Geolocation Telemetry on Trial

Vincenzo Nibali

What are those black things under the saddle?” is the most frequently asked question from readers and Twitter followers this week. Riders in the Critérium du Dauphiné have a small black stick poking out of the back of the saddle. Look and you can see them in the image above. It’s for beaming data, it’s on trial this week before an expected launch in the Tour de France.

It’s called the “Fox”, or at least this has been the name given to the device used in trials for Project Smacs, the name given to the trials. The Fox is produced by a HiKoB, a company from Lyon in France that does a range of wireless monitoring, click here for the full spec of the product (PDF). The Fox can incorporate an accelerometer, a gyrometer and atmospheric pressure monitor but none of these are much use for cycling, the real interest surely comes from location tracking via GPS and RF where the signals from the bikes are relayed to vehicles in the race convoy and on then the signal is boosted onwards for TV production. It promises “ultra low power measurement and communication protocols: +8 hours of autonomy at full usage (50 Hz sampling rate)” which is essential for a bike race. As you can see in the image above showing the spec in 2014 it’s different in appearance and fixation to the version in use this week, pictured below, perhaps

Hikob Fox

The stick version of the Fox is made out of plastic and encases a GPS chip and wireless transmission technology. All the units have a bar code underneath which can be scanned as well as a number which corresponds with the rider’s race number and there’s also a small port. It’s attached to the seat rails with zip ties which explains the varying angles as the poke backwards.

The company behind this, HiKoB, specialises in wireless data transmission. They can, say, equip a road bridge with wireless sensors to measure load in different points of the structure throughout the day. More relevantly for sport they offer live coverage via tracking of athletes. Their website shows they equipped ex-cyclist Laurent Jalabert with sensors for the 2012 Paris-Marathon to measure his heart rate and the number of steps along the course.

More recently the system was tested in Paris-Tours in 2013 and now it’s being used in the Critérium du Dauphiné this as a trial run before plans for a full launched at the Tour de France. It’s all for Euromedia, the television production company behind the images of the Dauphiné you’re watching this week and who produce the Tour de France. However the sticking point is that not all teams have embraced it, for now only the non-Velon members are adopting it, presumably the Velon members (BMC Racing Team, Etixx-QuickStep, Lampre-Merida, Lotto Soudal, Orica-Greenedge, Cannondale-Garmin, Giant-Alpecin, Lotto-Jumbo, Team Sky, Tinkoff-Saxo and Trek Factory Racing) are holding out for some type of cash payment.

Claire Pedrono

What to expect? For years time gaps in races would be done by a motorbike with a pillion passenger carrying a blackboard to inform the riders. Today on TV we have GPS time gaps but the signal for these is usually taken from motorbikes following the race so dependent on the position and proximity of each moto to a group on the road. From what I understand it allows riders to be tracked in real time and the output gets displayed on a map with the riders. If you’ve seen flight tracking applications this is similar. It opens up many possibilities, first the instant ability to know who is in the breakaway rather than wait for images of riders and their race numbers; although it’s not foolproof if a rider changes bikes or the transmitter fails. Being able to know exactly where a rider is could be fascinating, both in real time to see who is at the front of the peloton when a race starts a mountain pass and who is at the back. Or imagine a sprint finish played out in slow motion via data graphics so you can see the winning rider’s path through the peloton for the last five kilometres. Once we know where two riders are we can time them, so we could have instant info on where a rider is on, say, Alpe d’Huez and their time gap to the yellow jersey or a realtime “virtual yellow jersey” during a time trial.

With such rich data it’s up to the producer or possibly even the viewer/user to find what is valuable but it’s promising and about time.

72 thoughts on “Geolocation Telemetry on Trial”

  1. This will be brilliant for time trials.

    My gripe has always been that there is so much more info that could be shown during a TT and one or two time checks is not enough: Heart rate, watts, speed, gearing, braking and acceleration and many other telemetry stats could be broadcast.

    This would be much easier over a TT as they could position receivers at multiple points over a course and make comparisons on-the-fly.

    I’m looking forward to that

    • Don’t think you will see that sort of data any time soon, most riders don’t publish power data (or even heart rate) because it very easily allows other teams to gauge their fitness.

      But I agree that they could do much more in TT, this idea of having one or two timing points in the middle is a bit silly in this day and age.

      • i assume this would be quite hard, unless the cameras were at fixed points on the course, and not on following moto’s. Maybe a number of drones could be programmed to fly a particular path, which might enable a ‘ghost’ image next to the real-time rider?

        Please not, I am not very techy at all, so welcome any corrections!

      • This is what i’m hoping for, but on climbs and mountain descents for GC contenders as well, superimposing separate riders to show their comparitive position in relation to each other as if they were next to each other. It works fabulously in the WRC (world rally cars) coverage coverage!

  2. This is cool, just like the on-board bikes. However, as a pro cycling fan, I’m not that sold on all the tech updates being good. Power meters, race radios, on board cameras, this…

    For me, none of these matter at a time when doping seems to be getting worse, not better. Just how I see it, but for me, clean out the dope first. Then think about popularity through tech.

    • This is a project between TV production and a French tech start-up, it’s got nothing to do with do with doping and its introduction doesn’t subtract resources from the UCI, WADA etc.

    • Power numbers are really not that interesting and as some in the thread has pointed out are the “secrets of the trade” so I doubt they will be available sometime soon.
      And why are they not interesting: Because you have to relate them to the rider. A pure watt figure won’t tell you anything about the rider’s performance, not even in relation to his (or hers) competitors. You need to know more.
      What you really want to know is some kind of number that will correlate watts, kgs and CdA for the rider in question. That will tell you something comparable about the current performance of a given set of riders.
      With a pure watt figure actually all you will have is: “Whoah, that’s a big number and my FTP is just 320 and I do 1100 for 2-3 secs…” It will tell you nothing remotely comparable about rider performance.

      • I agree with all of that, many cyclists struggle to understand power numbers so putting them on TV is going to confuse a lot of cyclists yet alone the wider public who will have no idea, one solution would be to have an app or a web page where fans can track this without the data cluttering the screen for ordinary viewers. But it’s hard to watch live, the inaccuracy of measurement and the variability – if a rider has two bottles of water on their bike it skews the W/kg ratio; temperature changes alter the zero offset etc etc. But the post-race analysis could be interesting for some.

          • Now david got started on power numbers, that’s why I went with that.
            I for one fail to see what relevance speed, gearing, cadence has. I find it utterly irrellevant – just like power numbers; this is useless dynamic information that clutter up my screen.
            Time gaps are basically all I need.
            In the Tour of California the ran a constant ticker at the bottom with current standings. My God that is hopeless information but I suppose to an american it has to bee that way. They seem to have it everywhere; news, talkshows, sports, you name it.
            In the Giro, the gradients were shown but why? It din’t raise my level of insight in the current situation. And they even very often din’t get the time gaps right; see Cantodor’s catch-up on the Motirolo.
            If we really should have some extra info, Radiotour would be my choice. It will not clutter my screen plus the information here is very informative.
            This GPS-contracption surely will help with instant time gaps and rider recognition and that is great info to have real-time – and sufficient info for most of the general public and commentators.

  3. This is the radio standard they’re using:

    Usually used for “smart home” and industrial monitoring applications, over not very long ranges. Interesting that it’s a mesh network, so I guess you have data from the riders in the middle of the field being hopped to either end of the peloton, and then to a base station on a vehicle. Would probably make it a bit less reliable at something like Paris-Roubaix, since the riders would be very spread out at times, unless they compensate with more end nodes.

    • That’s interesting, a good way to get around the sort of networking issues presented in mountains, middle of countryside with no 3G etc.

      Maybe something like Paris-Roubaix could be covered by multiple stationary end points? If I’m not mistaken the tech to build them is comparatively cheap, would only require a way to keep it from being trashed by spectators (unintentionally or otherwise)

  4. Power numbers are the secrets of the trade. I doubt teams will ever agree to disclose that information. But other than that, I think the possibilities are huge. I hope it can fuel more interest (and money) to this sport that can’t seem to shake out the negativeness and distrust…

      • The Wiggins hour record was a prime example of how bad cycling coverage is. If ever there was an opportunity to show relevant data on screen that was it. IIRC they were even showing his average speed in mph at one point. In fact, why even call it average speed? It’s about riding for an hour – why not just call it ‘expected distance’ or something. For the casual viewer that would have been much more informative.

        • “Average speed” is relevant, because it’s an event over an hour and measured per hour. So it’s the same as “expected distance”. Calling it anything else is dumbing it down unnecessarily.

          As for the units used; well, both are useful, depending on geographic area the viewer lives in. Sure, “miles per hour” isn’t necessarily relevant to many but it is to Brits, Brad’s home nation. Despite the unit the record being measured in; and the length of the track; being metric, we can’t all do the “8 kilometers – 5 miles” mental maths fast enough – seeing as distances and speed limits over here on the roads are all in miles, it was helpful to me because they’re units I see and use every day.

