Live and direct – how data could change the Tour

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Bike race organisers have always struggled to bring more information to the viewer as filming on the go limits their options. But Japanese data company NTT are about to come in to the sport and change all of that.

Mmmmmwaaagh!” screams Star Wars’s resident walking carpet Chewbacca as he loses a game of holographic monster-chess to droid R2-D2. Watching the 1977 classic, it’s unlikely anyone thought, “but what would the 7ft Wookiee make of a bike race being played out in front of him in the same way?” At the time that seemed impossibly futuristic.

Times change and it turns out impossibly futuristic looks like it’s just around the corner — and it could be coming to the Tour de France, with stages played out live in miniature on your living room coffee table. This is just one of the innovations being worked on by data giant NTT, which this year signed a five-year contract as tech partner with the Tour de France.

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The Japanese company, which owns Dimension Data, intends to have the holographic technology in arena settings for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The tech uses four cameras to track competitors’ movements and has already been used for martial arts and figure skating. How far off bike racing is from getting the same treatment isn’t yet known (filming on the open road evidently makes it harder than something in an arena) but in the meantime there is already plenty of data-driven wizardry changing the pro-racing viewing experience.

Is big data about to change the way we watch the Tour de France? New sponsors NTT think so.

“Consumer-based holographic technology is early in its development and is still some way off being viable for home use,” says Tim Wade, senior director of technology and architecture at NTT. “However, along with virtual reality and augmented reality, it is a rapidly developing field.”

OK, the holograms may be a little way off but there’s already a host of ways in which Tour viewers are seeing the experience of watching the race enhanced.

NTT’s @letourdata Twitter account is using data from a new machine-learning model that’s being trialled at this year’s race for the first time. The model, called Le Buzz — the result of an in-house innovation competition — analyses the shape of the peloton to try and predict key events in the race such as a split in 
the bunch, or a crash, for example.

Even if you’ve not felt the need to check that out you may have seen its new ‘augmented reality’ overlays being shown on TV (highlighting a rider in the bunch, supplemented with speed data, for example). Also new for 2019 is a feature on the Tour de France app which gives fans at the roadside an ETA for the race — handy for anybody planning a quick trip to the bar, or the loo.

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It appears this is exactly the sort of information that cycling fans want, judging by the fact that, according to a recent NTT/Brighttalk.com webinar, 80 per cent of sports fans access sports content on their smartphones when watching the event on TV, and even live at the roadside.