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A Look At Velon’s Live Race Tracking System

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Since a change in leadership at the UCI in 2013, we’ve seen an increase in the number of data tracking platforms that are following the pro peloton.  For example, last year at the Tour Down Under I highlighted one solution by Satalyst, and then this past summer at the Tour de France with Dimension Data.

Here we are a year later, and the Tour Down Under has another solution – this one far more widespread in usage than last years, and it’s also not the first time we’ve seen the Velon solution used in races.  But this race does seem to mark a bit of a transition period for the product, and perhaps what Velon is aiming to do.  Thus, it’s as good a time as any to detail how the tracking platform works – especially since you’ve still got three hot and steamy stages of the Tour Down Under left to check it all out.

The Hardware:

We’ll start at the bike first, since that’s where all live tracking goodness begins.  At the Tour Down Under they’re running two different hardware variants.  Three, if you include the fake variants, but more on that in a second.  One variant is a more aerodynamic looking design, which appears to be a 3D printed case.  You’ll see it (both variants actually) sticking out from the rear of the saddle:

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The second newer variant is more squared in design, and carries a small panel of LED lights for validating functionality.  This new design gets upwards of 12 hours of battery life on a charge (in theory; it sounded like in practice it was probably in the 6-9 hour range).

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Both designs though include GPS for positioning data, as well as support for connecting to ANT+ sensors including heart rate, power, and cadence sensors.  At present, the newest models also have some aspect of Bluetooth Smart support, but that’s mainly aimed at faster configuration of the device (which isn’t fully rolled out yet), rather than Bluetooth Smart sensor support.  Given that there are currently no Bluetooth Smart-only sensors in the pro peloton this year (all power meters, cadence sensors, and HR straps in use are dual ANT+/BLE), the lack of Bluetooth Smart sensor support is a non-issue in practice.

Finally, the hardware has accelerometers on it, which can capture acceleration data.  Though at this point that’s not being heavily used.

The point of having all of this data collection across GPS and ANT+ is to ultimately forward it along via cellular services, which are contained within the unit as well.  In cases where cellular service is lacking, it’ll simply buffer the data.  Otherwise, it transmits at a rate of once per second.  Note this is slightly different than the Dimension Data solution, which leverages a relay and mesh system of race motos, other riders, and circling aircraft, to bypass cellular reliability issues.

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The newer devices connect using standard GoPro mounts, which are then attached to K-Edge saddle mounts. Interestingly, these are the same K-Edge saddle mounts that I often use as well for shooting with action cams.  Solid and dependable (though, so are BarFly and GoPro’s bike saddle mounts, to be fair).

So who’s carrying these devices?  At the Tour Down Under there are 14 teams that are equipped.  Within that, 12 of them are part of the default Velon teams, of which Velon will automatically provide coverage for (or looked at differently: Which are automatically going to ride with the system).  Then there’s two additional teams that signed on for the TDU: Dimension Data and UniSA).  It might seem odd that Dimension Data, which has its own competing platform, would use Velon’s, but one had to remember that the ‘team’ Dimension Data’ is actually quite separate from the tracking entity of ‘Dimension Data’.  There is a bit of an invisible wall between the two.  Plus, the Dimension Data tracking solution isn’t at the Tour Down Under anyway.

Within those teams, 5 riders are carrying legit/real devices.  Whereas two riders are carrying fake devices.  These devices have the same weight as real devices, but are just blocks of nothingness.  Why fakes?  Well, simply put Velon doesn’t have enough devices for everyone at this point (that’s being rectified shortly).  So the 2 fakes are so that the entire team is ‘equal’ from a weight standpoint.

Teams are responsible for the devices, including charging. Here’s a stack of units being charged in between stages back at the village:

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And while team mechanics do manage the devices day to day, Velon staff (easily spotted in their purple attire) also double-check and oversee them as well.  They run through each morning and validate each and every device is turned on and functioning.

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In a setup like the Tour Down Under which is in one nice and straight line, doing this morning check-up is pretty quick and easy.

