The final kilometres of the Tour de France must be a relief to everyone involved. After three weeks of intense racing, the last few laps of the Champs Elysee in Paris are a sign that the world’s most famous cycle race is coming to an end – except for the sprinters who want to win the Tour’s most prestigious stage of course.
But it’s not just the riders who are tired, it’s the tech team which have to power the television broadcasts and build the networks that facilitate the smooth running of a race that spans more than 3,500 kilometres.
The first Tour to be televised was the 1948 edition, when the riders arrivals at the Parc des Princes Velodrome during the final stage was transmitted. These days, the entire race is shown live by 85 broadcasters covering 180 countries, thanks to a technical operation unlike any other sporting event in the world.
No ordinary broadcast
Two companies are responsible for live images of the tour reaching all these television screens – Euro Media France, which captures the video and audio, and France Television (operators of France 2 and France 3), which converts these into the final feed delivered to the international media.
EMF uses five cameras on motorcycles and two on helicopters to record the sights and sounds of the race (you may recall that one of EMF’s cameramen caused a collision that resulted in Johnny Hoogerland crashing into a barbed wire fence during the 2011 Tour).
The motorcycle feeds are transmitted using VHF to the helicopters, which then send the streams to an aircraft flying at an altitude of between 3,000 and 8,000 metres.
Conventional outside broadcasts would use satellites to relay these feeds and the BBC is even trialling IP technology, but as EMF explained to CyclingTips, the motorcycles and helicopters are continually moving in and out of obstructive areas, making it difficult to maintain a reliable satellite signal.
Up in the air
The aircraft pass on the feeds to two intermediate trucks located along the route (there are sometimes three on mountain stages), one of which sends the pictures to a satellite and another which sends them to EMF’s outside broadcast truck at the finish line, where they are decoded.
Finally, they are sent to France Television’s truck where the final feed is produced. The director has access to numerous video streams to choose from, while members of the production team scout the route of each stage months in advance to find places of interest for the cameramen to record and commentators to talk about.
Both trucks are located in the technical compound at the finish line of each stage, along with generators, support vehicles, catering, and facilities for the press and organisers. Underlying all this is the network infrastructure provided by Orange.
Orange’s technical team comprises 50 engineers divided into two teams. One team sets up the network for one stage, while another squad of 25 sets up the infrastructure for the following day’s route.
According to Quartz, during the Tour’s stay in London, Orange used BT’s fibre network, deployed 500 phone lines and created different Wi-Fi networks for organisers, commentators, broadcasters and photographers. In total, 12 kilometres of cable was used to cover just the final 1km of the Mall.
Fibre is used to power the press rooms at all stages, with speeds of 2Gbps promised, while 3G and 4G are used for radio transmissions. In addition there are six Wi-Fi-enabled cars travelling with the Tour’s caravan of vehicles.
Once one tour finishes, attentions turn towards the next one. Among the technical innovations for the 2014 tour was the introduction of a third audio channel for surround sound, but the race’s three day stay in the UK provided some challenges for local authorities this side of the Channel too.
Le Tour in the UK
Millions of people lined the streets of Yorkshire, East Anglia and London to greet the tour and many were keen to share their experiences via social media. Public Wi-Fi networks in Leeds, Cambridge and York all attempted to ease the strain on cellular networks, but many people planned to watch the race in more rural areas.
One novel initiative aimed to improve connectivity in parts of Yorkshire by deploying Wi-Fi enabled tractors during the first two stages in Yorkshire. Two tractors were placed at two of the busiest parts of the route each day, providing Wi-Fi to anyone within a 500 metre radius. While this would not have solved everyone’s connection issues, it was a creative way of highlighting the need for better broadband and mobile coverage in the countryside.
Other major sporting events like the World Cup or the Olympic Games have the benefit of holding events in mainly static locations (the marathon and cycling road race are two exceptions) but the Tour is constantly moving, with hundreds of cyclists and support vehicles moving their way around France.
Massive football stadiums have the luxury of being able prepare months in advance, and with the rise of the smart stadium, deploy permanent solutions to improve connectivity. Even at the finish line on the Mall, it was difficult to get a decent mobile signal to access race information on a smartphone.
Yorkshire hopes its successful staging of the ‘Grand Depart’ will showcase the beauty of the county to a worldwide audience, but as you’ve just read, getting people to see God’s Country wasn’t simply a case of plugging in a cable.