Behind the scenes of the Abu Dhabi Tour on-bike live coverage experiment

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (CT) – We saw a few firsts at the Abu Dhabi Tour: the race itself, for a start, Peter Sagan in his newly won world championships jersey and a live broadcast from inside the peloton on the final stage. During that stage, which took place over 20 laps of the Yas Marina Formula One circuit, the broadcaster managed to show us the action from four bikes inside the peloton.

With the advent of the now ubiquitous action cam it’s been possible in the past year to check out footage post race of everything from faces in high-speed sprints to mechanics keeping cool under pressure while helping crash victims. Yet until Sunday night this had all been in edited footage after the event.

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Several organisations were responsible for the Abu Dhabi experiment including Velon, the joint venture of 11 of the 18 WorldTour squads. So how does this technology work? Why are we only now seeing live in-race action when other sports have been doing it for years? And what can we expect in the future? To answer these questions we spoke with the CEO of Velon, Graham Bartlett.

Stijn Vandenbergh bike ready in the pits with the rear facing camera and transmitter in place.
Stijn Vandenbergh’s bike ready in the pits with the rear facing camera and transmitter in place.

How did this live feed come about and what is the technology behind it all?

The technology position is a partnership between the race organisation, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and Velon; thats the underpinning piece. In terms of delivery we work with the host broadcaster which is Euromedia.

What we use is the broadcast RF (radio frequency). It is Euromedia’s technical equipment we’ve used and then we’ve worked with the teams and mechanics to work out where to place [the cameras]; there has been a lot of collaboration on that. But the actual equipment is standard transmission stuff; it’s not groundbreaking rocket fuel stuff.

We are looking at other equipment from other suppliers. The mechanics in the teams rig up the GoPro cameras to a transmission unit that sit in one of the bottle cages. Then we relay that signal to the motorbikes, on to the fixed plane and then it’s part of the broadcast feed. So Jean Maurice, who’s the producer in the OB [outside broadcast] van, sits there and has two cameras that feed from the live bikes and he chooses when he brings them in. And that’s basically how it works.”

A cable ran from the batter to the go pro, held on with velcro ties on the Etixx-Quickstep bike and zip ties on the Giant-Alpecin bike.
A cable ran from the battery to the GoPro, held on with velcro ties on the Etixx-Quick-Step bikes and zip ties on the Giant-Alpecin bikes.

What needs to change so that this becomes a regular part of live bike racing broadcasts?

We’d like to improve the technology with our partners so we can say it’s lighter and easier to use. The issue at the moment is the battery life — it’s just 45 minutes [worth of broadcasting power]. The problem is if you increase the battery life you increase the weight.

It’s great here in the circuit because you can do a little pit stop. Today we swapped the bikes out and the swapped the kit back in with a new bike. We used four riders today — two from Etixx-Quick-Step and two from Giant-Alpecin. So on a stage race, on the longer stages, you’d obviously have a different logistical argument.

But we are currently working on battery life and remote turn on and off, so you don’t have to have the battery on at all times. The producer can then come to the bike when he wants the footage and that’ll conserve the battery life. All these things are coming. We want to speed it up as quick as possible, but people have to be patient because it does take a bit of time.

What problems apart from battery life and weight need to be addressed?

Because of the UCI weight limit on the bikes [ed. 6.8kg minimum], we’ve got to look at that. Plus today the riders lose a bidon because of the equipment. Now that’s an issue as it could affect race strategy. If you have to bring a bottle back to one guy all the time (in a race) it has a knock-on effect — it’s a situation we have to deal with.

| Related: How the Tour de France is broadcast to the World

We have talked to bike manufactures about integrating the battery. I can’t really go in to depth on this but there are some detailed discussions [we are having] with one or two [manufacturers]. We are working with all the Velon teams; they’re all part of this journey.

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Watching one of the pit stops showed it to be, as expected, a slick operation. Mechanics stood by the side of the course several hundred meters after the finish line, and on a specific lap the riders pulled out and jumped on a second bike. The only problem I noticed was the need to turn on the transmission box that sat in a bidon that then had to be taped up quickly to keep from rattling free.

The transmitter biddon. Simply a transmitter wedged into the biddon. There was a slight problem of turning it on and taping it up in time during the transition.
The transmitter biddon. Simply a transmitter wedged into the biddon. There was a slight problem of turning it on and taping it up in time during the transition.

On this occasion the kit was mounted on bikes belonging to Johannes Fröhlinger and Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Stijn Vandenbergh and Lukasz Wisniowski (Etixx-Quick-Step). There were two shifts of camera operation — as the first two broadcasting batteries ran out the two new bikes would be prepped and swapped in. Obviously this isn’t something that would be ideal in a standard road race, but as an experiment it seemed to work well.

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What’s the long term goal with live camera feeds and how is Velon going about it?

“We’d like to bring as much out of the race from the heart of the peloton to the fans as we possibly can. The way to do that is to create new partnerships, great collaboration with the race organisers. But crucially you’ve got to make an investment in that and an investment needs a business model.

“You know you’ve got to do that on the basis that you’re going to recoup that [invested money]. Teams spend a lot of money already, we can’t go to teams and ask them to spend some more. But I’m a businessman and I’ve got to come up with a business model — how do we make that together?

No flash internal wiring system was used....yet.
No flash internal wiring system is used … yet.

“The good thing about [the Abu Dhabi Tour] is that we’ve found a very good common business model. Because Abu Dhabi Sports Council have made a good investment, we’ve made a partnership agreement and a contribution from our side, and together we are stakeholders in this wonderful race. It’s been great to see what they’ve been able to already achieved as a one-off.

“You need that partnership and collaboration to make the business model work, otherwise you can’t get the investment that this stuff requires. To bring this to the fans we need to find the right investment and we’ve found that here.”

So what’s your view on this new live footage? Does it add value to the sport?

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