The Platform:

After the hardware piece comes the app portion.  It’s here that things aren’t quite as fancy as what we saw with Dimension Data.  In my case, I used the app platform on iOS, but the app also exists on Android (as well as their site).  The app is receiving data from the cellular connected bike sensors in real-time, updated every second.  That platform is watched over by a global team with outposts in London, Paris, Colorado, and Australia.

Here’s a few screenshots from yesterday’s stage on the app:

As I said, it’s pretty basic, and you can’t really drill down into much detail on it.  Also, we don’t see anywhere near the analytics of Dimension Data in terms of outputs to social media.  But we do still get some pretty infographics, arguably more pretty than Dimension Data.  It’s all about pretty, right?

It’s clear from discussions with Velon that the goal is to start expanding out this piece a bit more, and given the amount of data they’re collecting, this should certainly be possible.  Of course, it has to balance various rider/team concerns about how much data is being given out, with that of the overall desire of pro cycling to be more open.

Finally, it’s worth noting somewhere here that Velon also arranges the on-bike cameras for various races – such as the Tour de France.  This is part of the ‘rights’ that Velon has negotiated on behalf of their member teams.  These cameras are typically GoPro’s that record content during a race and then upload it post-race.  However, the plan is to start doing more live on-bike camera action, as the organization already trialed last year.

The challenge though is ultimately getting races to approve it.  In the case of the Tour Down Under, for example, you’ll find no on-bike camera footage, as those rights went to broadcasters.  That’s a bit of a shame, because ultimately nobody to my knowledge has had a camera on-bike during this year’s event, and thus all of that potential viral social media reach has been lost. Not just for the teams, but perhaps, more importantly, the Tour Down Under organization.

Their Ambitions:

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In many ways, the Velon solution is a bit of an underdog type platform.  It’s definitely not the prettiest, nor the most comprehensive, nor the most detailed.  But it is lighter, cheaper, and easier to implement for a given race than the Dimension Data solution.  And for some races, that likely makes sense.

If we look at races like the six-day Tour Down Under, the terrain is relatively trivial for cellular networks, and the requirements for a lightweight solution are more important. There aren’t the financial resources for a Dimension Data solution at the TDU, which would command their fancy trucks/buses, motos with repeaters, circling planes, etc…  Yet for the attention and breadth of the Tour de France, with its 21 stages and complicated terrain of the Alps, the Pyrenees, and simply middle of nowhere France villages lacking reliable cell phone service (remember: I live in France) – the Velon solution would likely falter and fail to meet expectations.

As such, it’ll be interesting to see how the Giro d’Italia goes this year for them.  They’ll be doing the live tracking there, where they hope to have all but a couple of teams on the platform.  With the Giro being a Grand Tour it too has 21 stages, and along with it mountainous regions that lack reliable cellular service.  Still, the cycling world is eager to receive data from riders, so even the occasional blip in data might not be seen as a huge deal.

And for other race organizers that lack the massive funding and visibility of the ASO events (who is behind the Tour de France, Vuelta, and others), this type of solution is likely a perfect fit – just as it is down in Adelaide.  In total, Velon has a touch over 100 days of live tracking events on the calendar this year, up from approximately 50 days last year.  Thus, with a doubling of their race coverage days – it appears the organization is finding its groove.

With that – thanks for reading!

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17 Comments

  1. Kevin

    Please include a spoiler alert when applicable.

  2. Scott Turvey

    Do the teams get to include the tracker weight as a part of the 6.8kg bike weight?

    • Yes, it is my understanding that they do indeed include the tracker in the bike’s weight when checking. But, for example, they won’t include the rider’s head unit.

    • Attachment issues

      Generally, it depends on whether the device is truly attached to the bike. One of the new Wahoo units has a screw that holds the head unit to the mount, which then means it counts towards the 6.8kg limit, but if something can be easily detached as with most head units, it doesn’t count.

    • Mark

      The Wahoo BOLT can be bolted down. It comes in at meager 60g.

      For reasons unknown they don’t use its mount, and therefore don’t actually do it.

  3. simon

    Good to see additional players but certainly doesn’t look quite as pretty as the DD solution – and a mesh network to upload the data seems a much more robust method than just a basic cell connection.

