The Fat Cyclist Explains: The Race Radio Controversy

03.10.2011 | 2:19 pm

201103101326.jpg A Note from Fatty: This is the third in the occasional “The Fat Cyclist Explains” series, which goes to show it really is a series, albeit a sporadic one. You can read the first installment here, and the second one here. Finally, you can read the third one here, but you’re already here, so what’s the point of clicking this link? I don’t think there is one, to be honest.

A couple of days ago, I remembered, briefly, that I have an email address and that many people actually read email that comes to them. For the novelty of it, I opened my email (note to the 14,000 people who have sent me as-yet-unread messages: I’ll get back to you soon!). To my delight, I found I had just sent myself the following email:

Dear Fatty,

I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines in the cycling press about a controversy surrounding the banning of race radios. I don’t want to read the articles myself, so I was hoping you could explain — in the objective, clear and thorough manner for which you are known — what this this ban means, who’s for it, who’s against it, why it matters, and what it means to the future of the sport.

Thanks very much for your very informative, entertaining, and award-winning blog,


Thanks for your note, pretend person whom I choose to call “Duane!” As you’ve noted, there is in fact a controversy over the use of radios in professional cycling. I’ll do my best to explain what’s going on.

201103101115.jpgWhat Are Race Radios, and What Their Problems?

It’s quite simple to define what a “race radio” is, actually. It’s any radio that is used to communicate with cyclists during a bicycle race. Due to the wide variety of ways in which a radio can be used, many problems — some intentional, some accidental — can occur.

Let’s go through some of the most prevalent.

Dangerous Directors: The primary — and by far the most dangerous — problem with race radios is the fact that race directors are incredibly frightening drivers. Trust me; I’ve ridden with one. They’re talking (and texting) on their phones. They’re looking at maps. They’re looking at watts and kilojoules and VO2 max scores and whatnot. They’re consulting with passengers in the cars. They’re handing out drinks.

Meanwhile, if the director ever gets a chance to look out the windshield, he’ll notice that the streets are lined, ten-deep, with people.

With all that going on, is it really a good idea for race directors to be saddled with the additional distraction of communicating with the riders?

That question was rhetorical, by the way.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Perhaps even more important than the “menace behind the wheel” issue is the fact that many team directors fancy themselves excellent singers, and will often sing along to whatever they’ve got in the car’s CD player. For example:

  • Johan Bruyneel: Known to open up the mic and “treat” the entirety of Team RadioShack to hits from the 80’s, including (but not limited to), “You Spin Me Round,” Round and Round, and — to show his musical tastes are not strictly a product of the 80’s — “I Get Around.” Says pro cyclist Levi Leipheimer, “I suppose I understand Johan’s fascination with “round”-themed songs, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
  • Bjarne Riis: During climbing stages, will — a cappella — open up the mic and sing the entire Abba catalog during long, flat stages, just to entertain himself. “The riders love it,” says Riis, citing, as evidence, the fact that he has informed them that they love it.
  • Jonathan Vaughters: Vaughters is known for breaking into Riis’ radio channel and joining in for the chorus of “The Winner Takes It All.” Says Vaughters, “I find the song highly inspirational. And besides, Abba is awesome.”

Radio Quality: The truth is that race radios are simply not very good, and it’s very difficult to understand a thing the race director is shouting into the CB-quality microphone. As a result, the second-most-commonly-heard phrase in the peloton is now, “Excuse me?”

The first-most-common phrase is, of course, “What?”

Spoiling the Surprise: Finally — and perhaps most importantly — race radios eliminate elements of the race that would otherwise be very interesting. The most commonly-cited way in which race radios take away the excitement and unpredictability of the race is in breakaways. In the absence of radios, cyclists don’t know exactly how far ahead a break has gone, which means that they can’t let the breakaway get very far ahead.

This means, tragically, that Phil and Paul will have to figure out something else to talk about during an interminably long stage, instead of talking for hours about how perhaps this will be the group that wins the breakaway lottery.

But while breakaways will be given much less line before they’re reeled in, the absence of radios will add excitement in a much more key aspect.


See, one of the things radios are used for is to indicate upcoming obstacles, turns, and the occasional renegade cow on the course. Without radios, racers are likely to crash more often, and — even better — crashes are likely to turn into full-on pileups pretty frequently as well.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, is the very best argument for not letting racers have radios.

Why the Controversy?

So now that you understand the problems of race radios, you are almost certainly wondering why there could be any controversy surrounding the banning of them.

Well, there are two perfectly good reasons.

The first reason is that the UCI is behind the ban, and we have gotten so used to the UCI being completely screwed up in everything they do that we now assume that if they back something, it must be screwed up.

In fact, I’m having a certain amount of cognitive dissonance myself. I’m agreeing with UCI on something? Really? What am I missing? Weird.

The second reason, however, is much more important and practical. Namely, everyone — the cycling press, cycling fans, pro cyclists, the UCI, everyone — is just so happy that we’ve got a controversy to talk about that isn’t doping.

