Chafing or Lycra is just one of the uncomfortable choices that confront the casual cyclist. Another: Is it braver to hit the country lanes, grunting feverishly uphill with muscles ablaze, or to pedal against those adrenaline-charged city cyclists who will happily mow down errant toddlers to beat a red light?
No, as far as this resident of south London is concerned, bikes are for shaven-legged sado-masochists, and best left alone.
Watching top-level cycling in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe is another matter entirely. And so when the opportunity arose to check out the Albi-to-Toulouse stage of the Tour de France, as a guest of French telco Orange, it was impossible to resist.
Ostensibly, this trip was about the use of telecom technology to support a major sports event, and one that doesn't stay in the same place long. For Orange employees, that presents a logistical nightmare and demands endurance levels to rival those of any hill-climbing cyclist garbed in a polka dot jersey. Over three weeks, and 3,460 kilometers, a team of about 40 permanent technicians hauls three trailers loaded with 15 tons of comms equipment and 32 kilometers of cable up mountainsides and through dozens of remote villages. Every day of cycling, they are the first to arrive and the last to leave. At 6pm in Toulouse, the temporary trailer park of the technical zone writhes like a snake pit as cable lines are reeled in and stowed away.
Before any of that, reporters were shown the scale of the challenge over a single 167-kilometer stage that wriggles and undulates through the French countryside. Charly Mottet, Orange's driver, rode the event a few times in his younger days, he tells passengers without a hint of braggadocio. Is he teasing? A quick smartphone search of Wikipedia shows that Mottet finished fourth in 1987 and 1991, won three stages and wore the yellow jersey, signifying race leadership, on several occasions. For two months in 1989, he was ranked world number one. Does he still cycle now? "Only to buy my bread," he says.
Et ce n'est pas mal, bombing around southern France in the Mottetmobile, a black Land Rover Discovery bearing the Orange logo and a colorful depiction of cyclists. Tourists and locals cluster outside cafes or throng the sides of roads closed to normal traffic, waving as the vehicle careens past. Ordinarily sleepy villages become busier than ever, forcing Orange to give a performance-enhancing boost to its mobile networks. "We might have 300,000 connections on one basestation," Henri Terreaux, the technical director for Orange Events, tells reporters later that day.
To cope with all that extra mobile traffic, Orange is using 32 temporary "relays" over the duration of the event. But there have been some permanent benefits for the French public, as well. Since the announcement of this year's route, Orange claims to have deployed either 4G or fiber in 37 communes that cyclists will traverse, as well as another 182 communes within 10 kilometers of the route. At 11 sites, there has been a permanent fiber installation. Only 16% of the route now falls outside Orange's 4G footprint. Just as hosting the Olympics gives cities a reason to invest in downtrodden areas, so the Tour provides the rationale for a telecom makeover.
5G is still nowhere to be seen. A French auction of spectrum licenses for the next-generation mobile technology will happen too late for this year's Tour. The surprise is that 5G does not even receive a mention in the context of trials. Terreaux has a Gallic indifference toward it. Yes, it will provide service guarantees with a feature called network slicing, he acknowledges. But that will not be available in the first version of the technology. Nor are 5G basestations likely to go up anytime soon in the Pyrenees, which cyclists will tackle days after departing Toulouse.
Besides, when you're packing 32 kilometers of fiber-optic cable that can be carried from one place to another, why bother with 5G? "For me, all broadcasters need fiber," says Terreaux when asked if 5G could eventually substitute for the very high-capacity fiber links on which TV companies rely. "Cable or fiber is more secure for transmission."
Fiber is literally everywhere in the technical zone. Cables sprout from the trailers and crisscross underfoot, slithering past ankles and forming a trip hazard for distracted technicians. Each day, a convoy of international broadcasters and media groups rocks up chaotically and plugs into the Orange systems. "We have 500 lines around this area and we don't know where a TV broadcaster will be because one day they are on the right and one day on the left," says Terreaux, looking more exhausted than most of today's cyclists. "It is very easy to connect a stadium, but this is very difficult. It is a circus."
Out on the road, action footage is captured using motorbike-mounted cameras and then beamed up to helicopters, and from those to a circling plane, via radio technology. From there it is sent back to an antenna near the technical zone, and then along a fiber-optic cable into the Orange trucks, which distribute the content to international broadcasters. After an outdoors lunch that would have doubled the weight of the average competitor, a helicopter sans telecom equipment buzzes reporters over a column of tiny helmets that bobs and sways in the afternoon sun.
The next few years could bring enormous changes on the technology side as "big data" extends its influence over sport. Japan's NTT is already using tracking devices installed on bikes to gather and crunch data on performance. Thanks to ever-more sophisticated gadgets and clothing sensors, information could eventually be relayed over a 5G connection for mid-race analysis. A technical edge could translate into a race lead if a team can use data to guide its strategy partway through a stage. It could even be the cycling equivalent of Moneyball, the Michael Lewis book (subsequently turned into a movie) about the way data revolutionized baseball. Despite his 5G indifference, Terreaux agrees that on-bike cameras and transponders could one day be used in conjunction with 5G to provide "the most information directly on the race," although he doubts this will happen until 2022 at the earliest.
In the meantime, events like the Tour de France may figure prominently in the entertainment experience that Orange wants to serve up to customers. At its stand near the starting line in Albi, a virtual reality headset dangles from one of those spinning bikes that wives buy their overweight husbands for Christmas. Put it on and you become Charly Mottet slaloming down an Alpine road, just meters from a cliff edge that would conclusively end your nascent interest in cycling. As you lean unnecessarily into the handlebars and pedal like it matters, the experience is truly exhilarating. It's almost enough to make Lycra acceptable.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading