The Tour de France is now the world’s largest cycling race, and third largest sports event after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics.
With billions of fans worldwide viewing the occasion on live race broadcasts across 190 countries and on 120 television stations, French media group Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O) – the company that runs the Tour alongside various other sporting events worldwide, quickly recognised the need to deliver a richer viewing experience to meet the heightened expectations of fans in the digitally connected era.
Back in 2015, the broadcaster teamed up with technology firm Dimension Data to establish a data analytics solution that could enable spectators to access real-time, live tracking of individual riders – something that was previously unavailable to viewers, as they were limited to tracking only the peloton – the main pack of riders – and breakaway groups.
“When the world is watching, failure isn’t an option, so we really pull out all the stops for the Tour de France,” said Tim Wade, senior director of architecture at Dimension Data’s Sports Practice. “By collecting and augmenting a variety of data sources, we are able to tell a story to the spectators from the moment the race starts right through to the very end that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”
Much of this individual data is sourced through the device attached to each rider’s saddle that collects GPS coordinates “every second of the race,” according to Wade, before this is sent back to Dimension Data’s Big Data truck – which is stationed at the finish line of every race.
“The data that is collected from the rider is streamed to a plane that is circulating above the race, and then relayed to a technical zone assembled near the finish line of each stage,” said Wade. “Using microwaves, which enable us to execute such long-distance readings regardless of the rider’s position during the race, it is then transferred to our Big Data truck where we begin the analysis.”
The rider’s location data is then augmented with external sources, such as localised weather conditions and Ordinance Survey data determining the current gradient or terrain, which enables the Dimension Data analytics team to establish algorithms that grasp even more information about a rider’s performance.
But for a race as significant as the Tour de France, downtime in the transmission of this data is simply not an option. Ensuring the analytics solution is both secure and fail-proof is a priority, but operating on the firm’s cloud platform with regular security assessments, and on-premise network security in the Big Data truck itself have resulted in no issues during the race so far. In fact, there were 1,409,769 hacking attempts on the race’s website in 2016 – all of which failed.
Aside from the work that goes into directly preparing for the Tour, Dimension Data are looking to utilise technology in any way they can to enhance not only the spectator experience, but the performance of the riders.
“We released a health and wellbeing app for riders, which requires them to answer a number of questions first thing in the morning to log their physical and mental status, before combining that with the data that is collected from their wearable devices during training,” explained Wade. “This helps the team make better decisions when it comes to race day and deciding who should race each stage.”
In addition, racing means more than reaching podium position for Dimension Data. During the recent Dubai Tour that took place last month, the seven-member Team Dimension Data, led by cycling legend and world championship rider Mark Cavendish, took part in the five-stage event to not only strive for that sprint finish success, but to also fund the team’s ambition to donate 5,000 bicycles to Qhubeka – a foundation that provides bicycles to underprivileged communities in Africa.
With the belief that a bicycle helps connect people to basic services like schools and healthcare, as well as job opportunities, the tech firm pledged to donate one bicycle every day during the Dubai Tour if the kilometres for the day’s race were met by Dubai’s general public on two stationary bikes at the Dimension Data tent at the central fan hub at SkyDive Dubai.
“The Qhubeka project remains at the core of our setup and the very reason why our team exists,” said Mechelle Buys Du Plessis, Managing Director, Dimension Data Middle East. “Team Dimension Data for Qhubeka provides a platform for awareness and helps garner international support for the project, so that they may continue to mobilise African people. This gives our team a greater sense of purpose and we wholeheartedly believe in the #BicyclesChangeLives campaign and it will remain a driving force behind our success.”