Cycling referees are incorporating social media into video replay reviews

The cameras are rolling.
The cameras are rolling.
Image: EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook
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The World Cup isn’t the only major sporting event to introduce video-assisted refereeing, better known as VAR, this year. The Tour de France, currently in its third and final week, is being officiated with the help of replay technology for the first time in its 105 year history.

In addition to footage from TV cameras, race officials—known in cycling as commissaires—are using another lens to judge the race: social media. Commissaires have access to an aggregator of several Twitter accounts which helps them identify and examine incidents as they occur on the road.

“The Twitter deck includes all relevant accounts including organizers, broadcasters, and cycling-specific online outlets,” a representative from cycling’s governing body, UCI, said in a statement. “It complements the TV monitors displaying the race.”

Unlike most sports that make use of VAR, such as soccer or basketball, the action in a cycling road race is spread over a huge area, making it harder to officiate. A typical stage of the Tour features somewhere in the region of 150 riders scattered across miles of road traveling at breakneck speeds. Commissaire cars and motorbikes get as close as they can to key battles to look for infringements—like riding in an unsafe manner or taking advantage of a car’s slipstream—but it’s impossible for them to identify every potential infraction with those resources alone. That’s why they are taking advantage of the social chatter around a race to help keep racers honest.

“It’s like when you’re driving and you know a policeman is watching you—it makes you more careful,” says Guillaume Neveux of broadcast technology company EVS, which developed the Xeebra system used in the UCI’s video review van. “Having this technology cuts down on bad behavior and increases the equity of the sport.”

Bad behavior has already been on display in this year’s Tour, with Team Sky rider Gianni Moscon ejected on Monday after footage from the previous day’s stage showed him punching another rider.

The introduction of VAR technology this year came after the controversial disqualification of Peter Sagan from last year’s Tour for allegedly causing a crash in a bunch sprint. Sagan, cycling’s current world champion, was later proven innocent by helicopter footage that showed the crash from another angle, but the decision wasn’t overturned. With tips from more sources watching a race, the sport’s governing body hopes to avoid these sorts of mistakes in the future.