Adding an IoT dimension to the Tour de France

by Dave Michels

The Tour de France pro cycling race is one of the oldest and most prestigious annual sporting events in the world. Each year about 200 cyclists compete during most of July in a race that crosses some 2,200 miles of varied terrain in France.

The first Tour de France was in 1903. Back then it attracted mostly local competitors and spectators. Coverage and prestige of the event expanded with each consecutive era of newspapers, radio, and television. However, we now live in the digital era. Fans don’t want to just watch a sport; they want to engage with it, and they expect more control and interaction.

Professional sports are increasingly embracing digital technology to enhance the fan experience. This includes data-enhanced viewing, live streaming, video on demand, second-screen apps, gamification, and social media interaction. This technology is becoming a critical component of sports marketing necessary to attract fans, athletes, sponsors, and broadcasters.

To digitize the Tour de France requires overcoming some complex challenges. The sport itself doesn’t generate real-time statistics. The course is long and diverse, and the riders are independent, as in not part of a formal league.

To figure out exactly what to digitize and how to do it, the race organizers turned to Dimension Data, a global IT services company headquartered in South Africa. Dimension Data has been digitizing the event since 2015. It designed, built, and operates the race’s digital infrastructure that drives fan engagement.

While the Olympics can turn to a watchmaking company for timing, there is no logical manufacturer that can digitize an event as unique as the Tour de France. It was clear early on that the ultimate solution would require numerous IT vendors and components. That’s what a global service integrator does. The final design included real-time big data analytics, elastic cloud infrastructure, contemporary digital platforms, custom hardware, advanced collaboration technologies, and software created with agile development practices.

2015 was the first Tour de France for which real-time data such as individual current speed was made available to journalists, broadcasters, and fans directly via television, social media, and the race website.

The results were impressive: 663,912 visitors accessed the live-tracking site, and there were 1.3 million engagements on social media. A single, data-rich tweet from @leTourData generated 31,801 engagements and doubled the account’s number of followers.

It starts with things

The obvious first step was to have a sensor strapped to each rider. However, many elite racers guard their personal performance information for fear of revealing too much to competitors. Wearables can also interfere with a rider’s movement or equipment.

Instead, it was determined to track the bicycle instead of the rider. The Dimension Data team worked with the Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) and its partners to create a lightweight GPS transponder. With location information, Dimension Data could determine speed and observe peloton dynamics in a totally new way.

The transponder had to be weatherproof, low power, small, light, and effectively invisible to the rider. Unfortunately those don’t really exist, so it had to be designed and manufactured. The final solution was an under-the-seat mounted sensor. That’s an ideal out-of-the-way location unless it’s a transmitter – which it is. Radio signals are blocked by both the carbon fiber in the seat and the cyclist on top of it, so the transmitter had to be outfitted with a small antenna that pointed over the rear tire.

The sensor-mounting design also had to support quick swaps for both charging needs and equipment changes. (It’s not uncommon for cyclists to swap bikes during a long race.) Dimension Data used about 600 sensors to accommodate about 200 riders, which created significant challenges associated with sensor logistics and tracking.

A trans-France network

Since the little transponders send information over low power radios, a relay network was required to get the signals to the computers at the finish line. Rather than build a 2,200-mile long relay network, Dimension Data used relay equipment in the race vehicles – the motorcycles and cars that are used by race staff and television crews – to relay the sensor data to overhead planes and helicopters. The aircraft then sent the data with long-range transmitters to the Command Hub at the finish line.

The finishing touch

All the race data was aggregated at the finish line in the Dimension Data Command Hub (which is affectionately referred to as the Big Data Truck where “big” refers more to the data than the truck). The data included:

  •  About 75 million GPS readings
  • Stage data such as bib numbers, rider names, team names, and rider information such as current classification
  • Environmental data such as maps, terrain details, gradient and altitude changes, and localized weather
  • Media data including biographical information on the cyclists as well as high-resolution photos and videos

The truck is a data center on wheels housing the infrastructure and a collection of applications and tools from multiple vendors. It was all tied together with custom software created by Dimension Data’s development teams in Melbourne and Johannesburg.

dimension data data center on wheelsDimension Data

Most of the real-time analysis is performed within the data center truck, but as Dimension Data specializes in hybrid cloud design, it’s no surprise that the data were also uploaded to some 60 virtual servers across three continents for deeper analysis.

RT @TdFIoTResults

The results provided unprecedented visibility into what had largely been an analog, disconnected sport. Fans were able to see live performance information on their televisions, engage with results via social media, and 17 million people accessed the live-tracking website at rates as high as 2000 page requests per second. None of this existed prior to 2015.

Digitizing the Tour de France is a useful case study that illustrates how something can be created from nothing. Businesses of all kinds will add various sensors to increase awareness and improve decision making over the next few years. Although IoT solutions are often custom, most utilize existing components, such as networks.

A race with no finish

Just as Dimension Data has helped millions of people enjoy the sport of cycling, cycling has helped Dimension Data. The company has leveraged its success with the Tour de France into its broader digitization practices and, together with Cisco, even protects African rhinos. The effort also created a new Sports Practice for Dimension Data that enables other events and venues to track and supplement performance information for their fans.

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