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At the USGP, how do they do that so fast, and without timing chips?

The USGP this year has been using camera-based race timing, allowing for lap-by-lap positioning and quicker results postings post-race

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — As many of us who have raced with timing chips know, they have not always turned out to be the panacea for slow and inaccurate results that we had hoped for. You may in fact be chuckling at the understatement, particularly if you’ve raced multilap events with timing chips.

So imagine my surprise when less than an hour after the finish of my first U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross race — which does not use timing chips or any other kind of transponder on riders or bikes — I received two Excel documents: the full results of my category’s race, and a list of lap times of everybody in my race.

And these were not links to the documents like we just gave you in the previous sentence, mind you; these were actual PDF attachments of the Excel documents.

Since then, I’ve done three more USGP races, and every time, before I’ve even had a chance to fully recover from my race, I’ve received the email beginning with these words:

Dear Athlete PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL. Thank you for pre-registering and participating in today’s Trek USGP of Cyclocross. Attached is a PDF of your Result and your Lap Time Report.

Is that awesome or what? How on earth is that possible?

Jon Gallagher, founder and owner of One2Go Event Services, has come up with an amazing system using finish-line cameras that puts to shame every other timing system I’ve examined.

“We only use cameras,” he says. “We have a picture of you and your number on every lap.” And indeed he does.

Those photos are taken with Gallagher’s $15,000 FinishLynx camera, which contains a super high-resolution timing crystal. The camera takes thousands of images per second straight down from the scaffolding over the finish line. Gallagher rewrote some of FinishLynx’s software from track and field to adapt it to multilap cycling events like cyclocross. FinishLynx engineers were so impressed with the way Gallagher hacked into their system and improved it that they now have him on their beta development team.

As those images come across the laptop screens of operators inside the timing truck at the finish line, the operator manually clicks on each rider in the photo stream and types in the rider’s number. The system syncs that number with the lap counter and the elapsed and lap times from the camera’s timing crystal, as well as with the race’s database of rider registrations, and it automatically populates an Excel document with the data.

“We’re scoring the race as it’s happening all of the way through,” says Gallagher. His system is doing almost instantaneously what the official race scorers sitting along the finish stretch are doing manually.

Gallagher says his team consistently has complete results within 10 to 15 minutes of the finish and emails them to all of the competitors shortly thereafter.

There was one glitch in Saturday’s race at the Derby City USGP, however. The first event each day was Cat. 4 men, and the race accidentally supplied Gallagher with Sunday’s start list for Saturday’s event. Obviously, the numbers didn’t jibe with the correct names, and it took hours to sort out. Those riders might not have been smiling about their results at first.

Gallagher’s system makes results protests almost comical. When a rider is certain that he or she finished ahead of another rider and is shown a finish photo of themselves and that other rider on every single lap of the race that reinforces what the results sheet proclaims, they are left wiping egg off of their faces.

A chip timing system without cameras is like an electronic voting machine that doesn’t produce a paper receipt; you can still wonder whether the recorded result matches what actually occured. But it is pretty hard to refute a photo record of every rider on every lap. And if you need absolute timing precision in a photo finish, the timing crystal — combined with blowing up the photo and clicking on precisely the front edge of the tire — will give that to you.

One benefit of One2Go’s timing system is that shortly after the race, anyone can cross-compare lap times between categories, at least on days where course conditions are relatively consistent, as happened with the perfect weather we enjoyed on both days of the Derby City Cup in Louisville.

All of One2Go’s Excel results spreadsheets of all of the USGP events and overall categories are posted on the USGP results page. This can put to rest someone’s question about whether they are fast enough to race in another category. More interesting yet, I think, is to compare the 45+ men’s lap time results from Sunday with those of the elite women from the same day and see that Katie Compton and her husband, Mark Legg-Compton, are almost equally fast. On Saturday, it’s the same story between Katie and Mark. Being essentially the same speed, it looks like they might make ideal training partners. That’s something a lot of married couples probably wish for.

I always race cyclocross with a Garmin in my back pocket so I can look at my lap times later. I even sewed a pocket into my skinsuit specifically for it (it’s no good to have it on the bike if you take a bike change).

I click the lap button on the finish line during warmup (and set the lap trigger to be “by position”). I forgot to carry my Garmin in Sunday’s race, but Gallagher’s system gave me not only my lap times, but those of all of the other riders in my field. Much better. Now if Gallagher could just figure out how to supply heart rate and power information on everyone in the race without transponders…

“I get tired of hearing that chip timing is better than cameras,” says Gallagher. It’s hard to make that argument now, since I would bet that every rider who has done a USGP race will agree with Gallagher’s statement: “The results are better and faster.”