James MacDonald is a man's head on the body of a pre-adolescent teen, all pipe-cleaner limbs and ribcage-revealing torso.
The explanation soon becomes apparent. The former Cisco engineer gets his kicks as an endurance cyclist, taking on the sort of challenges that make the average Tour de France stage seem like a ride to the local shops. In 2016, he took just 11 days to cycle from the west to the east coast of the US, spending 22 hours a day in the saddle. A year later, he set a world record for the fastest solo ride from John O'Groats to Land's End in the UK. That included the return leg, as well.
Connected technology now plays a massive part in MacDonald's record-setting attempts, and the use of it is changing the sport of cycling.
It started in 2015, when MacDonald asked his boss at Cisco if emerging technologies could take some of the risk out of his upcoming long-distance race across America. Dimension Data, one of Cisco's partners, was just then starting to use connectivity systems to do speed and position tracking on bikes. The question was whether the company -- today a part of NTT Ltd -- could extend this to provide real-time monitoring of physiological responses to exercise. The immediate availability of this information could help to keep MacDonald's pedals turning at record-setting pace.
Four years later, and MacDonald has become a guinea pig, in his own words, for the telemetry systems used at the Tour de France and other high-profile cycling events. This year, the technology was given its latest workout during a 24-hour racing challenge at the Wales National Velodrome, as MacDonald tried to break another world record for the distance covered in a single day of non-stop cycling. "That was where the technology was really key," said the cyclist at an NTT event in London last week. "The coaching and performance teams had real-time knowledge of what was happening. They could look at the data and manage calories and hydration and pace very finely."
NTT's technologies are now almost routine at the Tour de France, the world's most famous road-cycling event. The systems that MacDonald helped to pioneer have also remained in place at the Wales National Velodrome for use by the Great Britain team as it prepares for next year's Olympics in Tokyo. Combined with nutrition and the latest training techniques, telemetry and data connectivity are taking the sport to a new level.
Cisco has played its part too, says MacDonald. During his race across the US, technologies provided by the equipment giant were used to establish a link between the bike and an Internet-connected moving vehicle. Later, the Wales National Velodrome was kitted out with cloud-based IT systems developed by Meraki, which Cisco acquired in 2012.
Sadly, MacDonald's 24-hour challenge ended in failure. Water on the track led to a crash partway through the attempt. For all the attention to technological detail, the "small item" the team missed was a leaking bottle attached to the bike, says MacDonald. He was able to resume cycling, but the unusually hot conditions that day put the record out of reach. That is still held by Austria's Christoph Strasser, who rode slightly more than 585 miles at the Velodrome Suisse in 2017.
"The ideal plan would be to do it again," says MacDonald when asked what's next in store. Rules prevent him from attempting that immediately, but tech enthusiasts and fans of endurance cycling can certainly look forward to more from the MacDonald-NTT partnership in the meantime. "We have another idea that will tie us over."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading