Race radios and the Tour de France: data from 365 stages

Race radio

You are probably getting rightly bored by the race radio debate. After all Milan-Sanremo was so exciting that it rightly put politics, protest and scandal in the shade. And by now you probably know by now that the radio is being used as a Trojan Horse where protesting teams are trying to push back the UCI in order to have more say over the sport. But bear with me…

Forgotten amongst all the debate, noise, protest and press releases is the fundamental premise of evidence. Nobody seems to have put forward any data to suggest the addition or removal of race radios makes any difference to safety or results. I’ve yet to see data, only anecdote. Until now.

gael gueguen
Professor Gueguen

There is actually a research document which covers this very matter. A study by Professor Gaël Guegan of Toulouse Business School has looked at the Tour de France pre and post the introduction of race radios with the precise aim of evaluating whether race radios change anything.

More precisely every stage from 1991 to 1996, some 245 stages, was analysed to provide a set of data prior to the arrival of race radios. Then another 120 stages from 2001 to 2005 were reviewed to provide the “with radio” data. In total 40,000 finishing places of riders were analysed. Then the stages were categorised as “flat”, “medium mountain” and “high mountains” in order to review the effects of a stage type on the finish, where obviously the more mountainous stages resulted in a more fragmented finishing order as opposed to one big giant bunch sprint.

The data suggest the following major points:

  • there’s been no real change in the number of bunch sprints since the introduction of radios. This runs contrary to the received idea that radios allow several teams to rein in breakaways with precision in order to set up a sprint finish. Yet the actual data suggest that sprinters teams are not any more efficient in a chase with radios than without them.
  • in the event of a breakaway staying away then the bunch rolls in with a greater delay when radios are present. The rationale for this is that once informed that a chase is futile the better-informed bunch prefers to sit up and conserve energy for another day. The time gap between the winning move and the arrival of the bunch has doubled. This is a very significant change, by preventing an unnecessary chase the radios actually give breakaways a bigger margin. This means attacking moves appear to be rewarded with more time.

Based on the evidence presented it appears the “radios make racing dull” hypothesis doesn’t quite stack up. Far from changing the outcomes of a race, radio use does not correlated with the outcome of a race. If anything, radios mean the bunch will sit up only if they know the chase won’t work and therefore bolder riders get more time on the overall. Thus rewards for attacking are increased, albeit at the margin. The data suggest radios reward the bold.


Thanks to an alert reader for passing on the research. You can read more (in French) online at Professor Guegan’s website where a summary note of the research is also available to download.

43 thoughts on “Race radios and the Tour de France: data from 365 stages”

  1. Nice, riders sit up and safe energy for another day. That’s really exciting indeed.

    This article supports a biased opinion. I am used to better quality journalism here, Matt. I mean no offence, of course. Looking forward t0 next blog-item!

  2. Alas, the same data can lead to different conclusions depending on one’s bias.
    For example, one could also conclude that without radios the bunch is more likely to try and catch the escape group, thus making the race more exciting. The rewards for attacking are always there — radio or no radio — not matter whether they succed (as you discussed in just the other post in reference to French riders looking for exposure during a stage in the TdF) the issue is: will the bunch try to reel them back in? Again, from what you write it seems that without radios the bunch might well give it a shoot — thus making the race more exciting to watch.

  3. A lot of the exciting finishes this year have been where the chase hasn’t given up, and has either caught the group on the line, or almost caught them. Whether that was because there was no radio is debatable of course, but to say that it’s not less exciting when the bunch sits up doesn’t seem right. Perhaps there is a criteria for “exciting”?

  4. Reno / Oliver: no, what I was suggesting was that when the bunch knows it won’t catch the break, it sits up. Instead of finishing at 2 mins, they finish at 4 mins. If there’s a chance of catching them then they would. Is the bias with me?

    Visko: not quite. It’s just saying there are the same chances of a bunch sprint but if a break sticks, it sticks with a bigger lead.

  5. Next project: Did the bio-passport make racing more exciting? (Actual races. Of course believing the peloton is cleaner makes watching events more enjoyable in a general way.)

  6. My issue with radios is not so much about whether breakaways are reeled in or not. It’s more like a case awhile back when a certain American rider raced up a huge climb in France against another guy, a noted climbing specialist from Italy. The story was (and it was heralded as something to be praised and sdmired, at least in the US press) the American’s DS, while watching a TV in the team car, used a mobile phone to call a doctor in Italy who was also watching the race, to inquire as to how long the Italian might keep up the pace. After getting an answer, the DS radioed the opinion to his rider who adjusted his tactics accordingly. While it was an exciting stage to watch anyway, I would have preferred a situation where the American would have had to simply look his Italian competitor in the eye and make a tactical decision for himself. These kind of situations can’t be quantified in any objective fashion, nor can you quantify an exciting or non-exciting race. TV ratings can suggest this and from what I’ve been led to believe, those are going down in many cases, which is supposedly why the broadcasters suggested doing something to create more excitement for the TV viewer. The rider’s safely issues could be handled with a simple one-way communicator from race-control, so why not ditch the radios for awhile and see what happens?

  7. Hm.. okay, maybe it favours the bold, but it touches on the very essence of the issue: is cycling exciting enough to watch. It is exciting when the racing is eventful, i.e. chases, attacks, bold and brave actions, wether they succeed or not. Last weekend’s Milan-Sanremo is a prime example. I guess everybody agrees on that.
    But then, there’s no dull and monotonuous races. The Tour de Frances of late.. they don’t contain many memorable stages/events, do they? We’ve even come so far that riders apologise for attacks to a ride who just attacked them! The chain-incident is the only memory that comes to my mind, when I think of the Tour of 2010. Oh yes, and Contador *giving* the stage to Andy on the Tourmalet.

    Paris-Nice, a forthnight ago: save for Samu, everybody sat in each other’s wheels, holding onto position they had. Radioshack had three men in the top10 and not a single move by one of them.

    My point: cycling has become very dull at times. I’ll probably follow the sport anyway, but I would reckon that many feel so and the image of radio-communication that of a tool not supporting exciting racing, but rather a mean that is counterproductive to exciting racing. I guess the article suggests the opposite? I don’t know wether it’s very convincing, to be honest, not to me and i guess certainly not to Mrs Kneeshaw from County Donegal.

    Maybe try find other ways to reward and stimulate bold racing.. time bonusses are an example, certainly on mountain top finishes. It worked great at the Tirreno, for instance.

    Radio’s don’t appeal to the masses. Or at least, not the way they are used now.

  8. When the peloton goes easy (I’d love to keep up with their piano pace) when it doesn’t matter, it means they can go harder when it does. All the while, it keeps the GC just a little bit tighter.

    We don’t have to buy into the riders’ histrionics on radios, but actual data is better than waxing nostalgic about a time that may or may not have ever existed.

  9. To all: I’m not really pro or anti radios and note the effects above are only at the margin. Radios don’t make racing suddenly exciting, I’m sorry if my words give that impression as that’s most certainly not what I meant. It’s just that the bunch sits up *only* when they know they can’t catch a rider and thus the time difference appears bigger… but obviously if a rider is dangerous for the GC then maybe the sprinters’ teams sit up but the GC tams take over.

    lieutenantmudd: you’ve seen http://www.sportsscientists.com/2011/03/biological-passport-effective-fight-or.html right? If not, take a look.

    Larry T: I hear you but only the other day I was re-reading Laurent Fignon’s biography and Cyrille Guimard – possibly the ultimate DS – was telling Fignon to attack LeMond. No radios then but Guimard was commanding Fignon like he was a chess piece.

    Reno: radios or not… cycling is sometimes a slow sport. I happen to like the slow moments but let’s not imagine the sport is packed with excitement. See the pre-radio Indurain era for example.

  10. Statistics, like hindsight are a fools wisdom. Both can be distorted to suit an argument. There is no doubt that adding or subtracting an element from an equation will alter the path to and hence the result. Self preservation disguised as stewardship seems to be the high ground being fought over. Though I wonder if the way forward is to go backwards.

  11. There’s two points about the racing raised by the radio debate I think. One is the notion that the chasing down of breakaways is a boring thing rather than being one of the great aspects of the sport. It’s hard to find other sports that have anything comparable to watching a few guys bury themselves trying to hold off the peleton. It brings out everyone’s desire to see the underdog triumph and the joy of watching the breakaway succeed despite your expectations is the payoff for the majority outcome.

    Second is that one of the other incomparable things in cycling is the team tactics of the chase and the race as a whole and should be viewed as a positive. I’ve sat and watched cycling with non fans who see the sport differently when you explain the intricacies of who is chasing and why to them. The notion that somehow this makes the race more boring is slightly odd when it seems to me it adds an extra dimension to the sport.

  12. I’d like to see some stats on the season so far, from what i can recall there have been more failed chases in stages than usual (using radios). Breakaways have been successful in P-N, T-A and just overnight at Catalunya – all with radios in the peleton. Whether this is the riders/DS trying to make a point I don’t know, but I do believe that cycling is safer with radios (as a father of a rider).

  13. Well, this paper in my opinion says everything why the TV stations want the radio ban.
    If the bunch knows the escape will stick and sit up, there is no chase to sell. It is much better for the the TV stations if it is not sure for long time if the break is caught or not. It is not the percentage of the escapes that stick but the way they are caught or not. Also if the sit up and arrive eight instead of four minutes later, that are four minutes longer on the air or maybe one or two minutes less advertising, and that is pure money to them.

  14. Struan raises a good point. The assumption that stages that end in bunch sprints are necessarily boring deserves closer examination. Variety is the spice of life, after all. Plenty of stages that ended with a small group sprinting for the line has been as boring as watching paint dry. And let’s be honest, watching a rider solo in from 30 or 50k out to finish alone in the picture, minutes ahead of the competition, while hugely impressive, isn’t terribly exciting to watch. Is 2010 really anybody’s favorite edition of Paris-Roubaix? If radios make such a marginal difference to race outcomes, it can’t be worth putting the sport through yet another crisis, whether you’re for or against radios in racing.

  15. I am with the crowd that sees this as evidence that racing has gotten MORE boring. I want the peloton to have to chase, with the uncertainty as to whether or not they will catch the lead riders. Even if it means breaks are caught earlier (because the peloton, with this additional doubt, no longer sits and with precision can time the catch), I would rather have that, then what we have now….either they give up (because again – they know it is not worth trying) or they dial in their effort to exactly what effort is needed to catch them.

    I am not sure that this paper supports that racing is more exciting with radios.

  16. Rick Chasey: in that riders will use more energy in the pursuit, yes.

    Il pirata: yes, I opened the piece with a reference to the politics of it all. But this is the first piece of number-crunching I’ve seen.

    Struan: the chase is always good to watch. I think it’s just a case here of teams shutting down the chase effort if there’s not much chance of it working. It’s not to say teams won’t chase, in fact it’s saying we have the same number of bunch sprints and presumably chases.

    cthulhu: good point. I can remember examples of where the bunch hesitated with 30km to go and then… well the break comes to the finish and we get excitement… but then the cameras stay tuned to the procession of the bunch who are all sitting up.

    Grolby: What if I said that a rider capable of attacking from far out and building up a lead might be more willing to have a go? But yes, when the lead is big it can be boring to watch. And yes that the debate is risky, the sport doesn’t need any more crisis. The main story here is that the numbers suggest radios don’t change the outcomes of race results.

    ColoradoGoat: what it’s saying is that there’s no difference in the bunch sprints and that there’s a change in the arrival times. The main lesson isn’t that radios make racing better or worse, simply that they make no difference to the outcome. The effects are of the second order, to the amount of time between the arrival of a break and the arrival of the bunch; which is a small extra reward for the attackers but they mainly want the win. So the message here is really one of no change.

  17. Follow the money. The UCI is under pressure from the investores/TV stations, the team owners and DS´s are under pressure from their sponsors, but hey, this is quite normal running a business. However, let´s not forget that the group of sneaky guys who started the rebel over the radio ban in the hours of darkness, the DS, all (most of them) comes from a generation of riders with low or non morale at all. I often wonder if they all go to bed at night thinking that they can also get away with murder, the way thay act. They missed out some valuable years beeing personally straightened through “normal lifes” and at the samt time beeing brought up in the circles of busniesslife, sitting on their frames. So what qualifies them to debate on the political themes within pro cycling, other than driving DS cars and beeing former low morale spoiled riders with almost no adultcontact outside cycling throughout their carrier. Line the DS cars up and you´ll fine very few og mabye none cars with blue licenses plates.. Let the repsentatives from the sponsors sort the radio ban issue with the UCI (with the riders and teams normal presens) they have allready proven that they can run at business and earn money.

  18. I wasn’t trying to make a specific for or against case on radios with my comment. If radios make a long-range breakaway artist more likely to go for it, that’s just a matter of fact. Does it make racing more exciting? That’s subjective. As I said, I don’t think that a breakaway finish is necessarily more fun to watch than a bunch sprint.

