Behind the scenes of Dimension Data’s rider tracking at the Tour de France
On the eve of the 2015 Tour de France, the Tour’s owners – ASO – and the race’s new technology partner – Dimension Data – announced a collaboration that would allow the broadcast of real-time location data from riders within the race. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef caught up with Dimension Data’s Technical Program Lead for the project, Peter Gray, to learn more about the technology, its potential and how the roll-out is going so far.
When time gaps at the Tour de France are currently shown during live broadcasts, those gaps are based on the position of TV motorbikes filming the various groups on the road. In some situations, this data can be unreliable (when a TV moto is out of position, for example) or simply unavailable (when there isn’t a TV moto with a particular group, for example).
Given time-gap data is crucially important to the viewing experience, some fans and social media commentators tend to lament the absence or inaccuracy of timing information. But if Dimension Data and the ASO are able to achieve everything they have planned, they’ll have a solution that could be of benefit not just to viewers but to commentators and other stakeholders alike.
In a collaboration between the 22 teams of Le Tour, ASO and Dimension Data, the bike of every rider in the 2015 edition of the race is fitted with a GPS transponder. These weather-proof units, made by HIKOB, weigh 80 grams and are mounted underneath the saddle.
The data pipeline
As Peter Gray told CyclingTips, the system harnesses radio-frequency (RF) links that are already in place to transmit images for TV.
“The sensors that are attached to the bikes talk to each other, communicate through each other, but then there are relays attached to each of the television motorbikes and the official cars,” Gray said. “That signal gets transmitted up through a plane and down to the Euro Media truck.”
EuroMedia is a long-time partner of ASO and has the job of providing the communications infrastructure necessary to broadcast the Tour around the world.
“Euro Media send the data through to us,” Gray said. “Our trucks are connected through a cable and that data actually goes into a big server room at the back [of the truck]”.
Also in the truck are a handful of technicians that manage Dimension Data’s online environment, monitor the analytics and clean up the data that comes through from the race.
| Related article: How the Tour de France is broadcast to the world
“We’ll be comparing the data with the television footage … ensuring that everything’s looking good,” Gray said in the days before the roll-out. “We then send all of the information that we’re capturing out to internet service in the Dimension Data cloud environment.”
Sharing the data
Under the new agreement, Dimension Data is disseminating the information it captures from the race via several platforms — Twitter, emails with data from each stage of the Tour, and a website where fans can track the position and speed of their favourite riders.
The website, which is still in beta as of stage 15, allows users to see which riders are in which groups on the road and the distance and time between those groups. The website also allows users to keep track of riders by nationality, team or the top five in various classifications.
As Peter Gray told CyclingTips, the website can be used to keep track of riders of note as a stage unfolds.
“On a stage that might end up in a sprint … there might be a few lumps — will Michael Matthews get over the hills? That’s going to be a key question,” Gray said. “You might not see it on the TV but if you follow Michael Matthews [through the Dimension Data website] you can see whether he’s still in the peloton, which group he’s in and keep track of that through the course of the stage.
“That kind of thing is going to be really exciting to see. You’ll be able to go in and select your five favourite riders or 10 favourite riders and keep track of where they are at any time on the stage.”
This live data is not only be of interest to fans of the sport — commentators can use it to describe the race with greater accuracy, using GPS data to identify the exact composition of groups on the road.
In addition to the online solution, Dimension Data’s live GPS data is being combined with France TV’s host broadcast of the Tour de France, the images from which are being beamed around the world. At various times through the broadcast of this year’s race, speeds of various riders have been shown on screen:
As with any new technology, there have been a few teething issues with the introduction of Dimension Data’s GPS integration at the Tour. In the opening days of the race, Adam Foster — group executive for the communications business unit at Dimension Data — told Silicon Republic: “I have a team of people in 11 cities around the world working around the clock to get this up and available as soon as possible”
It took until stage 5 for the website to be launched and since then there have been a number of hassles for the team to overcome.
The live-tracking website continues to show the location of some riders inaccurately, and the bunching of riders into groups on the road is sometimes imprecise. Most notably for TV viewers, the data doesn’t yet appear reliable enough to be used consistently throughout the international TV coverage. Time gaps between groups on the road seem to continue to be calculated using ‘traditional’ methods, rather than with the new technology.
But according to Peter Gray, it’s still early days for the technology. First discussions between ASO and Dimension Data only happened in February and despite being able to test the technology at the Criterium du Dauphine, the team has found it challenging to get everything done in time.
“We’re just over a week in to effectively a brand new system, brand new technology,” Peter Gray told CyclingTips in the second week of the Tour. “Today we’ve been tracking at about 170 riders [ed. of 183 still left in the race at that point] being accurately captured regularly, so that’s pretty good.
“We’ve got a few that are out; there are a couple who have crashed and their bikes are back on the roof of a car so there’s a process for filtering those out so they don’t show up and distort the results. Every day it’s getting better and better.”
In addition to the initial hurdles the system is facing, there are other inherent issues in the technology being used — the accuracy of the GPS data, for example.
The ASO’s director of information systems Pascal Queirel told CyclingTips that the GPS transponders provide location data accurate to within two or three metres but that this data is ‘snapped’ to the race route before being made available to the public.
According to Peter Gray, signal latency isn’t a big problem.
“There’s already a delay in the television signal making it’s way – the transmission of the GPS data will be a similar delay to what’s on the television,” Gray said. “And we’re processing the data in less than a second so it should be very close.”
Peter Gray from Dimension Data is particularly excited about the potential applications this technology might have in the years to come.
“In following years, having had this information, then we can start to … compare data from year on year,” Gray said. “Having learned a bit about the data we can start to do some more predictive information; start looking at things like how likely is it that the break’s going to get caught, and starting to some analysis around those sorts of things.”
With a few years’ data it would be relatively simple, for example, to test the accuracy of Chapatte’s Law — the idea that a chasing peloton can close 1 minute per 10km in the closing stages of a stage. Further data could provide additional insights — for example, what impact does the stage profile have on the accuracy of Chapatte’s Law?
Dimension Data is also looking at a number of additional services that they can start rolling out in the next few weeks.
“As we capture the information, we can then do some more analysis around things like how different riders have performed up climbs,” Gray told CyclingTips. “[We can] have a look at segments of the race and start to look at how, over time, has the gap between the peloton and a breakaway changed, and things like that.”
The accurate provision of location and speed data certainly promises to enhance the cycling viewing experience. The next step, from a fan’s perspective, is to also feature riders’ live power and heartrate data.
While power data has been tracked live in the past — for several riders at the 2009 Tour de France, say — we haven’t seen it in the sport for several years and it seems unlikely to make a return any time soon.
Incorporating power and heartrate data into the existing system would different or additional technology but, more importantly, it would also require buy-in from every team in the race. In an era where riders are arguably more protective of their power (and other) data than ever before, it seems unlikely teams would support the live broadcast of this data (or its dissemination in any way).
Within Dimension Data and ASO, though, there’s considerable excitement about the new collaboration and the potential it might have when it comes to riders’ speed and position data. Both organisations were also keen to stress that this year’s Tour is only the first race in a five-year collaboration between the two organisations.
“The idea is to use it on other races … but we will wait and debrief after the race and see what we can be improving,” ASO’s Pascal Queirel told CyclingTips. “The important thing is to say that this is the beginning of the story.”