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Cycling 2.0 – how the Tour de France is reinventing itself using big data

John E Dunn | July 1, 2016
Cycling's had a difficult few years. Can technology ride to the rescue?

mountains istock razvan

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 sportifgenerals - 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 GoPromounted 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.


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