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14 October 2016

The Incredible Logistics and Technology Circus That Is The Tour De France

The 103rd edition of the Tour de France begins today at Mont-Saint-Michel, a tiny island off the Normandy coast. The island is connected to the French mainland by a bridge that is completely submerged during exceptionally high tides. The race organizers hope that doesn’t happen today. That’s not all they hope for. Over the next three weeks the technology cavalcade and logistical nightmare that is the Tour de France will cover 3535 kilometers (2196.5 miles) and the organizers are hoping all of it plays out without a hitch. It never does.


Professional cycling is not a popular sport in the US. Many Americans express attitudes and opinions about the sport based on what they’ve heard about performance enhancing drugs andLance Armstrong. This is like people expressing opinions about American professional football based on what they’ve heard about concussions and the O.J. Simpson trial. In other words, when it comes to professional cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular, many sports fans in the US don’t know what they’re missing.


Finding out what you’re missing isn’t hard. The Tour is covered by 2000 journalists from 600 media outlets that include 68 radio networks, 87 TV channels, 99 photo agencies and 347 newspapers, press agencies and internet websites.


The Tour is broadcast in 190 countries with 60 channels offering live coverage. The race is being covered live in the US by NBC and NBCSN. The networks that cover the event live set up their broadcast booths in a 5000 square meter (3.1 square mile) technical area that is located at the finish line of each day’s stage. The technical area includes 120 trucks, 60 kilometers (37.3 miles) of cable, and 90 commentators in broadcast booths.  All of this has to be torn down at the end of the day and set up again at the finish line of the next day’s stage.


There are 500 people on the TV production team. Live footage comes from five cameramen on motorcycles that ride with the cyclists and two camera-equipped helicopters that follow the race. Sixteen of the bikes in the race are equipped with GoPro cameras and there are two motorcycles that record sound from the peloton.  The video and sound feeds from all of these sources are sent to a high-frequency (HF) helicopter which then sends the combined feed to two HF airplanes that fly above the helicopters.  The planes send the feed to HF dishes set up in the technical area at the finish of the stage.

All of this technology is put to use broadcasting a race that begins with 198 riders from 22 teams. The race won’t finish with that many riders because many will be too injured or sick to continue, will be eliminated because they fail to reach the end of a stage in the maximum amount of time allowed, or will become too exhausted to go on.


TV coverage is easy at the start of each stage because the riders leave the starting line in a controlled peloton riding behind a pace car. Once the peloton gets out of the start town and riding conditions are marginally safer, the start flag drops and it’s on. There are usually furious attempts to form a breakaway group of riders and the race is quickly spread out all over the road. There are often not enough cameras to cover everything that is happening once the race splits up and the camera and sound motorcycles zoom back and forth through the race endangering themselves and the riders.


The TV motorcycles are not the only vehicles on the road with the cyclists. Far from it. Each team has two support cars. The first car is driven by the team’s directeur sportif (head coach) who is in radio contact with the riders. This car also carries a mechanic and spare parts that can be used to fix mechanical problems that crop up during the race. The second car also has a mechanic and spare parts in addition to racks of spare bikes that are used to replace a bike that is lost to a crash or a mechanical problem. Under certain conditions these cars can ride through the peloton further endangering the riders. For example, if a team has a rider in a breakaway that is several kilometers ahead of the main peloton, one of the cars will often ride past the peloton and follow behind the breakaway.


In addition to the the 44 team cars and an unknown number of official cars, there are seven ambulances and a radiology truck following the peloton. There are also two medical cars with doctors on board and a medical motorcycle that can get to riders quickly in case of a crash. There are 10 doctors and five nurses out on the road every day. The doctors in the medical cars will often treat injuries sustained from a crash while their car is moving and the rider is on their bike and holding on to the vehicle. Once the race starts, there’s no stopping. If you get hurt or sick, you either catch back up or you’re out of the race.


A publicity caravan rides the race route several hours ahead of the riders. The caravan includes 170 cars and trucks carrying 600 people representing 35 brands. The caravan is 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) long and takes 35 minutes to drive by. It’s estimated that 14 million goodies will be distributed to fans on the side of the road over the course of the Tour.


It’s expected that between 10 and 12 million spectators will line the roads to see the race. That breaks down to between 476,000 and 571,000 per day for each day of the race. For comparison purposes, about 71,000 attended Super Bowl 50 in February. Unlike most sporting events, the fans are usually within arm’s reach of the riders. On critical sections of some of the steep mountain climbs that usually determine the winner of the yellow jersey, cyclists at the limits of human strength and endurance are riding through a narrow tunnel of screaming, delirious and often drunken fans. It’s insane.

Security is provided by a 50-man motorcycle squadron from the Republican Guard, 3,000 agents from the Departmental Councils, 12 full-time police who travel with the Tour and 23,000 police officers and gendarmes who secure the route. Twenty-eight thousand traffic signs are put up to warn the riders of danger on the road.


There are 21 days of racing during the 23 days of the Tour and this entire circus travels from one stage to the next every day. The Tour organizers book 40,000 bed-nights in 210 hotels for their staff and the teams. Everybody else has to make their own arrangements. In terms of technology and logistics, organizing and broadcasting a sporting event that takes place in a stadium, an arena or a racetrack looks like a warm-up exercise compared to what it takes to produce the Tour de France.


Why put out all of this effort for a bicycle race? Because it’s the Tour de France and over the previous 102 editions it has never been anything other than awesome. You never know what’s going to happen, but over the course of the three week race you are guaranteed to witness incredible drama and extraordinary feats of courage and endurance. Be forewarned: If you get into watching the Tour and you begin to learn about the sport, you will be riveted like billions of others around the globe who watch the Tour on TV. It truly is one of the greatest shows on earth.


Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinmurnane/2016/07/02/the-incredible-logistics-and-technology-circus-that-is-the-tour-de-france/#7924bd4d2bb8