Radio Daze

With the threat of rider protests at the Critérium International, the Coppi e Bartali and the GP E3 apparently still on the table it's time for me to add to the compost heap of bullshit that's been built up by all sides of the race radio debate over the last couple of months. Having read as much as I could before my eyes glazed over I've formed these views: Bike races have always been boring and banning radios will do nothing to alter that; and Jonathan Vaughters' suggestion that the  radio airwaves should be opened up to the public is, so far, probably the most sensible contribution to this debate.

All we hear is Radio ga ga, radio blah blah. Radio what's new? Radio, someone still loves you! - Queen

A Dog in a HatRace radios have been part of cycling for twenty years or more. Greg LeMond is generally credited with introducing them to the peloton, with other teams quickly following his example and their use rapidly spreading throughout the sport. On the surface of it, the argument against their use seems seductively simple. Here's Joe Parkin in his A Dog In A Hat:

Surely there have been many improvements in cycling over the years, but radio communication is not one of them. Radios have pushed up speeds and made racing more dangerous because, with the directors shouting instructions non-stop, everyone is keyed up and nervous all the time.

Or here's Michael Barry, after watching the 2008 U23 World Championship road race, which was conducted without race radios:

Like digital images have changed photography, radios have taken the grainy reality out of the peloton. On several levels it is nice to see the humanity and reality return to cycling.

The argument I personally would offer against race radios is that they turn people like Barry's current directeur sportif, David Brailsford, into self-important arseholes who happily try to steal the glory from riders like Nicole Cooke. In the immediate aftermath of Cooke's Olympic victory, Brailsford bragged about how he and (I think) Shane Sutton had been on the radio to Cooke all the time and, in the last lap, told her to take it slow into the final, wet corner. The way Brailsford talked it was as if he, not Cooke, had won the gold medal for Team GB.

When I hear comments like that, I can't help but think Brailsford sees his riders as being the least important part of an equation scribbled on a whiteboard in the bowels of the Manchester vélodrome. It was bad enough with all the secret squirrels shit and how this part made the bike go that much faster and that part made the bike go this much faster, but here Brailsford was sounding like he thought he and his colleagues were playing with a PS control pad - a radio earpiece in Cooke's ear - and Cooke herself, the woman actually riding the bike, didn't really matter all that much.

Le Sport Contre Les PeuplesThat sort of thinking leads me to Robert Redeker's criticism of cycling in the nineties and early noughties:

The athletic type  represented by Lance Armstrong - unlike Fausto Coppi or Jean Robic - is coming closer to Lara Croft, the virtually  fabricated cyber-heroine, from Tom Raider. Cycling is becoming a video game; the onetime  'prisoners of the road' have become virtual human beings [...] A huge gulf now exists between the race and the racers, who have become virtual figures, transformed into PlayStation characters while the public, the ones at the folding tables and the tents, drinking pastis and fresh rosé du pays, are still real. The type of man once promoted by the race, the people's man, born of hard toil, hardened to suffering and adept at surpassing himself [...] has been substituted by Robocop on wheels [...] someone no fan can relate to or identify with.

That gulf between rider and fan - in the tortuously twisted pathways of my brain anyway - throws up Jonathan Vaughters' recent criticism of anonymous / pseudonymous internet types and our lack of respect for the real people behind the names we so glibly disrespect or connect the dots between. Vaughters thinks it is the anonymity / pseudonymity of the net-based commentariat is the problem here. I wonder if the anonymity of the riders themselves isn't also part of the problem. If some of their directeurs sportifs treat riders like interchangeable characters in a video game, controlled by a radio earpiece, how can fans be expected to see them any differently?

But is the attitude of people like Brailsford reason enough to ban race radios? For me, no it isn't. But it's better than the argument propounded by the UCI (and fed to it by France Television), which is that race radios are making races boring (predictable is the preferred word used by the UCI, but the meaning is the same).

It's funny how few people ever seem to want to address the elephant in the room when faced with that argument: bike races are boring. They've always been boring. They're boring for the roadside fans. They're boring for the armchair enthusiasts watching them on telly. And half the time they're boring for the riders themselves.

The point about boredom though is that, from the get go, we've learned how to ameliorate its impact upon our enjoyment of this sport. When you stand by a roadside to watch a race - or even join in the fun of Podium Café's live threads - what makes that race exciting is the company of your fellow spectators, the way information is shared back and forth, a bit gleaned by this person from that media source, a bit gleaned by that person from this media source. Spectating at races - at the roadside or via an online forum like this - is a communal activity. It's fun.

Sweat of the godsThe media obviously play an important role in our enjoyment of this sport. Road racing started as a sport of the written word and it was the writers of early race reports who made bike races exciting. They overcame the boredom inherent in the sport by editing out all the dull bits and concentrating on the exciting bits. This role played by the media is something Benjo Maso addresses in his The Sweat of the Gods (seriously, it's a book you really should read yourself):

Because it is impossible to observe the progress of a road race with one's own eyes, the media play a very different role than they do in other sports. Whoever wants to see a football or tennis match can sit in the stands and watch what is happening from start to finish. Whoever wants to know anything about the progress of a Tour, or a Classic, is completely dependent on the media.