  5. This powerful tool could have far-reaching implications. A rider in a break could be told the exact speed that a bridging rider is going and therefore know when to expect company. Similarly, the speed of a rider being dropped could be communicated to someone ahead, which could help them decide to put the hammer down, ease up for a teammate, go tempo and still gain time, etc.
    I suppose a potential downside, already discussed here with regard to race radios, is that all of this information makes a rider possibly rely less on their own tactical acumen and instinct. It could become slightly more like a video game runs by DSs, although the legs and hearts and minds still need to propel the bike forward, of course.
    Unless one has a motor in the seat post:)

  6. These devices may be secret batteries for the small electric motors in some of the bikes bottom brackets!

    Just kidding, seems similar too what USA pro challenge did on their race app. Terrain, topo/positioning add power output, and who is in every group along the road plus hear rate… very cool.

    • Do you mean TourTracker? That’s a great idea but with poor execution.

      This reads like it has the potential to give us more but, again, its mediation via the TV director/producer may be crucial, at least initially.

      If extras are made available to individuals via an app or similar, and if there is any tie-in with Velon or similar, then we might start to find out if there is much extra money to come to teams directly from the worldwide fanbase of the sport.

    • I presume that unlike a two-way radio system, this telemetry data is one-way broadcast. It would be useful in all races for TV commentators at the very least. And, if races without radios are indeed that much more open and unpredictable, then having rider ID and position information for the TV production would be of even greater value: put the cameras on the action, and if there’s too much action for the cameras, at least tell me who’s where and what’s going on. I, for one, find more frustration than romance in chaotic race coverage.

      • This has useful implications for down ballot races too. Was watching the live stream of Winston Salem Cycling Classic, US nationals and other non WT races and noticed the commentators often had issues identifying riders.

        Perhaps, the first pass at what information to show/be made available is simply information useful to commentators. Link identity with past race results, (i.e., how they fared when racing against the same break away riders). One piece of analysis I enjoy is when commentators make predictions of who might win a sprint from “this select group”. This telemetry data might be useful more as meta-data than actual data.

    • I should add: I sure hope they (ASO, I presume) don’t bundle this data into a smartphone app like it’s a little toy or game. I don’t want to watch a race on TV and have to look at a second screen for information that I could be getting through the primary one. Plus, I don’t have a smartphone 😉

      • That would be a pretty uninspired use of the data (and I say this as someone who often checks their smartphone while watching TV)

        The problem is how to present all this new data without the screen turning into stats-soup. It would be worth ASO’s while to spend a few extra $$ to hire a consultant to help them use this data. (They should hire Cosmo Catalano to cut their highlight reels and update their websites while they’re at it but that’s another topic)

  7. An exciting development for me, taking a leaf out of F1 coverage.
    BTW, check out Astana rider 26 in the photo… talk about a hairy back! Can’t be very aero?

  8. Ahhhh, boooring. It wont bring anything new. Live tracking of riders and analysis who moved where in the last 5 kms of sprint stage? Also booring. They should show power and hear rate data together with their thresholds so we can see who is in the red or not, that would be something. Argument with accuracy by is non argument. This is not super science +-2.5% is ok even riders could have off-day/s so -+2.5% is actually ok. Actually guessing who is in the break is the one of the exciting parts of the cycling.
    This is nothing radical, cycling would do without it GPS positioning in the race because it kills moments of surprise. Actually they should completely ban radios, that would be interesting.

    • In a potentially revolutionary development (!) ASO had trialled an electronic board rather than the blackboard a couple of years ago, anyone know why it got dropped? Too hard to read?

      • Yeah, I have also often wondered why no one has developed a board for bike races somthing akind to the ones used in football (soccer) when players are changing/additional time is displayed.
        Seems like an obvious improvement to chalk on a rainy day and including a receiver/transmitter unit, rider nos. and times/distances should be readily available. The board could then simply be mounted on any MC/car in multiples.
        Another possible advantage would be less MCs that pass the bunch/groups of riders and real-time information. Currently breakaways (and DSs/Commissaires/Public) can wait quite some time for a new time gap.

    • I think an accelerometer could be very interesting as it could give information on how well riders are cornering (G-forces) eg Nibali vs Pinot on a mountain descent.
      The other area would be the massive spikes we might see during a sprint crash.

    • I’ve used an accelerometer at work – but to measure vibration movement from quarry blasting / military detonations / large building sites ; I wasn’t aware that they were so sensitive as to measure the acceleration of a bicycle rider !??

      • There are high-G (100s or 1000s of G) and low-G (1-10G) accelerometers available. The ones that measure the sort of forces you mention (along with, say, crash detection in vehicles) are different to the ones used to rotate a smartphone display automatically.

  9. I looked at the Dauphine website during Stage 1. All they seemed to bother showing were the gaps. Unless there was something I missed, it was lots of good data going to waste, I think.

