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The battle over two-way radios about to explode

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jan. 24, 2011
  • Updated Feb. 24, 2011 at 7:36 PM EDT

Before sending an open letter to the UCI last week saying the world’s top teams will resist this year’s extended ban on race radios, AIGCP (International Association of Professional Cycling Teams) president and Garmin-Cervélo team manager Jonathan Vaughters told VeloNews, “I think the AIGCP is a strong and functional unit right now, and I think this radio thing is the first test of the new AIGCP.”

That open letter from the AIGCP was tantamount to the world’s top teams laying down the gauntlet to the UCI in concluding “we the teams cannot and will not accept non-use or any ban of two-way radio communication in .1 and .HC events in 2011 nor WorldTour events in 2012 and beyond … so we will continue to use them.”

That letter has generated a response from UCI president Pat McQuaid, who wrote to the AIGCP on Friday, saying the UCI finds the teams’ “defiant stance unconstructive and ultimately self-defeating.” Then, after stating that the UCI has to listen to everyone in the sport, including riders, organizers, national federations, media, fans and sponsors, the UCI president wrote: “Our analysis of all arguments finds that the ban on earpieces results in a net win for the general interest of cycling.”

A first test of the teams’ resolve to oppose the ban came last Monday when a handful of teams (including ProTeams Liquigas-Cannondale and Movistar) refused to remove their radio earpieces at sign-in before the opening stage of the UCI 2.1 stage race, the Tour de San Luis in Argentina; but it was a token protest, and the race went ahead without two-way radios being used.

The first true showdown between the teams and the UCI may come when the European season kicks off later this month with Italy’s 2.1 Reggio Calabria tour (January 28-30) and the 1.1 GP La Marseillaise in France (January 30). There will be greater focus on the French race following this past Friday’s announcement from the French cycling federation (FFC) that declared “total solidarity” with the UCI on enforcing the ban on earpieces, saying the FFC has decided “to put in place appropriate and sufficiently dissuasive sanctions” against riders resisting the ban.

If the matter is not settled before then an even sterner test of the ban is likely to come at next month’s 2.1 Tour of Qatar — where 10 of the 16 starting teams will be UCI ProTeams in a race organized by Tour de France owner ASO.

The pressure already stepped up earlier this month when 60 percent of 344 riders surveyed by the CPA (the professional cyclists association) were totally opposed to the ban; and this past Wednesday CPA president Gianni Bugno, the two-time world road champion and Giro d’Italia winner, sent a letter from the San Luis race to McQuaid in which he said that the radio ban jeopardized the riders’ safety and “can obstruct the development of the race, damaging the interests of sponsors and organizations, especially in those countries where we want the growth of cycling.”

Bugno then called “for a meeting between UCI and the international associations (riders, teams, team directors and race organizers) so that we may all explain to UCI our different point of view and — maybe — find a better solution.”

What Bugno didn’t say is that such a meeting has already taken place, in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 7 — a meeting that was postponed from December. Such a meeting should really have taken place before the UCI’s annual congress in September 2009. That’s when the management committee voted to extend the incremental ban on two-way radios, which already applied to junior and under-23 races, to include national and UCI international .2 events in 2010, UCI .HC and .1 events in 2011, and UCI WorldTour races in 2012 — so the full ban would be in place before next year’s Olympic Games in London.

It is always difficult if not impossible to change a fait accompli, so the January 7 meeting proved to be more a reiteration of the reasons why the UCI management committee voted for the ban rather than one that could change things. It also gave the race organizers (represented by Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme and Tour of Flanders chief Wim Vanherreweghe), the teams (RadioShack’s Johan Bruyneel and Katusha’s Serge Parsani), the riders (Dario Cioni of Sky and Philippe Gilbert of Omega-Lotto) and the media (Bertrand Duboux of Swiss television and Gilles Le Roc’h of the French press) an opportunity to give their differing views on the situation.

Addressing the recent survey made among professional racers, UCI technical advisor Jean Wauthier reminded the people at the January 7 meeting about what riders thought before hard-shell helmets were made mandatory a decade ago. “A survey of the riders conducted in 2001 concluded that 85 percent of riders were against the obligation to wear a helmet. … The situation is similar to two-way radios, and even more so as riders are not aware of all the scientific data on the dangers of using two-way radio.”

The main points in the teams’ argument for keeping two-way radios is well known. They were summarized in the AIGCP’s open letter to the UCI this past week as:

• Reduced confusion and increased safety in the race caravan
• Increased ability to warn riders of upcoming dangers and conditions on the course
• More intelligent riders and teams benefit from greater information flow as opposed to a random, lucky winners benefiting from lack of information.

