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Behind the scenes of Team HTC-Columbia and the Tour de France Live Tracker

Over the past week and a half of watching the Tour de France, you may have stumbled upon a site that allows you to track Team HTC-Columbia’s riders power, heart rate, cadence and speed data in real-time from your computer live.  While similar efforts have been done in the past, they’ve never quite reached complete coverage of the race like this year – nor has there been the accessibility to people like you and I.  Now however, we can not only watch them live on TV, but we can also snoop in on their actual heart rate, power and other bike sensor data – all in real time.

Tour1Crop

But, how does it all work?  Well, I had a chance to get all the details from the different team players in a number of organizations, including Team HTC-Columbia, ANT+, and Google.  So, let’s get into it…

High Level Overview:

The system basically has four major components:

1) ANT+ Sensors on the bike (just like the ones you and I use)
2) An ANT+ capable HTC Legend Android phone in a bike pouch/bag below the riders seat
3) MyTracks application running on the HTC Legend phone
4) Connection to Google MyTracks servers

The story essentially starts out just like any other cyclist would if you used ANT+ sensors (all Garmin Fitness device users for example).  Each bike is outfitted with an SRM power meter with cadence support, an ANT+ speed, and an ANT+ heart rate strap.

From there the sensors wirelessly transmit the data to the HTC Legend phone running Android.  The kicker here is that this phone actually has an ANT+ receiver chip built into it.  The Team got a special firmware update to enable the functionality, as it’s otherwise disabled.  I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

While the ANT+ bike sensors are continually transmitting the data to the HTC Legend, an application called MyTracks runs on the phone and parses the data.  Then in real-time, the data is uploaded to Google servers which receive the data stream and host the site.  The stream can then be consumed by a number of other sites/organizations as they see fit.

Here’s a quick diagram of the whole deal:

image

The ANT+ Data Streams:

As noted above, the first step is measuring the data.  This is accomplished via ANT+ sensors on each riders bike.  They are using SRM’s ANT+ power meter to measure power and cadence, which is an indicator of how much ‘output’ the rider is generating.  An attack for example will have a much higher output than one coasting within the peloton.  You’re typically going to see steady-state power values of between 275w and 325w for most of these guys.  Of course, you’ll see pulls at much higher values along the way as well.

The second component is the ANT+ capable heart rate strap.  The heart rate strap is measuring the riders heart rate in beats per minute (bpm).  One of the cool things you’ll notice if you watch enough of the race side by side is how often the riders are conserving energy, primarily by staying within the peloton or within another riders draft zone.

The second indicator you can use that a cyclist is ‘hitching a ride’ in the peloton is by looking at the riders cadence.  Cadence measures how many times per minute the cyclist rotates the crank.  Typically for steady-state riding you’ll see values from about 85-105 RPM.  However, when coasting these numbers will drop down to either zero, or perhaps between 20-50rpm, basically just a soft pedal (descending of course will show low cadence in some cases).  For example, in the below snippet, you can see that the rider is only at about 133w, with a fairly low 111bpm heart rate.  Add in the cadence and it’s pretty clear he’s just coasting along.

image

Finally, it should be noted that ANT+ data is continually streaming from the sensors.  Because it’s not encrypted, it can actually be picked up by anyone with an ANT+ data receiver nearby.  For examples of different ways this could be used, check out the Wahoo Fitness ANT+ iPhone dongle that I gave a first look review at back a few months ago.  Same basic concept, though different phone.  Speaking of phones…

The Phone:

The key differentiator between this system, and ones used by both other teams as well as those in the past, is that this is using a normal off the shell cell phone.  Each rider has a HTC Legend Android phone that’s placed in a saddle bag below their seat.  If you watch The Tour closely enough, you’ll actually see the small bag below the Team HTC-Columbia riders seats, here’s a little snippet from yesterday’s stage, where I’ve highlighted the seat area and bag:

Tour4Bag

So you may now be wondering how a normal cell phone picks up ANT+ signals.  Earlier this year Texas Instruments introduced their WiLink 6 (1271) chip.  This chip on the phone is responsible for not only all WiFi and Bluetooth functions, but also ANT+.  In effect, the phone becomes your ANT+ head unit.  I talked about this back in my 2010 Sports Technology Predictions post, and it’s great to see it getting used.

Cell phone manufactures can choose to incorporate the chipset into their phones, and the folks at ANT+ are expecting to see more and more phones including this capability – especially as new phones get introduced in the fall for the holiday season.

In the case of the HTC Legend, while the physical chip is present on the phone – the ANT+ capabilities aren’t enabled yet for us normal folks.  But I’ve been told that’s coming – just a matter of working out the details.  So for the Tour de France riders, a special software firmware update was applied to enable the  ANT+ data receiver.  Also, as an interesting aside, the phones that are put in the saddle bags for The Tour are actually set to be call-disabled, so they cannot be used as communication devices – to stay in compliance with certain rules around such devices.

The Software:

Now all this hardware is great, but we still have to apply the one last key piece: The Software.  See, unlike answering a telephone call, there is no default program on your phone to answer ANT+ data streams.  So that had to be created from scratch.

The folks at Google have a concept called a 20% project, which is essentially where a given developer works on something in his spare time.  Eventually that project may end up becoming a full fledged project or product.  And that’s exactly what happened here.

Former Pro Cyclist and Olympian Dylan Casey now works for Google, and between him and a bunch of other sports freaks at Google, they put together an Android App called MyTracks.  MyTracks then evolved from an app like RunKeeper to one that also includes support for ANT+ accessories.

In the case of The Tour riders, this app is loaded on the phone and then run continuously during the stage.  It records the data stream from the ANT+ accessories via the Texas Instruments WiLink ANT+ enabled chip and in turn rebroadcasts that over the internet to Google servers hosting the MyTracks application.

It’s once on these servers that we finally get to the part allowing you to actually see the data.

The Site:

There are actually a few different sites that pull data from the centralized servers.  First up is the MyTracks homepage for the Tour.  This shows riders along the left hand side, and allows you to individually select a given rider and see their progress:

SRM-TeamDataHTC

While the MyTracks site is good – I actually prefer SRM’s variant of the site, as it allows me to see multiple riders ANT+ data at once all on the same page.

SRM-TeamData

Of course, seeing ride data is cool and all – but being able to combine it with Live TV is even better.  In most cases you’ll just have a normal TV on in the background with your computer nearby.  In my case I use Windows Media Center to actually stream TV through my computer, so I can overlay the two side by side.

It’s when you do this, that you see how amazingly real-time the data is.  While there are certain latencies with both the data and the TV feed, all in we’re only talking about 5-10 seconds.  In fact, by time both data sets get there, it’s pretty much in sync.

Check out the below screenshot.  Look closely at the satellite image, and then look closely at the road, you can see the two virtually match.  Very cool.  You may want to click to see full size.

Tour2

And here’s another snippet a bit later (click to expand).  Note the intersecting roadway to the left in the video, and the same roadway on the satellite image with the intersection.

tour3

The Team and Riders:

Of course, the real question is what the Team riders think about it.  So I talked with Kristy Scrymgeour from Team HTC-Columbia and got the skinny about how they feel things are going.  I was actually somewhat surprised that “the riders are pretty enthusiastic about the project and where projects like this can take the sport in the future”.  In some ways I expected them to be hesitant to share data in real time with the whole world.  So it’s great to hear they’re open to it as well.

I was also curious if they were using this data within the team to potentially make race day decisions out on the course.  She noted that while today they aren’t streaming that data to the team cars quite yet, it’s something that’s on the radar to look at.

She said that the only challenges they see today with the system is the lack of cell coverage in some areas causing gaps in data.  But they said they are fine tuning the system as a whole and think they can solve some of those issues in the future.  It probably helps that there is also a dedicated support team from SRM there for the system, and Google was actually onsite for the first few stages as well to ensure things went smoothly.

Team HTC-Columbia though is still quite happy with how things are going though, and noted that “This is a project that we want to build on in the future.”

In my book – that’s good news for not only cycling, but also sports technology!

So next time you’re sitting there watching some live Tour coverage, pull up one of the websites above to see just how hard these guys are really working.  Enjoy!

And a special thanks to all the following folks for their time: Dylan Casey – Google (My Tracks Team), Kristy Scrymgeour – Team HTC-Columbia, Dallin Doney – ANT+, Ross Stirling – ANT+

24 Comments

  1. This is so cool. I always learn something when I read your blogs. Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  2. Wow! Ray that is a completely awesome find. I'm definitely checking those sites out tomorrow morning as I watch the Tour. Thanks for the excellent write up.

    Reply
  3. Great article. Ant+ is getting everywhere! Great fun!

    Reply
  4. Ray - I would think battery power for the phones would be an issue. Running GPS, ANT+, with constant data streaming over the cell network for a 4-6 hour race must create a power issue no?

    Reply
  5. Hey Ray,

    Great post. This is such fascinating stuff.

    Reply
  6. That is disgustingly awesome man. Like I am just in awe of where technology has been taking us.

    Great post and review!!!

    Reply
  7. Max

    Knowing how cyclists always freak out about a few extra grams of weight on their bikes, I am surprised they were OK with having an extra gadget on board (which might be cool for spectators, but does nothing for riders).

    Reply
    • Soren Cicchini replied

      The UCI rules require bicycles for road racing to have a minimum mass of 6.8 kg, so they generally carry ballast anyway.

      Reply
  8. I want an ANT+ droid iTouch.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    Thx DCR,
    I'm curious to know if these riders also run head-units on their bars, and what device that is? I see that the team is sponsored by SRM and Suunto, so these would be good guesses.

    Mike

    Reply
  10. Luc

    This is super cool. Imagine the advantage for a coach to be able to follow his pupil in real time from across the country.

    Reply
  11. This is absult fantastic...
    I used a programm which gave my wife the possibility to see where i was biking used the gps in my htc hd2 and send the info to in a aplication on my home pc, but javing the powerdata etc on my pc possible to see for my wife or coach....

