Digital cycling coverage, uncovered: How Tour Tracker works

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CyclingTips has long admired the work that Tour Tracker has done for the Grand Tours ever since it’s inception. Once you look under the hood it’s a much more complex and difficult service than meets they eye. Here’s the story behind how it started and how it works.

For more info on digital cycling coverage check out our article, “How the Tour de France is broadcast to the world.”

Twelve hours before the start of the 2007 Amgen Tour of California, Andrew Lim is lost somewhere in San Francisco. Lim works for the race and has spent the entire day at Adobe Systems hammering out the final details of Tour Tracker, the world’s first digital cycling platform. Hailed as a “revolution in sports coverage,” the web-based app combined three online firsts — streaming video, GPS tracking, and a multimedia news feed — into a single integrated experience.

As a sort of unintended proof of concept, Adobe engineer Allan Padgett was able to use the app to guide Lim to race headquarters that night. Three days later, pro cycling fans around the world watched as a hungry peloton chased down a solo break into the finish city of in San Jose, California. The live video might have set the stage, but it was the GPS tracking that told the real story — the man out front would be caught 50 yards from the finish.

Digital cycling coverage has come a long way since that week in 2007. Many major cycling events have their own “tickers” that provide a news feed, and the bigger races generally include tracking and other data. A handful of races also have an associated mobile app that adds results, photography, video and more; while Twitter empowers anyone to become a cycling reporter, providing a rich view of the action.

However, it wasn’t that long ago that cycling fans depended on television broadcasts (often delayed) to keep up with races like the Tour de France. Now instantaneous updates are just something they all take for granted. Padgett, who is now CEO of Tour Tracker, creates about 90% of today’s live cycling apps.

“Great cycling coverage brings together a team of diverse talents and technologies,” said Padgett. “Each one of those alone presents a challenge — synchronizing them all into a single user experience is more like juggling knives while riding a motorcycle… in the rain.”

Video: Tour Tracker (live video not available for all races)

Padgett is, in fact, not that far off. Camera men sitting backwards on speeding motorcycles work tirelessly to capture every nuance of a bike race possible in all types of weather conditions. The video signals they provide are transmitted to helicopters and planes circling the race, which in turn re-transmit them to a production compound near the finish.

“Assuming those signals makes it to the finish, a dedicated production truck then produces a mobile show which is pushed via an additional satellite truck to the internet,” he explained. “From there it is distributed to thousands of servers around the world so that the mobile app in your hand can stream it in real-time. It’s a long broadcast chain with potentially multiple points of failure.”

While video may be one of the Tour Tracker’s chief draws, there are other types of data that his company folds into its mobile experience.

“Obviously GPS tracking is still core to our apps,” Padgett said. “Our early apps were tracking individual riders who had cellular devices on their bikes. The device called our servers every 60 seconds and we turned the location into distance travelled, speed, elevation, etc. We also pulled in heart rate, cadence and power from TDF riders in a partnership with SRM.”

Not that this futuristic advance in tech was always greeted warmly inside the peloton.

“I remember Levi Leipheimer dramatically ripped his GPS tracker off his bike and threw it to the ground on live TV during a particularly challenging stage,” he said. “We spent a fair amount of time afterwards trying to recover it.”

GPS tracking has been core to the Tour Tracker experience since it launched at the 2007 Amgen Tour of California (pictured).

Following the UCI’s mandate that, for “safety” reasons, riders couldn’t be individually tracked, the Tour Tracker opted to follow the model used by the Tour de France. In that scenario, race-sanctioned vehicles would position themselves in and around the peloton to determine rider locations. One advantage was those devices have longer battery life and provide updates to the broadcast compound every five seconds.

“In the past two years, thankfully, the UCI has opened up tracking again,” Padgett said. “So now some races are tracking individual riders and getting data off the bikes. So we’re right back to where we were in 2007, in that respect.”

But the news feeds inside Tour Tracker are just as critical. Official Tour de France apps, such as those Tour Tracker creates for NBC and SBS, pull commentary directly from ASO servers and then relay that information to the app. For the Tour Tracker’s Grand Tour app, Tour Tracker utilizes its own reporters to provide coverage. In either circumstance the feed is distributed to thousands of servers around the world for the apps to grab.

“Clara Beard, who is a former national cycling champion herself, is providing our Tour de France coverage this year. And watching her work is amazing. She puts together this up-to-the-minute commentary while listening to multiple audio feeds, watching multiple video screens and simultaneously monitoring social media. At the end of each stage she has to go hide away for an hour to recover.”

In addition to Beard’s individual insights, she also pulls in links to some of the best coverage that she finds on the web. And since Tour Tracker isn’t a traditional media company, there is no problem linking to great stories from what some might view as their “competition.”

For the 2017 Tour, Padgett spotlighted a few additional features that he’s recently built into the platform.

“I’m psyched about our new fantasy cycling game,” he said. “We released a beta version of it for the Giro and it really went over well. For the Tour, we’ve even got former U.S. pro Frankie Andreu to put together a team and compete with our users. There’s so much more we’re doing off the raw data. Last year, for example, we started recording and ranking riders by how much time they are off the front. I think in the future we might even give an award for the winner of that category. Users love that stuff.”

Video: 2017 Tour Tracker Fantasy Cycling

The Tour Tracker even includes data synchronization. In 2015 they introduced the “Time Machine” function, which allows the user to rewind the live data feeds for any stage. This allows them to watch or re-watch the race whenever they like and the data can be synchronized to what they’re viewing.

“And we’re taking that to the next level with NBC this year where anytime you scrub through the video, live or or via replay, all of the data rewinds including standings, results, photography, news, tracking, etc. It is super cool, and we already have a prototype for 2018 that blows that away.”

Padgett has even come up with a rich set of lightweight widgets that can be embedded in other apps, in webpages, smart TVs, etc. There’s even a lightweight web version of their highly rated Grand Tours app for users who can’t have their phone out all the time.

“Ultimately our goal is to create the kind of experience that becomes an immersive voice in its own right. You have to constantly strive towards that level of engagement because that’s what people have come to expect from the media they consume,” he said. “And at this rate of development, we’re not far off from creating a situation where cycling fans can feel that they know as much about what’s going on in a race as a team director or moto referee do. And that’s fairly exciting considering that we’re not that far removed from a time where there was not much, if any live coverage available.”

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