Team directors like Bruyneel and Saxo Bank’s Bjarne Riis have said for years that radio communication is vital to their profession, especially in coaching their riders through their earpieces (rather than having to drive up to the peloton and talk directly to them) and providing a professional environment at the race for team sponsors and prospective sponsors. Without the radio transmitter at their fingertips, they feel that, as Parsani said at the recent meeting, “directeurs sportifs would have no reason to follow a race and may as well go directly to the finish as soon as the event has started.”

Tradition vs technology

It’s clear that the AIGCP’s arguments have not been embraced by the traditionalists in professional cycling, or the majority of those who attended the January 7 meeting. They feel that riders receive too much (constant) information, which interferes with the normal flow of a race, taking away the instinctive tactical moves that once made cycling such an exciting and heroic sport.

This argument goes back to the roots of bike racing, a century before in-race radios became fashionable. The Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange wrote a training book in 1894 (reissued in 1930), titled “La Tête et les Jambes,” in which he made the case that a complete cyclist is one who uses his head (tête) to decide when to make a decisive move in a race and then uses his legs (jambes) to go for victory. More than one person at the January 7 meeting made the point that when the team director is calling most of the shots via a radio link, the intelligence (or “head”) part of the sport is removed, leaving just the power (or “legs”) part — and thus creating a sport contested by robots rather than complete athletes.

Gilbert, who is arguably the sport’s top classics rider right now, is famed for not using an earpiece. In his letter to the meeting (he couldn’t attend because of his team’s training camp), the Belgian racer gave the example of the 2010 worlds as proof that racing is better without radio communication. (The UCI owns the world championships and the race in Australia last October was the first truly top-tier race in two decades where no radios were allowed.)

Gilbert and others pointed out that no safety problems arose in the race and that the media and fans hailed it as the most exciting worlds in years. And in addressing the point made by pro-radio advocates that without radio communication a rider could lose a race because of a flat tire, Gilbert pointed out: “I might be denied a major victory because of a puncture when I would have won if I could have told my directeur sportif immediately, but then I might win five other races because I know how to read a race or can surprise my opponents by a major attack … (and) a surprise attack is impossible when the directeurs sportifs are in direct communication.”

Swiss TV journalist Duboux said, “Riders … are like toy soldier or very docile employees. This makes the competition lifeless. Only four stages in (the 2010) Tour de France were interesting and decisive.” His French colleague Le Roc’h used stronger language, saying that “two-way radio reduces the credibility of the sports journalist’s work, as he or she is never party to what goes on in the cars behind the peloton, which has the effect of removing the ‘substance’ from comments that the journalist make.”

Tour director Prudhomme is adamant that cycling needs to be less predictable and that banning radios will bring back some of the lost excitement. “If the … sporting spectacle is monotonous and stereotyped, it will be difficult to keep spectators,” he said. “New generations … will not be content with the spectacle of cycle racing as it is presented today. They want a dynamic offering, with action and the unexpected.”

Prudhomme added, “We must ask ourselves how attractive cycling is and how we could make it more attractive. The figures speak for themselves. Audience numbers are reducing, not so dramatically for the Tour de France as elsewhere, but they are reducing.” Duboux went so far as to say, “Cycling is in danger, its future is mortgaged and the sport is living on borrowed time. There should be real racing at the heart of an event … more uncertainty and more suspense.”

That televised cycling has become too predictable is a point often made by the fans, but it has yet to be proved that radio communication causes the familiar modern race pattern: a frenetic opening and the establishment of a not-too-dangerous breakaway that is always reeled in before the usual sprint finish. There are exceptions, of course, but the only way we’ll find out whether racers can rediscover their heads to go with their impeccably trained legs is when no radios are being used.

Unless there is a huge U-turn made by the UCI and its various constituents, an answer to that will come quite soon. In his letter to the AIGCP this weekend, McQuaid wrote to Vaughters, Bruyneel and their colleagues: “The UCI is called upon to conduct careful cost-benefit analyses as well as engage in long-term thinking of where the sport is headed, and it is unfortunate you will not engage the debate in these terms.”

McQuaid continued: “Yes, you have your arguments, as does the opposing view. Yes, there might be a disadvantage in a particular case, but let us look at what we are gaining, and not just today, but over the next 10-20 years.” He then concluded: “I think AIGCP should come up with better arguments than threats.”

It won’t be long before the world will see whether those threats bear any weight, and whether teams will defy the authorities and continue using their radio systems in races where they are banned. The situation is potentially explosive.

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