The Peloton Replugged

Oct 15 2009

mbarryI’ve got a lot of respect for Michael Barry. He’s one of the smartest, most introspective, eloquent riders in the peloton. He also happens to disagree with me completely on the issue of race radios in the modern peloton.

Barry recently wrote an extensive, heartfelt argument against race radios in his Velonews diary. While I enjoyed reading it, and understand his feelings on the subject, the essay made some fairly glaring errors and misstatements, so I’ve given it the Fire Joe Morgan treatment. No disrespect is intended; indeed, I’m much more swayed by the authors’ thoughts on radios and TTs.

Barry’s essay begins with a lengthy passage on the modern state of affairs:

Sitting in the middle of the peloton, riding along at a steady tempo as a team controls the pace on the front, I hear our director in the radio: “There is a dangerous descent coming up in four kilometers. Move to the front to stay out of trouble. There is gravel on the corners and many switchbacks. Get to the front.”

Sitting in the car, well behind the peloton, he has seen the technical section of course on the map and the commissaires have also relayed the information to him through their radio broadcast to all the vehicles following the race. Almost instantaneously there is a panic in the peloton.

Every team has ordered its riders, each of whom is wirelessly tethered to a director, to move up. In a few short moments, what was a controlled moment of racing with few dangers has become a panicked fight for the front. Riders push and shove through the bunch as they simultaneously try to follow orders.

My heart begins to race and I grip the bars firmly. Brakes are slammed, wheels skid, bodies bump together and carbon smoke is in the air as a crash is avoided. With several hours of racing remaining we are riding as if we are just minutes from the line. As we crest the summit and turn the first corner to descend, two riders touch handlebars, tangle and crash. The peloton’s nervousness increases and we are soon riding much faster than we had been before as everyone panics. More crashes occur.

I can’t really say, since I’m not a pro, but I don’t think 200 riders barreling unawares into a dangerous descent is safer than 200 riders battling for position a few k earlier. I also can’t say that the correct response is to follow the orders of your DS here—if there are hours left to race, and a long descent, the group should be able to come back together.

That having been said, as a spectator, I find the battles in the peloton that precede major obstacles like cobbled sections and rain-slicked bergs some of the most compelling parts of the modern sport. My apologies if it comes at the expense of the racers.

Radios have changed cycling.

No argument here. So have quick-releases, support cars, and derailleurs. Was lugging a spanner and a spare tubular up each col, slogging along with a choice of two (2) gears better for the sport, too?

Riders have lost their instinct

Oh really?

and have become dependent on the orders from their car and the racing has become increasingly controlled. Radio communication has eliminated many of the variables which make cycling exciting and appealing to the public.

As a member of the public, I must disagree, and reiterate that some radio-created variables have made the sport that much more exciting for me.

When teams began to dominate Formula One, limits were put on the cars and the technology was limited to challenge the drivers, boost the competition and level the playing field. The UCI’s announcement of a radio ban will attempt to accomplish the same thing for cycling.

So banning radios would level the playing field? Despite the fact that all teams currently have access to radios?

Cycling is a tactical sport. What intrigues the public are the variables which allow a long breakaway attempt and the heroic effort, to succeed.

I wish he’d stop telling me what I want to see. I’d also like him to admit that those variables still exist—bad weather, tired chasing teams, long-term tactical considerations, crashes, break composition, etc—radios don’t change that.

The public doesn’t want to see complete dominance and control. Cycling has become overly formulaic in the last 10 years.

Like Roubaix in ’06—the one with the train. Just like Bjarne drew it up.

Seriously, though, I get the feeling the “Cycling” here means “the Tour de France”. I haven’t heard people whine that a single classic was boring because of race radios.

Much of this year’s Tour

Ah-ha! I knew it.

was tedious to watch as it lacked the glorious moments where riders race with panache.

It’s also a 21 day, 2000 mile race. Panache is not a sustainable thing over those distances. At least, not without a little boost…

Over the radio we are relayed every piece of information available. We know the weather ahead, the course conditions and difficulties, the time gaps between the groups, who is dropped or who is in front, how big the remaining group is, how far there is until the finish, how far to the feedzone, where the soigneurs are standing in the feedzone, and dozens of other little bits and pieces that help solve the puzzle, or when there is too much information, complicate things.

So basically, radios save riders the trouble of paying attention? I’ll admit, that bugs me a touch. But as a non-radioed racer, I can say with confidence that very few of the people in my fields pay attention, either.

We are then encouraged, often repeatedly to annoyance, to stay focused, to rider harder, to go faster, to attack, to sit in, to drink, to eat, and to move to the front. The director, from his seat in the car, is in the race with us but without the same pain in his legs. 

I don’t think it’s possible to irritate a man into winning a bike race. Otherwise Manolo Saiz would have managed a Tour victory or three.

To me, the teams, riders and directors who are complaining about the proposed ban are scared to try a new formula for racing. Why would Ferrari, or whichever team is dominating, want a rule change when their cars are victorious on every weekend of the Formula One season?