    I wasn’t watching bike racing in the early 90s, so I can’t really have an opinion on whether racing has become more boring since then. The results of this study, in spite of some naysayers, seem to indicate that any difference is marginal at best, that is, the chase doesn’t sit up on the tops and soft pedal while eating bon bons. I don’t think the difference, in many cases, is likely to noticeable to viewers. I’m inclined to believe that the belief that racing has become boring is either a case of rose-colored glasses, or that it’s attributable to a multitude of other factors not related to radio, such as greater homogeneity of ability across teams, increased rider specializations, the influence of constant camera coverage, etc.

    Certainly, this study puts paid to the idea that the casual TV viewer is changing channels because radios have made the race boring. This appears to refute a big part of Pat McQuaid’s case against radios.

  19. The thing is we could look at the introduction of STI shifting, helmets and other things that appeared at the same time. Correlation doesn’t mean cause and this research isn’t conclusive. But that’s the whole point, it is saying there’s little change and for me, this suggests radios aren’t making a big deal. We should be spending our time trying to work out what does make racing good rather than focussing on just radios. It’s like we’ve got a sick patient but we have no diagnosis yet surgeons are about to operate.

  20. I would have had no problem with the American’s DS driving the car up and yelling to his rider to ATTACK, as that’s been going on since there have been DS’s in cars (though some may argue that should be done away with) but my issue is that he could SECRETLY do all this stuff via the technology (TV, mobile phone, radio earpiece) vs yelling at the rider for all (including the competitor) to hear. I believe that changes the sport in a negative way that is difficult to quantify and compile statistics on, one way or another. The UCI should deal with the safety issue via a one-way transmission to the riders and DS’s about safety hazards, but ban communications from the DS via earpiece to the riders as well as radio communications amongst the riders. I have a tough time believing this will make for a less exciting show — but why not try it and see? I find it odd the teams are complaining about doing what TV broadcasters want when their sponsors (those whose $ funds the teams, remember?) are trying to get ads for their products in front of potential consumers. If they’re not careful, the sponsors might decide to ditch cycling and spend their dough on Facebook ads!

  21. buzzman: French TV have several commentators. Two cover the race from the finish line, then you have two on motorbikes, with one covering the front of the race and the other at the back, monitoring who gets dropped but also interviewing team managers. Then there’s the historian who gives accounts about local history as well as tales from the race gone by. It helps pass the time.

    Larry T: yes, the experimentation would be good but the riders feel unsafe without the radios so as much as you and I might like to watch what happens the riders will keep saying the same,

    Note there’s the possibility of protests and strikes this weekend as radios are supposed to be banned in the E3 etc.

  22. Perhaps cycling should take a page from the ever so close and exciting racing that is NASCAR. Riders and equipment would be sandbagged to equal weight, and drag could be added so that all motors are equal. Then we would have a mass finish at every stage… Now wouldn’t that be something to watch!

  23. Will the removal of race radios mean that a GC contender will be protected by all his team, all the time? Given the risks of a puncture or a mechanical problem and the possible delay in team cars reaching their rider, a GC rider will have to have enough support to help him return to the front. I say the “front” because that is the safest place for those with most to risk. It would also be of benefit to have riders who have the same size bike to chaperone the team leader so as to be able to swap bikes with the stranded GC rider, there will be times when a team car will be many minutes away. It could well eventuate that any accident, mechanical or puncture on any stage could be interpreted as a reason to attack by the peleton. This could increase the drama of transition and flatter sprint stages no doubt but I for one would like to see the Grand tours won by good racing not bad luck. That being said, this may have the effect of freeing some teams to attack in the hunt for stage victories, while teams with loftier goals may well do the opposite to mitigate the risk of losing all to a minor mishap. So, those with less to lose gain the most freedom while those who risk the most will revert to conservatism, pretty much the way it is now! It does look like an exercise in “ rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” for the most part. I’m sure that the UCI must feel like doing something is better than doing nothing though I do believe that the dog might be waging the tail in this instance. If Pat wants to let TV networks determine the shape of the sport, then best kiss the sport as we know it goodbye. Cycling is what it is, if they aren’t buying the product it’s not because of too much two way communication but not enough. If the UCI was serious about growing the sport then it could be time to re-evaluate certain policy.
    I used to love the design freedom of the ’80’s and 90’s. The “funny bike” was a signature of the sport and it’s desire to go faster through the unrestricted interface between rider and bike. The sport actually, for a time at least, appeared to be progressive, modern and focused on speed. Imagine what the sport would look like now if it was allowed to evolve. I’m not suggesting for a moment that there should be no restriction to design but some freedom could only add to the spectacle of the sport. Given the choice between embracing technology or rejecting it, only one represents a path forward. Heaven forbid that the sport should find a wider market while doing what should be happening naturally, evolving. Build it Pat, and they will come!

