Frustrated teams threw down the gauntlet Thursday and vowed to not attend the UCI-backed Tour of Beijing in October over a long-running feud on the race radio ban issue.
Jonathan Vaughters, president of the professional team’s group, said that the larger issue is that teams are locked out of the decision-making process on rules and regulations that govern the sport of cycling, and that the race radio issue is where the line is being drawn.
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“The radios are one of many issues that we’re concerned about, but it’s an issue that we have decided to stand firm on as a group. It’s tangible, it’s understandable. It’s just one of many underlying issues, like rules on bikes, anti-doping, how the sport is organized,” Vaughters told VeloNews. “The people who work in the field should have a say in how these rules are formed. It’s something that we need to be a part of. Radios are where the line is being drawn.”
VeloNews spoke with Jonathan Vaughters on Thursday, here’s what he had to say:
VN: Jonathan, frustration has been brewing for a long time, why target the Beijing race for a strike instead of another race?
JV: Quite simply it’s the only race that the UCI not only governs and sanctions but also promotes. For us to take actions at other events that don’t have anything to do with the rule-making process is not fair. The intention is to improve the governance of the sport, so by taking actions in races that have no more say than we do, it’s not appropriate. This is the most appropriate action. And we’re not striking, that’s the wrong word. We’re simply not going to attend. The sport needs a more democratic process of governance. Until the rule-making is scrutinized and voted on by those who work in the field of cycling, until that happens, it’s irresponsible for us to attend the events promoted by that governing body.
VN: Is there some worry that the October date of the Beijing race would mute any sort of impact a protest might have, that the action will have less punch at the end of the season?
JV: I cannot worry about that. We have to do what’s right. This is not mean-spirited; the effect we want is to provoke change. We don’t want any punch; we want proper governance, for the teams and riders to be considered, to have our opinion heard and to have the possibility of voting. We’re simply saying we’re not going to race in an event that is promoted by a governing body that’s very far from having a democratic process.
VN: But aren’t teams and riders already represented in the decision-making process at the UCI?
JV: The teams and riders have reps on advisory boards, but they have no power into what’s passed into rules. I stand on CCP, though I am not sure anymore, because I think we might have gotten kicked off. At a meeting in Birmingham, when the decision was being made on the new ranking system for the teams, I asked that a vote be allowed, but there was no voting process allowed. Once the management committee of the UCI makes its decision, it does not need to take into account what the others think. Our representation is just on an advisory board. The riders, the teams and the race organizers have no direct voting on the rules and regulations outlining our sport.
VN: If the teams are frustrated over some larger issues, why is the radio ban becoming so decisive?
JV: The radios are one of many issues that we’re concerned about, but it’s an issue that we have decided to stand firm on as a group. It’s tangible, it’s understandable. It’s just one of many underlying issues, like rules on bikes, anti-doping, how the sport is organized. The people who work in the field should have a say in how these rules are formed. It’s something that we need to be a part of. Radios are where the line is being drawn.
VN: What’s been the reaction from the UCI?
JV: There’s been no reaction from the UCI, at least not to us.
VN: How is the communication these days between the UCI and the teams?
JV: It’s fairly poor right now. At the end of the day, this is a five-minute conversation. We can sit down and say, what are the compromises that each side is willing to take, and how do we meet in a middle ground on the issue? Then the Tour of Beijing isn’t an issue. We want to go to Beijing. My sponsors have interest in the Chinese market. I want to send a team there. But at the end of the day, we need to stand together and get this governance issue resolved.
VN: Is sounds like you’re calling for a major reworking of how decisions are made and how power is distributed within the sport, do you think the UCI would be willing cede its power?
JV: We have to start somewhere. For now, the issue is the radio ban. We can go from there. It’s very simple, we cannot support this the way things are right now.
VN: How far are the teams willing to take this battle?
JV: We’re not going to take any action that’s harmful to any parties that are not involved in the decision-making process. As soon as we get into strikes, those are actions that are indirectly hurting parties that are not part of the problem. We need to focus on those who are making the decision-making process and changing the tone.
VN: Why are race radios essential in your opinion?
JV: I can make arguments about that all day. Cycling is a unique sport, because it’s a blend of man and machine, that’s being contested at 40-50kph per hour on an open road. In a soccer stadium, you don’t need radios because the manager can stand on the sideline and yell to his players. In all team sports, communication between coach and player is possible. Cycling would become the only team sport where that’s not possible if we ban race radio.
VN: What do you say to the argument that cycling was more exciting without race radio?
JV: Some people say it was more exciting in the 1970s, 1980s, but there are a lot of factors involved in that. We are open to any ideas about how to make racing more exciting. We can open up radio communication to the fans, have it streamed live online or have it part of the TV broadcast. By banning race radio, you introduce an element of randomness into the race. If a rider gets a flat tire, his teammates will never know, the team car cannot tell them, the race is rolling along at 60kph, and this guy is effectively out of the race because of a puncture. Without race radio, the team car gets to him slower, he might not have teammates to help him back to the peloton. It’s just a randomness and I honestly don’t think fans want to see a poorly conceived race that is more randomized, that the luckiest rider wins. That’s against the ethos of the sport. In cycling, which is a team sport, the best athlete on the best team with the best strategy with the best coaching, at the end of the day, should win. In order for that sequence of events to occur, you need communication.
VN: The safety issue is one also mentioned quite a bit from supporters of race radio, can you can give some examples of how it would be safer?
JV: I don’t think people properly understand that when we talk about how the race is safer with race radio. It’s one thing we can say there’s an oil spill at 172km, riders will probably crash anyway. But when we talk about safety, it’s often at the back of the race, not at the front. What happens if I see a rider raising his arm for help? I am in car 18 at the back. I don’t know if he has a flat tire, or if he wants to change a jacket, I have to hot-foot it up there. There are so many fans, vehicles, riders, motorcycles, that’s just too dangerous at 60kph. Instead of two or three cars moving forward because their riders really need help, you will have all 20 team cars trying to be at the front. It’s the danger factor in the caravan that is very worrisome.
For instance, the other day, Thor (Hushovd) wanted to change his rain jacket for his Gore-Tex, because his normal jacket wasn’t keeping him warm enough. With race radio, he calls it back and we had time to go back into the suitcase and dig out the jacket in the back of the car. We then went up and we passed it to him, it was a very simple process. Without race radio, that 20-second process becomes a five-minute ordeal. Thor has to find his teammates in the pack, tell them that he’s going back, then he has to raise his arm, I am not sure if he’s flatted or what, so I blast to the front. Then he says he needs his other rain jacket, we have to dig it out, and meanwhile other team cars are trying to get past. It’s inefficient and stupid. I am not in favor of dumbing-down the sport.
VN: So you don’t believe that race radio alters the course of a race?
JV: At the end of the day, intelligent decisions require information. The riders make their own decisions. They’re at the front of the race, they see what’s happening, they know what they have to do. The most intelligent rider with the best strategy will make the best decision. The cream of the crop rises to the top when there’s more information available. Introducing randomness into a race has no place in modern sport. I would rather have the best rider win instead of the luckiest rider win.