What’s new this season? With disc brakes almost rare as motors one novelty for 2016 is the general use of race radios across all pro events. Previously reserved for the World Tour, and even threatened with extinction, radios are now in general use across all major pro races, male and female, for example at the Tour of Oman as modelled by reigning Belgian champion Preben Van Hecke. Will it make a difference? Maybe but perhaps not as we think.
Radios seem to generate all sorts of comments but people often seem prejudiced: you start with a view and continue in that direction. Actual study of the data is rare. There seems to be only one notable analysis thanks to Professor Gaël Gueguen of Toulouse Business School. He analysed 245 stages of the Tour de France between 1991 and 1996, when there were no radios, and 120 stages from 2001 to 2005 when radios were in use. In total this makes for 40,000 individual results across two time periods. There’s a PDF of the presentation in English if you want more. Guegen draws two major conclusions:
- there no meaningful increase in the number of bunch sprints since the introduction of radios. This is contrary to the received idea that radios allow teams to rein in breakaways
- in the event of a breakaway staying away then the bunch rolls in behind 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 sits up to conserve energy for another day
The analysis is helpful but incomplete. For example the radio is a useful tool to transmit information but in between the periods examined TVs made their way into the team car giving directors more information on the race. While the official race radio can frequently communicate time gaps live from the commissaire’s team car, TV often displays the time gap in real time allowing a more immediate grasp of what is happening. It also shows context, for example who is and who isn’t working in a breakaway which is important information to assess the chances of a breakaway succeeding. This is acknowledged by the study, as is the arrival of other informational tools such as power meters which help riders pace themselves better.
World Tour catenaccio
Another problem isolating the effect of radios has been comparing a World Tour race to smaller one. Sometimes people say World Tour races are boring because of radios, that teams can control things. The study above suggests this might not be the case but the problem is isolating radios from other significant differences:
- the stakes are much higher in a World Tour race so teams deploy risk-averse tactics. They play tight because they can’t afford to lose, a contrast to lesser races with more small-budget teams seems them trying to disrupt the race more
- World Tour races have all the big teams meaning a lot of strong riders to control. Put simply if Sky, BMC and Etixx want to reel in a breakaway they can probably do this more ably than Cofidis, Southeast or Caja Rural
- Team sizes vary too, the smaller the race the smaller the team too which makes it harder for teams to control
Caricatures perhaps but it all points to the difficulty in isolating one factor so when we say “World Tour races are boring and controlled” it can be true but proving the contribution of radios among squad sizes, team budgets and more is harder.
Should we remove information from the race in order to increase what Prussian military general Carl von Clausewitz called “the fog of war”? Make the race foggier and it could be more compelling, breakaways could get the edge on their chasers. Only if we try to make the racing more uncertain then sprinters’ teams or GC leaders have an interest in mitigating the risk. To exaggerate to make the point imagine if there were no time gaps given in a race: we might think this would create wild racing but strong teams would quickly learn that it pays to keep any breakaway in sight and therefore the race would be more boring with escape attempts being neutralised almost from the start.
Indeed it’s hard to keep the riders in the dark when there’s more and more information around them. We saw the adoption of live telemetry at the Tour de France last summer – those black sticks under the saddle. Similarly fans can stand beside the road and get live information via their smartphones. It’s hard to isolate the riders from the technology around us; if anything a crackling radio prone to breaking-up sounds quaint, something analogue in our a digital age. How long until teams have bike computer or even heads-up displays that communicate messages and beam power data back to the team car so that a coach can fine tune the tactics with this new information.
Fed up with hours of live TV ending in the inevitable sprint finish? Add some hills, cobbles or some other feature. Race organisers can swap long flat roads for tortuous twisty ones or include disruptive elements late in the day. This is not new, see how they put the Poggio in the 1960 Milan-Sanremo and have kept on adding more obstacles to split the race up ever since. Paris-Tours now uses three hills late in the race and ever since the “Sprinters’ Classic” rewards bold breakaways. Perhaps the biggest novelty is in the Tour de France where long days with a flat finish used to be normal, acceptable but now ASO likes to spice things up with a spiky hill, some cobbles or some other feature. The upcoming Paris-Nice features a section of gravel road.
Race radios are allowed in all pro races now. Some will cheer and some will boo but it probably won’t change much. The one study into radio use concludes there were as many sprint finishes in the Tour de France with or without. If anything radios bring a second order reward for the breakaways because if they stay away then the bunch eases up to save energy, giving the breakaway with not just the stage win but a bigger time gain which helps for that all important team prize.
There are dull races across all categories although perhaps we rage more when a big race like the Tour de France or a Monument plays out so predictably because we invest more hope in it? We’re just over a week away from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the prospect of seeing Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen, Alexander Kristoff and Greg Van Avaermaet excites. With or without an earpiece.