Sponsorship, Cycling, Europe, Global

Dimension Data: the tech behind the Tour de France

Dimension Data was already involved in cycling as a team sponsor when it became a technology partner of Tour de France organiser ASO four years ago. Now, as UK and Ireland managing director Barney Taylor explains, its networks are changing the way the world’s most famous road race is experienced.

by Eoin Connolly
Dimension Data: the tech behind the Tour de France

Few major sporting events can be as complex as the travelling festival that is the Tour de France. 

For three weeks each July, road cycling’s most prestigious race carries dozens of riders, hundreds of staff and millions of spectators through French towns, countryside and mountains. A fleet of outriders and support vehicles follows in its wake, with pop-up villages emerging at each stage. 

The challenge of providing technology and data services to the tour has for the past four years fallen to South African-born international network specialist Dimension Data, which must procure and distribute race information and rider tracking data through some of the most difficult terrain western Europe has to offer. The company is a sponsor of event owner Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), working across its portfolio of races and bringing its biggest operation to the most celebrated of them all.

Dimension Data is a long-term backer of Team Dimension Data, Africa’s first elite road team. In that capacity, both as a sponsor and provider of technical support and analytics during training, it is behind ambitious efforts to get an African rider on the Tour de France podium by 2020 and to help British rider Mark Cavendish break the all-time record for stage wins. On top of that, it aims to transform the prospects of young people in Africa through its support for the Qhubeka charity’s #BikesChangeLives campaign, with the goal of distributing 5,000 bikes to those living in areas poorly served by transport infrastructure. 

As this year’s tour approached the finish line on Paris’ Champs-Elysees, SportsPro spoke to Dimension Data’s UK and Ireland managing director Barney Taylor about the ASO project, and its successes and complexities, as well as the future for these data networks in cycling and in other sport. 

What was the nature of the opportunity you saw in working with ASO?

The really exciting opportunity for us was to come in and, yes, be a technology partner, but actually really to help the ASO use technology to revolutionise the viewer experience and take the whole fan experience to the next level for the Tour de France. So this wasn’t a sponsorship relationship – this wasn’t just us being a technology partner. The ASO had a vision about growing their reach and delighting their audiences – which is a lovely tagline – in what is really quite a traditional sport. 

It was to take a sport that was lacking in data, take an in-event experience, take the wider excitement and growth in popularity for cycling, and really drive technology in to see if we could revolutionise that viewing experience. And I think it was just a moment in time where we’d been looking at sport and at technology coming more and more into sport, but this was an opportunity to take one of the greatest sporting events in the world and really enrich the spectator and also the commentators’ experience with technology. It was a very exciting opportunity for us. 

Taylor says Dimension Data saw an opportunity to introduce more technology into a sport previously lacking in data to ultimately revolutionise the viewing experience

What did you identify as being the areas where you could apply data and add something to the storytelling around the tour?

The first focus was very much that in-event experience. Going back four years, the first thing we did was ask how we could just get the most basic data – things like the speed and location of a cyclist – to the viewer. How do we get that on to the screen? If you take screen number one – the actual mainstream broadcast coverage of the Tour de France – you were just lacking in some data. For just the most basic enrichment, we had to create a mesh network of the bikes as they moved around. 

I think after we got through that initial tour, it was then about how you take that data into the next phase. Once we knew we could get the data, how do you bring it in a way that just starts to drive more and more value, and just enriches the experience?

This wasn’t a sponsorship relationship – this wasn’t just us being a technology partner. The ASO had a vision about growing their reach and delighting their audiences – which is a lovely tagline – in what is really quite a traditional sport. 

Then it was more about working with the ASO. Outside of the event, how do you help them grow their reach? How do you delight audiences and promote the sport of cycling by starting to present that in a different way in all sorts of media outlets?

We went from hundreds of thousands of data points to many millions of data points to many billions of data points. How do you take that data and turn it into something where you can use predictive analytics and you can start to really use that data to tell stories? And that’s very much the evolution we’ve gone through. 

The client experience was about protecting revenues - it’s now about monetising. Standard broadcast revenues are now actually rising. Contractual relationships – the relationships the ASO has with broadcasters – are accelerating. So how do you monetise the second screen to actually enhance those revenues?

You’re not operating within a contained environment in road cycling – it’s very much a travelling circus. What challenges did you discover in that?

The challenges were extensive. We only really had four and a half months to pull together our solution for the first tour. There’d never been an effective GPS tracker attached to a bike before that had actually worked. So whether it was the weather or the terrain, to actually get a solution that worked effectively and created accurate readings, that created a mesh network that moved around the country and a big data truck that could actually be unplugged and plugged in 20 times as it moved around France was a significant challenge first off. 

There were a lot of question marks over whether we could actually do it. The terrains you get up in the mountain regions, the ability to get connectivity, the accuracy of the readings, sensors falling off, bikes being changed, approval from the relevant bodies to have those bikes being tracked – it was significant. 

So the overall solution in its earliest days was not straightforward at all. It was really quite a feat for us to be able to do that: collecting the data from the bikes using GPS trackers, creating a mesh network that connected all of the bikes with the motorcycles as they moved round, sent a signal up to a fixed wing aircraft or a helicopter which was then transmitting back to our data truck. It was a significant achievement to undertake. 

