Tuesday, May 15, 2012

UCI Bans Race Tracking Until Further Notice

Bicycle race tracking has been growing. Data presentation is still in its infancy but it has already been exciting to watch power and heart rate live in major competitions. Watching the Giro d’Italia on Saturday night I looked for some tracking and there wasn't any. Now I know why, the UCI has banned it, advising National Federations in a note issued two days into the Giro. On the TV it was a real buzz to watch someone I'd met,Fumiyuku Beppu in the breakaway for much of the seventh stage. I wondered how the rest of Green Edge were faring but back in the peloton they were mostly invisible. The commentators said Green Edge had a rider in the breakaway in Stage 6 as well but it was a wasted effort because they dropped back just as the coverage started.

What The UCI Said

Julien Carron, UCI Technological Coordinator, said  "the UCI thinks that the future of the sport of cycling goes through technologies.. in particular with the localisation of riders during the race and on-board cameras". Is that cool or what, I've previously wondered "Why Isn't Race Tracking Ubiquitous?" and the note reveals that the UCI thinks it will be too.

The crux of  Julien's note though, was that "neither cameras nor GPS tracking systems are allowed in any competition"  until an expert committee presents its conclusions despite that "Exceptions may have been granted in the past on several occasions". Actually I thought live race tracking was pretty common. SRM in particular, tracks lots of events. It's only transmitting data to external parties that is banned, not tracking per se which Julien clarifies by; "Naturally, this ban does not concern the personal use of GPS systems (from which the information is not transmitted to the media, sport directors, organizers, etc.) which remain tolerated until further notice."
So tracking isn't banned, just live tracking.
I'm wondering what the context of the note is. Why are they banning race tracking now, its been happening since the 2009 Tour de France? Did it become an issue with tracking the Giro, has there been some other recent development?  Why not let race tracking continue in an adhoc way until the expert committee has figured out how to do it better.  It was also a surprise to learn the tracking system I deployed in the Tour Down Under was an exception. I'd assumed that being approved once it  would be OK for future events. I wonder how you get to be on the expert committee, does tracking a race previously qualify you?

The Reaction So Far

I've searched the internet for answers to these weighty questions but come up blank. The disquiet over banning race radios continues, most recently expressed in twitter comments from two prominent sporting directors.
Riders communicating between each other w/ tam tams & smoke signals in radio-prohibited . Professional cycling at its best!
Well, end result was good, but the lack of radios makes racing so silly. Heck, don't give me a radio, just let the riders talk to each other

Race radios were discussed a while ago at The Inner Ring and Cycling News reports that Stephen Roche, one of several UCI backed representatives on the board of the Professional Cycling Council (CCP) is "trying to upgrade the image of cycling".  Roche's main bugbears are team cars helping riders back onto their bikes after toilet breaks or mechanical problems; riders unzipping their jerseys; and the use of team radios.  So no mention of race tracking there. The UCI has declared the approval protocol for frames and forks to be a successful process and are extending the label to cover other bike components, starting with wheels. Race tracking equipment is not mentioned but perhaps it will have to be labelled "UCI approved" in future also. I'm sceptical of the value of helmet cam video where there is already motorbike mounted cameras but that part of Julien's note has got some discussion previously, most notably when helmet cams were banned part way through last years Tour of California. However, I can't find anything on race tracking so into the vacuum I'll inject some thoughts.

Visualising Tracking Data

The potential for live tracking is huge. The vast majority of races are without helicopters and cameras on motorbikes. Tracking these races and overlaying the data onto simulated terrain or pre-existing imagery like street view can provide pretty good coverage at very low cost.

Experiments in techniques for visualising rides with tracking data acquired on a Green Edge training camp 

The 2012Women's Tour of New Zealand provided almost no coverage beyond final results so as far as I'm aware the simulation below, built from race tracking data is the only race video of the event.

Highlights of the 2012 Womens Tour of New Zealand - Stage 3 built with tracking data from 4 riders.

Another approach is to overlay data onto existing video. Using video of Simon Gerran's 2012 Milan San Remo win from youtube and tracking data provided through SRM, graphics are overlayed onto the video by SUFFERvision.

Overlaying data onto video or producing video from tracking data will probably get the most traction in the short term. But data driven simulators can offer more. As an example, imagine the driving simulator below driven by tracking data.

