Tour de force by local tech takes yellow jersey
SA's Dimension Data provides hi-tech gear for Tour de France
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Paris on Sunday for one of the great sporting spectacles of the world as the 2017 edition of the Tour de France reached its climax along the Champs-Élysées.
While those on the ground will have the best live view of the race, millions more people will have unprecedented access to second-by-second analysis. This year has seen the most intensive data gathering and sharing in the history of the race.
Coverage has been transformed for both media and fans as a flood of statistics pours into broadcast feeds, as well as into the Tour mobile app and website - and all the technology is provided by a South African company. Dimension Data, now a subsidiary of Japanese telecommunications giant NTT but still firmly positioned as a South Africa-based business, was first approached in 2015 to help transform the race. Tour de France owners Amaury Sport Organisation had until then depended on motorbike monitoring, two-way radios, and sharing the information via blackboards. Dimension Data became official technology partner to the Tour de France and two years ago, for the first time, live speed data appeared on TV.
Today, every one of the 198 bicycles in the Tour is fitted with a cellphone-sized device containing a battery, GPS receiver and radio frequency ID transmitter. The location of each bike is transmitted every second, and the information overlaid on data about wind speed and direction, road gradient, and the historic performance of each rider.
"ASO realised they needed to evolve, as their business model was at risk and they needed help with a strategy for digital," Celine Rousseau, senior marketing manager of Dimension Data, said at a briefing in France. "The majority of their revenue comes from TV broadcasting rights. In the digital area, with different ways of consuming information, that model would be at risk in the next five to 10 years as revenues become more fragmented or diminished. Even fans can now make and share their own videos of the race.
"Not meeting the changing needs of their customers was a big risk they identified early on. They wanted more than just a logo, a partner that could help shape their strategy."
At the heart of the strategy is a mere two-second gap between data being transmitted from the bicycle to it being flashed on TV screens and apps as a synthesised picture of the race status.
Tim Wade, senior director of architecture at Dimension Data Global Sports Practice, spends most of the bicycle race with Peter Gray, senior director of technology, in a bus that serves as the event's mobile control centre. The bus is linked to a hydraulic cherry-picker that lifts signal receivers to a high point above the village, town or city close to the end point of each stage.
"A flurry of data comes off the bikes and is transmitted to motorbikes alongside and then directly to a helicopter overhead," said Wade. "From the helicopter, the data is sent to the receiver on the cherry-picker that is parked at the end point, because that high-speed wireless signal has to have line of sight from the transmitter to the receiver. From there is goes to the control centre, where we feed it into our analytics platform, and from there to TV broadcasters. We can't afford more than that two-second latency, so the data has to be cleaned and packaged for TV in that window."
Part of the technology magic of the Tour de France lies in how that data is cleaned and packaged. "Anything from a sensor-based source tends to get noise and invalid readings," said Gray. "The first thing we do is validate the information, and check things like whether the speed and position is realistic.
"With a GPS position we can map a rider to a point on the course and identify exactly where each rider is. We then figure out gaps between riders, and what point each rider has passed, for every 10m of the course. We then use a clustering algorithm to work out which riders are in the same groups."
Another major shift in the ability to analyse the full race status at any given moment is the amount of additional third-party data collected. Weather, wind, road conditions and gradients for every metre of the race are overlaid on the GPS data, so that followers of the race even know which riders are facing headwinds or tailwinds.
Advanced algorithms enable the techies in the control centre to predict, at any point during a stage, who is most likely to win that stage. The predictions are as fallible as the riders, but have proved more accurate than those of expert commentators.
Dimension Data's involvement in the race includes sponsorship of the only African team in the Tour de France, Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka. The Qhubeka charity enables children and adults across Africa to earn bicycles through its programmes, aimed at improving access to schools, clinics and jobs. Team manager Doug Ryder, a former Olympic cyclist himself, said the team were able to use the data supplied to the media to their own advantage.
"We leverage the GPS tracking to get up-to-the-minute presence awareness of our riders to make tactical decisions. We leverage the speed analysis in the bunch sprints against our competitors to see where we are in relation to them, through corners and straights, as well as helicopter TV footage in sprint analysis. That is a core focus for us in winning stages."