The Great Radio Debate

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

The debate on whether or not race radios should be used has hit another peak. In case you’re not familiar with the current rules, the UCI has forbidden race radios in all races lower than World Calendar status for 2011. This basically means that you won’t be seeing race radios during any race that’s not shown on SBS this year (thank you SBS!). To say it more formally, the ban is in effect for races ranked 1.HC/2.HC and below.

As you might have heard, there was a relatively small race last weekend called the Trofeo Palma de Mallorca where many of the teams protested by wearing the radios. In the end, Tyler Farrar won, but the race was nullified because of the standoff between officials and riders.

From what I understand, AIGCP members (the representatives from ProTeams and Professional Continental teams) voted 18-2 against the radio ban. I also read on cyclingnews that when the UCI canvassed opinions from the pro peloton, there were 304 riders who wanted to keep the radios, and only 40 backed the decision for the ban.

What does all this mean? Well, there are two issues at stake. First, there’s the obvious debate on whether or not radios should be used during races. Second, there is the issue that the riders are not getting sufficient input in the governance of cycling are now pushing back:

I’m not going to write about things that I do not know for certain and can’t back up. There could be all sorts of greater agendas at stake here and I’ve read all the conspiracy theories. If you want to read a very good blog that touches on the politics of cycling, have a look at the Inner Ring.

What I can write about however is my opinion on this radio debate based on my limited experience from being in team cars during professional level races on a few occasions. When this debate comes up, it always comes back to the riders and DS’s (Director Sportifs) wanting the radios for safety reasons. Here are some thoughts and examples of what I’ve observed with the use of race radios:

  • Very little in terms of strategy or tactics is ever decided over race radios from what I’ve seen. The teams have a meeting before the race begin where strategy is discussed. All the riders know their job and have won many raced prior to becoming a professional and are very capable of making their own decisions based on the overall plan. Sometimes deals are struck between DS’s on the road during the race which change tactics slightly.
  • The times when most of the communication between rider and DS takes place is when a rider comes back to the team car. The radio is only used to call that rider back to the car. Often, things like encouragement, coaching, or simple advice is given.
  • The commissaires has an open channel that he uses to relay information onto all the team cars. Things like which riders are in the break, course obstructions ahead, how many km’s to go, etc. What happens then is the DS will interpret that information and pass it onto the riders as required (i.e. There are 2 radios in each car. One between the riders and the car, and one open channel for the commissaire to the cars). I like the idea of having this commissaire’s communication relayed directly to the riders without the DS’s intervention, however I can see how this might not always be desirable. There’s sometimes too much information being passed through (and I’ve also seen examples of inaccurate information coming through). I would love to see the commissaire’s race radio broadcast as part of the commentary on television however.
  • To add to the the point above, the information being passed from the commissaire is not always in the same language. The official language of the UCI is French and English. This is what the commissaire usually speak on the race radio. However, from what I understand Italian and Spanish commissaires often only communicate over race radio in their native language.  The DS will be responsible for translating the commissaire’s information back to the riders as required. This is why it might be difficult to simply have an open channel between the commissaires and riders.
  • When a rider has a mechanical he will radio the team car to tell the mechanic which wheel to get ready, or what other problem he’s having. This allows the mechanic to get everything he needs so that a quick repair can be done.
  • The sport of cycling is unlike almost any other. There is no arena for field where conditions are controlled and boundaries are set. Even a race that’s been around for 100 years has small route changes in every addition. It’s very difficult for riders to know every turn and every hazard on the road when some of these guys are racing 80-100 days a year. This is what makes cycling such a great sport. It’s also an extremely dangerous sport. I don’t think anything should be skimped on making it more safe.

I used to have a different opinion, but after seeing what goes on in the team car I’m not convinced that banning radios will have much of an impact on the race outcome. We’ve seen some stages in the Tour de France where they’ve experimented with banning radios for particular stages and nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Sure, the riders of previous generations had to go without race radios and they made it through just fine, but I don’t see what the problem is with using this technology in the sport. From what I’ve seen, the riders know exactly what they have to do. It’s not like the team car is this strategic command center where the DS’s are telling each and every rider when to react and when to attack. It just doesn’t work like that.

I’m not sure what the underlying reason is for the UCI to exercise such authority on this issue that the teams are so clearly against. As we’re beginning to see, this debate has grown to be more of a power struggle between the riders and the UCI than it is about radios and safety.

On a separate note, riding in a team car is one of the most exhilarating experiences you could have as a cycling fan. There’s a race within a race amongst the team cars. It’s absolute chaos back in the caravan. I wish that each and every one of you could experience watching a race from a team car.

Editors' Picks