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Timing the Tour de France: Split-second differences, finish line cameras and results down to a fraction of a millimetre

In-depth
6 Jan 2020
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With stages decided by millimetres, it’s up to Tour de France timekeeper Tissot to capture results at 10,000 frames per second. This article was originally published in Issue 78 of Cyclist Magazine

Words: Jack Elton-Walters Photography: Lars Wehrmann

In an age of marginal gains, when every aspect of training and racing is dissected in detail to gain tiny advantages, the technology around races needs to be able to keep track of events in ever more precise detail. Split-second timing, finish line cameras and results factored down to below a millimetre – modern race timing is at the cutting edge and can show the winner of a stage down to the tread of a tyre after 200km in the saddle.

The job of tracking every second of the Tour de France falls to Swiss watchmaker Tissot. The company returned to the Tour de France in 2016 after having taken charge of timekeeping at the race from 1988 to 1992, but even before that it had a pedigree in cycling timing that stretches back over five decades.

‘The history of Tissot in cycling is longstanding,’ says Alain Zobrist, CEO of Tissot Timing. ‘We’ve had a partnership with the UCI since 1995 and it became obvious at some point that Tissot had to go back to the Tour de France as official timekeeper, which we did.’

Timing has come a long way from a starter’s pistol and someone with quick thumbs pressing the buttons on a stopwatch.

 

Equally important these days are the cameras that stalk the finish line awaiting the bike throw of a rider desperate for stage glory. ‘The cameras are capable of taking 10,000 pictures per second, which allows us to have a very clear understanding of what’s happening on the finish line,’ says Zobrist.

‘Even the narrowest of differences between the first and second rider, the cameras are able to capture. There are differences that aren’t visible to the naked eye.’

At the 2017 Tour, local favourite Warren Barguil lunged for the finish line of Stage 9 and raised his arms in celebration.

Next to him was Colombian Rigoberto Uran, who had ridden the last part of the stage stuck in his hardest gear and had been forced to wind up his sprint from a long way out.

 

Beaming into the camera of a local French television station, Barguil was talking of his joy at winning when he was interrupted – during a live broadcast – to be told he’d actually been beaten by the smallest of margins and the win was Uran’s.

Behind this result was Tissot – its timers and finish line cameras. Capturing those 10,000 frames per second, the images sent from the cameras to the timing computers showed it was the finest outer edge of Uran’s front tyre that had breached the finish line first – just.

Heartbreak for Barguil but a win not just for Uran but for the Tour de France’s timing technology.

‘The finish line camera has become a very important piece of equipment, if not the most important,’ Zobrist adds.

Sum of many parts

While Tissot may be charged with providing the times and finishing positions of the riders, it doesn’t make the final decision on who the winner is. That job remains the remit of the race commissaires.

‘We work hand-in-hand with the officials, who are the ones validating the results,’ Zobrist says. ‘So there are a couple of pairs of eyes to make sure the result is correct.’

With a case like Barguil’s, it might be expected that a team could contest a result when the outcome is that close, but this isn’t something the timers experience on a regular basis, and Zobrist has a fair idea of why.

‘The riders and the teams know the technology that we employ, so they trust that. We’re not alone in our timekeeping – we work with officials since they’re the ones deciding the race’s outcome from the results we generate.

‘If there are any questions, the finish line picture is available but usually the results are clear and uncontested.’

 

The Tour de France is a huge sink of resources, from the fuel in all the vehicles to the food served in the finish line areas to the power supply needed to broadcast the race around the world.

Within all that, Tissot’s equipment and small finish line hut must have a secure and uninterrupted electricity supply, which it gets from a power source that’s independent of the rest of the race village. What if, even with its own electricity supply, the finish line camera breaks down?

‘Everything is backed up,’ says Zobrist. ‘We’re not working with one camera but three, and we have a main timing system with a back-up timing system.’

Human input is another resource that’s needed in abundance for the operation to run correctly, and that’s no truer than on a time-trial stage.

Eight timekeepers are needed on a standard road stage and twice that when the riders are pitted against the clock on a TT.

 

Every timekeeper has their own role that they perform on every stage. Each position in the process is highly specialised and must be performed consistently, ‘to provide the perfect service’ to the race.

‘Whether it’s the head timekeeper, the person in charge of the finish line cameras, the one checking the transponders on the bikes or the person running the data handling, all of them have an important duty,’ says Zobrist.

‘The quality of the service is only there if they work as an integrated team and perform every single task to the very best of their ability.’

This article first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in January 2019