Chris Carmichael

Forward, march!

2009-07-15 11:21
Chris Carmichael (File)
Chris Carmichael

The history of the Tour de France is one of its most valuable assets, so I understand the idea of trying to keep the race from changing to the point where it barely resembles Tours of old, but as technology moves forward there are some aspects of the race that can and should change. Over the past 15 years, pro cycling has faced disputes over the weight and shape of the bikes, the mandatory use of helmets, and before that there was even a dispute about the allowable color of a rider's shorts (they had to be black). Today, the issue was race radios.

Back in the early 1990s, I was the director of the US National Team and some of the young riders on the squad, including Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie, were amateurs who had already committed to turning pro for the Motorola Professional Cycling Team after the 1992 Olympic Games. Early in 1992, Motorola director (and my former director at 7-Eleven) Jim Ochowicz lent me some Motorola race radios for the team. At the time, amateur riders were prohibited from using radios in amateur events, but when the team was invited to participate in pro races, we were allowed to use them. Lance has always been a fan of technology, so he was an early adopter of the race radios, and we made good use of them right away.

At the 1992 Atlanta Grand Prix in Georgia, the US National Team was one of the only teams in the race to have radios. Lance got into a breakaway with Greg Oravetz, a big and strong rider from the Coors Light team. Having won the US Pro Championship in Philadelphia a few years earlier, as well as many other races, Oravetz was confident he could beat this young amateur on his wheel. I was behind the break in the car, though, and could read how Oravetz was riding. For Lance, it was like having eyes in the back of his head. As the finish approached, there were a few times when I quickly told Lance that Oravetz was about to attack (you could tell from the way he positioned himself on the bike). That gave Lance a split-second head start on his response to the acceleration and helped him stay with Oravetz all the way to the final sprint. Lance won that race, and race radios have been a part of his career ever since he turned pro in the fall of 1992.

These days it's pretty rare for a director in a car to have as much of an impact on a rider's performance as I did at the 1992 Atlanta Grand Prix. For one thing, in big European races there are so many officials' cars and motorbikes that the directors don't have quite the unobstructed view I had. Yes, there are TVs in the cars, but they're small screens and sometimes you can't see the details you can catch watching through the windshield.

On the other hand, as the years went by, the science of chasing down a breakaway was influenced significantly by race radios, as the chasing riders were fed detailed information from the cars. And it's not just time splits, but guidance about how hard to pull and where. If the director knows you're headed into a town with tight corners and narrow roads, he might have the team chase harder going into the town, allow the riders to ease up and be safe through the town, and then hit the gas again on the other side. He'll also provide information about upcoming changes in wind direction so the team can get positioned optimally for the next challenge.

You can look at race radios in both positive and negative lights. You can say they make racing too formulaic or you can argue they make riders safer by allowing directors to warn them about hazards ahead. And some will argue they've robbed racing of its spontaneity.

Having raced without them and been a director with them, and having coached athletes who have won races with and without them, my opinion is that there's no reason to go back to the days without radios--at least in professional events. I like the idea that juniors and Under-23 riders need to come up racing without radios in order to fully develop the instincts a racer needs to be successful. If you're making the safety argument, however, you could say that developing riders are the ones who need them the most.

To reach the professional level, you have to learn how to win and have the power to get the job done. And like every other sport, there's a giant weeding-out process. The riders who start the Tour de France represent 189 out of the hundreds of thousands of people who try their hand at bike racing. To say that race radios could allow a rider who is significantly lacking in skill or intelligence to be a pro, and to win the biggest races in the world, is an insult to the riders who have reached the top of their sport. Do they know how to race without a director's voice in their ear? Absolutely. Does the information coming from the director influence the results of the race? Absolutely. Does the influence of the radios on the results - positive and negative - justify removing the radios from the professional peloton? No.

Take the radios away and the riders will still get their information, only a little slower. There's a guy on a motorbike who writes the time gaps on a chalkboard. Many times the riders see the chalkboard before the director repeats the same information over the radio. They'll still warn each other about hazards in the road. Very little will change for the guys at the front, but the guys at the back will have a lot less warning about traffic islands and roundabouts. We saw it today. Tactically, Stage 10 of the 2009 Tour de France very closely resembled every other flat (or relatively flat) stage thus far.

The biggest impact we saw from the lack of radios today, in my opinion, was the peloton's proximity to the breakaway. The peloton kept the break on a pretty short leash throughout the stage, instead of allowing the gap to grow to six, eight, or 10 minutes. Keeping the gap manageable meant there was less risk of mistiming the catch. But while a lot is made by commentators about the precision of catching the breakaway within the final 1-2 kilometers, once the gap gets inside 30 seconds, it's not information from the radio that determines when the group gets caught anyway. At that point, the peloton's lead riders can see the break, or at least the vehicles near it, and they adjust accordingly.

And perhaps the biggest irony of this day without race radios was that despite the Tour's efforts to hearken back to an earlier (and supposedly better) era, Stage 10 was won by one of the sport's youngest stars, 24-year-old Mark Cavendish. The sport moves forward, technology moves forward, training moves forward, and even the construction of "traffic furniture" moves forward. No matter how much you want to, you can't go backward.


Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). For more information on CTS' Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour...Stay at Home(tm) training programme, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter, visit You can also follow Chris at


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