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What running @letourdata taught us in 2018


Telling new stories

Twitter has quickly become a major hub for cycling enthusiasts, riders, and fans, as well as an essential communication platform for event organisers like Amaury Sport Organisation (A.S.O.), the organisers of the Tour de France. With @letourdata, we partnered with A.S.O. to provide their followers worldwide with unprecedented insight into the race.

It takes a team to succeed in the Tour and this applies equally to telling compelling stories from the event. For @letourdata the support of Rob Webster, Digital Practice Service Director, based in London, and Brand Specialist, Michael Edwards has been invaluable.

Their skills, combined with the cycling and storytelling expertise I've built up over the years as a freelance journalist, allow us to provide live updates on the race to our followers. This is the fourth year that we’ve used data to tell stories, and we’re constantly finding new stories and ways to tell them.

Week 1 – The speed kings light up the race

I was already convinced of the value of analysing the sprints for our audience, but when a prominent French cycling journalist said: ‘Those insights on the sprints are among the most amazing I've seen lately on cycling races’ it confirmed the value of what we were doing. By reporting on the speeds and positions of riders, we're providing a deeper understanding of what goes on in the fast and furious flat finishes.

There are two main outtakes:

  • In the sprints, the fast go really fast, storming to the line at speeds as high as 75 km/h.
  • Speed is just part of the formula for a successful sprint, with positioning and great team support being equally important. On stage 4, with the longest final leg of this Tour (4 km), Colombian missile Fernando Gaviria hit his top speed when his lead-out man got him past everyone else with 500m to go, allowing him to cruise to the finish ahead of his rivals.

An analysis of the most exciting sprints from the first week of the Tour

An analysis of the most exciting sprints from the first week of the Tour

Week 2 – The hard road to Roubai

Sprints are fast and furious, and sometimes hard to read. But the 21.7 km of cobbled sections usually reserved for the classic Paris-Roubaix race brought a special kind of chaos to the Tour. As the organisers had hoped, things got nasty and as we had hoped, our GPS tracking came in handy in making sense of the mess.

We recorded over 140 separate incidents, including crashes, like those involving contenders for the overall title like Chris Froome and Mikel Landa, or mechanical issues such as Romain Bardet's three punctures. Over the course of the day, the race was split into as many as 19 groups, but always knew who was where and what kind of trouble they were in.

A unique perspective of one of the most iconic playgrounds in cycling

A unique perspective of one of the most iconic playgrounds in cycling

An analysis of the Alpine climbs that shaped the race in week

An analysis of the Alpine climbs that shaped the race in week

Week 3 – the fight for the Maillot Jaune in the Pyrenees

The sprints and the cobbles make for quite a show, but the mountain stages provide the defining moments of every Tour de France.

Our ability to track every rider in the race allows us to show:

  • How the action at the front of the race was evolving. We saw Julian Alaphilippe establish himself as a new French cycling icon through long-range attacks, and race leader, Geraint Thomas smashing the most gruelling challenges. The Welshman showed his reserves of strength, hitting speeds of up to 50 km/h on the iconic climb up Alpe d'Huez to become only the first British rider to conquer two back-to-back summit finishes.
  • The struggles of the riders at the back of the race. The TV motorbikes can only follow a handful of groups and they focus on the action up front. With top sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel struggling at the back of the race, we were the only ones able to tell their story. Also when cycling's biggest star, Peter Sagan, crashed on stage 17, we were able to provide context to the incident (he was riding at 67.5km/h) and share the news that he had resumed racing.

Time trial and virtual leader innovation

Time trial and virtual leader innovation

Time trials, both team or individual, should be easier to read. Each team, or rider, tackles the same route, one after the other, and it's just about clocking the fastest time. This doesn't mean we can't add value.

One of our other recent innovations is predictions of the outcomes of an inherently unpredictable race. We use machine learning to determine who the stage favourites are, or what chance the riders in a break have of claiming victory. On time-trials, we looked what speeds the teams or riders would need to hit in order to achieve specific results, such as claiming the stage victory, snatching the Yellow Jersey, or being the best young rider of the Tour.

The evolution of the battle for the Yellow Jersey in 2018

The evolution of the battle for the Yellow Jersey in 2018

Sprints, time-trials and mountains all played their part in the fight for the most coveted jersey in cycling, the ‘Maillot Jaune’.

At the outset, Fernando Gaviria made the most of his sprinting abilities to become only the second Colombian to don the Yellow Jersey - 15 years after Victor Hugo Peña. Then, on day three, BMC Racing Team dominated the team time-trial (averaging 54.9 km/h over 35.5 km) to put Greg Van Avermaet in the leader's seat. The Belgian star, 2016 Olympic Champion and Paris-Roubaix winner in 2017, displayed his all-round abilities to maintain his lead through flat and hilly stages, over the cobbles, and even with an audacious breakaway in the first mountain stage. This was the first time in 21 years that the holder of the Yellow Jersey had received the combativity award on a stage.

Although winning the Tour takes grit, combativity alone won't make you the winner of cycling's top accolade. In his ninth participation, Geraint Thomas proved he has what it takes to reach the pinnacle of world cycling. Before this Tour de France, he’s never made it into the top 10 of any three-week event, but dominant performances in the mountains and a solid individual time trial made him the third British winner of the Tour de France. Team Sky have cracked the code. And we’ll be here to analyse how each team performs when the  magic happens every July.

Next Article: Ongoing innovation – how the Tour de France still gets it right after 115 years

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