    Do you have any idea if there is a link to the htc hd2 windows 6.5. For ant+....
    would be great to have this well if not it could be a iphone...
    marc

    Reply
  12. Hi All-

    At the moment neither HTC nor ANT+ have dates for releasing the firmware update. However, I've been told that sending feedback to HTC would be highly useful in helping them to understand the demand for such firmware.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  13. You said "an application called MyTracks runs on the phone and parses the data. Then in real-time, the data is uploaded" but My Tracks doesn't upload data in real time. It archives to google servers afterwards but not live. There must be another version of My Tracks which does upload data in real time. Is it available?

    Reply
  14. First of all I would love to have an ANT+ in my Android phone.
    One think that I wonder is regarding the firmware that enables the ANT+ functionality. If this is true that the hardware is there then it should be any problem for developers at XDA (www.xda-developers.com/) to enable it.

    Reply
  15. You can find the TDF MyTracks Code here:

    link to code.google.com

    Reply
  16. We want to reproduce this using a Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro handset on which we have successfully tested ANT plus communications.

    Nils K advised that the version used was link to code.google.com
    but when I look at this version it is documented as the sandordornbush-release and "I will use this to build release binary files from."

    It doesn't look like it uploads data in real time. Nils are you confident this is the live update version?

    Reply
  17. I got an answer to my previous question from Sandordo, one of the Tour De France My Tracks developers. He advised the code is not available but provided some advice on how to do it.

    Reply
  18. Thanks for the follow-up Ken.

    There are some other folks working on similiar efforts using the X10's as well.

    Obviously things have changed significantly from last summer in that the phones are now mainstream with ANT+ support on the Android side, and on the iPhoen side there's more than 60+ apps that do it (including publishing via the Internet live).

    At the moment though the Android side is pretty slim on apps that support ANT+ - but I think over time we'll see that expand pretty quickly.

    If you do develop something, feel free to shoot me an e-mail if you're interseted in testing or the like. I have an X10.

    Reply
  19. I think a better system would be A Garmin Edge 500 or or other Garmin that pulled data from satellite and a car or desktop computer pulled exact data from satellite. So basically The Garmin on the bars would receive the data from the GPS Satellite and a computer could pull the data from the Device by its code identifier. So there would be no drain on battery. The computer in the car or desktop could be getting real time info and the bike rider could be getting the data that they need. No large battery , No second or third device.

    Reply
  20. I'd be keen for you do some testing of our newly released app Avocado My Tracks Bridge. It allows you to do live tracking of sports activities by extracting data from My Tracks and making it appear on MapMyTracks.com. We have done a lot of testing ourselves and some testing with athletes so we are confident it works well. I'm a lot less confident on useability issues, in particular how hard is to for a new user to set it up and use it? Some feedback on what we should change to make it easier would be useful. See some notes and instructions.

    We followed Sandor's advice but it turned out to be a lot more effort than expected. The interface for controlling MyTracks programmatically didn't work anymore, and no one had noticed, indicating we are the only ones using it. We fixed that and you'll notice that the My Tracks settings now has a check box to enable/disable third party apps to interact with MyTracks which the Google team added. I'm not sure this is ideal because its one more setting that has to be got right for everything to work. Also the Market description for My Tracks says it works with "- SRM power meters, speed, and cadence sensors" and even the latest version doesn't connect to SRM Power meters with commercially available handsets. Google used a special in the 2010 Tour de France. MyTracks should be able to connect to SRM PCS7s in the next release as our code to fix this is currently under review. In the meantime to connect to SRM power meters you need this MyTracks version.

    Please give it a go. Your X10 mini pro is the best handset we've tested thus far because the Xperia ARC (haven't tested the new S) has a poor quality GPS.

    Reply
  21. I'd be keen for you do some testing of our newly released app Avocado My Tracks Bridge. It allows you to do live tracking of sports activities by extracting data from My Tracks and making it appear on MapMyTracks.com. We have done a lot of testing ourselves and some testing with athletes so we are confident it works well. I'm a lot less confident on useability issues, in particular how hard is to for a new user to set it up and use it? Some feedback on what we should change to make it easier would be useful. See some notes and instructions.

    We followed Sandor's advice but it turned out to be a lot more effort than expected. The interface for controlling MyTracks programmatically didn't work anymore, and no one had noticed, indicating we are the only ones using it. We fixed that and you'll notice that the My Tracks settings now has a check box to enable/disable third party apps to interact with MyTracks which the Google team added. I'm not sure this is ideal because its one more setting that has to be got right for everything to work. Also the Market description for My Tracks says it works with "- SRM power meters, speed, and cadence sensors" and even the latest version doesn't connect to SRM Power meters with commercially available handsets. Google used a special in the 2010 Tour de France. MyTracks should be able to connect to SRM PCS7s in the next release as our code to fix this is currently under review. In the meantime to connect to SRM power meters you need this MyTracks version.

    Please give it a go. Your X10 mini pro is the best handset we've tested thus far because the Xperia ARC (haven't tested the new S) has a poor quality GPS.

    Reply
  22. Lukman

    HI,

    Any info on getting rider's data on this year's Tour de France?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I have to see if the ruling stuck that prohibits the cell phone relay portion that went into effect over the past year.

      Reply

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