Once again this year, I was able to enter the technical area to meet up with Henri Terreaux, national project leader in charge of the Tour de France, as the 99th Tour comes to an end and we celebrate Bradley Wiggins’ victory. Looking back, how does he think this year’s race went? What technical difficulties were encountered on the Tour? What can we expect from the 100th Tour de France? Henri Terreaux gives us open and honest answers to these questions, and even drops a few hints about the stages on next year’s race.
Hello Henri, you’ve just finished your 15th Tour de France, how did it go?
Without a hitch! It wasn’t necessarily easy, however, as we had to overcome several tricky challenges: stages abroad (in Belgium and Switzerland) with complex routing; mountain and medium mountain stages such as La Planche-des-Belles-Filles, where fiber optic cables had to be pulled up through extremely high voltage 500,000 volt pylons, which were very complicated; and the stages in La Toussuire and Peyragudes, where we had to handle the radio link and interface Giga Ethernet lines with the radio link equipment. It was a world-first on a commercial level. We had tested it in the lab and so we were confident that it would work, but on the day of the race, all of the TV images, photos and IT data from the race were being transmitted via these fiber optic cables, so we still felt pretty anxious. In the end, everything worked perfectly, and as a result we plan to roll-out this commercial model in future years, which should be suitable for the Tour de France for at least the next 4 to 5 years.
Did you have a lot of people working on the Tour de France this year?
Yes, not only in our on-site team, but it’s important to also remember those who were working in the back office: people from Orange Labs, those working at the technical call center in Blagnac who are our radio link specialists, the people from the Ile-de-France network control unit who set up all the routing for us, the people from IBNF who set up the routing in Geneva and Brussels… There are so many people working on the Tour, and they’re the ones that ensure the smooth running of the Tour coverage. All of them helped the Tour to run seamlessly.
This year, the Tour began in Belgium before later passing into Switzerland. How do you handle working abroad?
We’ve known the guys from Belgacom for many years, and they’ve become great friends of ours. They’re used to the way we work, they know about the Tour de France, and we work together on setting up the links for the UCI Pro Tour Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège races, which they organize. We work alongside them throughout the year, so the first couple of stages of the 2012 Tour de France were fairly straightforward – it’s a bit like working at home when we are with our counterparts from Belgacom.
The stage which caused us a few problems was in Porrentruy (Stage 8), because we arrived at an aerodrome in the middle of nowhere, and 10km of fiber optic cable had to be laid by Ciscom from the motorway to the finish line, so it proved to be very complicated. Also, because of higher costs than normal, we had to work with far fewer technical resources at our disposal.
Did you use any new technology this year, and which technology did you choose?
For the past four years, we’ve been working using 155 megabit, SIM1 connections at the finish line and in the media area. Last year, we observed peaks in overloading as a result of changes in the way journalists work. Five years ago, a journalist would simply be writing an article, which would mean only a few kilobytes of data were being uploaded. Now, a journalist has a web page to update, and maybe also a blog, and so he takes photos, shoots videos, records sound bites, etc. As a result, the amount of data being uploaded is far more than before. In total, we were hosting 2,500 journalists from all over the world; from TV, radio, the written press and photographers.
In the past, photographers might only send ten photos, whereas now, the amount is far greater. For example, the photo team uploads 2,500 photos at the end of each stage! The flow of information is much greater now. At one time, we had to set up what you might think of as a small country lane to handle data, but these days it’s more like setting up an information highway at the end of each stage! The amount of data being transmitted has increased hugely, and that’s also true of many other events: at the G8, the G20, the Cannes Film Festival, it’s the same. Far more photos are being taken, and the file sizes are becoming increasingly large, and so the amount of data sent is growing accordingly. We are part of a frenzied race with regard to broadband, and we try to adapt our service to ensure that the media can work as smoothly as possible.
Nowadays, everyone is always online, including the public and particularly via social networks, as they send messages, photos and videos from the Tour. Does that have an impact?
Yes, it’s a secondary effect, and we’ve been observing it for the last three years on the mobile network. Additional 3G resources are lined up at the finish area, where journalists’ needs are greatest. In the start town, we stick to using the 2G network or Edge without overloading the networks, knowing that this year we had the equivalent of 60 relay antennas to provide service to the start towns, finish towns and certain points along the race route. It’s a very significant investment.
What happened when the mobile network broke down?
We had to react quickly and use our resources. Like the national services that did their utmost to restore the service as quickly as possible, the whole team immediately set to work. We provided journalists with wired connections and Wi-Fi access to that they could still send their data, as the fault occurred just before the end of the stage in Metz. They therefore had photos, videos and sound that needed to be sent, and it was important that this wasn’t affected. Fortunately, this was almost painless for them, and thanks to communication services, we were able to keep the journalists and race directors informed as soon as we had any news for them, which gave them reassurance. The whole group really pulled together at that moment.
Next year, the Tour celebrates its 100th race, and there are sure to be a few surprises. Can you give us a sneak peek into any of these surprises?
The 100th Tour de France will be the Tour de France “on water”. The race will begin in Corsica, and the media area will be complex as it will be situated on a boat. In principle, a boat must be watertight, it’s made of iron, and setting up a Wi-Fi network on the various bridges will be extremely complicated. Since April, I’ve been working with the Tour de France management team to research locations for one of the ferries that will be hired. It will be used as a media area, and we will stay in the cabins.
We plan to leave on the Tuesday night in order to arrive in Porto-Vecchio on the Wednesday morning, for the official race start. On Friday evening, the boat will leave Porto-Vecchio to head to Bastia, where the first stage will finish close to the lagoon. It will then go to Ajaccio for another stage finish along the Route des Sanguinaires. The third and final Corsican stage will end in Calvi, with the media boat dropping anchor on L’Île Rousse. We will then have quite a busy night, as the boat will then head to Nice, where we will have to dismantle and take down all of the equipment. The boat will dock at 4:00 a.m., and we’ll have just three hours to set up one of our call center trucks (the media area truck), and reinstall the equipment in our trucks. Their route will take them past some Mediterranean ports that will host stage of the Tour de France. Next, we will travel to stages in the Pyrenees before heading to Normandy for some prestige stages, also along the coast. After that, I think that the race will be settled in the Alps, before the final stage in Paris as normal, with the Champs-Elysées bringing the curtain down on an outstanding 100th Tour de France, featuring many mountain finishes and a lot of magical moments by the end.
Will we see you again next year for the 100th Tour de France?
I hope so! Our partnership is currently being renegotiated, but I think that our team has given the France Telecom – Orange Group the trump cards when it comes to renegotiating this partnership, as we have provided a faultless technical service for several years, which should give the ASO management team confidence in extending their partnership with us. As for me, I’m really looking forward to it, especially with the team of champions that I have around me!