That does not mean they are given a trustworthy or complete picture. These days, sportswriters covering major races have to drive either far ahead of, or behind, the peloton, and they get to see the cyclists only before the start or after the finish. Even at the time when reporters still enjoyed the right to move among the riders, seated in a car or on the back of a motorcycle, they caught merely a glimpse of the development of the race and could only hope to be present by coincidence when important incidents took place.

The major cycling journalists of the past made no attempt to give detailed accounts of races; they sought to do no more than meld the relatively scarce facts available to them into an exciting whole. For example, the article that the Belgian sportswriter Joris Jacobs considered the high point of his career was the page-and-a-half account of the great Alpine stage in the 1949 Tour that he based in its entirety on two short sentences which the reporter on the spot had been able to telegraph from Aosta to Belgium.

When radio coverage of bike races came along, Maso says, you could still get away with making things up. But television made that harder. For me, one of the worst parts of being a cycling fan in the nineties - even worse than suffering through the robotic reign of Miguel Induráin and the rise to power of Gen-EPO - was watching the Tour live on Eurosport, where David Duffield tried to make the dull bits more interesting by talking about cheeses. I shit you not. Cheeses. I used to just turn the volume down and crank up the Kraftwerk. But duffers like Duffield aside, television reporting of bike races can be exciting, even during the dull bits. It all comes down to who is doing the reporting.

The who is doing the reporting side of the problem with cycling coverage was highlighted during the 1968 Tour de France. That was the year after the death of Tom Simpson, and the Tour organisers had reacted to Simpson's death by offering a tame parcours. The race also suffered somewhat by the non-appearance of a number of stars of the day, whose decision not to ride was in no way connected to the dope tests in force during that year's race.

We Were Young And CarefreeEarly into the race, the journalists covering events grew restless, and told the public that the race was boring. Race director Félix Lévitan responded in typically acerbic form, telling the journos that maybe it was not better racing that was needed but better reporters. Is there a modern-day Félix Lévitan willing to stand up to France Television and say something similar to them?

On the issue of addressing the boredom that creeps into races, something Laurent Fignon wrote in his We Were Young And Carefree is worth paying attention to:

There is one key rule which we should all follow when discussing cycling today: prudence. Apart from the doping issue which, as everyone knows, has unfortunately caused changes in the last fifteen years by altering the most basic physical values, it can be said that cycling has still progressed in every area. The roads are better, so too the kit, so is race preparation. So the standard of the average professional cyclist has risen markedly.

The problem is that while all this has been going on, there hasn't been much change in the races themselves. A race like Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a fearsome, highly selective race in my day but is now just a race like any other. It's ordinary, for one reason at least: the hills are spaced too far apart. It's not suited to today's cyclists. In the same way, is it right for Flèche Wallonne to come down to a sprint up the Mur du Huy? What that means is simple: the courses of the races are not suited to cycling today.

Look at the evolution of a race like Milan-San Remo and you will see how some race organisers have continually tried to tweak their courses to counter boring, processional races. Stick in a hill here or there, move the finish line this way or that, whatever it takes to disrupt the sprinters and make the race more unpredictable. Look at the way the organisers of the Vuelta a España have made their race more exciting by adding new climbs like the Angliru. Or look at last year's Giro d'Italia. If you didn't vote the strade bianche stage the best day's racing of the year you should be ashamed of yourself.

But there are limits to what you can do with a parcours. Look at, say, the 2009 Tour, where ASO tried to deliver a parcours which would serve up a nail-biting finish on the Ventoux. In the end, the riders rendered the stage null and void by failing to deliver. Or look at last year's Tour and the Tourmalet stage, which was something of a damp squib. Were the riders suffering performance anxiety on the day? No. They were riding defensively. An issue Fignon also addressed :

Cycling has been transformed into a defensive sport. It's raison d'être is attacking, but that has been overlooked. Of course you have to defend a position sometimes, for example on a major Tour, but how are you going to win a race apart from by attacking? That is the essence of cycling. That's its spirit and its soul. Today, the riders seem to hope that they may win if they wait for the other guy to crack: that is the mentality of the second-rate.

Who actually remembers the name of the riders who finished sixth and seventh in the last Tour de France? No one is interested. For certain 'decision-makers' in today's cycling, sponsors or media, finishing in that sort of position in the Tour is seen as more important than winning a major Classic. It's a perversity of the current system. Finishing third or fourth in the Tour obviously does reflect a 'sporting value.' But the rider who finished fifth will do everything to demonstrate to his employer that he could have finished fourth: there we are referring to 'market value.' Where is real cycling in all of that? It's not my idea of the sport.

Now obviously fans of riders like Nicolas Roche will be harrumphing away when they read that comment about who remembers who finished sixth or seventh in the Tour but seriously, do they really rate an instantly forgettable GC place like that over winning a stage or any other race during the season? Yet riders like Roche are able to turn themselves into stars without ever winning anything other than their own national championships. Is it race radios that have made these riders defensive, conservative, boring? I don't think so.

