Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson — Bruyneel: UCI radio ban is part of a bigger issue

After battling the UCI on its decision to ban radios in all but major events, Johan Bruyneel tells VeloNews that major changes are needed in the way important issues are decided in the sport.

Before flying from London to Adelaide, Australia, Thursday to direct Team RadioShack at the Tour Down Under, Johan Bruyneel told VeloNews that major changes are needed in the way important issues are decided in the sport.

Bruyneel was speaking specifically about the ban on radio communication between riders and their team cars that has just been extended to include every major international race except the 27 events of the new UCI WorldTour — but he sees the battle to get that decision overturned as only the first part of a campaign by the world’s top teams to obtain a much larger role in how pro cycling is run.

“This radio issue is only a small issue in the big picture,” Bruyneel said. “The teams think that we don’t have enough say in what is happening in our sport. The 18 ProTeams are the top of the pyramid but we don’t….”

He hesitated, having already indicated he did not want to elaborate on last Friday’s meeting with the UCI that he attended on behalf of the professional teams association (AIGCP) to discuss the extension of the radio ban.

“I went to that meeting the other day — and I won’t go into details — but our team feels that everything is decided already … and that makes you so much more frustrated,” Bruyneel said.

“I made my point clear to the UCI — and it’s not just me but the vast majority of the professional teams — we’re pro radio, and on top of that we’re against the ban stronger than being pro radio. The teams don’t really accept that rule, so we’ll see what happens. It’s not myself alone.”

Bruyneel confirmed that the AIGCP teams voted 18-2 to oppose the radio ban, and he then mentioned the recent survey carried out by the Professional Cyclists Association. “They surveyed 344 riders,” he said. “Only 40 riders agreed with the ban, and 207 were against it — they want to keep the radios. The others (97 riders) would be okay with just getting information from Radio Tour or restricting radios to two or three riders per team.

“So the riders and almost all the teams are against the ban, but it doesn’t seem to matter. We see this as commonsense, the radio is a daily tool for us.”

“Our biggest frustration,” Bruyneel continued, “is that it’s an arbitrary decision; it’s been taken without any consensus from us. They said that all the players are agreed on ending the use of radios but that’s absolutely not true.”

He was referring to the statement made by the UCI in September 2009 after its management committee decision, which said “members were of the opinion that the two-way radio distorts the nature of cycle sport. They also took into account the desire expressed by the majority of those involved in cycling to prohibit the equipment.”

“To reiterate,” Bruyneel said, “the position of the teams is very clear and very firm. If you look at the history of cycling there’s never been a union for teams. There’s still no teams union when it really comes to being together and united. And the history has proven that teams have been very weak. The powerful organizations — the UCI and certain others — know very well that the teams are not united. Sometimes they use that weakness to enforce certain things. But on the radio issue, the teams are united … very united.”

When asked if he and his RadioShack colleagues would be talking about the radio ban with the other teams at the Tour Down Under in Australia this coming week, Bruyneel said, “Yes, definitely. It won’t affect this race because it’s a WorldTour race; but the 18 teams will be together, so we will definitely talk about it.”

“Radios,” he concluded. “It’s gonna be an interesting battle.”

Asked if the battle would be similar to the one the riders waged against the compulsory use of hard-shell helmets that culminated in a riders’ strike at the 1991 Paris-Nice, Bruyneel said, “I think the helmet issue was a different issue. I was one of the riders that mostly didn’t wear a helmet, and looking back that was very, very stupid.

“The riders were used to riding without helmets. But I don’t think the teams were against it. They couldn’t be against the wearing of the helmet … that wouldn’t make any sense. This is different (with the radio issue). It’s the riders, the teams and the team directors – who are the people using their radios for their job and coaching. Helmets were different. At the end of the day it was a security matter. Nobody thinks about wearing a helmet anymore. But I think the helmet issue was a bigger issue than the radio issue.”

The UCI’s transitional ban on two-way radios began a few years ago with the junior and under-23 categories. In 2009, an experiment to ban radios on two stages of the Tour de France fell flat. The ban happened on only one stage and, apparently, the riders did a go-slow as a silent protest; and the second stage experiment was scratched.

Last year, the radio ban was extended to all national calendar events around the world — but few of them involved major teams. (The ban was in place, for example, at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico where RadioShack’s Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Jason McCartney competed as a Mellow Johnny’s team.)

The only major race to see a radio ban in 2010 was the UCI world championships in Geelong, but that was contested by national teams and the race proceeded normally — partly because of the circuit format, which allowed riders to be informed of time gaps without radios and didn’t involve the potential dangers of complicated point-to-point courses.

This year’s extension of the radio ban to all Continental Calendar races went into effect Thursday at the Vuelta al Tachira in Venezuela. But it will start to have a greater impact with Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi (January 23-February 1), Italy’s Giro di Reggio Calabria (January 28-30), France’s Étoile de Bessèges (February 2-6) and the Tour of Qatar (February 6-11). Perhaps there will be protests at some of these races or, more likely, at major events later in the spring such as the Belgian semi-classic Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (February 27) or Italy’s Strade Bianche (March 5)

Whatever happens, Bruyneel was clear that the battle between the teams and the UCI over radios is only part of a bigger problem.

“If you look at it, you have the UCI, and you have the organizers, the teams and the riders, which are the main players of the sport,” the RadioShack team manager said. “I think the riders and the teams have no say at all, the organizers a little bit, some of them a lot — and I would imagine there’s some unhappy people there also.

“But I have to say the teams are not happy with the way the relationship between the teams and the UCI looks right now. I hope we can change that in the future and I hope we can come to an agreement and that we’re at the table when important decisions are made that impact our day-to-day jobs.”

At present, if a major change to UCI regulations is contemplated, a working group is first set up that reports to a UCI commission (road, track, mountain bike et cetera) before the issue goes to the UCI management committee, which makes the final decision. “We think the commissions are fundamentally wrong in how they are set up,” Bruyneel said. “It’s always four people from the UCI, and the stakeholders only get one place each. We think that’s wrong. The UCI is always going to win.”

If that situation is to change, and the continual battles within the sport are to end, then there has to be a resolution to the question of how the sport is controlled — a resolution that can perhaps start being formulated in regard to race radios.