“Hey, Carlton, you’re in, and I’m not,” laughed broadcaster Phil Liggett. He was on the wrong side of one of the barriers erected to protect the Tour de France broadcasting compound, or “zone technique.”
I was waiting to interview NBC’s veteran frontman at his 50th Tour de France, but he had yet to find the way into this labyrinthine section of the cycle race’s fenced-off area with its TV trucks, commentator cabins, and portapotties.
Carpeted with the power and signal cables that beam the Tour de France to a massive global TV audience—there are 150 million viewers in Europe alone—the zone technique is just one of several fenced-off areas that must be erected and dismantled daily to deliver this 119-year-old nation-circling event. (One of Le Tour’s nicknames is the “Grande Boucle” or big loop.)
The Olympics might be massive, but it’s staged once every four years; ditto for the soccer World Cup. Both have multiple venues, but they’re static. The Tour de France is the world’s largest annual sporting event, and it moves. It’s a linear stadium with daily changing starting and finishing points. Some of the finishes are sited on cramped mountain passes.
(The 21 or more daily races of the Tour de France are known as stages. 180 or so competitors are grouped in professional teams and individually tracked with accumulated times. The rider with the least accumulated time over multiple stages is awarded a daily yellow jersey, with the eventual winner gaining the final yellow jersey signifying the event’s overall winner. There are also jerseys awarded for the best young rider and for those riders who have accumulated the most points in the race-within-a-race green and polka-dot jersey competitions.)
Other fenced-off zones at Le Tour include the village depart coffee-and-frites VIP area, invite-only grandstands, posh catering paddocks (the president of France usually visits the race for at least one stage), post-race interview pop-ups, anti-doping control cabins, a finishing line arch with digital sponsorship signage and an ornate stage to applaud race winners.
This infrastructure has to be moved daily. For the best part of a month. It’s a circus.
Appropriate, then, that Liggett was in front of Copenhagen’s Circus building, gently chiding me for beating him to our rendezvous point. It was the first day of the 2022 Tour de France, at its most northerly ever Grand Depart. (The Tour de France often starts outside of France, with Amsterdam hosting the first such external departure in 1954.)
It takes time and shoe leather to locate the badge-only, 17-acre zone technique entrance, and it would be another ten minutes before the 79-year-old Liggett wound his way to the canary-yellow NBC cabin.
What Liggett needed—what all of the thousands who work on the incredibly complex Tour need—is an online map of the daily morphing technical zone, with turn-by-turn directions.
Such an advanced map exists, and it will soon mark, among many other data points, the location of every portapotty and how best to find them.
This virtual, real-time representation of the Tour—and it’s much, much more than just a map of portable restrooms—has been created by Japanese telecoms giant NTT, the brain of the Tour since 2015, appointed by the event’s owner and organizer, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO).
Known as a “digital twin,” the virtual copy of the Tour combines data from multiple sources, including from RFID-chipped Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. Every competitor has a sensor on their bike; likewise, every portapotty will soon be similarly equipped, enabling ASO to know exactly where everybody, and everything, is at any moment.
The zone technique has to be squeezed into wildly different town squares and mountain tops, so the shape of it changes each day. Portapotty locations therefore also change each day, as do the guarded compound entrances. The Tour’s digital twin will soon become as essential to the event’s staging as the 6,000 barriers that demarcate the various VIP zones.
Leveraging artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and machine learning, the Tour’s digital twin can run simulations and provide granular awareness to event organizers, and there’s also a stripped-back version of the twin available to visitors to the Tour’s website and a companion smartphone app.
Since 2015 the saddle on every bike in the race has sported a GPS lozenge so organizers, team managers, TV directors, and race watchers can know precisely where each rider is. While the pack—or peloton—usually rides together, riders can also be strung out along the roadside.
Before the fitting of GPS lozenges, it was difficult for TV watchers to follow the race, and even commentators had to guess where stragglers might be on the road.
(Traditionally, race organizers, judges, and journalists follow the Tour on “race radio,” an inside radio channel relaying information from a commentator inside a car at the head of the race who narrates real-time information he either sees himself or receives from data gatherers on motorbikes. This analog information service tends not to know much about riders behind the leaders.)
Last year’s digital twin of the Tour has been expanded and, the day after my interview with Liggett in Copenhagen, Peter Gray, senior vice president of NTT’s innovations and new ventures team, showed me the twin in action.
Also with us inside the air-conditioned NTT data truck at the race finish in Nyborg, Denmark, was Pascal Queirel, ASO’s chief technology officer. Connected by a WebEx call, we were also online with an operations team in Johannesburg, South Africa, and data analysts in Melbourne, Australia, all watching the Tour live and making sure the millions of data points were being collected successfully and analyzed correctly.
“We use different people from across our business, with the team dotted around the world, online when we need them,” said Gray, an Australian usually based in Melbourne.
The NTT truck is a two-story office packed with desks, computers, monitors, and TV screens, all of which must be packed away at the end of each stage and driven to the next finishing town.
