By Andrew Hood
Bob Stapleton, the influential boss of the Columbia-HTC team, says the UCI’s plan to ban race radio is a step backward for cycling.
The UCI management committee voted Wednesday to phase out the use of radio communication between riders and sport directors within elite men’s road racing in the coming seasons, a decision that’s quickly drawing the ire of many within the peloton.
“I think it’s like driving a car looking in the rear-view mirror,” Stapleton said. “I think the basic premise is wrong. It’s just not taking into account how racing works.”
Stapleton said his top concern is rider safety, something he says will be diminished if radio communication is eliminated.
“It’s a danger. There are too many cars and vehicles in a race right now for it to be safe,” he said. “It’s not like it was 20 years ago. I’m very concerned about the basic premise and about rider safety. You’re going to have cars cruising up into the peloton all the time, and no meaningful way to control them. I think that was easier to do 20 years ago than it is now. There weren’t as many camera bikes, officials, and the roads are different, too. There’s more road furniture now.”
Stapleton said he queried Columbia-HTC riders, including Austrian veteran Bernard Eisel, and didn’t find much support for the idea.
“We went straight to Bernie Eisel, who’s one of our team leaders, and he didn’t want anything to do with it,” Stapleton said. “We’ve heard that some teams are supporting this, but not any that I’ve spoken to. The riders certainly don’t support it.”
Others within the pro peloton have also criticized the decision taken this week by the UCI without much direct input from directors and riders.
Belgian sport director Johan Bruyneel told VeloNews he also thought it was a bad idea.
“I have the impression that the people who take those decisions are not in close touch with the sport on the road,” Bruyneel said. “Like every other director, it’s useful to say things over the radio, and I think it is absolutely nonsense to ban them. Surely we will talk about this with the teams in the near future.”
The decision comes on the heels of experiments earlier this season to ban race radio, which have already been phased out in the U23 ranks and at the French national road championships.
Efforts to ban race radio during two stages in this year’s Tour backfired. Riders rode at protest speed during the 10th stage, prompting Tour officials to quickly scuttle plans to continue the race ban in the next day’s stage across the Vosges.
Supporters of the idea insist it will reignite excitement within the racing and inject a higher degree of unpredictability into the sport. Critics claim that modern racing has lost its spark in part because it’s too controlled by sport directors orchestrating the action via earpieces from behind the following cars.
Stapleton downplayed the idea that riders are incapable of thinking and reacting on their own.
“I don’t think these riders are robots. It’s disrespectful to suggest that all they’re doing is following suggestions from the car. Some of the guys are very good tactically,” he said. “I actually think the radios enhance the racing. If you want to do more, there’s a lot to do before taking the radios out. I’m not enthusiastic about the UCI’s idea at all.”
Instead of banning radios, Stapleton even suggested opening up race radio to the public, allowing them to listen in to the banter between rider and sport director, much like what’s featured in the NASCAR racing circuit.
“It you want to do something progressive from a marketing point of view, bring the radios into the broadcast. Make it part of the entertainment. Open them up for the last part of the race. Use the technology to make it a better show,” he said.
“There are so many things to do that are really progressive. This is just way down the list. We work alongside the sport on progressive issues, and we’ll do what we can, but it looks as though this ship is leaving the dock.”