I talked to Al MacDonald during the Wachovia Cycling Series- Trenton Race about how he determines the winner of a pro cycling event. Al's company, AGR Technology of Denver, Colorado, is the race timing system contractor for the Wachovia Cycling Series. They setup and operate the gear that produces the finish line photos that you see at televised pro cycling races such as those featured on the Outdoor Life Network.
Al told me that he sets up two independent imaging systems including an EtherLynx 2000 Digital Photo Finish and Timing System, a laptop computer, and a power supply. The systems must be completely independent so that there is no single point of failure in case a generator at the finish line runs out of gas, a cable is severed, or one of the cameras is somehow obstructed.
The EtherLynx 2000 has an automatic capture module that produces hundreds of individual scan lines per second. It assembles the scan lines in a way that shows the relative position of the finishers. FinishLynx viewing software he uses allows him to pan the assembled image and place vertical lines across the image in order to determine which rider's bicycle crosses the line first.
The automatic capture modules on the cameras do a good job when lighting is consistent across the finish line, but have some trouble when shadows extend across the finish or bright spots develop. As a result, adjustments must be made to the camera to maximize the visibility of identifying characteristics in the image.
MacDonald works with a computer operator named Dot Abbott. They're both UCI-certified officials with experience gained at many races. During the race, Al reads the images and Dot compiles race standings. They collaborate to produce standings at the end of each lap of a race like the Wachovia Cycling Series- Trenton Race, and also at the end of the race.
The software they use to score the race was originally developed by MacDonald in 1989. Prior to developing this software, Al held several jobs in the sports technology industry, including a project management position for Tag Heuer for four years.
The race scoring software is 32-bit PC software, but still runs off the command line in text mode because it is designed for maximium responsiveness to the user.
At the event in Trenton, there were an unusual number of last-minute changes to the rider start list. Whenever a rider was added, Dot had to look in a database to find the rider's UCI number. If they didn't have the rider in their database, UCI officials had to locate the rider's team's Director Sportif, and get the rider's nationality and birth date. This data can be used to assemble a UCI number for the rider.
This race was unusual because the riders crossed the start/finish line 28 times-- once in each direction for each of 14 laps. The odd thing about when riders cross the line in the opposite direction, the finish line cameras assemble a mirror image in which all characteristics that can identify riders are reversed. This is because scan lines are assembled in an order that presumes the finishing direction.
I asked Al MacDonald why the Wachovia Cycling Series was not using transponders placed on bikes. He said that only one system has the resolution necessary to work in a pro cycling race. It uses a wire loop that can be taped down on the finish line. That system cannot work on a finish line that is 50 feet wide, however, as the finish line was on West State Street in Trenton.
Some of the major tours use transponders today, but they have much higher budgets for this technology than Wachovia does. They are also more controlled in the sense that the riders and bikes used in grand tours do not change much from stage to stage. If Wachovia were to adopt a transponder-based system, they might need 300 or 400 transponders for the series. The cost of each transponder is non-trivial.
Almost all of the gear used in race timing can use the RS-232 protocol either primarily or as a backup mechanism. The EtherLynx 2000 cameras need Ethernet to transmit the finish photos, but other components such as the timers and clocks, and start/stop triggers can use serial communications.
As the race reached its conclusion, I got a chance to operate the Alge Timing Timer S4 myself. There weren't enough hands in the race timing area to stop all of the watches when Gord Fraser crossed the line, so I pressed the start/stop button for them. I am used to doing this sort of thing from ice hockey officiating. The goal judge who turns on a red light whenever a goal is scored in the goal he is watching presses a plunger similar to the start/stop button that was attached to the Timer S4.
I had a great time talking to Al MacDonald. I learned so much about the techniques that he uses to produce accurate results that I could write a book chapter rather than a blog entry. It's a real thrill to be able to talk to people like Al and his coworkers, find out how they make races possible, and then bring the story to you.
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