The Four Impossibilities of Radio-Free Racing

Jun 30 2009

395030425_b566d38978_oIt’s not like I haven’t covered this before, but I feel I ought to touch again on the radio issue. With two stages of this year’s Tour de France to be run radio-free, there’s a significant groundswell of support for the out-and-out prohibition of radios in professional cycling.

I’ve characterized this group—largely for comic effect—as retro-grouch luddites, and for the most part, that’s not true. The No-Radio crowd comes from across the sport, and bases its argument on well-meaning but misguided notions that banning radios will somehow lead to “more exciting” racing.

Case in point—Bernard Hinault, who’s said that radios make cyclists “just a ‘Game Boy’ that has a gigolo attached at the end telling the racer when to take a piss”. Big words from a man who won his final Tour de France by having his DS to drive up the road and call off Greg Lemond.

Hinault’s oversight is typical of radiophobes. The fact remains that even after radios are eliminated, Four Impossibilities will still have to be overcome to arrive at the Utopian racing ideal most of the anti-radio faction seems to strive for:

  • No Race Vehicles—Cars and motorcycles can report on distance and time to breakaways with a fair degree of accuracy—every time a domestique goes back for bottles, information is exchanged, and even in the age of radios, drivers still drive up to talk to riders when necessary.

  • No Broadcast Signals—Making sure no one has an earpiece in is easy. But you cannot possibly monitor the staggering array of portable electronic devices now available to riders. Updates via text, or based on GPS data would be essentially impossible to block without shutting down *all* communication in the caravan. That means no race radio and no live TV broadcast, either.

  • No Politics—Do you think it was coincedence that this break succeeded? Or that it was just stronger than the entire peloton? Or do you think it was because Postal didn’t want to defend yellow for the week leading into the mountains, and waited for a group with no serious threats that would give a Frenchman a solid GC lead? Like it or not, in a three-week race, watts and radios are generally the last factor in determining who stays away and who gets reeled back.

  • No Targeting Races—Even without the guidance of radio communication, it’s more than apparent that today’s peloton is strong enough to reel in the break in the overwhelming majority of races. Only when legs are tired and when saving energy is a priority can a break reliably succeed, and unless the entire peloton is putting in 75+ days of racing a year, the domestiques will continue to do their job with devastating efficiency.

Despite this, I continue to assert that the deepest flaw in the arguments against race radios is that today’s cycling is somehow “boring”. Would Cancellara’s epic win in 2007 have happened without the peloton’s seemingly inevitable catch? Did radios stop Kanstantsin Sivtsov or Danilo DiLuca from seizing the initiative and snatching stage wins and seconds at this years’ Giro?

Even on the “routine” days, when the peloton makes their usual catch, the run-up to a group sprint is one of the most exciting aspects of a cycling race. The high-speed battle for position, the line switching as one lead-out peels off and another begins, the sweeping, high-risk corners—you could spend hours pouring over the same 3 minutes of footage and see something new every time.

Those who have no appreciation for the group gallop would be far better served by attempting to deepen their appreciation and understanding of the sport, rather than shoehorning it into their own narrow set of tastes and whims.

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4 Responses to “The Four Impossibilities of Radio-Free Racing”

  1. Sebastian 30 June 2009 at 5:21 pm #

    Good points — I’ve always wondered how not having radios would actually reduce the likelihood of a “predictable” catch. After all, the peloton will still be getting time updates, just on a blackboard instead of in their ears (or now, inevitably, on their phones). As you say, the biggest factor these days is the fact that most riders target races and are therefore fresher.

    But you mock the Badger at your own risk.

  2. LeGimpe 30 June 2009 at 8:27 pm #

    All true, but the old fashioned motorcycle blackboard relay was pretty granular info when compared to the nearly realtime radio relay or the really-realtime automated GPS data. A little more uncertainty would be nice on courses that aren’t selective.

    When Cancellara or Gilbert pull off a Jelle Nijdam it’s usually the result exploiting a hesitation. Uncertainty in the chase could only produce more of that sort.

    Diluca and Sivtsov only do their thing on selective courses where the pack doesn’t have guys that can “just go faster” as an option. Yell at them all you want.

    I like the idea of trying it on a few races. They need to try it on transitional stages too. The radio can’t really help you up a hill, if it could, I’d buy two!

    Can we ban the word “epic”? It’s been done to death, everything in cycling is apparently epic.

  3. Tom 25 January 2010 at 9:34 am #

    To say that we would also have to get ride of all forms of communication – including team cars – is a red herring. It makes perfect sense to argue for less immediate communication between DS and rider without having to take the position that there should be no communication at all.

    Personally I think it would make racing less predictable and more exciting. That is something that is needed. Yes there are still some exciting races and exciting stages but not to the same extent as there was. It isn’t just about breaks on flat stages of the grand tours – it’s about favourites making decisions when attacks go whether to chase or not, about riders having to guage effort rather than being told exactly what wattage they can sustain (yes ban power meters for racing too!) and the rest. The sport is about more than who is the strongest – it should also be about who is the bravest, the most tactically astute, the best bike handler and even an element of luck in there – that is what makes it the sport it is.

    The real luddites are those who are unwilling to experiment with a radio ban. We can argue it til the cows come home but unless we actually try a ban for a season then we don’t know what the outcome would be.

  4. Dave 4 October 2010 at 7:54 am #

    Totally agree with Tom. The comment about Hinault is just attacking the man too, has little to do with the issue. LeGimpe’s first paragraph is spot on also, constant radio communications leave next to zero room for error in timing the catch….bo-ring. Less constant/accurate information will result in more unpredictable racing. And the big break in the Giro this year showed just how tragically dependent Pro riders currently are on the radio, unable to exercise their own judgement when so obviously needed.

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