Most people see the Tour de France and just see a bunch of guys in Lycra shorts riding their bikes. What they don’t realize is that it’s one of the most technologically advanced sporting events in the world. From the ultralight carbon fiber bike frames to the aerodynamic helmets – to the cutting edge doping scandals – a lot of new technology comes to the public first via Le Tour.
If you own a cellphone, I’ll bet you also own an asshat – particularly if you live in California. Hopefully, you’re not an Asshat and are instead a responsible user of the device, but in either case you owe a debt of gratitude to those guys on the bikes, because much of the technology involved was developed for the Tour riders. Back in the mid-nineties, the race team sponsored by Motorola (which included a young rider named Armstrong) pioneered the use of microelectronics for communication within the peleton. In the past, tour cars containing the team directors would follow behind the pack, and motorcycle riders would scoot up alongside the cyclists to pass messages. But Motorola put earpieces on their riders, keeping them in contact with the team director, and TVs in the cars to let the teams know what was happening elsewhere on the course. Now, teams could share strategies in private without other teams knowing, and could pass information along to every rider, making it that much harder for someone to surprise the peleton.
The folks at Le Tour like to consider themselves historians, and bristle at the idea of technology changing their beloved race. So, in concert with the UCI, the governing body of professional cycling, they decided to ban the radios and TVs for two stages of this year’s tour – Stages 10 and 13. Yesterday was the first of those stages, and the teams were none too happy. Riders claimed that safety would be compromised and competition diminished, and they certainly did their part to insure the latter was true. No one wants to admit it, but it was clear that the peleton decided that if they couldn’t have their radios, they’d turn the stage into a leisurely ride through the French countryside. Instead of powering along as normal, they slowed down to around 15mph – beach cruiser style! In the end, no one was hurt and the stage ended up with a typical sprint finish – won once again by the blazingly fast Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia. The Tour made their decision, and the peleton told them what they thought of it. Now we wait to see what happens next, as many believe the ban will be lifted before the next radio-free stage on Friday.
UPDATE: And they were right, as UCI opted to cancel the radio ban planned for Stage 13. The statement referenced how the ban was “compromising” the Tour – a nod no doubt to the leisurely pace – and that they would revisit it in the future. That’s exactly the right way to handle it – and the manner in which the ban should have been considered from the beginning.