected for the Classics in late March-April.

  13. I think if the riders and teams say the radios are for safety, then let them use the radios to relay crashes, traffic furniture, etc, but not tactics. The UCI can monitor the radios and fine teams who use them for non-safety info. Seems like a simple solution to me.

  14. Thousands of cyclists each weekend race amateur races on open roads, sans radios or other assistance, whilst riding in packs of riders lacking many of the bike instincts and handling skills the pros have. Seems to me pros riding on closed roads, against riders having all top notch handling skills and pack riding skills will be fine without a radio.

    This is a canard used to justify the fact they hate not knowing with more scientific precision how to tackle and catch a break.

  15. According to this article, the riders were anonymously polled about race radios and typically most didn’t respond: http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/former-cpa-president-vasseur-reacts-to-radio-ban. Now, he could be full of it – I don’t know enough about cycling to know – but I found another article from 2008 that said teams were being asked to provide names of representatives – not anonymous, but definitely a chance to voice an opinion. I’m kind of getting tired about the “we were never asked” argument.

  16. Flashing Pedals: true and that’s what the UCI wants. One thing not mentioned so far is that ASO and especially Prudhomme are firmly behind the ban, after all they tried an experiment in the 2009 Tour (which backfired). This could be crucial.

    Limonata: yes, that could shut down the safety side. But teams could use code within the radio comms.

    ColoradoGoat: yes, it makes me grateful to be alive. That said pro races can have 200+ riders and 22 team cars, 10 more following cars/vans and then 20 motos.

    Jennifer: quite true and a good point. Riders were polled but most didn’t respond. Some have said they didn’t realise the issue was going to be ruled on, that they would have voted if they need it would be important etc.

  17. Was it Scott Sunderland that was hit by a team car in the convoy?

    The fact that doping legislation is in place to make the sport fairer and safer for the athletes and that the riders now wear helmets means that race radios are a logical next step in ensuring that riders and cars aren’t up to all sorts of shenanigans on narrow roads!

    As for riders not having guards see Eddy Scheppers when Roche won the Giro, I don’t think radios made any difference to last Spring’s classics campaign or when Liquigas let the wrong group go in the Giro?

    Seems like a UCI/Team fight red herring really…

  18. The radio issue is so off-season. Jens! is right – If the pros want to fight this, boycott the Worlds since the UCI is dictating the rule and the UCI puts on that event. If they aren’t really going to stand up together, then STFU and race under the UCI’s rule (no matter how it’s being initiated). The pros have no one to blame for having no power but themselves (because they won’t stand united to fight it).

    Me – I’m over this. Racing is exciting radio or not and we’re back to racing, so let that be the headline (at least till Bert’s appeals begin).

  19. Raouligan & Moveondotorg: there have been accidents in the past and apparently one or two near misses over the weekend. So riders are getting a taste now and might not want to wait until the Worlds, they don’t see it as a red herring.

  20. It really doesn’t help that the most vocal pro-radios voices (eg Vaughters) are very open about the fact it’s as much about fighting with the UCI as it is the actual radio issue. That NEVER helps! If they kept it all about rider/team representation, and the UCI being generally crappy, I’m sure the fans would rally round! But it means that at the moment, every time an alternative to the either/or is put up, or a good argument against radios, these spokespeople say “oh well, it’s not just about radios”, which is un-answerable, but unsatisfactory.

    But yeah, so BORED of the issue – I’d have much more faith in the protests if they were at ASO races, rather than just small struggling races…

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