LONDON (Reuters Life) - In Italy’s Cinque Terre this May, professional cyclist David Millar swooped alone into blind corners and hairpin turns with supreme confidence, all thanks, he said, to a high-tech navigation device on his handlebars.
“The race that day was really technical, more like a mountain stage in a road race than an individual time trial, and nobody had any idea where the turns were or how to ride the course beforehand,” said Millar.
“When you are racing that hard, you need every technical advantage you can find.”
Millar, whose cycling team is sponsored by the satellite navigation device maker Garmin, arranged in April for a company representative to drive the wild, rolling hillside above Italy’s Ligurian coast and map Stage 12 of the Giro d’Italia’s 60-km (37.28 miles) course.
“So I could cook it into the corners hot because I knew just from looking down at my Garmin how tight the turn was. To have that GPS map on the bike definitely helped me race faster.”
Cycling now uses an array of wireless technology to provide real time data. Athletes can track their heart rate on a wristwatch, their speed, pedal cadence and power output on small handlebar computers, and now their location with GPS devices.
In team cars following the peloton, directors use two-way radios to communicate with riders, track the race with onboard televisions, and take mobile phone calls from other directors to arrange temporary alliances as a day’s events unfold.
But some say all this technology is killing the spontaneity and tactics behind bike racing, and in September the International Cycling Union voted to phase out the use of radio earpieces in the professional peloton by 2012.
“It’s chess on wheels,” said veteran Canadian cyclist Michael Barry, who rides for Team Columbia-HTC.
“Every team, every rider is wearing a radio, and young riders aren’t learning how to read a race on the road. Technology takes the element of panache out of the racing, because radios eliminate a lot of the variables.”
Tour de France organizers this year felt much the same way, and banned radio earpieces for one stage, with riders and teams giving mixed reaction, calling it more leisurely but less safe, as race directors could not alert athletes to upcoming hazards.
“Why not have two days without helmets and two days without brakes?” German cyclist Jens Voigt said at the time.
Barry said the GPS devices, specially made for bikes and available for sale commercially, are less of a strategic technological boon than the radios, as they provide no two-way communication with other riders or team directors.
“It’s a little bit advantageous, but at 45-km an hour on a windy road with 200 other guys if you are trying to look at a GPS it’s the same as if you are trying to look at your cell phone,” he said.
“Teams will always try to figure out ways to benefit from technology. If we all had GPSes then maybe they would have to ban the Garmins.”
Editing by Paul Casciato