The Tour de France is filled with location-powered tech
Passion, strength and skill now meet data-insights, generative AI and location tech. The Tour de France has been around since 1903, but how it’s organized, watched and experienced has been changing as fast as technology evolves.
Tech in sport is nothing new, and cycling isn't the only sport it's invaded. We’ve seen this year how Wimbledon used generative AI to produce informative and engaging commentary as matches take place. But Wimbledon singles matches are held on a court that's approximately 195 m2. For more dynamic events, such as the Tour de France, things are more complicated. Organizers need to track over 3,000 km (1,900 miles) of road, all with real-time data – and lots of it.
Bikes, the core of data-gathering
Since 2015, when Tour de France organizers, Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), partnered with IT and services company, Dimension Data, now part of NTT Ltd., technology has been a central part of the sporting event. Together, they’ve introduced live tracking, deep data analytics, Machine Learning and AI and even a digital twin in 2022 – replicates all aspects of the race with real-time data.
All of this is aimed at monitoring many aspects of the largest moving stadium ever witnessed in sports. But, what’s at the core of tracking 3,404 km (2,115 miles) of roads? Bikes – 176 bikes to be exact.
By using geolocation and small sensors mounted beneath the saddle of each bike, NTT receives a constant stream of latitude, longitude and speed data over radio networks to race motorcycles or a plane. The data is transmitted to the end of the race, where a truck-based edge-computing device, used to process the data, runs a real-time analytics platform to process the data and provide race insights.
This operation is supported by Dimension Data's data hub in Johannesburg, where a mix of technical and cycling specialists manage the central command center receiving race data from the sensors. The real-time analytics platform, developed over four years, uses open-source frameworks like Apache NiFi, Apache Beam and Python code to transform data into human-readable fields, providing valuable information such as distance from the start, gap to previous riders, braking force and relative wind speed and direction.
Lauren WortmannDimension Data's Vice President for application and cloud, in an interview for TechCentral.
There’s no Siri or Alexa at LeTour, they have Marianne
ChatGPT is everywhere. It's become a widespread tool for seeking quick advice on everyday challenges, from asking for a new cooking recipe, to coding assistance to planning vacation routes, like the plugin TomTom recently announced.
Alongside the bike-mounted tech, fans also had Marianne, named after Marianne Martin, the first woman to win the Tour de France Feminin in 1984. Marianne is an AI-driven digital human solution that answers on-site fans' queries about LeTour.
This year, it incorporated ChatGPT generative AI, a combination of machine learning, speech recognition, natural language processing and conversational AI. It’s trained on race information to enhance the fan experience and answer real-time questions about venues, teams, stages or even pick who the winner might be, although it changes its response as the race progresses.
Maps at every turn
Most of these technologies are things of now, but maps… maps have been around long before the tour started in 1903 and have been an integral technology in the race. The "Road Book" is the perfect example. For many, it’s known as the race Bible and serves as the crystal ball that enables riders to preview the course terrain, climbs, descents and other course aspects that can influence their strategy.
By studying the parcours, cyclists are able to make well-informed choices concerning pacing, nutrition, and race tactics. Maps serve as an invaluable resource for competitors to strategize their race and minimize unexpected situations.
The number of insights competitors have now can’t compare to that first race in 1903. Now, combining location tech, maps and the massive amounts of tracking data they carry with them along the race, riders can even see how their times up Alpe d'Huez compare to drivers. But, will all these tracking technologies spoil the fun that a less predictable race might bring?
Indoor 'boring' bikes and video games
Not only is technology revolutionizing the organization and experience of the Tour de France, but also influences the way riders train for the event. This year, Zwift, a virtual training app and the official sponsor of the Tour de France Femmes 2023, introduced Climb Portals, a new in-game feature in its app that allow riders to ascend virtual version of famous real-world mountains featured in the race.
Zwift bridges the gap between reality and the virtual realm, offering a transformative substitute for outdoor cycling. By using a smart trainer, resistance is adjusted based on in-game terrain, making riders react to what's happening in game as they would have to in the real world.This year, there are eight climbs on its app taken from the two races and included in the new feature branded with graphics for both the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes. Indoor cycling, once considered dull, becomes captivating with the advent of VR.
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