Tuesday’s stage in the Tour de France was interesting and, in its way, revealing. Ultimately, it was about power and interest. Should the race be run be its organisers or, effectively, in partnership with the peloton and the teams? And, just as importantly, should the interests of the teams be placed ahead of the interests of the fans?
The Tour organisers decreed that yesterday the riders would ride without the radios they’ve come to rely upon. The teams, unsurprisingly, objected and, equally unsurprisingly, the riders agreed not to race properly until the closing kilometres of the stage. Levi Leipheimer summed up the mood in the peloton when he said that it wasn’t "fair" that a rider could lose time because he lacked a vital piece of information or had the misfortune to puncture some distance from his team-car. Fabain Cancellara, mind you went one better, invoking the trendy terror of our time – security – and claiming that radios played a vital role in keeping riders informed about potential threats to their security.
And you can see their point. From the cyclists’ point of view, knowledge is power and you can never have too much of it. The race becomes easier to fathom and, not coincidentally, easier to control if everyone knows exactly where everyone else is on the road at any given time. This helps strip out chance from proceedings and, consequently, reduces the element of luck. In one sense, it helps ensure that the "right" rider wins since there’s less room for surprises.
So the riders’ attitude makes sense. But what’s good for the cyclists may be bad for the fans. Professionals hate uncertainty; fans thrive on it. And rightly so since it is upset and surprise and chance that help provide the drama that makes the greatest sporting events so compelling. Mistakes and errors of judgement are necessary because without them there’s too great a risk that bland, if super-efficient, professionalism will prevail. We can admire that, but rarely warm to it.
In cycling’s case, radios and on-bike computers have tended to flatten the racing, making it drabber than was once the case. Because the riders receive instructions and information via their radios they don’t have to think for themselves so much, nor take decisions without first checking with their svengali in the team car. Consequently the element of surprise is reduced, while their heart monitors and computers help tell the riders how close they are to their maximum level of performance. This information is also good for the cyclists but bad for the fans.
Most breakaways fail, but a breakaways’ chances are sharply reduced when the peloton always knows exactly how much time (and distance) it has before it needs to reel the escapers in. There’s almost never any reason to panic, yet cycling thrives on panic and may even be said to need it.
So, as I say, you can understand the riders’ position and sympathise that introducing such an innovation in the middle of the tour is a mistake and that it would have been better to try it during Paris-Nice or even the Dauphine Libere, it’s still the case that the radios are not in the fans’ interest.
Which raises the question: who owns professional sports? The players, administrators or fans? Sure, the players matter enormously: they’re the attraction (though so is the game) but without the fans there’s no great reward for the players. The race might continue but it might also be an amateur race. So the fans have a stake too and, consequently, a right to suppose that the racing will be hard and competitive and exciting.
I think it’s reasonable to say that most of the developments of recent years – shorter stages and races, better bikes, better drugs, radios, wind tunnels etc etc – have helped the riders. Very few of them have contributed to making life better or more entertaining for the spectators. This is not merely (I think) a question of looking back to a Golden Age in the 1980s, but who’d be comfortable arguing that the racing has improved these past 20 years?
So the problem is, in one sense, what to do when everyone gets too good? You need to bring it back a little. Just as modern equipment has helped make golf a less varied – though still interesting – game, so cycling has become a flatter, duller but still wonderful sport. In the circumstances, making riders think for themselves and reintroducing a random element that, until recently, was part of teh sport anyway doesn’t seem like such a terrible burden for the riders to bear.
(Something similar might be said of cricket, incidentally: we hear the views of former players all the time on TV and, increasingly, in the press box and that’s very useful. But the perspective of those who have played the game at a high level is not the only perspective worth valuing keenly. Again, players tend to be keen on using technology to make umpiring decisions because they want the "right" decision to be reached; but another perspective, no less valid, might argue that the existence of "wrong" decisions is also one of the things that makes cricket the sport it is and, incidentally, also supplies an additional challenge that players must deal with. In that sense, even the wrong decisions are partly right.)
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