Radio killed the tactical star

23 February 2009 | 0:00 - By Matthew Keenan

The real issue of how to make cycling more entertaining continues to slip under the radar – the predictability caused by race radio.

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Mark Cavendish communicates with the team car in the 2008 Tour de France (Getty)

The UCI pulled the rule book out again at the Tour of California and confused many of us by jumping up and down on minor technicalities with time trial bikes. Yet the real issue of how to make cycling more entertaining continues to slip under the radar – the predictability caused by race radio.

The greatest thing about watching any form of live sport is the unpredictability of the result. That’s what keeps you on the edge of your seat or glued to the TV.

Thanks to radio communication between riders and team directeurs cycling is now so much more predictable, particularly the opening week of any grand tour.

You know the pattern. A small break goes up the road, they get out to around eight minutes, the sprinters teams get on the front, the break gets caught inside the last 10 to five kilometres and the sprinters have their day.

This hasn’t always been the case. The opening stage in California showed us what can happen when riders are left to their own devices.

Thanks to the bad weather, all forms of communication almost came to a stand still and we had the surprise of Francisco Mancebo, Rock Racing, being rewarding for a brave early breakaway with the win.

After the stage Levi Leipheimer, Astana, admitted they were panicking and said, “it was just really bad communication, we didn't know any of the time gaps. At the end it was Chris Horner... we have to really thank him, because he was the one to be really astute and hit the gas.”

At the Tour Down Under it was Lance Armstrong who admitted it wasn’t the smartest move on his part when he went in a break on stage two and blamed the poor decision on his radio being unplugged.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic but it seemed like there was more drama in cycling in the years before race radios became common place in the mid-to-late 1990s.

If race radios had been in play we wouldn't have had the drama in the 1990 Tour de France when Greg Lemond's Z team-mates where doing circle work in the middle of the road waiting for him after a puncture to then organise the chase of Claudio Chiappucci.

A guy like Rolf Sorensen, one of my favourites from that era, relied on his tactical know-how to beat guys who were physically better. Under today’s conditions he may never have won the Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastonge-Liege.

When I watch cycling I don’t want to see robots that simply follow instructions from the team car. I want to see riders with initiative and tactical nouse get rewarded.

Other sports see the entertainment value in this and ban coaching once the event is underway.

In golf if you get any advice on the course it is a stroke penalty. In tennis, with the exception of the Davis Cup, coaching from the sideline results in a warning followed by the loss of a point and can ultimately lead to disqualification.

If you just want to see the rider with the biggest engine win go and watch VO2Max tests in a sports-science lab.

That’s not what I want to see. I want to be surprised every now and then by seeing the strongest team and the strongest rider get outsmarted.

No directeur sportif in his right mind would vote for the banning of race radios. They, rightly, want to reduce the margin for human error as much as possible. But would banning race radio make cycling more entertaining for those of us watching? I say yes.

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24 May 2009 11:58 AEST

David

From: Melbourne

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Why don't the trial no-radios in only a couple of stages in each grand tour. It would be interesting to see if these became "key stages" like the TTs and hill-top stages.

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28 Feb 2009 13:58 AEST

Matt Keenan

From: Heidelberg

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Timmy, I like it.

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27 Feb 2009 17:30 AEST

roger bower

From: brisbane australia

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I totally agree, ban race radios. Then the tactical riders could be in with a chance.

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27 Feb 2009 16:10 AEST

Timmy

From: Sydney

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What about a radio service that is receive only (for the riders and teams) from a neutral source ie not a team involved in the race. That way everyone can get the same information on how far up the road a breakaway is or a crash/hazard that is ahead and then team riders will have to organize themselves from that info that everyone hears. It would also stop team managers etc effectively controlling a race putting the tactical decisions back on the riders themselves, without compromising safety etc.

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26 Feb 2009 16:46 AEST

Mick

From: Sydney

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The introduction of race radios will separate the thinkers from the non-thinkers. I'm sure you'll find a new breed of rider emerging if radios are banned. To the contrary, those who rely heavily on race directors for success may simply fade away from the spotlight.

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26 Feb 2009 16:28 AEST

Randall

From: Packenham

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There are interesting points for and against. This is a good, healthy argument that seems to be splitting cycling theorists.

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26 Feb 2009 15:14 AEST

Marc

From: Melbourne

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Disagree. It's not like the old days anymore. Sports directors have tv's in their cars, there are a lot of other communication devices out there as well. Banning race radio's won't change the race at all. It might take the riders 30 seconds longer to do the maths, but that's about it. Banning the radio will make cycling so much more unsafe. Sports directors have to go passed the peloton again which causes problems quite easily. Dangerous road situations, cars on the roads, etcetera are now being communicated by the radio, so the riders know and can take extra care. Very necessary with the crowded roads in Europe these days. It also helps with punctures and defects. They are solved much quicker due to communication. And what about crashes, sports directors and doctors now know about them quicker and with crashes every second can count. We had heaps of bunch sprints in the 80's as well, the influence of radio on race tactics is a bit overrated. And great tactics can be fun to watch as well. Like CSC who by surprise put the whole peloton in the gutter in Paris-Nice. If you want to do something against those boring races, put a hill in the race, just before the finish. Or probably the best solution: smaller teams. 7 instead of 9 riders, so it will be a lot harder for a team to control the race.

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26 Feb 2009 12:11 AEST

Ross

From: Hawthorn

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I’m not so sure Bobo. The UCI has turned the clock back in the past and can do it here. They changed the rules to stop Graeme Obree and his washing machine bike, then they changed the rules to stop people from using Graeme Obree's superman position bike, which was used to win Olympic and world championship gold medals plus the hour record efforts of Obree, Rominger and Boardman. So it can be done. I also read on cyclingnews today that French TV is keen to see race radio stopped. The debate will go on.

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24 Feb 2009 14:28 AEST

Ray Bones

From: Perth

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Funny to read how these long time pros hit the panic button as soon as the radio is out. Surely not every team they came up through the ranks with had the benefit of race radio ? Great read, and it would be great to see a race without radio. Maybe a variable message board every 20 kms which shows time gaps. That would be fun.

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24 Feb 2009 13:59 AEST

Bobo

From: Bundaberg

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How do you change the culture? Modern technology doesn't allow for decision makers to turn back the clock. Unfortunately, race radio is here to stay.

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