Thursday, March 03, 2011

Racing, radios, HUD, SMS, nano-tech... if they aren't puppets on a string yet, maybe next season

In 30 years of racing I have never used a radio. OK, it was just club racing, I know, but it mattered to us. Nevertheless we always found a way to communicate during a race. Although most of my racing has been as an "individual" rather than in a team, club mates would still magically "coordinate" to be in the right place at the right time, to close down or block as needed. And we usually found out about hazards, too, although the pack of roos suddenly crossing our path during one Canberra 2-Day Tour was an interesting surprise. I doubt a DS on the radio yelling "watch the roos!" would've been of much extra use.

What we didn't always know were gaps, and sometimes - rarely - we missed that a guy had gone "up the road". Until we rolled in later and found out we were only riding for 2nd. Now if we'd had a DS with a radio maybe we'd have ridden harder, earlier, and closed the gap. That's my preamble to this radio debate, anyway. 

Now if I can edit this down to a few key lines, the argument against 2-way rider radios in pro bike races is simply that the riders lose some spontaneity and independence in their actions, leading to greater predictability and "sameness" about the racing tactics and strategy. Big, hairy audacious attacks are less common because one team DS will say "no, don't do it!" or the others will say "chase!".

OTOH as Scott Sunderland has pointed out in his interview in the link below some of that spontaneity has been lost anyway because fewer riders are racing all season and using racing as training. They are now racing less but when they ride they are all racing, almost all of the time. So bold moves are shut down quickly in the modern manner. He also notes that poor communication of hazards, incidents or tactics could jeopardise the chances of a key - and expensive - investment, namely the modern pro bike racer. And in the modern world of sponsored teams that matters.

But others will still say that the sport is suffering and that we will all switch off if it doesn't regain that "heroic" scale of bold move again. If the fans switch off then we'll still lose sponsors. We can't win either way so a compromise is in order, perhaps. And so they (the UCI and the teams) will finally sit down and talk.

But what if we went the other way, and we imposed even greater control? Just as an idea, as a concept, it is becoming plausible that the DS in the car could not only direct the riders tactically but also use wireless technology to control the bike. I'm not saying "let's do it" but it's interesting to ponder as a "what if".  With electronic gearing there's nothing to stop the team from overriding a rider's gear choice - apart from a missing radio link to the gear actuation mechanism, anyway. With that link in place the DS could look at the biological parameters of their star rider - heart rate, power and possibly in the near future core temperature as well - and choose a "better" gear for their rider than they would choose themselves. Or if a rider disobeyed the DS then they could be overridden by a remote gear selection that slowed them down. It's just a thought.

I'm sure it'll never happen, but like miniature electric motors hidden in hubs or bottom brackets, it could be done. (Riders could also swallow nano-scale biological sensors before their race and relay key real-time data to their support staff. Now that I think will definitely happen.) 
SBS: Cycling Central : Different battlefield, different weapons
“A lot of the tactics and analysing the race and how it will go – for example, the year that Stuart [O’Grady] won [Roubaix] – my decisions and tactics come into that. But through the events of the day, they knew where they needed to go and I was just giving them information – time gaps, whether they need to go a bit quicker or slower. They still need to make so many decisions: riding in the wind or out of the wind, what gears they’re pushing... No, they’re not puppets on a string.”