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Tour de France: Meet the tightrope walker that keeps cycling's travelling circus online

When the Tour races into town, it also brings 12 tonnes of tech with it to keep operations running smoothly - take the tour.
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1 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

For the fans and the riders, the Tour de France is the ultimate cycling race — but for those who maintain the tech infrastructure behind the 21-stage 3,664km extravaganza, it feels a little different.  

"It is a circus," says Henri Terreaux, "and I am..." He mimes balancing on a tightrope and smiles. "It's terrific for me because every day I have problems, but the journalists don't [see] because I repair them."

Terreaux (pictured) is the technical director of Orange Events, which supplies the telecoms and networking the Tour needs — whether it's racing through a city or high in the alps. He gave ZDNet a behind-the-scenes tour at the London stage which, complete with Gendarme and French brands turned a little piece of the capital temporarily into a Paris arrondissement.

What makes the Tour more complicated than other events is that it's on the move on a daily basis, with each location throwing up new problems.

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2 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

Away from the cameras the Tour looks more like a truck stop writhing with all manner of cables. There is plenty of wi-fi around too, but solid connections are still essential — up to 25km of cable to support the 12 tonnes of IT infrastructure that needs to be moved daily.

"Today is a difficult stage and we connect 12km of cable just on The Mall. It is very complicated like an alpine stage, because this area is very long," he explains, and stewards must scour the course for any tiny pieces of debris that might cause problems for the riders.

But across the epic journey, awkward spaces are among the least of the challenges. "We have snow sometimes and trucks run on your cable and cut your cable, many things," Terreaux says.

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3 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The 500 connections on the finish line are all routed through this truck, one of the 120 lorries' worth of kit that the Tour carries with it.

"If you disconnect this — no commentary," Terreaux says. "This truck is very, very important to the race."

The truck also provides IP connectivity for broadcasters (70 percent of video is sent via fibre, the rest via satellite).

 

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4 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

This is the commentary building which hosts 20 positions for radio upstairs, and 20 for TV downstairs.

Among the needs of the Tour — a fibre optic network in the press centre and technical area at a constant speed of 2Gbps for the press and other professionals, plus a set of dedicated wi-fi networks for organisers, journalists, television channels, photographers, and commentators. For the UK stages, that meant an extra 21 international gigabit Ethernet circuits between England and France.

Because the press centre is often kilometres from the end of the race, interviews with the riders are done via high definition video conferencing using a 20Mbps connection between the 'interview bus' to the press room.

 

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5 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

The camera over the finish line is at the top of this crane — complete with yet more cabling...

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6 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

Because the Tour is always on the move, the technical infrastructure has to assembled and then taken apart and reassembled again at breakneck speed to be ready for the next stage. Terreaux has two teams of 25 engineers working in tandem — while the London stage is still taking place, one team had already gone ahead to start work on the next stage.

The team remaining behind in London start disconnect after the last TV broadcast around 8pm, and then take the ferry back across to France to start everything again.

 

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7 of 7 Steve Ranger/ZDNet

Here, riders race down The Mall.

Terreaux said after the Olympic Games and the World Cup, the Tour is the most technically demanding sporting project across the world — and of the 600 events he oversees each year, the Tour is the hardest.

For example, as well as 25 connections at the start village, there are also 700 timer points on the race from the start to the finish which need to be connected. In one of the stages this week, a timing point was needed on a motorway where no phone lines existed. The solution was perhaps a candidate for the world's longest extension cable, as BT had to run a phone cable overland for 2km — from a nearby farm.

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