Will the UCI Kill the Radio Star?

Fotoreporter Sirotti

As the radio ban debate is taking full flight at the moment, two opposing parties have been set; The UCI with their desire to rid the peloton of radio equipment, and the riders, teams and most cycling fans who feel that radio’s play a key part in professional cycling.

The UCI’s argument was first implemented at the 2009 Tour de France, on Stages 10 and 13, where the race was to run sans-radios. The immediate reaction from the riders after Stage 10 was extremely strong, with veteran hard-man Jens Voigt stating that “Next they’ll be asking us to ride for two days without helmets, or without cables in our brakes”. The day had not been a great success for the UCI’s new rule, with rider protests such as Rabobank rider Grischa Niermann’s home-made antenna making a mockery of the decision. Voigt also revealed in an interview that “The racing was far less exciting, we were slower and for the spectators that’s less fun. The riders were scared to make a mistake so they ended up doing nothing.” The radio ban’s future was looking quite dull at that point, and the UCI lifted the ban from Stage 13 due to the amount of opposition to the idea.

But now that 2011 has started the UCI are flexing their decision-making muscles and coming up with new and re-vamped ideas, such as the ‘UCI Approved Equipment’ ruling, and of course, the radio ban in .1 and .HC races in the cycling calendar, in addition to the previous radio ban.

The updated 2011 UCI legal document (2.2.024) states:

During the following races:

  • world championships
  • national championships
  • men elite, class HC, 1 and 2 events and events on the national calendar
  • women elite, class 1 and 2 events and events on the national calendar
  • men under-23
  • junior men
  • junior women

the use of radio links or other means of remote communication with the riders is not permitted.

With the exception of the events listed above, a secure communications and information system (the “earpiece”) is authorized and may be used for safety reasons and to assist riders under the following conditions:

  • the power of the transceiver may not exceed 5 watts;
  • the range of the system shall be limited to the space occupied by the race;
  • its use is limited to exchanges between riders and the team manager and between riders of a same team.

The use of such a system is subject to any relevant legal provisions and to thoughtful and reasonable use with respect for ethics and the rider’s freedom of decision.

However, for the individual and team time trials, radio links or other means of remote communication with the riders might be used.

Note that riders are forbidden to use a mobile telephone while riding a race. [Sorry, Cipo.]

The use of any other system is subject to prior authorization from the equipment unit of the UCI in accordance with article 1.3.004.

That’s a lot! To make things clear, these are just a few of the new races that will have to enforce this added ruling:

Jonathan Vaughters spoke freely in a report on Cyclingnews.com stating that he “didn’t really see the big deal” when the ban was originally discussed, and that his main concern “was far more focused on other issues that pertained to the financial health of cycling and anti-doping”, but later realized that doing so “was a big mistake.”

The International Association of Professional Cycling Teams (AIGCP) have informed both the UCI and Pat McQuaid that they do not support the new rulings, with an 18-2 result against it in a vote involving team representatives. A similar study was conducted by the Association of Professional Racers (APR), in which a questionnaire was distributed to riders in Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium and Portugal. The result was a near-unanimous result of 207-40 in favor of the use of “earphones without any restriction.”

On the other hand, Omega Pharma-Lotto star Philippe Gilbert has outlined his support of the radio ban at the team’s press conference in Mallorca, backing up his reasoning with his experiences without radio communication during races such as the World Championships and the Giro di Lombardia. The Classics specialist reacted to statements that racing will be too dangerous without radios with a convincing counter-statement that “it’s also dangerous when the directors tell everyone that they need to be in the first ten coming into a tricky corner. Everyone goes full gas trying to move to the front.”

There have been several compromise situations proposed, for example, allowing riders to communicate via radio with their teammates but with no contact to the team cars. This would encourage the riders to debate and interact as a team when it comes to decision-making, and not resort to being fed instructions by the team car, while still being able to inform riders of crashes and other dangers during the race.

Some compromises have gone a step further to appease the UCI, with Rabobank’s elaborate proposal of broadcasting radio communications during racing, giving fans a new insight into the world of professional cycling whilst strengthening the transparency of cycling as a whole. “They (the fans) can experience more of the race.” Rabobank representative Luuc Eisenga stated “We support transparent communication during races.”

If the ruling is carried through, the new generation of professional cyclists may not be as put-off by the absence of radio communication as more seasoned professionals. This is due to the fact that U23 and junior races are already radio-free, and will be entirely second-nature to them when they step up into the professional ranks.

The ball is firmly in the UCI’s court after AIGCP’s all-too-serious statement of “We the teams are anxious to begin our racing seasons, however we feel that it will be unsafe and unfair to participate in races without the best communication technology available.”

Given the UCI’s current struggles with technology, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether we’ll see a radio-free Europe anytime soon.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Share them below.