During the day, the truck’s driver sleeps. He wakes as the first professional racers cross the finishing line, and readies to pack away the mobile office, reduce the height of the container on wheels—it concertinas smaller—and deliver it to the next day’s technical zone, usually 150 miles or so distant.
As well as pinpointing where each racer is on the road, NTT’s IoT sensors are also attached to team cars, medical vehicles, race motorbikes, and even strawberries.
Not every morsel of fruit, you understand, but the weird and wonderful motorized floats that make up the Tour’s publicity caravan. Some are large strawberries, others are giant race jerseys, and there are bus-sized faux coffee machines provided by the Tour’s coffee sponsor, Senseo.
An integral and much-loved part of the Tour since 1930, this convoy of sponsor’s vehicles is spread out over seven miles. It can take half an hour to pass, gifting spectators with hats, samples of food, and Tour paraphernalia that adults and children often fight to grab.
NTT’s digital twin plots the location of each float on the road, enabling caravan organizers to better control this rolling carnival.
Created with Microsoft Azure, the Tour’s digital twin is undoubtedly complex, but the concept is not new and is increasingly used by other event organizers, businesses, and even cities. Available in software form since 2002, many cities have digital twins, enabling real-time analysis of traffic congestion, air pollution, and other metrics. (ABI Research predicts that more than 500 urban digital twins will be up and running by 2025.)
“This is my dream job,” said Gray.
“I’ve watched the Tour de France for many years, usually sitting in my living room in Melbourne, starting at 1 am in the morning; I’m a fan.”
Gray has headed up NTT’s partnership with ASO since 2015.
In the upper story of the NTT truck, Gray’s workstation includes a curved computer monitor hooked up with a moving map, and all camera feeds from the TV motorbikes and helicopters. (TV watchers get to see only one camera angle at a time.) A laptop has an always-on video connection with the team in South Africa. A fixed-wing aircraft flying above the Tour relays NTT’s data using a moving mesh network.
“We’re not relying on a mobile cell network flooded by millions of people and, in the mountains, doesn’t always exist,” said Gray.
Any glitches in data transmission are spotted by algorithms and corrected by machine learning or by the analytics team in Johannesburg.
“Within our analytics platform, we fill in any data gaps. We clean up any wonky GPS signals and snap them back onto the route. We know that if we lose signal for 10 seconds from a rider sitting in the peloton, we’re confident the rider is still in the peloton.”
However, not always.
“We keep an eye out for riders who are maybe sitting still or doing something a bit strange,” said Gray.
“That might be because their bike has been put on top of a car [after a crash], or they have withdrawn from the race after injury. We use the video feed to validate our assumptions.”
The rolling data is also used to provide real-time predictions on arrival times, which is helpful for both Tour organizers and roadside watchers.
“If you’re standing by the side of the road with the mobile app, you can know almost exactly when the riders are due to pass; so no going off to buy a [Tour] t-shirt at that moment,” said Gray.
“As we already capture all of this information, next year we can expand the digital twin and will be able to help people navigate how to get to the VIP area, for example.”
That’s a relatively minor win for the software. Still, a bigger one will come when the event’s organizers have to make a split-second decision on re-routing the Tour due to external circumstances, such as landslips caused by foul weather.
“Two years ago, we had to stop the stage in the mountains due to bad weather,” explained ASO’s Queirel.
“We needed to invent, in real-time, a new finish line and a new start for the next day.”
With a digital twin, the planning to solve such snafus will be based on data modeling rather than guesswork.
“The Tour’s digital twin is a living, breathing thing,” enthused Gray.
“Observability and situational awareness are critical to an event like the Tour, going from predictive analytics to simulation in an instant.”
With the GPS monitoring of the Tour’s hundreds of cars, trucks, and motorbikes it’s now easier for organizers and officials to track and control the position of these often critically placed vehicles.
Neutral service vehicles—operated by components manufacturer Shimano and equipped with spare wheels and bikes for racers—can now be maneuvered in the moving race with pinpoint accuracy. Likewise, via color-coded dots, event organizers know where TV motorbikes are, where team cars are, and where the police motorbikes are at all times, with the ability to request accurate and timely convoy shuffles.
“We’re making sure the race operates as smoothly as possible,” said Gray, who added that might sometimes involve on-the-fly changes.
“We’re always tweaking; I’ll pull up Tableau and write SQL queries to try and figure out something or other,” he said.
And what Gray learns at the Tour can often be applied elsewhere in NTT.
“Many things we develop here can be used with our enterprise clients. The Tour is an incredible incubation space; we’re on a continuous innovation journey.”
Some of NTT’s business clients are given VIP passes to the Tour to see the digital twin.
“Our manufacturing clients, our financial services clients, our utilities clients, they’re fascinated by what we’re doing on the Tour,” revealed Gray.
“They might not be cycling fans, but they can see how this technology could be applied to the better running of their businesses.”
And perhaps next year, these VIP clients—and Liggett, too—will be able to fire up an app that guides them, turn by turn, to the closest technical zone security entrance.