Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) president Pat McQuaid issued an open letter to riders on Friday (March 18) addressing issues relating to the UCI’s proposed ban on radio earpieces during races.
The ban on race radios has proved to be a highly controversial issue, causing heated debate among riders, teams and fans. Very broadly, riders and teams are in favour of keeping radios whereas fans (and, of course, the UCI) are not. However, opinion is split even within each of these camps with some riders coming forward to say they are in favour of banning radios.
Several noteworthy points are mentioned by McQuaid – notably that the UCI received pressure from French television broadcasters to ban the use of earpieces to ‘liven up’ racing and that some team managers are seeking to create an alternative ‘World Cycling Tour’ outside of the UCI’s jurisdiction in protest.
Earlier in March, veteran German rider Jens Voigt issued an open letter to cycling fans putting across the argument to keep radios from a rider’s perspective. His argument to retain radio communication between riders and team staff was based largely on grounds of safety. McQuaid references Voigt’s letter on several occasions.
McQuaid’s open letter to riders, originally published on the UCI’s website, is reproduced in full below.
The discussions are heated concerning the progressive banning of earpieces during races. That is why I feel it is necessary to address you collectively to try to clarify some points in the debate that is unfortunately no longer calm and constructive.
However, I would first of all like to congratulate most of you for your ability – up until now and despite your opinions – to remain reasonable faced with a situation that others have decided to render increasingly tense and therefore extremely difficult.
Respect from both sides should always be at the basis of any conflict of ideas, and I can therefore assure you that the open letters that two of your colleagues (Grischa Niermann and Jens Voigt) recently published in the media have caught my attention.
Although I in no way share their opinions, nor agree with their explanations – I’ll come back to this – I sincerely appreciate their willingness to contribute to this difficult phase of the debate, without losing sight of the fundamental principles of dialogue and the need to remain open to other opinions. It is for this reason that I will try to reply to them, all the while being conscious of the fact that , the threats of « drastic » actions and the ultimatums that have been laid down will lead nowhere and will just heat things up even more. It is no secret that over the last years our sport has been susceptible to wide criticism, and this attitude, which has unfortunately become almost chronic – to the point that we can almost wonder what will set off the next conflict after that of the earpieces -, has always been extremely detrimental to cycling’s image.
I begin by informing you that in 2008 I was convened to a meeting with the biggest producer of television images of cycling, France Television, and was told by senior executives clearly that if radios were retained in cycling and used as they were being used that the coverage of cycling on television would be reduced. I was given several examples of the reasons for this which I will go into later..
Following that worrying conversation I had discussions with other media outlets and was given similar viewpoints. Indeed you will be well aware that German television has stopped broadcasting cycling. Doping was an element certainly but so were other issues. If the product was so interesting that people clamoured for it ARD and ZDF would not have killed the coverage.
And so the UCI began a consultation process.
A working group has studied the earpieces since 2008 and as part of that group riders have been sitting at the same table as the teams and the media :Cedric Vasseur and Dario Cioni were your representatives and Serge Parsani, Joxean Matxin and John Lelangue that of the teams. By reading the recent claims of different players in the world of cycling, we could be led to believe that the banning of earpieces was decided upon in a one-sided fashion and in haste: in reality, this project is the result of deep reflection over a period of two years. Your representatives should have informed you of this.
I would also like to remind you that in 2008 and 2009, the CPA led an enquiry into the subject among its 865 members. The President of your association at the time, Mr Cédric Vasseur, will be able to confirm the very surprising fact that he only received 200 replies (less than one in four) with a very even distribution of opinions for and against.
Over and beyond the worrying indifference that these figures show, another aspect raises my curiosity: although the general situation has not changed, it is claimed that 90% of you are convinced that the earpieces are essential . The UCI can only take note of this extremely surprising alleged change in trend – especially in the light of numerous declarations we have received from riders in the last few months in favour of the banning – and ask ourselves this question: what has happened within the peloton ? Have the riders been put under pressure? Are you really free to express your opinions?
As for the reasons that pushed the UCI towards the progressive banning of earpieces, they are fairly obvious and above all well-known, so I will simply summarize them: return the rider to the centre of action, make him fully responsible for his strategy and evaluation of the situation during each phase of the race in order to avoid all outside control, which considerably reduces the unpredictable character of an event and therefore the thrill that our sport can offer to its millions of fans. Our sport is one of intelligence and physical ability with elements of chance thrown in.
The support of the media – particularly television – for this readjustment is a demonstration of the necessity to intervene on this point: the course of too many races is now a foregone conclusion, and this limits enormously the large scale visibility of cycling.
