Radio Flyers

Like any good military op, the Tour depends on communications

Jan 7, 2002
Outside Magazine

Traffic jam: TDF racers between Calais and Antwerp, July 2001    Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP Photo

Think driving with a Big Mac and a cell phone is dangerous? Try taking the wheel of a Tour de France team car. During Le Tour, Johan Bruyneel, the USPS squad's field manager, shares a silver Volkswagen Passat with nearly as much communications gear as a 747. While piloting the four-wheel command center around tight corners and over mountain passes, the 37-year-old Belgian listens to play-by-play race reports on the radio, eyes live coverage on a six-inch television screen, chats in four languages on his cell, and sends instructions to the riders—each of whom carries a credit-card-size two-way radio and has a tiny microphone clipped to his jersey. Though Bruyneel putters along just behind the peloton, he's able to keep tabs on more than 180 competitors and deploy his guys accordingly.

"Everybody depends on communication now," he says. "It's changed the races." Case in point: During the 130-mile L'Alpe d'Huez stage of last year's Tour, Bruyneel radioed Lance Armstrong and instructed him to play possum for the cameras. "I knew the other teams were watching and listening to interviews," he says. "I told French TV I was worried because Lance didn't look good at all." Sure enough, as Armstrong appeared to fade, rival team Telekom radioed their riders, sending three to the front to increase the pace. Only when Armstrong turned on the gas for the final climb—to win the stage with a two-minute lead—did they realize that Bruyneel had beaten them at their own high-tech game.