Something extraordinary is happening to cycle sport and the famous three-week Tour de France, which starts this weekend, is right at the heart of it.
Exhibit number one is a smallish black telemetry sensor that will be fitted under the saddles of each of the race’s 198 riders as they traverse 21 stages and 3,535 kilometres of wearying racing in an anti-clockwise direction around the countryside of France with short detours into Spain and Switzerland.
Trialled experimentally in the 2015 Tour, the sensor doesn’t look like much (see image on page 2) but it holds the key to what for once can justifiably be billed as a quiet revolution in sports coverage. Cycling has often seemed to be in love with its own mystique, born mostly from the sheer confusion of stages where nobody – even riders and team directeur sportif generals – always knows the race state or the location of opponents on the road. This sensor could remove such uncertainty forever.
Is a particular rider sitting happily within sight of the break or labouring in the grupetto kilometres behind the business end of the race? The new Tour de France Race Center web portal will, its makers assure us, receive and feed reliable GPS data to give fans a very precise answer.
Other information on offer will include a rider’s speed at any moment, the distance between competitors, the composition of groups on the road as well local weather conditions such as wind speed and direction. In the mountains, it will even be possible to see the gradient each rider is battling.
In this unfamilar world, one might start to think of the race as a sort of moving Internet of things where the 'things' happen to be human competitors.
About the only data not on offer will be the composition of a rider’s gear ratios and what they had for breakfast but after studying the ambitious marketing materials put out by race organiser and owner the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) for the 2016 Tour, it’s almost possible to imagine this might be on the cards for a future edition.
Somewhere along the line, the ASO’s modernising race head Christian Prudhomme seems to have had an epiphany about the Tour de France and the role of data in shaping its future. From now on, data will become a major part of how the race is marketed to the new generation of fans the ASO must lure to their screens if it is to attract the reliable commercial sponsors cycling so urgently needs.
It's an interest in technological transformation that will also see video cameras from GoPro mounted on some rider's bikes in the Tour in an attempt to capture video information from the heart of the peloton rather than the conventional TV view that views action from the outside.
Cycling 2.0 – how the Tour de France is reinventing itself using big data
Behind the scenes, the big data that powers this vision of the Tour de France 2.0 is made possible by technology firm Dimension Data. At its heart is a massive truck emblazoned with the company’s green logo, staffed by around 6 to 8 software engineers, which will trundle from stage finish to stage finish as the race progresses.
Superficially, it looks not unlike an outside TV broadcast truck but this is a very different facility. Inside it are the analytics systems that can turn six million pieces of real-time data captured from the riders during each stage into something that can be fed to a website and, beyond that, to the world.
If it's digital alchemy, it is inside this datacentre-on-wheels that the potions are mixed.
What happens here could, in time, become every bit as important as any TV broadcast truck, possibly more so. If TV pictures show the drama, increasingly it is performance data that will explain it.
The man whose job it is to deliver all of this is Dimension Data’s Tour de France project leader, Adam Foster. Techworld managed to catch up with Adam, no easy task for someone who seems to have spent recent weeks constantly driving from location to location across France. As a cycling obsessive, managing an ambitious big data project for the world’s biggest and best cycling race is either the best possible job in the universe or, perhaps, one with an unappealing pressure.
“We ran a beta solution last year and we had to be realistic about what could be achieved,” he begins after openly admitting that the beta trial of the platform during the 2015 Tour was beset with teething problems. Data feeds fromm riders would suddenly dry up, leaving performance information reporting nonsensical figrues or nothing at all.
“We struggled to get consistent data from the riders because the distances. "Each second the device emits a GPS coordinate but it would go into a black hole because it wasn’t received by anything," he says.
"The way they transmit is now improved. We expect much more granular data especially when the race breaks up."
This was to be expected. Data was sent from the sensors under seats to helicopters and planes, a tricky task when cyclists are traversing deep mountain valleys many kilometres apart from one another. It’s an infrastructure built to support a handful of TV cameras on the back of motorbikes rather than 198 riders in multiple locations. Television is interested in what is happpening in perhaps the front group or the one following it. The data-oriented race, by contrast, simultaneously follows everyone.
As well as boosting the transmission distances, Dimension Data is now also the single hub for all data, which last year was a patchwork of several firms, says Foster.
The challenge of making all this work is still staggering. Fans expect data and TV coverage to work hand-in-hand at events such as Formula 1 but, Foster, suggests, that only succeeds because the race is in a fixed location. Tour de France stages, meanwhile, can stretch to 240 kilometres or beyond across difficult terrain and through any weather.
“The original challenge we had to overcome was delivering a robust platform in any location. One day we might be in the middle of a city in France then next on the top of Mont Ventoux. The quality of that delivery has to be the same regardless of the environment,” says Foster.
Other upgrades include the huge mobile datacentre to handle the greater data throughput and analytics that have been refined to better work with the underlying GPS data on which everything rests.
The operation of this platform is 24x7, which at first sounds a bit perplexing given that stages only take a few hours of every day. The reason is that Dimension Data’s team works on the platform to support global coverage and that means employing teams in the US and Australia as well as France itself.
This year the data feed will only be offered through a conventional web portal but in the next year or two the Tour should extend this to a mobile app, Foster predicts. This will be critical for the Tour 2.0’s success. For the bulk of fans unable to consume it live on TV or on a computer (the stages happen during the working day in Europe) a live mobile feed will be essential.
For the 2016 Tour, Dimension Data will not only coordinate the data feed but sponsor fellow South African cycling squad Team Dimension Data, complete with cycling notables Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot, all possibles for individual stage wins.
Cycling 2.0 - cybersecurity
Not all of the attention has been welcome: in the first few months after announcing its Tour partnership with ASO in 2015. Dimension Data's corporate network was on the receiving end of more than 10 million reconnaissance scans looking for weaknesses that could be exploited to disrupt coverage. This year, the company is well aware that it will once again again be prime target and has taken steps to harden itself against attacks.
As for spriting action, Foster admits that from his race-day data bunker he probably won't experience much of what unfolds.
“It’s fair to say that having been to the Tour de France personally and been a fan of it since I can remember I probably saw less of the race,” he says of his 2015 experience. “But I wouldn’t trade the experience of being behind the scenes for my former immersion in the race. It’s totally different. What I miss is the drama of them getting to the line.”
In 2016, the Tour de France is still seen by outsiders as an eccentric sport beloved of French people, sporting masochists and drug cheats. Realtime big data now promises to expand the sport beyond this rather narrow horizon. The Tour’s organisers think that in race data they have uncovered an important dimension of the sport’s future.
“I hope we can change the face of the sport. It’s a sport that’s got masses to offer and technology has a big place in telling those stories.”