Unpacking Race Radios

Brad Wiggins via BikeRadar.com

There has been a lot of chatter on the interwebs lately about race radios- more specifically, the banning of race radios by the UCI. But why exactly is this such a big deal? Why are riders spouting off on Twitter, bloggers blogging, and articles being written about this topic? While on the surface, it might seem to be just about riders and teams not wanting to give up their race radios, it’s really about much more than that. It’s also about where exactly the riders and teams fit into the cycling hierarchy, how much say they get in decisions which affect them, and who really wears the pants in the UCI-cyclist relationship. Let’s break it down.

History

For those of us (me) who’ve only just discovered the joys of pro cycling, we’ve only known cycling with race radios. However, they are relatively new addition to the peloton. Radios only became commonplace in the mid-90s, but it didn’t take long for them to become an integral part of racing. Race radios connect riders to their directeur sportifs (DS- essentially race coaches who guide the riders through the race) following in team cars through two way radios. Through these radios, riders can hear about breakaways-who’s in them, their gap on the group-crashes, dangers on the road, riders who’ve blown, riders who’ve attacked, etc, and can also let the team car know when they’ve had a flat, if they need help, or ask questions.

Radios were being used at all levels until the UCI decided it didn’t like the changes radios were bringing to the sport and started making changes to limit their use. They knew they couldn’t get rid of radios outright, so they decided to implement a gradual ban, starting with amateur, Junior and U23 races. In July of 2009, the UCI decided to test a radio ban at the Tour on stages 10 and 13. However, after stage 10, 14 out of the 20 teams lodged a protest against the radio ban and radios were reinstated for stage 13.  In September 2009, the UCI management committee voted to ban radios at all events except *.1 and *.HC (see note).  USA Cycling  soon followed suite and banned radios at their events also. In 2010, it banned radios again at the World Championships in Australia (which they could do, as the UCI owns this race). There was nothing the riders could do about this except complain, as to not race here wasn’t an option- it’s one thing to neutralize a stage of a 3 week race, it’s another to refuse to race in a winner take all competition to possess the rainbow jersey. So the riders complained all the way to the start line and raced without radios. This year, the UCI continued with it’s mission to rid the sport of radios and banned radios at all events which are not part of the World Tour calendar- so if it’s not one of the 26 races which are part of that calendar which include all the Grand Tours, the Historical races (the Classics of early spring), and various other major one day and week long stage races, there are no radios allowed.

Note: Elite racing has several levels: World Tour at the top; 2.HC for stage races, 1.HC for one-day races; and 2.1/1.1 and 2.2/1.2 on the bottom two rungs.

Reasoning

But why is the UCI so determined to get rid of race radios? According to them, it’s to get back to racing’s roots. They feel the sport has become uninspired and predictable and radios are to blame for this. They claim riders have become robots under the command of their DS, unable to race without someone telling them what to do. They long for the days when riders rode on instinct and guts. To ensure the future of the sport, it is important not only keep current fans, but to attract new ones. Banning race radios would make cycling spontaneous and interesting again, and thus more attractive to viewers, as “cycling with ear-pieces is not very spectacular any more”.

Rebuttal

However, riders and teams say none of this is true. Radios do not make a race interesting or not- riders do. Tactics are usually decided before the race even starts and “the radios aren’t here to get riders information that they have to breathe, to pedal, to push the pedals.” I once heard it compared to going into battle- the commander can lay out a strategy and give direction once in battle, but it’s up to the troops to put the plan into motion and often things happen which can’t be predicted, requiring the men to act on their feet. Besides, there’s the matter of security and safety. Radios are an imperative part of keeping the peloton safe- they can help warn of crashes, particularly hazardous road furniture, emergency vehicles which need to pass through the peloton, dangerous road conditions, etc. There are some who question the need to go back to the “dark ages-” we’re in the 21st century, they argue, embrace the technology and how it can improve the sport. As Tyler Farrar said, “Are we going to have a day where we race in wool jerseys, or a day when we race with a single speed? The future of the sport is technology, and radios make the race safer.”

There are some riders who do support the ban. Phillipe Gilbert, for one, agrees with the UCI that racing is more exciting without radios, as does David Miller, Stephen Roche, Steve Cozza etc. Then there are those like Cadel Evans who don’t care one one way or the other.

The real issue

The real issue here is not so much that the UCI wants to ban the radios, but that they did so without really consulting any of the people who a ban really affects- the riders. There was a poll conducted which indicated that 60% of riders were in favor of keeping radios unrestricted, however the ban was voted on without actually consulting riders and teams. A meeting was scheduled between the two groups in January 2010, but the UCI voted on the ban back in 2009- a meeting between the two groups should have happened before the UCI voted on the ban. And when the ban actually went into place at the beginning of this year, riders and teams realized exactly what this vote and ban meant. Now the riders and teams are facing off against the UCI- not just to get the radios back, but to demand for more representation in decisions that affect them. Protests over the race radio decision at this year’s Mallorca Challenge saw riders delay the start for 20 minutes, the UCI withdraw their officials, and Tyler Ferrar’s win be annulled. Riders maintain that these protests are more about the lack of representation and consultation in the governing of cycling than the banning of the radios.

This issue is still ongoing and an important part of this situation is the lack of representation riders and the lack of teeth International Association of Professional Cycling teams (AIGCP) have with the UCI. The AIGCP does what it can, but it represents the teams, not the riders. There is a union for cyclists, the CPA (Coureurs Professionnels Associés, French for Associated Pro Riders), but it has virtually no voice the in the cycling world. And even if they did, if the UCI refuses to listen to anyone but themselves, it doesn’t matter.

Update: The gauntlet has been thrown! Jens Voigt has suggested a boycott of the 2011 World Championship if the UCI refuses to negotiate/retract the radio ban. His reasoning? Pain is remembered. If the riders do something to hurt the UCI, they’re more likely to avoid being hurt again in the future! If enough riders would pledge to not ride Worlds if the ban is not retracted, the UCI might rethink not consulting the riders. This would be a bold move indeed, because if the UCI decided the radio ban was more important than the World Championship and go on without them, they would not be able to compete to wear the rainbow jersey. But something like that could just scare the UCI into behaving!

A version of this article appears on US Pro Cycling News. Find me on Twitter!

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