Sunday, July 05, 2009

Racing - Radios or No Radios?

Note: I drafted this up in Feb 2008 but never posted it on the site. The recent decision to ban radios from two stages of the Tour has brought the topic to the forefront again.

The question once again: Radios or no radios?

Specifically, we're talking about radios between riders and directors. There will always be radios for the race caravan (when applicable), but it's the ones the riders carry that have caused some ruckus.

The UCI recently (in Feb 2008 it was recent) passed a rule banning radios for U23 racers.

This made me pause for a bit. I grew up following races with domestiques rolling back to the car to confer with the director while hanging onto the car, leaning into the window, because "they can't hear really well".

"What did you say? And can you drive a bit faster?" Fignon, definitely not a domestique, talking to his director Cyrille Guimard, and getting a "slight assist" from the Renault.

But the last whatever years, a common sight in the pro peloton is that of a newly formed break, rolling along, and after a minute or two, each of the pros grab their jersey and talk to their zipper, asking for instructions from the director hiding in there.

When radios first became legal for use, radio supporters cited a number of safety factors to help convince the authorities that radios were a good thing.

Directors wouldn't risk life and limb and vehicles to pull up to their riders at the back of the field to tell them to chase the break or something. There were stories of team cars going 90 mph over blind hill crests, blasting over grass shoulders, and slewing on and off the road as the average-skilled driver tried to regain control over their overloaded, top heavy steed.

In addition, by making relative instant communication possible, radios would make for more exciting racing. Instead of chasing everything a few minutes after they're gone, racers would have instant access to break identities, flat tire victims, and even the odd deal or two. If someone attacked while the field was kind of rolling along, an alert director could holler "Go, go, go!"

And his guys would go.

They could also tend to a flat-tire-stricken team leader, or adjust leadout positions on the fly, or whatever they needed to do which required some intra-team communication.

Finally, radios, and their instant communication, would allow better emergency responses - if someone went down, presumably someone would say something like, "Hey, someone fell off at the left curve - they flew off the cliff." And then they'd find Johan Bruyneel who actually did plumment down a steep mountainside in 1996, luckily in the presence of both TV cameras and other vehicles.

All that stuff sounded pretty good, and with cycling becoming more sophisticated, radios seemed like a natural progression.

So radios it was.

I felt that some of the spontaneity of racing went away though, that whole argument of "robots on bikes". Racers had less of a say on when to go. Instead, they waited, poised, ready to smash legs. Then the director would do a virtual "Hut, hut, hike!" and the team would spring into action.

Although well utilized, I think the following gets us a bit far away from "racing":

I read a story about a particular director being worried about a very good climber who had attacked early in a mountain stage. The attacker quickly gained ground and looked to be on the way to either a spectacular escape/win or an equally spectacular explosion. The director called an "expert" (who wasn't at the race - in fact, he was at his desk job or driving around his car or something) that liked calculating vertical meters per minute and the like. The director asked for this geek's opinion on whether this racer could sustain such an effort. The expert ran some quick calculations and replied that no one, not even this excellent climber, could maintain the vertical ascension rate he currently held.

The mollified director told his worried racer to stay put.

Sure enough the climber blew and the race came back together. The director's racer waited and attacked, winning the race.

What would have happened if there were no radios? Would the racer have panicked? How about the director? Would teams have mounted a fruitless chase? Would the race have ended differently?

Of course we don't know. Things ended the way they ended, and the director, one Johan Bruyneel (you just saw him tumbling off a cliff just above) guided his one and only Lance to yet another Tour victory.

Does this imply that radios are bad?

Not if you don't use them.

Baden Cooke tells a story of some Patrick Jonker's last race in Australia. Cooke was riding without a radio and didn't know who was up the road - some break was up a minute or so and didn't seem to be coming back, and lots of guys in the field were riding so it wasn't like the field was just sitting around.

Cooke asked the soon-to-retire Jonker if he knew who was up there (Jonker was in the leader's jersey of the stage race and therefore had some interest in making sure things were "just so"). Cooke figured the leader of the race would have a radio on him and could just talk to his jersey zipper to find out who had ridden away from the field.

Instead Jonker stands up and rockets away up the road. After a couple minutes he comes back, a little winded but definitely not hurting, and reels off a list of numbers to a very surprised and awestruck Cooke.

I have a love/hate relationship with radios. When they first came out (Motorola had them, naturally), I tried to make my own with FM broadcasters and transistor receivers. I started testing a very short range set (effective range about 20 feet - I justified it by telling myself no one could overhear the conversations). I probably spent a very anxious and excited week working on my pair of radios.

The USCF promptly made them illegal for racers below Cat 2 so that project got junked.

However, I'd taken that step. My actions indicated that I'd prefer to have a radio for myself.

However, I've seen some really funny (to me) confrontations between other teams' teammates over radio air time, usage, what to report, and why they didn't mention that break of 8 that lapped the field until the break lapped the field (or whatever).

I've also seen some of the stupidest tactical moves made based on observers on the sidelines radioing ridiculous recommendations to their racers. Since they were not my teammates I just kept my mouth shut. Then I waited for the fireworks after the race when the frustrated and tired racers demanded to know exactly why the observer told them to do this or that.

I don't like when pros, with 2 k to go, in a two man break, radios back to his director for instructions. Like dude, it's one on one. If the director has something to say, he'll say it, but don't go crying to mama every time you're in a situation that requires a little.. thinking. You need to be able to figure out what to do in such a tactically straight-forward situation.

Finally, although not a good excuse, I like hearing the directors leaning out the windows with megaphones yelling at their riders. Usually this happens in time trials. That advice is interesting to hear because it's what they want to tell their rider. I like to hear if they're telling the truth or not, what sort of things they yell, etc.

"Encore, encore, encore! Allez!"

Head shaking. Tsk-tsking.

"Allez allez allez!"

You could smell the defeat in the air.

Beats a very flat toned, "You're up 10 seconds at that last check point. Left curve coming up, 53x13, watch the manhole cover on the exit. Remember to drink. Hands lower, remember the wind tunnel tests. Elbows in. Chin down. Lower. Okay, good."

Plus it makes for cool pictures.

Since I can't use radios I can't really say if radios really would have helped me or make racing safer or whatever. But I think racers having to read their own races, or at least a delay in figuring out who is where, makes racing more exciting.

Racers without radios get frustrated, flustered, and caught off guard. I certainly do - I've sprinted for the line not knowing there was a guy that almost lapped the field, and I've also sprinted for the line thinking we were going for 8th when, in fact, the break had broken up.

I've also asked (yelled) for help from the sidelines, splits, numbers of riders, whatever, and usually get virtually nothing. Partially because of the Doppler effect (I hear "EERrrrrsssssss" when someone yells "It's all together, just wait for the sprint!"), partially because I can't hear well, and partially because it's hard to yell at someone if you can't focus your voice at him because you can't find him because he's hiding behind a bunch of wheels.


There's little enough of this tactical chaso as it is and some more of it would be good for those of us watching the racing.


I'd prefer if there was no radios.

We'll see what happens in the Tour.


Marcus said...

thats funny. i asked my brother baden about your story and he said it never happened... did you make it up?

Suitcase of Courage said...

Is it just me, or does Johann look a lot like Eddy in that clip?

Aki said...

Marcus - I wish I could make up stories like that! No, I didn't make it up, but I am pretty gullible. However, I distinctly remember reading about this and immediately telling a couple of my bike friends. I'll have to find the article, which, unfortunately, I couldn't find when I first wrote the majority of the post (and which is why I originally didn't post it then).

SOC - He was a lot skinnier back then for sure. And he *is* Belgian...