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Garmin-Cervélo, HTC-Highroad work to get around UCI radio ban

  • By Leonardo Zipp
  • Published Apr. 1, 2011
  • Updated Apr. 1, 2011 at 1:21 PM EDT
HTC's Tony Martin has his 'Magic Ear' adjusted before a training ride on Mallorca.

While some top professional teams have tried to organize protests against the UCI’s radio ban, others are approaching the issue technologically, rather than politically.

HTC's Tony Martin has his 'MagicEar' adjusted before a training ride on Mallorca.

VeloNews has recently been able to confirm speculation surrounding two “under-the-radar” projects by the Garmin-Cervélo and HTC-Highroad teams to communicate with its riders during races, circumventing the UCI race-radio ban.

Understandably reluctant, top managers of both teams have declined to confirm or deny involvement in the development of technologies designed to circumvent the UCI race-radio ban.

A small number of riders, however, have acknowledged that Team Garmin-Cervélo has been using advanced versions of Apple’s new, as-yet-unreleased iBrain, while members of HTC-Highroad have recently been equipped with HTC’s new miniature MagicEar, which was unveiled at this week’s HDI conference in Las Vegas.

In a simple, outpatient procedure, Garmin riders have had the tiny iBrain computer implanted subdermally, just above the ear. Utilizing Apple’s cutting-edge nano-encephalic technology, the tiny unit has all of the functionality of an iPod Touch but without a display screen and fits in a sealed titanium package slightly smaller than a dime.

How do they do it?

VeloNews has learned that the iBrain is essentially a micro version of existing technology, relying on the same apps as the iPhone or iPod Touch.

“Shrinking the board was no problem,” said one developer, who declined to be named.

“The interface was the big issue for us, but we got around that by integrating the management into external devices, like the iPhone or iPad, or even a high-end cycling computer,” noted the developer, perhaps alluding to the rumored Apple/Garmin ‘iBike’ project.

Once implanted, apps can be loaded via Bluetooth from an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad or MacBook. In all of the team’s iBrains, Garmin-Cervélo has installed a two-way-radio app (not to be confused with Duster’s Two Way Radio single, also available on the iTunes store). All but three of Garmin’s rider’s have already had the implants “installed,” in a 15-minute outpatient procedure that requires only a local anesthetic.

This allows the riders to communicate with the director sportif in the team car in the same way they used to before the ban, but without the external wires, ear bud and microphone.

Team CEO and director sportif Jonathan Vaughters declined to comment when VeloNews asked about fresh sutures above the ear of Ryder Hesjedal at the start of the Monte Paschi-Strade Bianche race in Tuscany.

Hesjedal, however, felt no such hesitation when interviewed after the race.

“I loved that I could hear it over the rattling on the dirt roads,” remarked Hesjedal after his 12th-place finish, in the same group with winner, Omega-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert.

“It’s weird the way it sounds; it really takes some getting used to,” Hesjedal said. “Since the sound doesn’t come into the ear, it’s more like you feel the sound in your head. When Jonathan talks to me on it, it’s kind of like the voice of God my skull. But the commissaires can’t see or hear a thing.”

To boost the range to the requirements of the team for up to two kilometers of clear communication, Apple installed a Bluetooth amplifier chip in the iPads in each of the team vehicles with which staff communicates with the riders. It also takes advantage of a proprietary antenna system on each rider-mounted unit.

“The key to our ability to get that kind of range with Bluetooth is the interface of our nano-encephalic unit with the body’s own fluids, which are conductive,” noted the unnamed designer. “We use the body’s lymph system as an antenna.”

In addition to back-and-forth communication, the iBrain system also provides an answer for those times when the director sportif requests the rider to do something and he doesn’t do it, sometimes even feigning that he didn’t hear the instruction. With the car-mounted iPad, the team director can give the rider a tiny electric jolt to encourage him. For this particular app, Garmin-Cervélo teamed up with famed app creator Eurasmus B. Dragon, the designer of a broad series of motivational apps ranging from invisible-fence canine collars all the way up to cattle prods.

Garmin has come up with an app for the system to direct the riders through complicated race routes as well as in more everyday settings. Using his iPhone, the rider can download a route to the unit as well as pre-select the voice he wants inside his head that says things like, “In 500 meters, take the second right at the roundabout.”

Another feature you won’t find on a Garmin Nüvi is the Shift Minder app. Using the same voice as for the route directions, it warns the rider about upcoming gear requirements, saying, for instance, “In 200 meters, turn right on Via Foresta Nuova. The grade is 11 percent immediately after the corner, so shift down three cogs before the turn.”

The riders can customize the system, downloading their own apps to it. “I added extra memory, and some of the guys play music on it while riding,” says Hesjedal. “I’ve also been using audio books lately. For most of Monte Paschi, I was listening to ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,’ which I hadn’t read yet.”

“But when the boss talks, it overrides the narrator,” notes Hesjedal. “That kinda sucks, because I missed the part when Voldemort showed up.”

Not to be outdone, Team HTC-Highroad has its own invisible communication system, and it requires no surgery to implant. The Android-powered HTC MagicEar is inserted directly into the auditory canal and can be tuned with a screwdriver from the outside for volume as well as fit.

“With our German roots, we prefer to not give the rider too much leeway in customizing the system,” says team TechDev Manager Lars “The Professor” Teutenberg. “We’d rather be the only ones able to adjust the unit, and we would lose that control if the system allowed downloading of apps wirelessly from the iTunes store.”

Other teams have noticed, despite the UCI race-radio ban, the uncanny unity of organization of the Garmin-Cervélo and HTC-Highroad teams during races, reeling in breaks and leading out sprints with remarkable effectiveness.

“We just don’t know how they’re doing it,” commented Saxo Bank director sportif Bjarne Riis, after HTC-Highroad’s Matthew Goss’s surprising Milan-San Remo victory.

McQuaid reacts … sort of

While the UCI radio ban bars teams from relying on the once-ubiquitous ear bud, the governing body’s president, Pat McQuaid, told VeloNews that teams’ attempts to get around the rule with new technology “violates the spirit and intent of the regulation.”

“If this is true,” McQuaid said in February, “we will be levying fines – in Swiss francs, of course – and relegating riders who engage in this sort of behavior. We don’t give a damn if it’s innovative. We are still trying to confirm the rumors of this sort of ‘4G doping.’

“We’ll come down hard on these cheats if it turns out to be true.”

But despite informal confirmation of the reported use of new technology, the UCI has not followed through on McQuaid’s threatened action. In a brief interview on Friday, McQuaid suggested that “such talk is just that … talk.”

“There’s nothing to it,” he said, while glancing down at a formal UCI statement on the subject displayed on the screen of a new iPad II. “We won’t be following up on any of this. It’s just crap talk.”

“Excuse me, I have a phone call,” McQuaid said, reaching for his new HTC Desire quadband.

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