In its earliest days, our solution very much represented what you’ll find is the technology evolution for a lot of businesses at the moment. It essentially was a mobile infrastructure-heavy data centre in that truck in the very earliest stages. We were literally unplugging almost a full data centre, then plugging it back in again with zero downtime, zero security breaches, and moving it around the country. Over the last two to three years, the infrastructure we carry around has got less and less and less to the point now where we really carry no infrastructure on the truck whatsoever. 

There’s just a fibre link to that truck and it’s become just like a secure collaboration hub. All of the technology, all of the infrastructure is kept in the cloud; all of the analytics, as you’d expect, is done in the cloud as well. The technology has just come on leaps and bounds in the last 48 months, but it was a significant achievement to firstly get that data and then do things with it as we have over the last few years.

How do you use the tour to demonstrate to other potential clients what Dimension Data has to offer and what the possibilities of these networks are?

It’s really the best case study in the world for us. Whether you like cycling or you like sport or not, it is the best case study because it showcases every single service and solution that Dimension Data can bring to bear for a client from any practical sector, whether it be networking, whether it be using cloud technology or big data and analytics or IoT, whether it’s the completely mobile collaborative workspace that we use in France. It’s almost every solution that we have. 

And we tell the story everywhere we go. We are applying this technology in the Tour de France, we’ve then applied it to other races like La Vuelta a Espana. That was the first priority for ASO. But we are now taking this capability, taking this story, and applying it to business and discussing how else we can apply it in other areas of sport. 

So whether it was the weather or the terrain, to actually get a solution that worked effectively and created accurate readings, that created a mesh network that moved around the country and a big data truck that could actually be unplugged and plugged in 20 times as it moved around France was a significant challenge first off.

Another great example of where we employ similar technology to this is the Tour de Yorkshire event. It’s starting to become a very big warm-up event, UK-hosted in a May timeframe. It’s actually one of the most-watched sporting events in the UK – there’s over a million spectators watching the Tour de Yorkshire across three counties over the three days it runs. 

We actually use this solution and we give this solution to the Yorkshire Police during that event so they can track and safely police this huge event over those three counties for its duration. The Yorkshire Police will use it to track foot officers, motorcycle officers, those in patrol cars. They can see where the high activity is, where the peloton is moving, and use it to take the resource they’ve got and apply that best to safe policing during that sporting event. 

But of course, we’re taking this solution now and looking for other applications to use it with – not only in business and other industries, retail or whatever it might be, but we’re actually looking for sporting arenas to take it into. So it is really the best end-to-end case study that we’ve got.

The publicity and the profile that we’ve brought to Dimension Data, that we’ve helped bring to cycling and the Tour de France, that we’ve helped bring to Qhubeka, which is the charity that Team Dimension Data rides for, is absolutely unprecedented. It’s been really high-profile. During the Tour de France, DimensionData.com generally sees a 50 per cent spike in traffic. It’s just a very exciting time for all of us and we think that we’re not only changing one of the most greatest sporting events in the world but we’re helping to start to revolutionise the viewing experience for cycling. We might start to move out from there. 

Dimension Data rider Mark Cavendish during Stage Three of this year's Tour

What have we seen during the 2018 tour that’s broken new ground?

2018 is what we term as a ‘partnership of innovation’. What that actually means for the viewing experience first of all is that we’ve taken some of the traditional second-screen data – what you’d only really seen on the Twitter handle or in the Race Centre – and we’ve tried to put some of that data on to the main screen. 

It’s just simple things, like previously on the television, you couldn’t actually see the speed the cyclists were going at, you couldn’t see the gradient of the hill that cyclists were climbing, etc, etc. So we’ve started to take some of that basic data and put that in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. We’ve started to bring some of the second-screen value on to the broadcast screen. 

The second part of it is if you see where we’ve come over the last two or three years, it’s very much about knowing that we can do the tracking, taking the data, starting to really enrich it and just revolutionise the client experience. Take the data, try it in new ways, and just make sure that we’re using and telling stories with that data. 

What do you have planned for 2019?

How we continue to innovate as a partnership is now starting to come from other sources. We ran a programme called Le Code de Tour, taking ideas from our graduates and our 30,000 employees around the world – and from our clients, even – as to how we can innovate next year. How do you take innovation to the next level? What is that going to look like? Virtual reality gaming where you’re riding against your favourite riders; 3D terrains that you can look at away from broadcast screens – that’s a lot of what we’re starting. 

Now that we’re trusted with the solution, now that we’re trusted with the data, we’re trusted with the way that data is given to spectators and commentators and race teams, we are starting to focus on the overall performance of our partnership with ASO and we’re starting to really look at new ideas for innovation and asking for ideas outside of the Dimension Data organisation.

What will some of the challenges be in terms of putting that into action?

I can’t really comment about what we may or may not be able to do other than to say we have constantly surprised ourselves with the very constructive partnership with the ASO – their ability and their willingness to help us take data and take technology to enrich the experience. I would imagine that the restrictions we’ve got are always going to be whether ideas are technically possible or not.

We would love to put 3D terrains on to people’s coffee tables, and to instantly update the truck. Whether that’s going to be something we can technically do we don’t know. 

We now have a technology platform that is changing the Tour de France, that is changing the ASO’s revenue streams and outlook, and that we think is really revolutionising the viewing experience. As we look to really now innovate – not just deliver on the solution but deliver on another level – I think the only thing that will stop us will be our ability to do that technically. But it’s going to be a very, very exciting 12 months.