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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?

Behind the scenes, the big data that powers this vision of the Tour de France 2.0 is made possible by software firm Dimension Data. At its heart is a massive truck emblazoned with the company's green logo, staffed by around 6 to 8 software engineers, which will trundle from stage finish to stage finish as the race progresses.  

Superficially, it looks not unlike an outside TV broadcast truck but this is a very different facility. Inside it are the analytics systems that can turn six million pieces of real-time data captured from the riders during each stage into something that can be fed to a website and, beyond that, to the world.

If it's digital alchemy, it is inside this datacentre-on-wheels that the potions are mixed.

What happens here could, in time, become every bit as important as any TV broadcast truck, possibly more so.  If TV pictures show the drama, increasingly it is performance data that will explain it.

The man whose job it is to deliver all of this is Dimension Data's Tour de France project leader, Adam Foster. Techworld managed to catch up with Adam, no easy task for someone who seems to have spent recent weeks constantly driving from location to location across France. As a cycling obsessive, managing an ambitious big data project for the world's biggest and best cycling race is either the best possible job in the universe or, perhaps, one with an unappealing pressure.

"We ran a beta solution last year and we had to be realistic about what could be achieved," he begins after openly admitting that the beta trial of the platform during the 2015 Tour was beset with teething problems.  Data feeds fromm riders would suddenly dry up, leaving performance information reporting nonsensical figrues or nothing at all. 

"We struggled to get consistent data from the riders because the distances. "Each second the device emits a GPS coordinate but it would go into a black hole because it wasn't received by anything," he says.

"The way they transmit is now improved. We expect much more granular data especially when the race breaks up."

This was to be expected. Data was sent from the sensors under seats to helicopters and planes, a tricky task when cyclists are traversing deep mountain valleys many kilometres apart from one another. It's an infrastructure built to support a handful of TV cameras on the back of motorbikes rather than 198 riders in multiple locations. Television is interested in what is happpening in perhaps the front group or the one following it. The data-oriented race, by contrast, simultaneously follows everyone.

As well as boosting the transmission distances, Dimension Data is now also the single hub for all data, which last year was a patchwork of several firms, says Foster.


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