  24. If they’d let the sport “evolve” I think we’d be watching brightly colored easter eggs zooming along the road with no clue as to who (if anyone) was inside pedaling them. Or perhaps riders laying down on recumbent “bicycles”, making any sort of peloton obsolete, along with most of the tactics. It could easily “evolve” into boring chrono stages each day if streamlining made drafting behind another rider useless. Worse, isn’t the natural “evolution” of the bicycle a motorcycle? We already have MOTOGP and Supercross on TV. Think of the storied racetracks that have been made obsolete by the evolution of the machines allowed – the old Mille Miglia race had to be stopped when it became too dangerous (the cars went too fast on public roads) while the old Spa and Nurburgring F1 courses were ditched when modern F1 cars simply went too fast for them. I want “evolution” to be minimized as sport is nothing more than a contest to see who can perform best UNDER AN ARBITRARY SET OF HANDICAPS. A long list of handicaps like no dope, no motors, one must pedal the thing is a restricted position, etc. Get rid of these rules and what’s left?

  25. Not what you would expect to see… somebody actually did study the difference between races with & without race radio. And with a different outcome than many would think.

    I’m not certain 1991-1996 vs 2001-2005 TdF stages are otherwise-equal; you’re comparing pre-Lance to Lance days, and regardless of what you think of Lance himself, Bruyneel brought a different style of racing to the Peloton, that of everyone dying for the King. At least it’s my perception, possibly wrong, that pre-Lance it was more likely your GC guy didn’t have the entire team at his disposal, but rather you’d have your separate sprinters & breakaway guys… something not possible with a classic Lance/Bruyneel team.

  26. So Guegan’s study suggests that the UCI’s “radios are bad” argument may not hold weight. But what about the AIGCP/et al’s argument that “radios are good,” especially the claim that they make racing safer?

    For example, has anyone compared the Tour’s daily medical reports for periods without and with radios? Sure, there are lots of variables, but is there any evidence that radios make racing safer?

    Anyone know how to get their hands on say, 20yrs worth of medical reports? Or is that just a silly way to approach the issue?

  27. Jim: there is a medical bulletin for the day issued by the Tour, it lists every visit to the medical car and the “interventions” by medical staff. But it’d be a lot of work and how to we isolate the effect of radios. What about new brakes and gear shifting or the multiplication of “street furniture” in France. This is why one data set is hard to rely on… but it’s miles ahead of any other research.

  28. Memorable races
    World Championship 2008 – Ballan’s bad ass attack.
    Giro D’Italia 2009 – DiLuca’s doped racing was amazing to watch, sorry. It really was. And Menchov’s emotion was also a sight to see.
    Tour of Ireland 2009 – OMG, Downing was the man. Hence the Sky contract.
    MSR 2009 – I hate him, but damn that was an awesome kick from Cav.
    PR & Tour of Flanders 2010 – Awesome.

    I don’t see what you can really whine about. Cycling is exciting for people who actually know what the f!@# is going on. The peleton would be obliterated if everyday someone attacked and broke away. People want to do away with dope – but want to make cycling more exciting. Sorry – dope makes riders go boom. It’s fun to watch. Do I want their health to be compromised for my entertainment – of course not. But is removing radios the *best* handicap we can apply to the riders? I doubt that very much. Smaller teams? More cobbles? More hills? How about cooler locations – the landscapes are always nice.

    Look at baseball and golf – relatively boring things to watch on TV, but still have very strong viewership. I personally don’t think *exciting* is the issue. How about we start with de-coupling the association of ‘cycling’ and ‘dope’ in every other sentence from the general media? How about selling the personalities of the riders – you think Tiger Woods is solely famous for his performances? Cycling needs an icon. And unfortunately – the last big [like Tiger Woods big] European icon would be … ?

    A bit off topic – but I think related to removing the radios issue. Let them have it – jeez – for political or honest reasons.

  29. Don’t forget, you have to consider the French mentality toward victory,competition, and attitude toward the underdog/hero. And what do the French TV executives want to see on the screen? Do they want to be like US executives of reality shows, to affect the scenario.

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