ALHAMA DE MURCIA, Spain (VN) – Saxo Bank-Sungard boss Bjarne Riis blasted UCI leadership over what he called an arbitrary ban on race radio and said the cycling governing body is out of touch with the elite level of the sport.
Riis is one of the most vocal critics of the UCI’s decision to phase out two-way race radio communication and the Dane didn’t hold back on voicing his frustration following a series of meetings this week between the UCI and the top teams that failed to break the deadlock.
“We are very frustrated. These people who take these decisions never sit in a team car. They have a very romantic view of the sport, but the sport has changed in 30 years,” Riis told VeloNews. “They don’t want to listen. They don’t care.”
Riis was among the managers of top professional teams who met Friday in Paris following a Thursday sit-down between the UCI and AIGCP president Jonathan Vaughters.
The UCI refused to back down on its decision to phase out two-way race radio by the end of next season, but promised increased dialogue with teams. That wasn’t enough for Riis.
“We are all in agreement in our opposition to the ban. There are a few who have their opinions, but we all support this document we signed,” Riis said, referring to a declaration released Friday by the AIGCP. “This (radio ban) is bad for the sport. What do they know about racing? There were 11 teams in the Tour de France 30 years ago. There were four or five riders who could win, the other riders would do their work and got out of the way. Today the level of the peloton is so much higher. There are 20 teams in the Tour, 200 riders, the roads are more dangerous, there are more fans. They have no argument to defend the ban and the ones they have are all bad.”
With both sides digging in their heels, the AIGCP said it considering “drastic action” if the UCI does not retreat on the radio ban by May 1.
Riis hinted that more strikes could be in the works. Teams protested before the start of the first day of the Mallorca Challenge in early February, but backed down from another planned protest ahead of last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad after the UCI threatened to cancel the event.
“We are going to plan something. Personally, I do not like strikes, because it’s going to harm the race organizers, who are caught in the middle of this thing like we are,” Riis said. “It’s disappointing because they (UCI) don’t want to hear our opinions. They take a decision and we’re just told about it; that’s just not acceptable.”
Riis’s angst reflects frustration among many top riders and teams over the radio ban issue.
Backers of the ban say that the adoption of two-way radios in the mid-1990s has stifled the action and made for often-predictable racing. Proponents say that removing race radios will create more excitement by reducing the amount of control exercised by team managers, prompting riders to make their own decisions and thus award riders who go on the attack.
Opponents such as Riis say radios allow for safer racing and also provide a means for teams to avert technical challenges that would unfairly alter the outcome of a race, such as a puncture or another mechanical problem at a decisive moment. The strongest rider should win, opponents say, and not be influenced by an untimely puncture.
“Today’s race showed just how dangerous it is to race without radios,” Riis said, referring to the narrow, wet descent off the first-category Collado Bermejo. “A Movistar rider crashed on the descent. He was screaming at us because he was off the road and no one saw him. I was asking the mechanic if we had a phone number for Movistar. We couldn’t stop because we had Contador on the attack. If he had a race radio, he could call for help and get taken care of.”
In fact, there were three riders who crashed. All were transported to a local hospital for treatment. Mikel Landa (Euskaltel-Euskadi) broke his clavicle, Juan Mauricio Soler (Movistar) was banged up with several deep cuts and scrapes, and Ruben Plaza (Movistar) fractured a tibia.
Riis — who started his career before race radios became the vogue — even suggested that the radio ban may actually stifle action because teams will be unwilling to take unnecessary risks with millions of dollars of sponsorship dollars on the line.
“The races will be even more controlled than before. Teams will not take risks. The races will be a lot more boring,” he said. “Our sponsors pay a lot of money to have our stars win bike races. Look at our situation today. I was in the lead car, there were motorcycles everywhere, fans were on the road, the road was narrow. We couldn’t pass or move forward. We could not communicate with our riders in any way.”
In what’s a nightmare scenario for Riis is just what radio-ban opponents want, that riders like Contador have to make their own spur-of-the-moment decisions, good or bad.