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Chips with that, sir?
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Thursday 20th October 2011


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Our Editor at Large doesn't just spend his days welded to a keyboard, he also spends a large amount of his time working as a timer for RaceTimingSystems, one of the UK's major event timing companies, and this is the first of two articles about how timing systems work and how the athlete can help ensure they get the best out of them.


Arthur C Clarke once wrote that any highly advanced technology should be indistinguishable from magic, and that's certainly true today in a world where pictures and voices can be summoned from thin air and an individual can communicate their most random thoughts to an audience of millions. Television and Twitter aside, what relevance does magical technology have to triathlon - and I'm not making an oblique reference to the iPad... [RIP Steve, 56 was way too young...]

Technology affects our sport in a number of ways; from the materials we build bikes from through to the nutrition we take on board. All these have changed over the years but are hardly magical. The thing that assumes near magical status, however, is the way in which our races are timed. Twenty years or so ago when I first started my involvement with the sport, event results were few and far between - every race needed a paper entry form, a cheque, a couple of stamped envelopes and, if you were lucky, a week or so later you would get some sort of results sheet back. All the data was collected manually and then tabulated and sorted in some version of early spreadsheet like Lotus 1-2-3 or Multiplan.

Over the last decade of the 20th century various forms of electronic timing became more common, but really only for the highest profile races, and it was the turn of the millennium before we started to see chip timing as something that regular organisers could hire in. I remember being involved in the timing for the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester and I'm pretty sure that was the first time a triathlon in this country went live to both web and television. Of course, by then the web was delivering triathlon results for organisers - the precursor to Tri247, the Triathletes Homepage, was originally created for just that purpose.

But what about the magic? It's the chip itself that seems to have assumed magic status in recent years. Athletes in general are now so used to the concept of chip timing that nobody pauses for a moment to consider how it works. It's magic - I've got a chip and so I must get all my split times...

...and when I don't get times, or those times don't match my expectations, it just has to be the technology that has messed up. Except, it often isn't...

If a chip timing system fails, and they do from time to time (just like more than a few old-school events stopped their watches or dropped their timing computer - both real examples, by the way, and not urban myths) then large numbers of times will be affected and not just one or two. So, what can go wrong on an individual level and cause the magic to fail? And, the real reason for writing this article, is what can you as an athlete do to help the magic work better?

There is a significant amount of trust being placed in you, the athlete, to follow the instructions - after all, this really is just (relatively) simple technology and not magic! Let's list some of the regular issues that we face as timers. Be clear, these are not made up - every week we get reports of one or more of these things happening at events we are involved with around the country.

If the race is being chip timed you do have to collect your chip at registration or bring it with you if it was posted out. If you go round the event with no chip then you get no times - unless you have the presence of mind to tell someone at the finish line and get them to write the time down. Oh, and just collecting the chip from the table at registration isn't enough: you do have to wear it... ...the chip and the strap, not just the strap...

If the instructions say that you should wear the chip on your ankle then that's where you need to put it. Most timing systems use a passive RFID transponder and this needs to be as close to the mats as you can get it - for triathlon that means round the ankle. [Left ankle is always best for your safety on the bike, by the way.] Having a chip strapped to your wrist or wrapped around the handlebars of your bike will almost certainly not work... Tucking it down the front of your trisuit isn't much better...

The chips we use for triathlon are designed to be worn throughout the race - they really don't mind getting wet so you don't have to leave them in transition for the swim leg. No, really, we have had that as answer for missing swim splits on more than one occasion!

The majority of triathlon events run in waves of one sort or another. That raises two issues on a regular basis. The first is people wandering round the transition area checking out the entrances and exits (a good thing to do), gaily triggering the mats as they go (not such a good thing...). Some systems will discount this activity, but not all of them, so staying away from live mats unless you are actually racing is always a smart move. And, because the system will be programmed to expect your chip to be in a certain wave it's essential to tell someone if you change your wave so the system can be updated. Wave times are like airline flights, you've booked a slot and if you want to change it then a certain amount of admin is needed - it's not like a bus ticket which you can use when you like during the day.

Wearing the chip you were issued helps a great deal. Sounds obvious but you would be staggered at the number of people who swap event entries (a complete NO NO by the way for all sorts of reasons) or manage to muddle up their chips with a partner, friend or clubmate. At one Windsor triathlon I remember trying to untangle three athletes who had managed to not only muddle up their chips but their race numbers as well. In this instance even a manual backup probably won't help - we don't tend to record your kit colour, shoe type or other identifying marks.

Wear the chip that the organiser provided, not one that you took home from another event. Every RFID chip has a unique code inside it which gets matched to your bib number in the timing system database. Race with another chip and there's no match. We'll have the raw data so it is sometimes possible to fix these 'phantom' times. However, you would be amazed at how much 'phantom' data can turn up at a race; mobile phones, GPS systems and even 'chipped' dogs can all have embedded RFID devices that the mats can detect and the problem is getting worse.

Check your chip when you get it. Does the number on the chip match the bib number - if not there might be a problem and it's worth checking. Does the chip look undamaged and properly sealed - some have a little plug that closes the hole used to insert the RFID bead into the housing and if the plug has popped out the housing might be empty and just a dumb bit of plastic.

Losing your chip during the race is a common enough scenario. Sometimes they'll get pulled off when you take off your wetsuit or they might come off in the event of a bike crash. If you have become detached from the chip then make certain you tell the finish line crew and make sure that someone writes down your number and the time. What time? The time of day is the one to go for because that is what the timing system is using. Your time of day probably won't be as accurate as ours but we can always figure out the difference and adjust accordingly. An elapsed time is OK (as long as you went in the right wave) and any other kind of reference like finishing before or after another identifiable athlete helps enormously.

Check your times. Most chip timed events will have a screen and a sometimes a printer that will allow you to get a record of your splits. If there is something missing or obviously wrong make sure you see the timing crew there and then. It may be that we haven't yet updated for swim starts that didn't happen on schedule or you were a late entry or there is a technical issue meaning that some data isn't coming in live but leave it a day, a week or even a month before you tell us and the problem becomes much, much harder to solve.

Tell us what event you actually raced in. Sounds obvious, but on an almost daily basis we get mails saying that there's a question about the times for race number blah. Great, except that by the end of this season I'll personally have timed over 50 events, many with multiple races within them, and that number could appear in almost any one of them. Even your name won't always help as most people race more than one event a year!

As a humourous aside I made a little cartoon about some of the chip-related issues we face which you can view here. Be warned, it does contain rude language so it's probably not suitable for work or those who might be easily offended...


Next time I'll look in more detail at how the magic actually works for the various types of timing system.


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