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9 Responses to Will the UCI Kill the Radio Star?

  1. Paul says:

    I'm a 3rd cat rider in the UK, and I've never had a radio. None of my team mates have had a radio. My brother who rode in Belgium and France for six seasons never had a radio. The U23s don't have radios. Most of cycling history has been radio free. It's only when you reach the top tier of pro-cycling that you are introduced to them. I would therefore argue that the default position is to go radio free and that you'd have to come up with a) a very good reason to have them; b) make them present in all aspects of road racing i.e. pro to amateur, before you introduce them.

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  3. Jon says:

    It seems that one of the major issues with the pro-radio
    side is safety (i.e. not being able to warn riders about wrecks,
    conditions, etc.). It also seems that there could be a compromise
    where radios are still used, but only to issue those type of
    warnings and not for tactical purposes. One of my personal
    complaints regarding the use of radios is that relatively flat
    stages have become formulaic: start, breakaway forms, reel
    breakaway in just time for field sprint. When Mancebo won a very
    rainy stage of the Tour of California, there were problems with the
    race radios and when the peloton realized it, they ratcheted up
    their chase without much regard for the conditions. It was too
    late, but it made for exciting racing.

  4. Ciaran says:

    Thanks for the comments,

    I agree that radio usage is confined to the Professional ranks, but I feel that they help with the safety of the race more than they hinder the excitement. The rainy stage at the Tour of California is a great example of exciting racing, but there was a lot of confusion on that day besides just the radio's (Jeremy Hunt was hit by a commisaire's car if i'm not mistaken), possibly a better example (with fully functioning radios) would be Heinrich Haussler's solo win during the 09 Tour? The example I would use for how excting races can be made with the use of radios would be Columbia-HTC's move during the crosswinds on Stage 3 of the 2009 Tour de France; I couldn't believe that they had the guts to make that work, and it was a rider's decision, not orders from the team car, that convinced the team to go for it. In my opinion, I feel that the UCI should be focusing their attention on doping, race availability and funding rather than try and stop radio communication.

  5. mindtron says:

    it seems like the compromise of having the riders able to communicate to each other is the best.

    as members of a team they should be able to know if one of their teammates needs help or wants to try something

  6. big jonny says:

    The radio should go away. I am sick & tired of the status quo where some Napoleon sits in the team car, watching race coverage on a dash-mounted television, and barks orders into a microphone. Road dangers? Please. That is little more than a red herring. The use of radios consolidates far to much control in the team director rather than the athlete. And, I feel, makes for some rather boring racing.

  7. Paul says:

    Yes, I'm in agreement with Big Jonny. The safety issue is a non-issue. Pro racers have the luxury of closed roads or at least rolling road blocks. The races I have to enter are conducted on open roads, down small country lanes, which can present all manner of potential dangers to racers. Horses, angry drivers, tractors, tankers, etc, etc. I even did one race which featured a pedestrian crossing! If anything, it's we who have a better argument for race radios!

  8. Scott says:

    There was a great spot in Cycle Sport mag last year featuring an interview with Michael Barry and David Millar. Granted, I take everything Millar says with a grain of salt, but there were some good points raised about race radios, some of which have been discussed in previous comments. They were talking about the fact that riders are getting "dumber" and can't think for themselves anymore, all to happy to respond to the orders barked from the team car. The radios also remove a lot of the excitement of crazy ass breaks and the overall excitement of what could be a good race, and also seems to diminsh the fun of watching some of the more aggressive riders who are basically neutered. Radios for safety? Meh, I'm not buying that either.

  9. Touriste-Routier says:

    The whole safety argument is overblown. The DS is reading from a tech guide (the booklet issued by the race organizers) while driving a team car, and talking over a race radio, while listening to radio tour (the official's radio communication) and possibly watching the action on TV, from behind the peloton. Talk about hazardous!

    With the tech guide, the teams can go over primary concerns before the event. In front of the riders is a fleet of cars and motorcycles. Road furniture? There is usually a moto marshal with a flag and a whistle in front of it… The DS won't see this in the tech guide. Dangerous descent; I think the riders will remember this, or can heed the highway signs. Tight turn? Did you not see the caravan in front of you disappear around the bend with their brake lights on? KOM summit in 5k? The race organizers are required by the UCI to have these signs. 20k to go? Did you not notice the inflatable arch you just rode under? Cross winds? Look at the trees & flags, as well as the echelon forming in front of you…

    Where teams will miss radios most (outside of dictating the tactics) is when a rider has a mechanical, and the rider can't call for specific help, and will need to notice him standing on the side of the road, or wait for radio tour to announce it.

    Since the riders made it out of the amateur ranks, with significantly less infrastructure, they should be able to be safe among other seasoned pros.

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