Counting Every Second: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Timing and Scoring the Tour De France

Tour de France
We've got a treat for you today: an in-depth report from special correspondent Patrick Karle on all of the crazy technology being used for timing and scoring the Tour de France.

Timing and scoring the Tour de France is an exacting and important task that mirrors the race itself. A team of skilled electronics operators in a mini-van loaded with a mobile computer network, chase the world's greatest bicyclists around le Grande Boucle, sorting out split-second finishes marred by chaotic, and, sometimes, massive, crashes. International reputations, careers and millions of dollars are constantly on the line.

As the world waits to see if American Lance Armstrong will nail his record sixth win, responsibility for timing and scoring every rider in every stage of the 2004 Tour de France falls squarely on the shoulders of Philippe Collet and his dedicated team at Matsport. The privately held French company provides timing services and scoring information for the judges of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), Festina,the Official Timekeeper, and the media and ultimately millions of fans around the globe. Located in Grenoble, Matsport also provides timing services for major sporting events all over Europe, and have been timing the Tour since 1998.

Matsport relied on some rather amazing high-tech timing and scoring technologies this year, including a FinishLynx high-speed digital finish line and timing camera system, produced by Lynx System Developers, Inc., of Haverhill, Massachusetts, and an AMB Activ transponder timing system, produced by AMB-it, Heemstede, Netherlands.

I recently talked with Philippe Collet, Matsport's president and director general, who is not only a successful electronics entrepreneur, but also a former Olympic world pole-vaulting champion, which may explain his affinity for electronic timing and scoring devices.

"Timing the Tour isn't like a stadium sport where the system is stationary throughout the event," he said. "Every day we must take the system down, pack it up, drive hundreds of kilometers, set up the system, and test it. Everything has to work, because you have only one chance to get it right."

Collet said Matsport employees and contractors make no decisions regarding rider's performance. Their job is to provide timing and scoring data to UCI judges who referee the Tour De France.

AMB Tour de France
UCI rules state that an official time is determined when the front of the rider's bicycle tire crosses the finish line. Collet said this is not always easy. During mass sprints to the finish a few, or sometimes many, riders fall. In the past, if there was a crash before the riders reached the finish, where the FinishLynx cameras could document it, judges would have to huddle and study the observers' records, and watch replays of the OLN broadcast video to determine where fallen riders should be put into the results, he said.

To streamline scoring the flat stages this year, AMB equipment provided unofficial times for all the flat sprint stages from the prologue in Liege, Belgium, through 172-km Stage 8 ended in Quimpere, France, July 11, Collet said.

The FinishLynx line-scan video process is a remarkable piece of technology, developed in 1991 by Doug DeAngelis, as a graduate student in engineering at MIT, to time and score track and field events he participated in. Today, FinishLynx equipment is used to time and score international racing events from Olympic track and field to the Kentucky Derby, replacing the Polaroid photo finish technology that had been the de facto standard at events for years.

"The early line-scan technology worked like a scanner in a fax machine," DeAngelis, now CEO and founder of Lynx System Developers, Inc., said in a recent interview.

DeAngelis said today's video output is closer to computer animation technology. Proprietary FinishLynx software designed for the Microsoft Windows OS, running on a notebook computer connected to the camera is able to slice finish line motion into extremely fine images, synchronize and store each image with the race clock.

"Each image represents a fractionally later moment in time," DeAngelis said. "Reading a time is simply a question of identifying which "image" contains the moment when a bike's front tire crossed the line and placing the hairline there. Because the software time-indexes images, the competitor's time is instantly displayed to the thousandth of a second, so there's no problem determining who crossed the line first."

Collet said Matsport has used FinishLynx cameras since 1998 to document and score the arrival of every rider at the finish line of every stage. "FinishLynx is like a video camera that takes a frame every 3000-4000th of a second-fast enough to freeze tire rotation as the bikes pass between 65-74 k.p.h.," he said. "These images are so crystal-clear, you can easily read the numbers on the riders' jerseys."

UCI judges use the images and associated times to score the Tour, while the transponder data gives them another valuable point of view at the finish, Collet said. In fact, Matsport uses FinishLynx in concert with AMB systems to time and score bicycle events, marathons and triathlons, in-line skating and short-track ice skating.

Kevin Oonk, president of AMB US, in Atlanta, GA, said the same system was used at the Vuelta a Espana, the UCI World Cycling Championships and at all the cycling events, including the velodrome events, at the Olympics since the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

The AMB Activ system works like this: Each bike starting the tour carries a small, yellow, battery-powered transponder. Fixed to the frame exactly 1.2 meters behind the leading edge of the front tire on the left chainstay, the transponder emits a seven-digit identification code via a process called "magnetic induction" to a detection loop taped across the road surface.

AMB transponder
Though AMB engineers won't reveal exactly how it's done, the detection loop's thin copper wires can pick up the individual signals of up to 80 transponders crossing simultaneously and collate them into a classification, quite a feat considering the peloton, almost 200 bikes traveling an average 65 k.p.h., can cross the same loop within 15 seconds.

The detection loops are connected to the system's trackside decoder (TSU) that reads and interprets the ID code and puts an accurate timestamp on each rider's passing. The "passing" data is then handled by proprietary AMB timing software running under Microsoft Windows XP in a notebook computer or Dell PowerEdge server connected by fiber optic cable to the TSU.

"There was an AMB Activ detection point at the half-way point that generated official results for TV broadcasting. Riders crossed another detection loops at 1 km and at 20 meters before the finish line. That way, if a crash occurred before the finish line, under UCI rules, judges can revert back to the riders' classification at the closest of the 1 km or the 20m detection point to determine the final order of classification," he said.

Finally, a detection loop at the finish line pick up the transponders, while a system of three FinishLynx cameras capture the entire crossing sequence of the peloton from right, from left and from above. Together, the information from these technologies provided judges with both a visual record and an additional numeric sequence, allowing the judges sort out the riders' positions and declare the stage results official within minutes.

Once official, GC information is sent through fiber optic cable to the Tour De France information center, a semi-truck-trailer filled with state-of-the-art communications electronics provided through an official technology partnership with CSC.

Collet said the results are displayed over TCP/IP connections to scoreboards, and up-linked to the world via Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) for the live OLN TV broadcast, and to the Internet, where free live timing and scoring information is available during the running of the stages on the Tour's official website,, and America Online.

Collet said the transponders provided the judges with excellent records, which were especially helpful in the early stages, which were marked by an unusual number of crashes.

Though the AMB Activ system will not be used in the 2004 climbing stages, in the future, UCI may well approve detection loops to augment the official FinishLynx camera data to trap speeds on the uphill and on downhill portions of the climbing stages, he said.