How Lack of Radio Affected the World Road Cycling Championships

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Watching the world road racing championship on Universal Sports yesterday from Geelong, Australia drove home the strategic role that real-time radio communication has come to play in today’s professional racing circuit.

Radios were banned from this year’s criterium-style race, a smallish 10-mile circuit that the pros mind-numbingly traversed for more than six hours. Talk about the mobile equivalent of riding an indoor trainer.

Lacking radio contact, the peloton didn’t even realize that they were in danger of being lapped — which would have disqualified the favorites in the flat-to-hilly event and made a mockery of cycling’s premier individual race. Only when an old–fashioned motorcycle monitor flashed the old–fashioned card showing the diminishing gap did the peloton get goosed into protecting its status.

But no radios also meant that teamwork was out of the picture as well, leaving the race a chaotic series of pointless attacks and burn-outs. Pre-race favorites like Fabian Cancellara, Mark the Mouth Cavendish and Philippe Gilbert, who had modeled his entire season around the worlds, simply blew apart, having little support, no indication of how other riders were doing, and no ability to form in-race partnerships to improve their chances.

Even the TV announcers were completely caught off guard when the big group caught all the other riders in the final minute of the race. They were practically speechless. Without radio communications they had no ability to draw the big picture about how the peloton caught up so quickly.

Hardly anyone expected the rider who eventually won — Thor Hushovd — to be No. 1 across the line, simply because his stats would not have suggested it this year, especially given the competition on paper. Indeed, Hushovd won simply by sitting with the pack and turning on the guns in a sprint finish that Cavendish or Gilbert normally would have won, if they’d been around to provide any competition. Taking nothing away from Thor’s rainbow jersey, there wasn’t any strategy involved. He just got lucky by being in the right place at the right time.

Abetted by the lack of radio as well.

Depriving the race of radio might have seemed like a clever change-of-pace experiment aimed at making the event more competitive and unpredictable. Unfortunately it simply injected mass chaos and a distinct lack of drama into the event. Radio is here to stay. It ultimately makes the race more strategic and exciting. Let’s hope the boneheaded retro idea of banning it is dead.


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