Omloop radio protest averted, riders, teams promise to carry protest to other races

LEON, Spain (VN) — A protest this weekend appears to have been averted, but riders and teams promise to carry their growing frustration over the race radio ban to other upcoming events.

2011 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad training, Sylvain Chavanel
Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel rides Friday in Belgium, ahead of Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

LEON, Spain (VN) — Riders and teams promise to carry their growing frustration over the race radio ban to other upcoming events this spring.

However, a possible rider protest at Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is unlikly after the teams association announced Friday that it had voted against a protest. The AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels) issued the following release Friday:

Upon receiving information that the UCI threatened to remove race commisaires from Omloop Het Niewsblad, if riders were to wear radios, the race organizer could not guarantee the race could go forward, as insurance policies required commisaires to be present.

The AIGCP have decided, by a majority, that to endanger a long standing race would not be in the best interest of the sport, its fans, and its sponsors.

We, once again, extend an invitation to the UCI to find a compromise on this issue. We also are hopeful that the UCI will no longer threaten race organizers with actions that imperil their events.

Earlier in the week, Rabobank team members told Dutch journalists that the team planned to try to start with radio ear pieces.

Riders and teams say more protests could be in the cards in the coming weeks against what they say is an arbitrary, unfair and ultimately unsafe decision to ban race radio.

“I think we will try to organize something at Paris-Nice,” one rider told VeloNews at this week’s Ruta del Sol in Spain. “We don’t want to hurt these little races like this (Ruta del Sol). They’re already up to their necks trying to keep these races going. They’re stuck in the middle of this just like we are. So why not protest one of the big races and see how they like it?”

Race radios are still allowed at Paris-Nice, but a possible strike would be a direct shot at Amaury Sport Organisation, the powerful company behind such events as the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix.

ASO has been one of the strongest proponents on phasing out radio bans, saying that the implementation of the two-way communication devices has led to a modern style of racing that’s too controlled and too predictable, lacking much of the drama of racing’s glory years.

Many riders and teams, however, see the radio ban as a direct challenge to safety while others view a ban as a step back.

VeloNews queried several riders at the recent Ruta del Sol and almost all were opposed to phasing out the race radios.

Jens Voigt (Leopard Trek) — whose aggressive, attacking style is supposed to be one of the beneficiaries of a radio ban — said there are larger questions at play than race-ban proponents are offering.

“You win races because you’re strongest and smartest, not because you have a radio piece in your ear,” Voigt told VeloNews. “Let’s stop talking about it. It’s a safety issue and it’s also like going back in time. It’s like me telling you, as a journalist, I want to make your life more spontaneous, so you have to put down your camera and write your story with a pencil, then ride a horse to the finish line today and then send your story across the telegraph. The wheel in time is moving forward, these people want to live forever in the past. We have cars with seatbelts, but wouldn’t life be more interesting without seatbelts? No one is going to do that, because that is crazy. We need radios for security reasons – end of discussion.”

The UCI’s decision to phase out ear pieces began quietly last year, with a ban at U23 and women’s races as well as all 1.2 and 2.2. This year, the ban is hitting the pros directly at events such as Ruta del Sol (2.1) and the Omloop Het Nieuwslad (1.HC). Next year, the ban would extend to all professional cycling events, including races on the World Calendar such as the grand tours and spring classics.

The pro teams organized a protest at the first race of the five-day Mallorca Challenge in early February in an effort to demonstrate their opposition to the ban in what was one of the first top-level European events of the year.

Sport directors, riders, race officials and a few UCI commissaires on hand at the small Spanish race hashed out a deal: the race would go forward with race radios, and Tyler Farrar’s eventual win was not officially recognized.

Teams and riders went quiet at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, two events also organized by ASO, in a move seen by some as a step back.

Riders admit it’s frustrating to protest at smaller races, which are already struggling to stay afloat.

“The riders need a voice and if we feel like it’s a safety issue, we should be at the very least be heard, rather than just dismissed like we are. We don’t want to disrupt the races and the organizers who are in the middle of it,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “The one thing I can see happening is that someone can lose a race unfairly. What if you flat at the wrong moment? Like yesterday, (eventual race winner) Markel (Irizar) went back by himself to take a little break and to get some bottles. When he came back, we said, ‘hey, don’t do that again.’ If something had happened, and we’re all at the front pulling, we didn’t even realize he was gone. In that situation, if he had had a problem, he just gets on the radio. Without it, it’s a little precarious, something unlucky could happen.”

UCI officials are sticking to their guns and promise to nullify the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad if riders deliver on their promise to race with radios.

It’s an ongoing power struggle that continue throughout the year. The next battleground could be Paris-Nice.