We don’t want to prove anything with this decision. We just want to make cycling more attractive to the general public, which in turn will increase its popularity and hopefully improve your working conditions. Keeping cycling attractive is also necessary for cyclist to be able to remain cyclists and for giving others the opportunity to become cyclists later.
The comparison with F1 brought up in Jens’ letter is very interesting: with all my due respect for this sport, it is exactly what we want to avoid! The story of cycling is above all a story of people, and we want it to stay that way.
As in a football match or any other sporting confrontation – including American professional leagues -, the contact between those on the field and the coaches and members of the team’s technical staff on the sidelines, must be strictly regulated. There is no sport where the coaches and strategists are in constant communication with the athletes throughout the duration of play. Cycling cannot and does not want to be an exception to this fundamental principle of sport.
Now to the question of security: I would ask you not, like Jens, to fall into the trap of rabble-rousing. An accident is an accident, and its consequences – especially when they are very serious – cannot be manipulated to try to turn the tables faced with a problem. Cycling wasn’t more dangerous before the arrival of earpieces. I can assure you that UCI is currently studying this point and discussing the possibilities with communication experts and I am prepared to allow any form of communication which will inform cyclists of safety issues, provided it is technically and economically feasible.
The sporting aspects of the race can also be interpreted differently depending on the view of each person. Jens, if a rider loses a race in the last kilometres, his directeur sportif and his sponsor will most certainly be unhappy. However, somewhere in the line of cars following the event, there will be someone who is delighted; therefore allow me not to go back to this argument. It is swings and roundabouts: one day it is you and your team another day it is another. Except maybe to deduce that this point in your letter is probably the most meaningful to explain the enormous danger that hides behind this discussion, but which apparently you are not aware of: the denial of the fundamental values of sport.
I would have preferred to leave doping out of this discussion, but I realise that I can’t resist pointing out a few facts on this subject, which is also used far too often as a scapegoat depending on the demands and the needs of the moment.
The UCI is by far the most committed International Federation in this field, and cycling can be proud of its front-running position compared with other sports, which, increasingly acknowledge the quality of our efforts and use them as inspiration for their own initiatives. Despite the way in which the letters of Jens and Grisha could be perceived, I don’t think that the riders are in the best position to remind us of the seriousness and the urgency of certain situations: if doping still exists, it’s is only because there are still riders who dope! And if it is true and undeniable that the habits of a large number of you have changed, it is also true that we are still confronted with a fairly high number of cases, which, despite the remarkable progress of our anti-doping results, means we are constantly in an environment of suspicion and tension faced with the public opinion.
But unfortunately, on this point, the riders too often tend to forget their role and their responsibilities: there are bigger problems in our sport which need your attention. I have never heard your riders association CPA nor teams association AIGCP showing similar indignation, mobilisation or militancy at the doping scandals which befall our sport. When it comes to raise the contribution to the fight against doping from the prize money, it is a flat refusal. This is where you should be addressing your open letters.
To Grischa, Jens and all riders, it would be too easy for me to reply with the same somewhat naïve statements.. I could ask you to explain to the mother of a young rider why his models, or even his heroes, are weighed down by legal procedures, or why they seriously endanger their health, prompting a new-comer to take the same risks.
But don’t worry, I won’t. On the other hand, I can’t stop myself noting, with some disappointment, that you haven’t hesitated in joining your directeurs sportifs in a fight that has become their own before it has become yours. I say this is their own because UCI fully believes that this is not a fight about radios but rather a fight for power and control. UCI is aware of steps being taken to set up a private league, World Cycling Tour, outside UCI, by certain team managers. I wonder will the financial benefits they are chasing benefit you, the riders. Somehow I think not! I quote Johan Bruyneel “I’ve been laying the framework for something great… But you’ll just have to wait and see…”.
The feeling I get is that you have been falsely led to believe that the opinion of riders was never taken into consideration and that you were left out of the debate. This would naturally prompt a collective reaction of contempt on your part.. Yet when it comes to addressing the true issue at stake, I have trouble identifying a single and collective stance on the riders’ side. For every self-declared spokesperson for the riders decrying the ban on earpieces there is another self-effaced rider sending the UCI private letters of support. I can understand every rider, be he a sprinter, a GC contender, a climber or a Classics rider can put forward reasons to support the use of radio for personal reasons. And even if the numbers were on the side of those opposing the ban, would you really expect your International Federation to be run based on the outcomes of popularity contests or individual interests within one single stakeholder of cycling? Is that truly a desirable quality to be found in a governing body, or do you not find it more fitting and reassuring that it be guided by the general interest, sportsmanship values and long-term sustainability?
I leave it with you and look forward to meeting up in the near future.