Travelling from Australian National University, Canberra to Parliament House using an open source driving simulator. If you have a Google Earth browser plug-in installed give it a try.
With video you are limited to the perspective of the camera but with full simulations you can watch the race from any perspective and I could have kept an eye on the rest of Green Edge in the Giro stage 7.

Going further, you can take the live race data and project forward in time as well. That would allow you to drive simulations like the popular Pro Cycling Manager with real data and allow viewers to try their hand as a race director during the race. The possibilities are endless.

A simulation game where you play the role of the team director could be driven from live data.

How Race Tracking Could Be Improved?

I expect that a better common understanding would make race tactics more visible and the race more interesting to all. So allowing everyone to see more could be a good strategy.

Until now only a few riders in each race have been tracked. This has great novelty value but is not enough to understand a race. Each extra rider that is tracked increases the value of the information from the existing tracked riders by providing context. A rider speeding up or slowing down means little unless you know they are in a breakaway, crossing a gap or dropping back.

Location data is not controversial. Riders don't usually mind revealing where they are. Therefore the UCI should aim to provide live location data for all riders as soon as possible but if it's compulsory any rider that doesn't want to be tracked can probably find a way to make their tracker fail. Heart rate and power will add interest but it's controversial. Some riders have been happy to supply power and heart rate data, so make it voluntary and see what emerges. Interestingly riders don't necessarily have any say in who sees their power data. All the power meters and most heart rate monitors transmit their data using ANT+ technology which, unlike bluetooth, provides no security. I know of one developer who is building an application to collect heart rate and power data from all nearby riders and as long as the data is not transmitted live I expect Julien's note would allow it's use.

It is early days. Don't stifle innovation.

Separate data delivery and data presentation. I would expect rapid innovation  in the presentation layer from multiple players if the data is easily accessible.

The technical issues surrounding collecting and distributing the data are not trivial. Race tracking data can be expected to get better over time.

Bicycle racing happens on several scales. Most of the time you want to know which group a rider is in and how far that group is off the pace. You want power and heart rate data summarised over significant periods, perhaps for a climb. There are moments, particularly around finishes, sprints and incidents where very detailed data is required to understand what went on. Transmitting high resolution data continuously is too bandwidth intensive so smarts are required on the bike to decide  what needs to be transmitted. All the existing systems are a compromise and transmit the same data regardless of the situation. Mostly more than is useful but in some situations, not enough.

We've tried trackers in the jersey pocket, which was inconvenient to the rider and under the seat which is not the best place for a GPS signal but works OK. I suspect the future is to replace the head unit on the handlebars and provide feedback to riders through the tracker as well. They will then see not only data from the bike but data on race progress. Continuous feedback of time splits would be useful to riders.

At the moment a common strategy for riders not expecting to win is to break away early in the event. Time and again the winner has spent most of the race out of site and unnoticed in the peloton. Race tracking data could be fed into models that are providing live predictions of the race result. These predictions could be quite exciting for viewers and the predictions themselves will probably change the race as riders will change there behaviour based on the likely outcome. Riders are doing that now but it's more random than it could be. The motivation for banning race radios is to make racing more exciting through increasing rider ignorance. This is almost the opposite approach of making racing more exciting by reducing viewer ignorance. It is probably impossible to keep the audience informed and the riders ignorant.

All of the existing live tracking systems are crude compared to what can be done. I've presented some ideas on what I think will emerge but amongst those with whom I communicate there are differing opinions on what form race tracking will eventually take and what technology to build it with. It is too early for a consensus to have emerged.

Could The Tour Down Under Be First?

I am hoping the Tour Down Under in 2013 will be the first race to comprehensively track the field. The UCI expert committee should have completed their deliberations by then.

A method that could work is to issue riders at pre race sign on with under seat trackers, similar to those we used in 2012, and collect them at the end.

The tracker under Jay McCarthy's seat can be seen in the scene just after Jay's easy win in a 2012 king of the mountain section.

Riders that are willing, can can link the trackers to their power meters, speed sensors and heart rate monitors as well.  The race data could then be made available through an official application, a data stream for third party presentation and hopefully overlaid on TV telecasts.


  1. Interesting stuff.

    Android app for ANT compatible phones to display nearby ANT+ heart rate and power data IpPeloton is in beta on google play.

    It just displays the data no recording or live transmition.

  2. Ifor's IpPeleton app was the application I referred to but it wasn't available when this article was written.

    It will be interesting to see the reaction to collection of data on nearby riders. Some riders regard this data as confidential and will probably be horrified.

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