    My feeling, from watching the tracking data on the tdf last year, was that the presentation of the data was very poor. Patchy and inconsistent. On eurosport, for example, data like HR and power was given as a percentage IIRC (percentage of what ?) or a progress type bar. And some of the data was really suspect – speed bouncing all over the place. Lots of riders not participating meant it really wasn’t that interesting to watch.

    Early days but it’s just as important delivering that data as it is gathering it.

    early days

  4. Przemek

    Any ideas where is Quarq with their Qollector concept ? Still can’t be bought in Europe and they seem to drop the ball on availability completely…

  5. fisao

    Thanks Ray!

    I am very interested in the rider data and possible analytics in race situations, however the implementation and presentation of said data on TV is poor, very poor even.

    Data is rarely actually live, often the data shown on screen is not from the part that the riders are shown to be on at the moment, rendering the information absolutely useless and uninteresting. (I want to know how much power rider x has to put out during that hill climb or during the intermediate sprint, or what the heartrate is after 30mins of climbing)

    Some riders also (perhaps understandably) chose to share only some of the data, for example their heart rate and others not (and some simply are also not wearing any heart rate recording devices). And most frustratingly, there is to my knowledge no way of accessing even part of the shown data after the event.

    So for now it is just a gimmick and a poorly implemented one.And as long as riders, again understandably so, won’t share their data freely it will remain a gimmick.

    Now as for those on bike cams? they are very very cool, even 1 minute highlights were more than enough to make even non cyclist look them up. Shame the TDU fans are missing out on this.

  6. Ivan Dobski

    Would it be possible in theory for TDF organisers etc to fill in the gaps with the type of mobile (as in moveable) cell towers used for festivals etc?

    There’d presumably be nothing stopping them using a few each stage as required for the data tracking but any excess capacity could be used by the media, teams, spectators etc more widely so it could be a solution with wider benefits.

    • Luca

      TdF organizer ASO, owns the right of the data provided from Dimension Data platform and they tried to push them through the broacaster to the large audience in order to change the way the bike world is perceived.
      Unfortunately broadcaster lack of commercial percieved value of these data turned the volume of informations in asmall and flat tv infografic that doesn’t fit the fans enthusiastic expectation.

      We have also to consider that ASO using the social media channels reached with the analytics from the platform a greater audience than prior the adoption of this solution.

      Didata platform provide to ASO (TdF organizer) the contents covering the data with a mix of mesh wireless network connectivity with a strong predictive algorithm to increase the positional precision of the single riders for the whole Tour. To allow the data flows without or nearly without interruption it is necessary the presence of an helicopter that trasmit the data and run as the positional reference for the whole meshed network.
      No GPS is needed as simon reported earlier.

      If you want to deepen the technology behind the TdF you can take a glance to Didata TdF digital transformation minisite

      link to www2.dimensiondata.com

  7. Marcin

    I don’t understand why this device is soooo ugly. They spent millions for r&d but nothing for design.

    • Mark

      It’s hard to find good people with a high conscientiousness. Which result in such flaws shrugged off with words like “good enough” or “didn’t consider this.” Fatal in the long run to a company if this is managers or engineers.

      It’s definitely not hard to hire an artist or industrial designer.

      But then, you can get ~500pcs+ electronics manufactured, assembled, and married with its case within a week or two these days, and they didn’t even manage that.

  8. hdb

    When I was watching the stage (#4) today, it was interesting to hear the commentators apologise for the lack of rider data and put the blame on the heat, not communications. That said, given how many other things Liggett and Sherwen get wrong during a race, they could have been off-base on this as well!

  9. Peter

    “thus all of that potential viral social media reach has been lost”
    Yep!

  10. Rave

    Would this technology catch ” motors ” if all data went into a relational database per race. Conceptually it would be able to catch all deviations from norms because trends could be developed for each rider, no? Would this not make cheating that much harder combined with current methods?

  11. Sagan’s K-Edge Bolt Mount does: link to velonews.com

  12. Brent

    What is Velon’s business model?
    How are they making money?