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Data-Mining Le Tour

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Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
Nick de la Mare, Frog Design.
For the data-miners and infographic lovers out there, it's Tour de France time. The Tour is a traveling laboratory of measurement and analysis, each team trying to outdo each other through the scientific optimization of each athlete according to their role and talents. The rider as machine to be measured and optimized is an old theme in cycling. You'll often hear references to the "engine" (the riders lungs/legs combo) or to big riders as "diesels." In addition to the media coverage and analysis streaming to us across the Atlantic, more and more people, from reporters to athletes, are tweeting or blogging their experiences, creating a moving environment that is incredibly rich in data.

Technology innovations in consumer electronics, advancing wireless and mobile capabilities, and a better understanding of physiology and diet have led to radical changes in training methods and race tactics in cycling. In efforts to more closely monitor the progress of individual athletes during training and races, both bikes and riders are wired, efforts tracked and archived.

Occasionally this information is shared with the public, and the Tour de France, one of the most popular sports events in the world, offers an ideal setting for a deep dive into the experience of the athlete. Over the course of the 3-week event, teams measure riders for power, heart rate, speed, cadence, caloric intake and output during and after the stages. Race leaders are also tested daily for illegal substances (more sporadically for journeymen riders). The environment is mapped and measured, and everything from altitude gain to wind speed is chronicled.

Teams measure all of this for a number of reasons, principally to gauge effort and fitness drop-off over the course of the event, potential sickness or injuries that may affect performance along the way, and also to get a better sense of which riders to utilize at different stages of the event and which to shelter. Stats like watts production are only somewhat useful on their own, but when combined with RPM, heart-rate, weight and KPH they become a great map of the extremes each rider could sustain, as well as the capacity for future efforts.

Information from the best riders (such as Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador) is not usually shared during the event, because transparency into their efforts could create an advantage for other teams. But many teams share data for a few of their lower placing general classification (GC) riders. Here's a sampling of data from team SaxoBank.

Generated from medical devices, the graphics don't approach the beauty of what you typically see on infosthetics.com, but they do offer a raw sense of the rider experience. Peaks and valleys in effort match location and terrain, and as the end of each day's race becomes more frenetic and tense, the heart rate and cadence rise to match the action. When the aggregate of the efforts are considered, it's not too far fetched to imagine the Tour as a vast super-organism traveling around France.

My dream for future Tour media coverage is to see this data re-visualized and contextualized, cross-referenced, mapped to location and time, and blended together in the moment; the end result being a moving beehive of data that can be interacted with as we follow it on our computers or televisions. Judging from the Versus coverage, or the official Tour page itself, we're still a long way off on that vision, but the idea is firmly in place. The Tour's site certainly has that hive-of-data feel, with widgets for route, standing, weather, video, commentary and sponsors clustered on the page. What it doesn't do is contextualize each stream; the effect is overwhelming rather than holistic.

While daily sports coverage is not traditionally the domain of design consultancies, there is vast potential to develop top-class visual infographic design and complex interactive models to support this event. The Tour of the future could offer a level of interactivity and richness only imagined in professional sports today.

If any Versus executives are reading... let's talk.

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Nick de la Mare, a Creative Director at frog design San Francisco, has spent his career designing digital, physical and experiential systems.
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