No argument here. But one team isn’t dominating cycling—that is, if you realize cycling exists outside winning the GC at the Tour de France.

The winning teams have become victorious by controlling the variables in the race while using their talent to its maximum.

Yes. The idea is to win.

With televisions and telephones in the team cars the directors can see and hear everything that is happening or might possibly happen.

I’m sitting at home, not driving a car, and when a race explodes, I have no idea what’s going on, at least for a few moments. It strains credulity that race directors dictate the critical, race-winning orders in these chaotic moments.

The information is relayed to the riders and tactics are then dictated as they become puppeteers, all their denials to the contrary. The riders follow the commands and rarely question any decision.

Nobody marionettes Cav to the line. In fact, if Erik Zabel made excuses, he’d blame his ’04 MSR disaster on keeping his radio in.

Eliminate radios and the director’s role changes overnight.

There are many young riders in the professional peloton who have rarely raced without radios. Tactically they are inept because they have always listened for commands and have never had to plan and react alone.

Haven’t radios been banned the Espoir ranks for a while now? At any rate, if they’ve never had their tactical abilities tested, how can one tell they are inept?

Johan Bruyneel was one of the first directors to embrace any new technology. He then used it like a maestro to orchestrate the race and conduct his team. Under his guidance we rode beautifully together, each knowing our role. We knew when to increase the tempo, when to attack and when to slow the peloton down. The race was often under the team’s ─ Johan’s ─ control as we whirled away on the front for hours before the crucial, planned moment when the leader attacked and crushed his rivals.

Uh, yeah. That’s the idea, winning the race.

A decade later the formula, since adopted by everyone

…even the teams that lose?

has made racing mundane. No longer does the long breakaway last until the finish and rarely does the dominant team falter.

So Voeckler, Feiliu, Sanchez, Fedrigo, Sorensen, Hausseler, Ivanov, Astarloza, and Garate—9 of the 15 stage winners at the “tedious” 2009 Tour—were all flukes?

To their proponents, radios make racing safer by eliminating cars from the peloton.

Quite possibly the least compelling argument against radios, but yes, some people do say that. I’m not one of them.

But cars were not in the peloton constantly during the era of radio-free racing. They did come into the peloton but only with the permission of the commisaire, infrequently and when the moment was appropriate.

As opposed to now when the just drive in when they feel like it? Anyway, sounds like your problem is with cars, then, not radios.

Conversely, radios and the rest of the technology we now use, make the racing more dangerous.

I have seen many directors drive erratically in the race caravan

…so they aren’t in the field, but back in the caravan, as they have been since team cars were added to pro racing.

as they are either focused on the radio, the television, their BlackBerry or telephone instead of on the car in front or riders buzzing around them. Most of these communication devices have been made illegal to use on the city streets in normal traffic as it has been proven that multitasking is in fact impossible as the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Why are these devices permitted in the closed, yet wildly chaotic, environment of races?

I do things on a bike in the “closed, yet wildly chaotic environment of races” that I would never do on “city streets in normal traffic”.

With the continued use of radios cycling risks becoming boring to the spectators

As a spectator, I’ve got no complaints.

and increasingly dangerous to the cyclists. As roads become more congested with cars, roundabouts increasingly prolific, and city centers dense, the dangers will continue to increase.

Isn’t the complaint here with courses? Or number of cars? Or density of city center? And how are radios bringing about these things?

Over the radios directors, management and organization can infuse the peloton with their directives which may often not be in the riders’ best interest. Prior to radio use there was solidarity amongst the riders where they looked out for their common interests when their jobs or health were at risk.

Like the consistent rider protests against mandatory helmets—and anti-doping efforts—throughout the 1990s?

With a voice telling us what to do, we have lost our voice as we seem to constantly buckle when under pressure.

Like the field did in Milan this past May?

Cycling is a spectator sport. We are paid to race our bikes to deliver advertising to the public watching us on television or from the roadside. The racing needs to appeal to the public.

L’Alpe 2004. No public appeal.

In all seriousness, I’ve never heard someone with an appreciation of the skill and timing required to set up and win a group sprint refer to the break-and-catch flat stages of Grand Tours as “boring”, either. Maybe some members of the public are just better suited for football.

In the autobiographical movie of Eddy Merckx, “La Course en Tete,” a journalist asked Eddy if he thinks cycling is so popular because, quoting biochemist and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod, “People admire courage, calculation and will power, all of which are primitive instincts.”

Eddy quietly ponders the questions and then nods his head in agreement. With radios we lose our instinct to race with panache.

You know who raced with panache? DiLuca. Two guesses as to why he was able to do that, and the first one doesn’t count.

Also, even with the drugs, he still lost.

The problem with panache is that nine times out of ten, it’s a sucker bet. You don’t win Grand Tours with panache. You win them by keeping calm, playing it safe, then dealing a death-blow when the opportunity strikes. Nothing—not even taking race radios out of the equation—can change that fact.

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