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Michael Barry’s Diary – The peloton unplugged

  • By Michael Barry
  • Published Oct. 4, 2009
Radio Silence: Some riders can do quite well without the voices in their head telling them what to do.

Photo: VeloNews file photo

Sitting in the middle of the peloton, riding along at a steady tempo as a team controls the pace on the front, I hear our director in the radio: “There is a dangerous descent coming up in four kilometers. Move to the front to stay out of trouble. There is gravel on the corners and many switchbacks. Get to the front.”

Sitting in the car, well behind the peloton, he has seen the technical section of course on the map and the commissaires have also relayed the information to him through their radio broadcast to all the vehicles following the race. Almost instantaneously there is a panic in the peloton.

Every team has ordered its riders, each of whom is wirelessly tethered to a director, to move up. In a few short moments, what was a controlled moment of racing with few dangers has become a panicked fight for the front. Riders push and shove through the bunch as they simultaneously try to follow orders.

My heart begins to race and I grip the bars firmly. Brakes are slammed, wheels skid, bodies bump together and carbon smoke is in the air as a crash is avoided. With several hours of racing remaining we are riding as if we are just minutes from the line. As we crest the summit and turn the first corner to descend, two riders touch handlebars, tangle and crash. The peloton’s nervousness increases and we are soon riding much faster than we had been before as everyone panics. More crashes occur.

Radios have changed cycling.

Riders have lost their instinct and have become dependent on the orders from their car and the racing has become increasingly controlled. Radio communication has eliminated many of the variables which make cycling exciting and appealing to the public. When teams began to dominate Formula One, limits were put on the cars and the technology was limited to challenge the drivers, boost the competition and level the playing field. The UCI’s announcement of a radio ban will attempt to accomplish the same thing for cycling.

Cycling is a tactical sport. What intrigues the public are the variables which allow a long breakaway attempt and the heroic effort, to succeed. The public doesn’t want to see complete dominance and control. Cycling has become overly formulaic in the last 10 years. Much of this year’s Tour was tedious to watch as it lacked the glorious moments where riders race with panache.

Over the radio we are relayed every piece of information available. We know the weather ahead, the course conditions and difficulties, the time gaps between the groups, who is dropped or who is in front, how big the remaining group is, how far there is until the finish, how far to the feedzone, where the soigneurs are standing in the feedzone, and dozens of other little bits and pieces that help solve the puzzle, or when there is too much information, complicate things. We are then encouraged, often repeatedly to annoyance, to stay focused, to rider harder, to go faster, to attack, to sit in, to drink, to eat, and to move to the front. The director, from his seat in the car, is in the race with us but without the same pain in his legs. ??

To me, the teams, riders and directors who are complaining about the proposed ban are scared to try a new formula for racing. Why would Ferrari, or whichever team is dominating, want a rule change when their cars are victorious on every weekend of the Formula One season?

The winning teams have become victorious by controlling the variables in the race while using their talent to its maximum. With televisions and telephones in the team cars the directors can see and hear everything that is happening or might possibly happen. The information is relayed to the riders and tactics are then dictated as they become puppeteers, all their denials to the contrary. The riders follow the commands and rarely question any decision. Eliminate radios and the director’s role changes overnight.

There are many young riders in the professional peloton who have rarely raced without radios. Tactically they are inept because they have always listened for commands and have never had to plan and react alone.

Johan Bruyneel was one of the first directors to embrace any new technology. He then used it like a maestro to orchestrate the race and conduct his team. Under his guidance we rode beautifully together, each knowing our role. We knew when to increase the tempo, when to attack and when to slow the peloton down. The race was often under the team’s ? Johan’s ? control as we whirled away on the front for hours before the crucial, planned moment when the leader attacked and crushed his rivals. A decade later the formula, since adopted by everyone, has made racing mundane. No longer does the long breakaway last until the finish and rarely does the dominant team falter.

To their proponents, radios make racing safer by eliminating cars from the peloton. But cars were not in the peloton constantly during the era of radio-free racing. They did come into the peloton but only with the permission of the commisaire, infrequently and when the moment was appropriate. Conversely, radios and the rest of the technology we now use, make the racing more dangerous.

I have seen many directors drive erratically in the race caravan as they are either focused on the radio, the television, their BlackBerry or telephone instead of on the car in front or riders buzzing around them. Most of these communication devices have been made illegal to use on the city streets in normal traffic as it has been proven that multitasking is in fact impossible as the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Why are these devices permitted in the closed, yet wildly chaotic, environment of races?

With the continued use of radios cycling risks becoming boring to the spectators and increasingly dangerous to the cyclists. As roads become more congested with cars, roundabouts increasingly prolific, and city centers dense, the dangers will continue to increase. Over the radios directors, management and organization can infuse the peloton with their directives which may often not be in the riders’ best interest. Prior to radio use there was solidarity amongst the riders where they looked out for their common interests when their jobs or health were at risk. With a voice telling us what to do, we have lost our voice as we seem to constantly buckle when under pressure.

Cycling is a spectator sport. We are paid to race our bikes to deliver advertising to the public watching us on television or from the roadside. The racing needs to appeal to the public. In the autobiographical movie of Eddy Merckx, “La Course en Tete,” a journalist asked Eddy if he thinks cycling is so popular because, quoting biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod, “People admire courage, calculation and will power, all of which are primitive instincts.”

Eddy quietly ponders the questions and then nods his head in agreement. With radios we lose our instinct to race with panache.


Michael Barry is a member of Team Columbia-HTC, husband of Olympic medalist Dede Barry and author of VeloPress’s “Inside the Postal Bus

Barry also authored Fitness Cycling with his wife and Dr. Shannon Sovndal.

FILED UNDER: Rider Diaries

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