October 10, 2009

Radio ga ga

During a time trial, riders used to depend solely on their memory of the pre-ride to gauge their speed through the corners and their effort on the climbs. Today, there is a constant relay of information coming back to the rider, so he knows how to approach a corner, how many kilometers he has left on a climb, exactly how far he has to the finish, and how his time compares to that of his rivals.

The director, with a coach’s eye, can tell a rider what gear to ride as well; he will tell him when to shift up or down depending on the rider’s apparent comfort and speed. Unaware of the change in his position, a time trialist, riding near his limits a time trialist will lose his form on the bike, creating more wind drag. The director will be in his ear to correct those errors.

And, of course, there is constantly a voice yelling encouragement, which can either refocus a rider, or make him irritably annoyed if the director is overly encouraging. Live television coverage, being broadcast in the team cars, gives the directors constant time checks, and also allows them to see exactly how the rivals are performing – how they look on their bikes and whether or not they will be a factor in the race. With radios, the time trial has been stripped of many of its most challenging elements.

Motorola is my co-pilot
The race has gone from being a purely individual race to a team event. The co-pilot, the teammate to the rider, sits in a car following the race and directing the rider much like a rally car driver depends on his navigator.

A decade ago, riders gauged their efforts on their knowledge of their own capacities, and sometimes, an infrequent time check from a soigneur or mechanic who stood at the side of the course with a bit of paper, a stopwatch and a pen. Some directors yelled at their riders over loudspeakers, or simply out the window (which did absolutely nothing other than making the directors feel significant because the riders can’t hear a thing over the wind) but the information relayed was spotty and more than anything else, was usually simple encouragement (or irritant), in the form of, “Up, up, up” or “Venga! Venga! Venga!”

When the director fell silent it generally wasn’t a good sign – it was likely that he no longer cared to push the rider as the he had lost any hope of a decent result.

The time trial is said to be the race of truth: a rider alone, without aid of drafting, sets off in a race against the clock. In many ways it is the purest form of bike racing.

Tactics are few, the effort is completely individual and the event can be ruthlessly difficult pushing the cyclist to his physical limits. At least that’s much how it used to be. Over the last ten years, race radios have changed the time trial.

Craig Lewis, my Columbia-HTC teammate and a young professional with several strong performances against the clock, wrote in an email, “With the use of a radio, you’re racing and pacing yourself against all of the riders who have ridden before and after you as their times. The technology has taken quite away from the purest form of road racing.”

Lewis is among a generation of riders who have rarely raced without radios. He can see how the radios have restrained the development of their generation’s tactical intellect, as few of his peers know how to race without aid. Yet, he is not the only rider in agreement with having them banned, or regulated, as a large percentage of the riders can see the radios are detriment to the spectacle and can create unnecessary chaos in the peloton.

The radios dull the event as everything becomes more predictable in a race that should not only be about the strongest physical performance but also the strongest mental performance. The combination of the mental and the physical are what make a cyclist great and a race should be a challenge to both. Particularly in a race that emphasizes the individual.

Ali defeated Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire not because he was stronger but because he used his savvy. And, for that their fight became monumental. The best races are won and lost when riders duel until the end with potent attacks and calculated moves.

Radio-free in Mendrisio
Two weeks ago at the World Championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland, the U23 category rode without radios in the road race. As in Varese in 2008, their radio-free-race proved to be the most exciting of the weekend as the race lacked the control which dominated both the women’s and the pro men’s event.

Without time gaps, or race information, the riders had to rely on their intellect, their tactical knowledge, their experience and instinct. In the end, the strongest rider surely won, and the day of racing was thrilling from start to finish. As this generation, matures without radios, we will see a brilliant tactician develop into a champion. Like Sean Kelly, Laurent Fignon, and Bernard Hinault he will be great not only because he is strong but also because he has learned how to race with his brain.

David Millar, multiple grand tour time trial stage winner, put it most succinctly.

“Racing with radios is a clear performance advantage,” Millar said. “This is especially obvious in a time trial as riders who are not specialists can benefit from having someone with experience coach them through the race. The person in the car effectively becomes the rider’s brain. I would love to race against my peers and not their directeurs sportifs. It has been argued they make racing safer. Rubbish. This is a weak argument with little real world relevance. The radios must go.”

The transition to radio free racing will be a difficult adaptation for many riders and directeurs as it is a device that has become a crutch and a safety net. In the end, cycling will prosper as riders gain their independence while racing with intellect and instinct.

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