  10. I for one was very happy to see the gradients being shown on the climbs in the Giro on Eurosport. That was new, and really interesting.

    +1 on the acceleration data being interesting. Also, just basic speed would be useful (rather than ‘hardly ever’ or the camera looking at the speedo on the moto). Especially to be able to compare the speed of the break compared to the peloton for example.

    If they can do it in F1, you’d think they’d be able to to it in cycling (acknowledging the fact that on a track the collection technology is stationary and in a more contained/controllable environment).

  11. People are asking for power data / hr data and other things to be sent via this device. Now I don’t see that happening, lets keep it simple?

    Is it me or would it just be nice to have kilometres per hour? So often I wonder how quick they are going up certain steep gradients, and have to wait for a moto to look down at its speedo ! Or supplying real time gradients…….This data the teams won’t mind being transmitted, surely. And it could enhance the visual spectacle.

      • Perhaps average speed readings over specific segments would be interesting. It could be interesting if we could know in real time that the bunch travelled 5kph quicker than the break over a 3km stretch as the race nears the finish line

        • One thing’s for sure; we would know *exactly* how quick Froome, Contador et al get up those famous climbs – not relying on timing from video footage on YouTube any more. Whether that would settle the debate about ‘unreasonable’ VAM figures or throw petrol on it, IDK…

  12. I certainly hope DS’s won’t be able to receive this data – I prefer the fog of war. I don’t think this brings much to the table. As a viewer, not knowing who is in the break immediately is a non issue.

  13. While a lot of the data and analysis will go over the heads of most viewers, the ability to have a heads up display of a real time map would be fascinating in a number of scenarios.

    We could see a map on a flat stage as a break gets gradually closer to the finish and the bunch closes in on them.
    An aerial map of a climb showing the precise location of the protagonists, gaps between them and where the finish is.

  14. I like the idea of a post race graphic of the top 10 sprinters, with all the other noise/riders stripped out, seeing how they all moved around in relation to each other over the last 3km… (and with a proper ex-sprinter pro commentator making sense of it all for us… or Cosmo of course..)

  15. Is just me or is there something mildly suspicious that a largely unknown French start-up has suddenly been selected as the tech partner by the French owners of the biggest bike races in France & arguably the world? ASO is a private company (AFAIK) and can do what they like I guess but when you have years of experience with Garmin/Strava/others around the world…I can’t help but think something is not quite above board here. I would not be surprised if some “related parties” questions surface. Maybe I’m a cynic – hard not to be in the world of pro cycling….lets see.

      • Yes, I saw that. Doesn’t change my thought, ASO are just a step away, especially if you follow the money… But I’m just thinking aloud, nothing more. In the spirit of Inrng as a virtual cafe conversation, its just a roll of my eyes as I reach for a croissant.

        I’m very interested in seeing more data onscreen and glad that its being invested in. Lets see what unfolds.

  16. How nice of the Velon teams…
    They who push for new ways to develop the sport, and they are actually playing against innovation here. If I were ASO I would not pay them a dime. If they are not willing to have the devices on the bikes then maybe I’d give them the worse hotels, and the betters to those teams, who are welcoming the innovation.

    • +1 All their talk of improving the sport via technology is just about improving their own bottom line. While I don’t care much for this techno stuff, perhaps ASO should tell Velon members to install the things, same as everyone else (like numbers and the transponder) or find another race come July?

  17. Just one thought – we’ve mentioned how useful they may be to the teams and viewers but, in comparison to say Formula One, their technical back-up is a seperate ‘mini’ team for each driver, SO Hamilton has his own team as does Rosberg.
    In this case, with all the potential at hand from the devices, is it possible for one SD to have a full understanding of say all his nine riders in a tour team ?
    Or would it be a case of data overload ?
    Or sacrifice the poor domestiques ?

    • Interesting point.

      Watching the London round of the ITU series recently, I noticed that only five split times were shown for the lead group of six. I presume the other competitor’s timing chip had been lost during what was a rather chaotic swim leg.

      Is it more likely that a transmitter would be dislodged from a rider in a crash, or left behind as the result of a bike swap? The latter could be addressed by fitting one to each bike including spares.

  18. It would be fun to swap bikes and confuse everybody.
    Accurate timegaps and break member info are good things, we’ll see what else they make of it.

    • Not that difficult to put tags on all the bikes, including spares. If a rider swaps out, it wouldn’t take long to spot which tag ID he was using and update his entry in the central telemetry system. We’ll see at the Tour I guess.

  19. Similar technology is used to track riders in ultra and endurance cycling events/races for some time now.

    Lets see what it will bring to WT.

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