When South African-educated Chris Froome won his fourth Tour de France cycle race on Sunday, it was an indirect win for local fans. But South Africa will play a far more direct role as the technology behind the race is transformed in the coming years, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
When the Tour de France cycling saga ended in Paris on Sunday, more statistics, predictions and analysis had been shared than in any other cycle race in history. A mind-boggling mountain of information, comprising 3-billion data points, allowed fans, teams and the media to analyse the race in ways that were inconceivable just three years ago.
That’s when the race owners, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), called in South African company Dimension Data to help it prepare for the future of sports coverage and to meet the growing needs of fans.
“Cycling is trending at the moment all over the globe; people who used to have golf club roof racks now have cycle racks,” says Dimension Data senior marketing manager of Celine Rousseau. “Fans are expecting information for free, right here right now, and watching reruns the next day is not sufficient anymore.
“Fans expect to be able to interact with their favourite riders, and social meida allows them to do that. They are also more interested in the transcendent moment in the race, like a crash or something spectacular happening, rather than the overall race.
“ASO also realised that fans, whether in a stadium or at the side of the road, have become their own little media houses by taking their own short videos of a race and posting it on digital platforms, bypassing ASO’s platforms and not providing the opportunity to get online advertising revenue.”
Dimension Data, now a subsidiary of Japan’s NTT but still referring to itself as a South African company, had less than six months from its first meetings with ASO to delivering a digital platform for the 2015 Tour de France.
It won its own race in style. That year, for the first time, fans were able to view live videos from GoPro devices fitted to bikes, graphics showing live race data, a live-tracking website, and new race data being shared on social media. Most dramatic of all, however, was the broadcast of live speed data on television for the first time in cycling history.
By 2016, video views on digital platforms had climbed to 55-million, from just 6-million two years before. Fast forward to 2017, and Dimension Data introduced complex algorithms that analysed historical and live data to calculate the likelihood of real-time race events. Clearly, this is more than just being the official technology partner of the Tour de France – already a startling achievement for a South African business.
“I have a long history with partners, but this one is very special because it is not only a partner but co-producing the future of digital cycling,” says Yann Le Moenner, CEO of ASO.
The route to that future presents almost as many obstacles as the Tour itself.
Right now, the technology that has already transformed the race comprises a cellphone-sized device fitted to every bike in the race – 198 in the 2017 edition. It includes a battery, GPS receiver and Radio Frequency ID (RFID) transmitter tha tramnsits the location of each bike every second. The information is overlaid on data about the historic performance of each rider – in the race itself and in previous races – along with wind speed and direction, and road gradient.
Initially, there was some concern among some teams that the technology would provide rival teams with too much data about each rider. However, the teams have all come to appreciate the extent to which it has enhanced their preparation for each stage of the race, as well as their ability to adjust tactics almost by the minute.
Now Dimension Data is hoping to go one step further.
“We know the speed, gradient, wind conditions, and size of groups, so we are able to use machine learning to calculate the effort index of each rider,” says Peter Gray, senior director of technology at Dimension Data Global Sports Practice. “For example, an index of 1 means he is still having coffee at the start, and10 means his head is about to explode. Most of the time we see an average effort of 5 out of 10, when they are cruising, and towards end it starts to ramp up.
“It’s something we’ve developed and are testing internally, and starting to bring on line and share as we’re allowed to. We’ve begun sharing predictions around breakaway and stage predictions.
“The thing is that you can’t tell if an effort index of 8.8 means a rider is in strife or fatigued, because we don’t have biometric information. If he’s in great shape he could maintain that for a long time, and it doesn’t give other teams a competitive advantage to know it, as it would if you had biometrics on the ride.”
Biometric measurement would require all riders to wear heart-rate monitors and the like – which most already do, but only for the benefit of their own teams. Teams would resist sharing such data initially, but ultimately it will probably become a feature of the race.
Other possibilities for the future are virtual reality and rider point of view experiences of the race.
It’s been a long ride from the first Tour de France in 1903, when the only form of coverage was a single newspaper. In many ways, then, the event mirrors the evolution of both sports technology and the media. And South African innovation is at the very heart of that evolution.