In the heat of the moment, many within the sport now view cycling as a war among many. Anthony Tan finds one former protagonist who argues because of it, radios must stay.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

It was impossible that the ad-hoc situation of whether to race with race radios or not would continue. After incessant infighting between the teams, race organisers and the UCI the past two months and much vitriol exchanged, the subject appears to be up for rational discussion in Thursday's AIGCP (International Association of Professional Cycling Teams) meeting in Paris with UCI president Pat McQuaid and the rider representatives, spearheaded by its president and Garmin-Cervélo CEO, Jonathan Vaughters.

The crux of the argument is this: cycling's governing body, in particular, is of the belief that the proliferation of radios has led to a lack of spontaneity and decision making on behalf of the riders; the majority of the riders argue that the rejection of radios is a major safety concern, and that radios are not the reason behind the more controlled form of racing we see today.

Former pro, CSC and Team Sky sport director Scott Sunderland most definitely sits in the latter camp.
And his reasons are compelling.

"It's just got out of hand, mate. It's just got out of hand with it all," he says on the phone Wednesday, from his home in Inverell, New South Wales.

Two years ago at the same meeting Sunderland said he broached the issue with the UCI prez, who informed the AIGCP board of his intentions to filter out radios at certain events (at the 2009 Tour, if you remember, organisers ASO proposed that radios be banned for Stages 10 and 13; a protest eventually saw the latter stage overturned in favour of the riders/teams), and claims he was met with a "We're going to do it anyway," response.

"That's their attitude," he tells me.

"They're saying the racing's not exciting anymore."

But Sunderland argues the milieu that the modern-day pro finds himself in does not allow for the type of racing the UCI, race organisers like ASO, and to be honest, many cycling fans long for. Those daring breakaways like Charly Gaul's 100-kilometre breakaway in the Alps in the '58 Tour that put himself back into contention from a seemingly lost position, before Gaul went onto win the final time trial and the Tour to boot. Or later on in the '90s, Claudio Chiappucci's suicidal moves that often did more damage to himself than the peloton, spectacular as they were, but nevertheless netted the audacious escape artist three polka-dot jerseys in La Grande Boucle.

"Years ago, you had teams for specific races: Italian teams for Italian races, French teams for French races, Belgian and Dutch teams for Classics, and Spanish teams oriented around the Vuelta. Of course, you had your [Eddy] Merckxs or [Joop] Zoetemelks who could go off and do something outstanding. They were also doing many more days' racing: when I turned pro, we were still racing 130 days a year. Now, they're doing between 75 and 90. I mean, 90 is a big year – 70 is about the norm now.

"Now," Sunderland asserts, "the teams have become so much broader, so much more even across the playing field, so of course the races are more locked down. You come into any big race, you have half-a- dozen sprinters [who can win]; you come into a mountain race, you have half-a-dozen riders who can do a top GC. So everybody's a lot more competitive. People aren't just turning up to a race and saying, 'Oh, I can't be bothered today, I'll just let the break go' – they don't do that anymore. You go to a race to race; you don't go for training anymore, and that's what it used to be years ago.

"So they haven't understood the concept and the growth of modern cycling and modern teams," he says.

What about this idea?

Okay, I say, I take your point. But if removing race radios presents a safety issue, what about keeping the radios, and allowing only communication between the riders and race radio; so, within the radio vehicles, basically having people appointed to inform the entire peloton of upcoming obstacles, and having this posse also informing the teams of any servicing required, be it food, water or mechanicals?

"That's one way you could do it," he concedes. (Warning: rude analogy coming up; anyone below sixteen should seek parental consent before continuing.)

"But these organisers, I'm not sure whether they realise what's it's like to be in a car when you're trying to get your rider. He's getting paid X-hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, and he needs food or service and you need to know. You've got a massive investment there; you've got sponsors who you need to deliver things for – and [without radio communication] you're standing there with your dick in your hand.

"Look at Andy Schleck: he dropped his chain [on Stage 14 of last year's Tour], his car wasn't there... Imagine if that was through radio fault, or the car was there and they stopped for a piss, or they decide they can't do anything anyway because they don't know what's going on.

"That's a whole Tour de France lost through lack of communication."

Because multiple teams and riders are so evenly matched – the first months of racing this year are a good example; so far, no one team has dominated – Sunderland says you can only fit so many riders across a road in a race like say, the Tour of Flanders, that the constant jostling for position by large groups inevitably leads to more crashes.

"And hence, once again, we need to have that communication. You've got a two-million dollar rider laying on the ground from a crash in the Tour of Flanders, you need to service him – he's losing the race right there. Tom Boonen, he earns eighty percent of his salary on what he does in Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I'm just wondering if they really understand and can fathom the effect of what they want to do here. There's also the security of the team cars – I've felt that first-hand – coming up at the wrong moment."

With the 2007 Paris-Roubaix top of mind after last weekend's absorbing behind-the-scenes documentary on Cycling Central, I ask Sunderland about the importance of having radio contact with Stuart O'Grady when he punctured in the Forest of Arenberg 100km into the race, and by consequence, lost contact with the lead group.

"He said: 'I've punctured, I've punctured... I'm not with the [front] group anymore – what do I do? Chase back on or wait?' I said: 'You wait – drink, eat, wait, and relax.' And that's what he did: he peed, he had time to eat a full [energy] bar, he drank a full bottle, and when the group with Cancellara came, he said it was just like starting the race again."

We all know what happened after that.

The next step: SMS via cyclo-computer

Sunderland fears the discarding of radios – which, now that every ProTeam has them, creates a level playing field – could lead to the balance tipped in favour of those teams with the technology – and largesse – to communicate via their cycling computers, which in turn, creates a potentially far more serious safety concern.

"That's the next step. You see the new Garmin 800s or whatever: it's so easy now – it's just a small modification; they [can] text-message anything they want. But what would you prefer to see? Someone who's fully attentive – looking at every which way and direction, watching what's going on, [and] listening to an earpiece – or looking down at his computer, trying to read what the sport director's typing through to you and looking [down] every 15 seconds, waiting to see if there's something new?

"The technology's there. It's even on the inside of your glasses, where you can type it through; they do it for fighter pilots.

"And once again," Sunderland says, "not all teams are going to have that. It's going back to 10 years ago, when not all teams had radios and you have disadvantaged teams."

Puppets on a string?

Does he feel, though, that by having constant feedback through one's ear, riders are less inclined to think for themselves, leading to what many believe are puppets on a string, and thus degrading the worth of a rider and their achievements?

"A lot of the tactics and analysing the race and how it will go – for example, the year that Stuart [O'Grady] won [Roubaix] – my decisions and tactics come into that. But through the events of the day, they knew where they needed to go and I was just giving them information – time gaps, whether they need to go a bit quicker or slower. They still need to make so many decisions: riding in the wind or out of the wind, what gears they're pushing... No, they're not puppets on a string."

The explosion in number of vehicles on a parcours at any given event, be it a one-day or stage race, also necessitates the need for radios, says Sunderland.

"You got so many more VIPs than you had years ago; you've got so many more guests; you've got so many more teams who are part of the race. Years ago you only had two, maybe three, teams that were trying to get up to the riders. Now, everybody wants to be up there because they've all got a chance to win. You've got a lot more traffic in the 'mosh pit' than what you had before; you've got a whole bloody scrum behind the peloton. And years ago, we didn't have any of that road-furniture: we didn't have all the bloody traffic islands, we didn't have all the speed bumps, we didn't have all the roundabouts...

"The circumstances have changed," he says.

"This idea of going back in time is ridiculous. We're playing on a different battlefield now, we're using different weapons."