It is so refreshing to have an argument devoid of skullduggery, ad-hominem attacks and innuendo that, even though nobody — pro or con — really honestly feels like the race radio ban is that big of a deal, we’re going to keep talking about it, dwelling on it, and feigning outrage about it.

Although I assure you, my own personal point of view is very, very genuine and I am 100% committed to it and am willing to argue about it until I start to get foamy spittle at the corners of my mouth.

Hopefully, that clears the topic of the Race Radio Ban up for you. I’m glad I could help.

PS: I wish to reiterate that I’m very, very passionate on this subject. Very.


  1. Comment by dug | 03.10.2011 | 2:39 pm

    ” until I start to get foamy spittle at the corners of my mouth.”

    um. “until”?

    i thought that was a permanent feature of your mouth.

  2. Comment by Big E | 03.10.2011 | 2:45 pm

    Uh Oh, spittle…

    With the ban on radios having been in effect. Have you noticed all the break aways that are actually staying away until the end? It’s fantastic! The sprinter teams don’t get organized fast enough to real them back in with less than 10k to go. It’s awesome! Me likey.

    Big E

  3. Comment by dpinner | 03.10.2011 | 2:52 pm

    Fatty, thanks for providing us with our daily dose of sarcasm.

    The UCI needs to realize that this isn’t NASCAR. Cycling fans don’t tune in for the crashes. (well, at least I don’t)

    I think Jens Voigt is correct -the radios need to stay.

  4. Comment by Microchip | 03.10.2011 | 3:08 pm

    I was all for the doing away with race radios. And then Jens Voigt spoke about it so I had do a re-think bec his viewpoint he’s gotta to have a good point. Still, if it’s going to be as dangerous as they describe, without the radios, then perhaps they can compromise on it and set up a system where the riders can be informed about a crash ahead or a dangerous road. But no directing during the race.

  5. Comment by Bicycle Bill | 03.10.2011 | 3:14 pm

    If they continue to allow race radios, then any day now we will have yet another scandal in which one team is accused of monitoring the radios of the other teams in order to steal — excuse me, ‘overhear’ their team tactics, comments and intentions in order to gain an advantage. Think about it; wouldn’t it be great if you knew that their team’s sprinter was having bike problems or their top-ranked rider was cramping up, and thus could revise your tactics accordingly?

    Although it would be something else to talk about beside who’s doping, who’s not, and who’s found the best way to cover it.


  6. Comment by JB | 03.10.2011 | 3:14 pm

    Receiving coaching while competing is so different in the sports world. In team sports coaches are directing the play on the court (basketball) and are very much a part of the action. In tennis and golf, coaches are in the stands and are not allowed to coach during the match and in golf it is a penalty to receive coaching or advice during competition.
    Does it make a difference??
    I’m not up to speed on the nuances of top level bike racing but doesn’t it still come down to the athlete performing at the top of his game to win? I can see the teams that have strategies to get a guy wins but are those plans made in advance and then executed during the race, or does the coach change things mid-race? Like a football game?
    Then coaching and radios are probably important. If you want to see the athletes making the decisions, then no radios and let the race unfold because of the riders.

  7. Comment by KK | 03.10.2011 | 3:34 pm

    This short video illustrates two important uses of race radio: encouragement and motivation!

  8. Comment by Eric L. | 03.10.2011 | 3:37 pm

    Since the UCI is going “retro”, I’d like to see frame mounted bidons be banned in favor of mounting two on the stem.

    They should also make the riders wear at least two replacement tires around their necks and shoulders.

    If it was good enough for Coppi and Bartali…..

  9. Comment by GenghisKhan | 03.10.2011 | 3:46 pm

    Radios are better than homing pigeons, but homing pigeons would be so much cooler…

  10. Comment by wishiwasmerckx | 03.10.2011 | 4:12 pm

    Fatty, your typo quotient is a mere fraction of BikesnobNYC’s, so I was delighted to see your heading “What are race radios, and what their problems?”

    Say what?

  11. Comment by bikemike | 03.10.2011 | 4:40 pm

    i think they should have “bike messengers” in the peloton, drifting back and forth, bringing info and what-not. of course on fixed gears so’s not to have to worry about dumping chains at critical junctures of the race.

    yep, that would be the safe way to communicate during a race.

  12. Comment by davidh-marin,ca | 03.10.2011 | 4:41 pm

    So Johann, Bjarne, and Mr. Argyle have ’songs’. Does Team Fatty have an official song, and can we learn it before Davis. Now that would be awesome, Team Fatty rolling out in mass singing their very own song. (I can see the Youtube now).

    All together now… (there’s a start).

  13. Comment by blinddrew | 03.10.2011 | 4:52 pm

    Awesome video link from KK!

  14. Comment by axel in texas | 03.10.2011 | 5:59 pm

    If a breakaway artist like Voigt is in favor of the radio, I don’t think there is much of a debate left. What does Jackie Durant think about this?

    So I wonder – is ABBA the real reason that Bjarne lost most his team? Did Vino not like hits from the 80’s?

