Listen up: Riders want radio

Riders and teams went toe to toe with the UCI on Sunday at the Mallorca Challenge.

2011 Mallorca Challenge, Trofeo Palma, Fränk Schleck
2011 Mallorca Challenge, Trofeo Palma, Fränk Schleck

Months of growing frustration among elite teams over the ongoing debate to ban two-way race radio in all professional racing by 2012 poured out Sunday at the opening day of the Mallorca Challenge in Spain.

Riders and teams refused to race without radios in the Spanish season opener in what is part of an ongoing power struggle — not only over race radios but also over deeper concerns about what some teams say they perceive as a one-way, unilateral decision-making process by the UCI.

After a 20-minute protest when riders refused to race without race radios, sport directors, riders, race officials and a few UCI commissaires on hand Sunday in Mallorca hashed out a deal: The race would go forward with race radios, but no UCI points would be awarded for the top finishers.

That means that Farrar’s win, while a boost for his morale in his first European race of the 2011 season, will do nothing to bolster his UCI points ranking.

There was no immediate response from the UCI on Sunday evening.

VeloNews spoke with Garmin-Cervélo sport director Bingen Fernández on Sunday evening hours after Farrar won the race to get a sense of what happened in Palma de Mallorca.

Fernández said Sunday’s protest was something that teams wanted to express loud and clear and decided that Mallorca was the place to draw a line on the tarmac.

“We wanted our voice to be heard and we decided among several of the teams that it would be important to make a demonstration at one of the first big races in Europe to let our concerns be known,” Fernández told VeloNews. “We don’t know how far this can go. Sometimes it’s difficult to have unity among all the diverse teams, but on this point, we are united. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Perhaps the teams will do something similar in Qatar.”

The radio-ban issue has been slowly building toward the boiling point for months. Riders already protested before one the stages at the Tour de San Luís in Argentina last month while the pro team’s group under the AIGCP organization (International Association of Professional Cycling Teams) has been issuing a torrent of press releases voicing their opposition to the ban.

Race radio technology was first introduced in the mid-1990s and teams quickly incorporated the technology into everyday racing.

In early January, however, the UCI management committee voted to extend the incremental ban on two-way radios, which already applied to junior and under-23 races, to include national and UCI international .2 events in 2010, UCI .HC and .1 events in 2011, and UCI WorldTour races in 2012 — so the full ban would be in place before next year’s Olympic Games in London.

Proponents say radios allow teams to coordinate tactics and inform riders of dangerous situations, and have become part of the everyday trade of racing bikes.

Opponents say race radios have stifled the sport to the point of largely eliminating the factor of surprise, resulting in predictable, controlled racing that has none of the wild swings and volatility that make cycling so interesting to watch in the first place.

Not all teams and riders are opposed to the radio ban. Cofidis and other French teams support the idea of racing without radio, as does Philippe Gilbert, the Belgian classics star, who often chooses to race without a sport director chattering in his ear. The Amaury Sports Organization, the powerful organizer of the Tour de France, Paris-Nice and other cycling properties, is another important supporter of the radio ban.

American Steven Cozza, racing in Mallorca with Team NetApp, told VeloNews in an email that he supports the ban. “I couldn’t care less about racing with a radio. I already have enough voices in my head yelling at me to go faster. I vote old school,” Cozza said.

Most riders seemed to be supporting the protest, at least when taking a sampling of their overnight Twitter posts.

Robbie McEwen of RadioShack wrote: “The UCI should try communicating with riders and teams before they try removing radio communication. We should all have a say in our sport.” Craig Lewis of HTC-Highroad wrote: “We raced with radios today … Very happy to see the riders voice their opinions and stand up for themselves!”

Johan Bruyneel, one of the major critics of the UCI radio ban, tweeted: “Nice to see solidarity and common sense from teams and riders at Challenge Mallorca. Everybody wanted to race with radios and so they did!”

Fernández says he admits there are many “pros and cons” in arguments on both sides, but he said banning race radios would be a “step backward.”

“There are a lot of reasons to have them, for security, communication, but more than anything, it would be a step backward,” Fernández said. “The sport is more modern now. I raced without earpieces, but cycling has changed since then. There’s a new generation who’s grown up with race radio. It’s difficult to go backwards.”

Movistar Team’s general manager Eusebio Unzue said Sunday’s protest came as a last resort after what he said were several stifled efforts by teams to get their concerns addressed and said if a resolution is not found soon, there could be more “troubles soon.”

“It may appear that there could have been a time to negotiate and that this wasn’t a good place, but I say that we tried to by all possible means to communicate and there wasn’t really any response,” Unzue said Sunday on the team’s web site. “We’re making a big effort to get the people behind these decisions to see that this is not a whim, but a real need. This is an essential part of our everyday work and we must fight for it.”

Both sides seemed determined to hold their ground. Round two could come as soon as Monday’s second stage at the Tour of Qatar, where race leader Lars Boom (Rabobank) told VeloNews that some sort of action was in the works.