Race Radios: Does Geelong world championship show that less is more?
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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Race Radios: Does Geelong world championship show that less is more?

by Shane Stokes at 4:34 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, World Championships

Cadel EvansThe general consensus after this year’s world road race championships is that there was a lot of exciting, aggressive and unpredictable racing. Some of that is undoubtedly down to a course where the explosive riders had to throw down the gauntlet at specific points in order to stand a chance of defeating the sprinters, but a case can also be made that the absence of race radios also played a part.

Moves came and went, an early break nearly built a big enough lead to lap the bunch once those riders reached the finishing circuit, and the pattern of racing in the final few laps appeared less structured than usual. An example was Vincenzo Nibali’s efforts with a lap and a half to go, surging ahead earlier than might have been expected. Ditto for Cadel Evans, the defending champion, who along with Philippe Gilbert was one of the main animators of the race and who attacked on multiple occasions.

His moves looked instinctive, perhaps even impulsive. He appeared to be reacting to what was happening right then and there, rather than following a predetermined plan. In short, Evans looked to be racing on guts, courage and determination, and it was a superb show.

The assessment is subjective, of course. It’s hard to know exactly what percentage of that was due to the lack of radios, to the nature of the circuit and even his determination to put on a defiant show and to try to scoop an unexpected repeat win. But the experiment was interesting enough to further the notion that perhaps more races should be run under the same guidelines. That would give a clearer picture of how the tactics of racing could be affected.

Speaking before the race, Evans himself sounded uncertain as to how wise the experiment was.

“'I am just abiding by the rules - I don't make them,'' he said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “'But it is a bit strange for everyone. Normally such a dramatic rule change is eased into. It's a big change and [there is] a lot that we have got to adjust to.”

That said, he sounded willing to be open-minded about the issue. “At the same time, we come here to the worlds and we have different teammates, different mechanics, different directors and everything as well,” he explained, a little light-heartedly.. “I suppose while we're in unfamiliar grounds, why not make it completely unfamiliar?'”

The thinking behind the theory:

As part of its push to develop cycling and find the best balance between tradition and technology, instinct and information, the UCI has gradually been phasing out this type of car-bike contact. Handsets linking riders and their managers have been banned in several different areas this year: national events, races of a 1.2 and 2.2 ranking, under 23 races and the world championships.

Fabian CancellaraStandard professional races have generally not been affected. The world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara made it clear beforehand today’s road race that he was not a fan of the idea of introducing such changes. “'Rules are rules and that is how it is. But I still I think it is wrong. We are in 2010. We are not in 1996 or 1960 or whatever. We are in modern times. The radios are here not to get riders information that they have to breathe, to pedal, to push the pedals.”

''For me the most important thing is the safety reason. When there's something happening, when something is coming on the road, you have to get information.''

But putting the last point on hold for a moment, former Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and world championship winner Stephen Roche gave his reasons on why he felt a radio ban would be a step forward for the sport.

“I can’t understand that the radios are tolerated,” he told VeloNation earlier this year. “Formula 1 motor racing is a much more lucrative sport than cycling, and there they are trying to do away with all of the technology that will help the drivers to make sure the performance is coming from the driver and not the car.

“In cycling the radios are totally destroying the spectacle of cycling and making the riders become zombies since they don’t have to make decisions for themselves, everything comes from the car. They haven’t got to pay attention to what’s going in the race because they know, well, if I miss a break or if I miss a scene then the car will get word to me through my earphone. I think the radios have been a disaster for cycling.”

He said that he had no doubts that removing radios would help nuture a racing intelligence, adding an extra dimension to what wins races.

“Top riders will always be top riders. Okay, so some need to make a telephone call before they make an attack, but that’s another story though…[laughs] I think that a lot of the younger riders will learn a lot from it. They will have to be a transition period initially I think, because they will have to get to know what to do on their own.”

Taking things further:

There have been experiments with a ban during the Tour de France, but these were of limited success. Riders protested beforehand, saying that they didn’t like the idea, and the racing was regarded as more tightly controlled as a result. The peloton, having become customised to using radios, appeared terrified about the chance of getting things wrong.

It can however be argued that the Tour de France was very much the wrong places to experiment with radio bans. It’s the most important race of the year and the stakes are huge as any errors would not just affect that day’s outcome, but could also determine the final finishing positions. If Contador, Schleck or anyone else made a major tactical error on the basis of limited information, it could perhaps have a real effect on the overall result. Because of that, the bunch was over-cautious, even if the stages in question were flat ones.

For that reason, perhaps the one day races are the best ones to try out such a move. The stakes are still high, but any errors made (or tactical masterstrokes achieved) will be on that day alone. That’s more likely to be accepted than the realisation that a few seconds lost on a Tour stage could be the difference between winning and coming second one or two weeks later in Paris.

Furthermore, in time, riders would both become more adept at deciding tactics and strategy amongst themselves, and also more used to the idea of racing without a guiding, steering voice in their ears.

Returning to the safety issue, a compromise has been suggested, although it hasn’t yet been widely pushed as a possible alternative and the riders haven’t had a chance to try it out. The idea behind it is a one-way radio system to the team car; in other words, the riders can alert the team if they have a problem, a puncture, a mechanical issue or need to speak to the directeur sportif. That directeur can then respond directly and in person, rather than engaging in a two-way conversation over the airwaves.

The second component of this possible compromise would be a way to compensate for the directeur not being able to communicate via radio with the riders. It would enable riders to get feedback about hazards such as obstacles on the course, dangerous descents and crashes ahead. The difference would be that the race officials themselves would be sending out messages.

For example, if there is a section of rough terrain ahead, or extremely slippery roads as was the case on stage two of this year’s Tour, then those working on Race Radio could communicate the alerts to all the riders.

It’s certain that such a reinvention of things would be hotly debated. It’s not an easy solution, and it does appear to be a little less immediate and even less logical than the current system.

However, as today’s Elite road race showed, when racing is fluid, instinctive and even impulsive, the show is all the more spectacular. If it can indeed be proven that a full or partial radio ban is the way to achieve this style of racing, then perhaps more events should be run off under those rules. It’s at least worth trying out.

After all, dramatic, unpredictable and instinctive racing is something which could only serve to ramp up the excitement of the sport.


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