GoPro steps toward dream of live, on-bike video
The crash flickered across televisions in just a few seconds — a high-speed slide off the side of a wide, straight road, a yellow jersey catapulting, a pile of colors wrapping itself around a light pole like a river around a stone.
The images, shot from a helicopter, were frightening. But they weren’t visceral. They were detached, as if the few hundred feet of air between the blood and broken bones and the helicopter camera somehow made the riders less bloody, less broken.
Then, another angle surfaced. From a camera mounted to the chest of an Orica-GreenEdge team mechanic we saw the screeching halt of the cars, a frantic run to the crumpled riders; we were inside the pandemonium, the fear, the pain. It was visceral. It went viral. It has a few million views now, spread across the Internet.
The camera on mechanic Fausto Oppici’s chest was a GoPro, and is just one small piece of hardware in a broad partnership between Tour de France organizer ASO, team commercial group Velon, and GoPro, a global action camera and content goliath, that extends beyond the peloton and into support staff, the race organization, and more.
This year’s Tour de France is just the crawling stage in a step-by-step, crawl-walk-run plan in which “running” is the introduction of live footage from every single bike in the peloton. GoPro thinks this is possible within two years, a company representative told VeloNews.
Much like Red Bull is far more than a producer of caffeinated sugar tonic, GoPro is more than a producer of tiny, easily mounted video cameras. It’s a content house, with partnerships extending from MotoGP to the NHL, and this month, it’s chasing content across France.
Even at a “crawl,” as the company described this experimental first year at the Tour, GoPro is recording and parsing 110 hours of video each day. It has cameras on 12 bikes each stage — sometimes more — plus mechanics, soigneurs, and sport directors. It has cameras in cars and on busses, and a team on the ground in France larger than almost every media outlet except home paper l’Equipe and the major French TV stations. If there is a story to tell, GoPro has a camera there.
“Our goal as we enter any new sport is to show a perspective and tell a story that has never been shown before,” GoPro’s director of lifestyle marketing Todd Ballard told VeloNews. As the Orica mechanic cam showed, it’s already succeeded on that front.
GoPro is not the first to mount cameras to bikes. Shimano, Garmin, and individual teams have been doing so with success for two years, since the UCI legalized the technology in racing. But the clout the company has — it is one of the largest sport content companies in the world, a would-be rival to massive new-media houses like Red Bull — brings immediate impact. It’s social media following alone stretches into the tens of millions.
This first year, Ballard said, is intended simply to prove GoPro’s concept. He wants to demonstrate that the content acquired can be compelling, that it can spread beyond the hardcore cycling fan.
“I think already we have captured some amazing moments of the race, like the Orica-GreenEdge piece,” Ballard said. “No one has ever seen that before. Or the Tony Martin win from the perspective of all the other members on the team. For me, I got goosebumps watching it. I haven’t ever seen stuff like that and not many other people have either.”
Distribution, at least for now, is mostly via social media. But the ASO still owns all the footage — GoPro is only allowed to produce one three-minute clip each day, to protect the video rights bought by television broadcasters — and its broadcast partners can therefore use it as they wish. Eurosport has used a number of the GoPro clips, and they’re not the only broadcaster to see the content’s value.
Ballard knows cycling. Some of VeloNews’ long-time readers may even recognize his name, in fact. The 42-year-old raced at the national level in the early 1990s, riding with men like Lance Armstrong and Jonas Carney, before stepping into sports marketing.
So the man doing much of the high-level direction of GoPro’s efforts in France can certainly appreciate where cycling broadcast has come from — “I am pretty sure I have Betamax recordings at my parents house from ‘87 and ’88,” he said — and, hopefully, has a good idea of where it can go.
“I think next year will be a lot for getting better at the content ingestion,” he said. “There is so much content coming in every day that we are really working together with Velon and ASO and even some of the media directors from the teams about ingesting all that content and pulling the best moments from the 110 hours of content [each day].”
Once that system is dialed, GoPro will move on to the next step: Going live.
The eventual goal is lofty, but within the realm of technical possibility. GoPro wants to be able to live-stream footage from every single bike in the Tour de France peloton, Ballard said.
The company recently launched HEROcast, a broadcast-quality live-stream system it is currently using in MotoGP and the NHL, and is available to consumers as well. The specific demands of cycling — most notably, that it does not occur in a stadium, and broadcasting equipment would therefore need to be small and highly mobile — will require some modification of HEROcast, but Ballard is confident his team can make it happen.
“We don’t have a timeline, but sooner is better,” Ballard said. “We have a team right now working on that broadcast technology. I would love for it to be next year, but that seems a little soon. It’s a little tough because the broadcasters are still working on integrating that into their stories.”
The technology required continues to shrink and lighten. Just days ago, GoPro launched its new Session camera, about half the size of its previous Hero4 model. It’s done wind tunnel testing with Specialized and confirmed that the additional drag from the new camera is “close to zero,” Ballard said.
Predicting precisely when the tech will be small enough to fit on a bike is difficult. But as Ballard stood outside the Astana team bus, waiting for one of his GoPro colleauges to pass off yet another tiny memory card to a team mechanic, his optimism was unequivocal.
“I think we will go live from every bike, so every viewer can watch their favorite rider,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
“Yes,” the world’s cycling fans say in unison. It most certainly would.