  15. Comment by Jenni | 03.10.2011 | 6:36 pm

    What about if certain tops not related to safety were not permitted on radio…like no information can be given about breakaways, but wayward cows are ok, that sort of thing?

    Team Fatty and ABBA. I am SO IN. I could not be more in.

  16. Comment by Charlie Chapeau | 03.10.2011 | 6:50 pm

    You forgot one more reason to support the ban, Fatty. Just like in the good ol’days, team directors will have to drive their cars up next to the speeding peloton to communicate with their riders. Since they’re so much more distracted by gadgets these days, the crashes will be that much more frequent and horrific! Chapeau, UCI!

  17. Comment by Lonster | 03.10.2011 | 7:24 pm

    Just as race radios hit the domestic amateur peleton they want to ban them. My new shop kit has a lovely pouch on the back that I thought was a strange place for an IPOD. Turns out it is for the race radio….. Just what a 50 year old cat two Master racer who does mostly criteriums needs. But Fatty was ahead of the ban radio plan – my rockin Fat Cyclist kit has no pouch.

  18. Comment by Debamundo | 03.10.2011 | 10:11 pm

    Big-E, they ARE using radios at Paris-Nice. Those breakaways have been successful with them.

    I’m with Jens.

  19. Comment by leroy | 03.10.2011 | 11:43 pm

    Keep the radios, but make the riders wear tin foil hats to block the distracting voices.

    Works for me.


  20. Comment by Boots | 03.10.2011 | 11:44 pm

    I have a solution which will allow all involved to have their cake and eat it too (make mine choc please). Allow the riders to keep their units but require them all to be on the same frequency. It would largely eliminate the DS micro managing the race – what DS is going to tell everybody that he is preparing to send Levi up the road to position Chris Horner for the finishing climb? At the same time having the radio would enable rapid communication in case of an accident.
    The system should be largely self enforcing – except for a team speaking some weird language that nobody else understands. And they probably were not raised with bidons and the attendant history.
    Speaking of history, when are the French going to come up with a good GC rider? I have a namesake LUDOVIC Turpin who gets a couple of mentions a year but that is all.

  21. Comment by TimD | 03.11.2011 | 5:39 am

    My only objection to the race radios is what it does for riders development. Most of the DS’s now are old pro’s that learned how to read a race in the pre radio days and served their time a “road captains” for their teams. With radios they are carrying on that role from the car and the newer crop of riders aren’t getting that experience. At some point there will be a gap of of pro DS’s retiring and the new DS’s not having those skills.

    Also, as has already been noted, two stages of Paris Nice have been won by break aways, and they have radios.

  22. Comment by Jeff Dieffenbach | 03.11.2011 | 7:19 am

    Several posters already said what I was going to say (so why am I still saying it, you ask?): use the race radios for safety (with broadcasts by race officials only), but not for race strategy.

    The idea of having one open channel for all teams is interesting, but probably fails as the result of too much chatter on one channel.

  23. Comment by MattC | 03.11.2011 | 8:53 am

    If it’s for rider safety, then all riders would be on the same channel, and only the Race Director (marshall) would have transmit capability…not the team directors. The RD would HOPEFULLY be up to the moment on things involving crashes/etc and be able to broadcast that to the peleton. Jens and the boyz saying it’s for rider safety would have their cake, and the riders would be totally on thier own for during race strategy. In the big scheme of things I’m not totally sure it would be a good thing though…as is mentioned, breakaway still do succeed even w/ radios..and when they do, they are that much more special and well-earned. Bunch sprints would be fewer w/out radios, and the pressure on the teams to ensure the unknown distance breakaways get reeled in would be that much more…it might make the overall race more difficult. It’s hard to know how it would actually play out in the long run. I just figure it’s modern technology adding to the sport, much like new frame technology and such. It’s the evolution of things. Don’t go backwards.

  24. Comment by Dr. Lammler | 03.11.2011 | 1:08 pm

    Instead of bikes on the roofs of the team director’s cars, how about loudspeakers? The team directors can entertain the crowds with song as they go by?

    UCI could turn it into a competition during the mountain stage, with the winner showing a red polka dot paint scheme on the car.

    It’s a Win-Win.

  25. Comment by Polkadot | 03.11.2011 | 1:54 pm

    I’d like to see a compromise. Allow radios, but mandate each team car have a driver that only drives, paying attention to the road as if it were full of cyclists and lined with spectators.

    Every time I watch race coverage on TV, I wonder how the team cars don’t crash more often. Former wrench Nick Legan on has said he often slept in the back of the team car during races. So, there’s really no reason the team director is doing everything AND driving the car.

  26. Comment by Jeff Dieffenbach | 03.11.2011 | 3:41 pm

    In the spirit of compromise, the Race Director could broadcast safety information (you know, gems like “don’t hit the traffic furniture” and “if there’s a train, stop at the crossing”) and also what the gap is between attacks and the main group.

  27. Pingback by NorCal Cycling News - Cycling and Racing in Northern California » Blog Archive » Saturday Thinking - Radio Problem Solution | 03.13.2011 | 12:51 am

    [...] Fat Cyclist – Making fun of the whole topic [...]


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