The UCI seems to be acting on this defensive nature of the sport today by - as well as trying to ban radios - reintroducing one of the most damaging initiatives of the 1980s: the FICP points system. Seeing as I'm trying to go a whole week without banging on about doping, I won't go into why the FICP system - once it was hitched to entry into the major races - was such a bad thing. Whether the reintroduction of this system will see history repeating itself we'll soon see.

Can the race organisers do anything to counter the boredom of defensive riding? Within limits, yes. Go back to the really early days of this sport, the days of Six Day races, days when racing for six days actually meant racing for six days and six nights, all of the day and all of the night. Clearly that must have been pretty boring for spectators. So the organisers livened things up, offering prizes for random laps. Road cycling adopted this practice. Hot spot sprints and mountain prizes were introduced to spice up the racing. Bonfications were added. And then taken away by some organisers, who felt they only added to the problem.

One contributing factor to defensive riding is the strength of teams. In some races, you simply know there's no need to turn on the live feed until the riders are in the final few kilometres because the sprint trains will have such a stranglehold on the racing. Will no race radios take the steam out of the sprint trains and stop them being able to control a race? Hardly. They'll still know how far ahead the break is, except they'll be relying on the old-tech chalk blackboard instead of the new-tech radio earpiece. Unless the UCI is considering banning chalk too.

Benjo Maso, when interviewed for Podium Café last year, had this to say about the role of teams in cycling today:

Cycling is an individual sport practised by teams and there has always been a tension between these two aspects. Right now, the accent is laying too much on teams, one of the main reasons why so many races have become so dull.

Here it's tempting to channel the ghost of Henri Desgrange and damn the day teams entered this sport. Every Tour it seemed that Desgrange - in true Dick Dastardly fashion - would come up with some new and fiendish way to overcome the power of teams, to try and make the racing conform to his will. And every year he failed. That Desgrange never managed to beat the teams ought be a lesson to everyone here.

That's not to suggest that we shouldn't do whatever it takes to stop teams making fans reach for the off switch, or delay the point at which they reach for the on switch. But really, is taking away their race radios going to do that? Those against race radios have offered a simplistic, rather than simple, argument. Slice it, dice it, whatever way you look at it, it fails to solve the problem they promise it is the answer to.

That's not to suggest that those defending race radios have done themselves proud with their line of reasoning. Jens Voigt offered this argument:

If we just get a single fatal accident, the price is already too high for something that someone thinks will make the sport more interesting. I would rather have a boring race where everyone is happy and alive, and [a rider] can come home and embrace his parents and say, ‘Hi mum and dad. I'm alive.'

Seeing that criticising Voigt is seen as a stoning offence by some and I've a big streak of yellow running down my back, I'll let a comment from Jacky Durand punch the hole in Voigt's argument:

I still remember [Andreï] Kivilev, who died [at the 2003 Paris-Nice] because he had both hands in his back pocket, probably trying to fix his radio reception.

Tour de LanceThere is one element of the pro argument that I do like though: the view put forward by Jonathan Vaughters that, rather than banning race radios, their airwaves should be opened up to the media (which is what happens in other sports that use radios, such as Formula 1. I think it's also done with the ref's radio in some sports). Why do I agree so readily with this suggestion from Vaughters? Bill Strickland made me do it.

Some of you may recall me last year calling Strickland's Tour de Lance both beautiful and annoying. One of the beautiful things about it is when he's embedded in the Astana team car and reports the radio communication between Johan Bruyneel or Viatcheslav Ekimov and the team's riders. Unfortunately, there's no short passage from the book that can be quoted to show how much fun the radio exchanges are, so you'll just have to take my word on this one. Or beg, steal, borrow or buy the updated paperback edition of the book, which is due out soon. (Or just browse it in Borders. Look at the Tour of Gila chapter. Just don't tell Strickland I told you to do that.)

We Might As Well WinBruyneel, in his We Might As Well Win (ghosted by Strickland), says this about the content of those radio exchanges:

I think fans expect me to be whispering some kind of top-secret tactical code to the riders. But after spending seven years in Lance's ear, I can tell you you'd be disappointed, in fact, if someone handed you a transcript of everything Lance and I had ever said to each other over the radios. The content is more mundane than sparkling.

Bollocks to that Bruyneel. It's the very mundanity of the content that makes it so much fun. Some of it even feels like it should have been in Freya North's Cat: "Go, go, go, come on Lance, pedal, pedal, pedal, that's it Lance, smooth now, now, now, now, yes yes yes." Oh be still my beating heart.

Opening the airwaves is actually the best solution to this issue. Let the fans tune it to what passes between directeurs sportifs and riders. If even only half of it is as daft as the exchanges over the Astana airwaves it'd solve the boredom dilemma in a thrice. And if the other half isn't as much fun, who knows, once the directeurs sportifs realise that people are tuning in, they might feel the need to pipe down a bit, thus satisfying those fundamentally opposed to modern technology. Vaughters' idea is an elegant solution to this whole brouhaha. Will the UCI be too proud to climb down off its high horse and accept it?

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