I wrote this piece just before the Tour de France for the Astana website in response to the organizer’s ban on race radios in two stages. Now that the topic has resurfaced as the UCI is proposing phasing out two-way race radios. While there hasn’t been a time line established when exactly the radios will be put on the shelf, it has set off a firestorm of controversy. So here’s my two cents for what it’s worth…
Race radios are a relatively new piece of equipment in a sport that is over a hundred years old. The radio was first introduced by the Motorola team because, well, the title sponsor produced them. But beyond the obvious sponsorship tie-in the radios allowed the director in the team car to point out road hazards and relay information without having to lean on the horn and blast their way up to the rider. And before you could say “10-4, over and out” the entire professional peloton had a radio tucked into their middle jersey pocket with a cord leading up to the ear. And today at your local race it’s not too unusual to see a few riders with a radio piece firmly planted into an ear.
This year’s Tour de France race radios have been excluded from stages 10 and 13. This is not the first time the UCI has taken a rather harsh stance with technology. Time trial bikes must be able to fit within a measuring jig to determine their race legality. In an age when almost the complete bike can be made from aeronautical strength carbon fiber, the UCI rules do not allow riders to race a bike under 15 pounds for safety concerns. I’ve heard reliable rumors that back in the day when bikes were weighed, ice was place in the seat tubes as ballast and then over the course of the stage it melted and ran out the bottom bracket. Others cleverly used the weight restriction to show that their bike was so light that they had to add very visible weights to the top tube to bring it into compliance. Cross-country mountain bikes are now approaching that weight restriction because composite materials are stronger. However this year it is race radios that are being limited on what is now a trial basis.
Why the brief exclusion of race radios on just these two days? For several years the idea of eliminating or at least limiting the use of radios has bounced around the halls of the UCI like a loose ping pong ball. This year the idea caught traction with the ASO, the owners of the Tour de France, and they decided to implement the no radio rule in a very limited manner. This idea was not so well received by modern day directors or riders. Directors stated the obvious that the radios were in fact partially for safety. They could alert riders of upcoming road concerns without continually driving up and down the bunch. Information could also be relayed in the same manner without causing a traffic jam worthy of a southern California freeway. But those against the radios seem to harken back to the “good old days” of poring over a stage map on the hood of the team car, sticking a moist finger in the air to determine wind direction and planning a race strategy. Some of the old guard are even quoted as saying that the radios were attached to race directing gigolos. Wow! But lets take a look from their side of the fence. Having a radio piece continually stuck in a rider’s ear takes away from the spontaneity to make decisions. The rider becomes too dependent on what the director is saying from the team car. While getting directions from the director via the radio is instantaneous, the rider is the first one to see the action go down and will have learned by this point in their professional career what moves look dangerous and what doesn’t. However I have sat in enough team cars to know that the car is not always the first to know what is going on. And yes, in some of the bigger races the directors can watch the race live on the in-car televisions, but that is often aimed at a marquee rider or the break up the road, not necessary their rider. The good rider becomes a good rider because he has learned how to read a race. The ones who can’t often self-select themselves out of the bike racing gene pool. It’s that simple – Darwin in action. Others wring their hands and cry out that the sanctuary of the pre-race team meeting will be forever ruined and perhaps directors will now send out 140 character Tweets to riders. “The race starts at noon be at bus by 11 to pick up bikes & clean kits. Also work together. Lead out Mark. Check ur Facebook pg 4 updates.” As any sun burned race journalist will tell you team meetings still occur before every race, and sometimes right up to sign-in making it a challenge to get that all important pre-stage quote of how the legs are doing. Another factor to consider is that the roads in most cases are not improving and are in fact deteriorating. Also with more traffic on the roads than ever before, there are now more cars parked on the sides squeezing the lanes even smaller. These types of road hazards need to be communicated during the race for the safety of the peloton. Stage 4, the team time trial, was no better example of how important a radio can be. With the numerous turns a rider needs all the assistance he can to be able to navigate through the course safely. And even then there were still numerous crashes.
The experiment of excluding radios for two stages is, on the surface, interesting. However the rider’s safety must be thought of and if fewer accidents can be prevented by the use of these than so be it.