When the world’s largest cycling race comes to a conclusion this Sunday, 198 riders (minus those lost to attrition) from 35 countries will have ridden close to 2,193 miles over three weeks, counterclockwise around France, from Normandy to Paris. It’s a massive spectacle requiring the hard work not only of the athletes competing, but also their support teams, race organizers and local and national authorities who all ensure this very public, complicated and dangerous spectacle comes off without a hitch for the 103rd time in history.
But there is another team of people whose work goes largely unnoticed: the timekeepers. Time is the race’s ultimate decider; the winner is the man who makes the lap of the country in the least amount of it. So it’s important that every second ridden by every athlete for all 21 stages is accounted for — even in cases like Chris Froome’s crash that had the yellow jersey running to the finish of Stage 12 as his lead ticked away. This year, that task falls to Tissot, which took over as the official timekeeper. We asked Alain Zobrist, the CEO of Swiss Timing, to explain some of the technology, process, branding and challenges of timing the Tour de France.
Tissot uses photo cells at the starting line of each stage to give the signal to start the clock, then measures intermediate times wherever they may apply.
Q: Walk me through the process for timing a stage of the Tour de France.
A: Depending on when the race starts, we start very early in the morning to install the starting equipment and make sure that everything is set once the athletes arrive; the same thing for the finish area. We are testing constantly that the system works. In between, we are getting in data, which we transfer to other clients then, such as media, TV, and so on.
One of the complex parts of what we deliver at the Tour de France is that there is not only one result list. There are many. We have to take care of the points ranking, the youngest athlete and so on. All these results vary from one to the other. Obviously, we are waiting until every racer crosses the line so that might take a while. Then we finish all the reports and result lists. Once everything is signed off and made official by the judges, in the evening, everything is dismantled and everybody goes to the next stage hoping that it’s not too far away. We pack and we build up again, every day for three weeks.
Q: Tell me about the technology you use to time the race. How do you keep track of all 200 cyclists in such a public event?
A: We use photo cells at the starting line of each stage to give a start impulse [the signal to start the clock] and then we measure intermediate times wherever they may apply. Since the stages other than time trials are mass starts, the same start time is given for everybody. Every bicycle has a transponder—a small chip attached to it—that works like an IP address. So every rider has his own chip that is identified as such when he crosses the intermediate time checks and the finish line.
At the finish line we also use photo-finish cameras. A camera is still the only device that allows us to really see which athlete crossed the line before the others. We know exactly which rider crossed the finish line from the transponders and we also can identify them through the photo-finish cameras. They have numbers on the bicycles so we know exactly which number is which rider. We’ve had two cases this year so far with the Tour de France where we had very, very close finishes [such as Peter Sagan’s bike-stretching win in Stage 16]. Without the photo-finish cameras we wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference there.
Q: What is Tissot’s history with the Tour de France? Timing the biggest bike race in the world doesn’t seem like something that’s easily started up from scratch.
A: Tissot has a longstanding history in cycling dating back to the 1950s. But Swiss Timing [a division of the Swatch Group, which also owns Tissot] was created in 1972 and it was a merger of the two technology divisions of Omega and Longines at that time. The goal was to have one company in charge of all sports technology and timekeeping activities of all of the Swatch Group brands. But Swiss Timing doesn’t have a “brand” so we drop the “Swiss,” and use the name of the brand that is official timekeeper of a sport or event, so, in this case, Tissot Timing.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges for your team?
A: Every day is a new race, basically. And we only have a team of eight people on the ground there. Everybody has his tasks and knows how to perform them. Teamwork needs to be great to work well with the other players, with the organizers, with TV, and with other data providers. Especially now, when we get close to the finish, teamwork becomes even more important.
Also, they’re very long days, long hours, and it’s one of the longest competitions. Our team needs to rest, so it’s also about understanding how to rest, how to keep focused, and how to not make any mistakes. This is an ongoing challenge because it’s three weeks long. The Tour de France lasts longer than the Olympics.