Speed Read: Tour de France Tech Technology: Photo Finish and Race Data

Just as the Tour has evolved from a battle of raw individual endurance to a contest of speed, teamwork, and climbing skills, so has officiating the race progressed from the very basics to state-of-the-art technology. Stages in the first Tours were timed by one official who set the riders off from the start and then traveled by bike and train to the finish, where he’d record the riders’ order of finish and their times.

Judging finishes became more difficult when large groups began to contest sprint finishes; the judges had to write down bib numbers as riders crossed the line, rarely getting more than the first dozen finishers (and giving the rest of the peloton an equal placing). This was still happening through the 1950s, despite the use of tape recorders and the first photo-finish cameras—which were developed by Omega for the 1952 Olympics, though film took half an hour to develop. And the Tour’s photofinish camera sometimes malfunctioned, forcing the judges to use the old-school methods.

The digital age has transformed the tabulation of results. The Finish-Lynx timing system currently used at the Tour—one camera at intermediate sprints, two (including a backup) at the finish line—captures up to 10,000 frames a second. Transponders clipped below the saddle of every bike give instant finish positions, but the camera has to confirm results, because riders sometimes take a spare bike or switch bikes with a teammate. The transponders, which weigh 100 grams, contain a global positioning system chip, a radio-frequency chip, and a rechargeable battery with enough power to last the longest stages. For help with judging and making difficult decisions, the Tour now uses a mobile unit that houses two EVS Xeebra multi-angle review systems that lets officials review incidents through a touchscreen linked to as many as sixteen live cameras. Officials can narrow their view from all feeds to one full-screen view and zoom in with a touchand-pinch gesture.

FUN FACT

Electronic timing wasn’t functioning for a 51-kilometer time trial at the 1984 Tour, so it was hand-timed. Irishman Sean Kelly sensationally recorded 1:07:19.283, well clear of favorites Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond. When race leader Laurent Fignon finished in 1:07:19.215, neutrals felt a 0.062-second margin wasn’t possible and that French timekeepers favored their countryman.

HISTORICAL TIDBIT

In the pre-digital age, stage 7 of the 2017 Tour would have been a dead heat, but the digital camera showed that Marcel Kittel out-sprinted Edvald Boasson Hagen by 0.0003 of a second.

KEY PERSON

Australian Peter Gray, senior director at ASO technology partner Dimension Data, processes information generated by riders’ transponders to give instant race details through television, digital, and social media channels.

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