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It’s been a long road for RaceRanger founder and CEO James Elvery, a former professional triathlete. We interviewed Elvery at the end of 2021 The buzz around RaceRanger was palpable when he first showed off a device designed to revolutionize draft refereeing. Over the next 14 months, Elvery struggled to bring this complex technology from the ground to the bike, encountering more lows than highs.
In a nutshell, RaceRanger uses technologies like Ultra Wideband (UWB), Bluetooth, GPS/GNSS and LoRa – less a Garmin Forerunner and more a major warehouse like Amazon might use to track inventory and its relationship to its surroundings relationship tracking technology. Except in this case, the checklist is you and your relationship to other triathletes on the bike legs.
Tiny devices mounted on the front and rear of the bike detect (and display) when you come within a predetermined draft. Not only will they guide you visually when you enter a “danger zone,” but they will also alert race officials in real time when you violate an athlete’s “airspace.” Do this regularly and match officials have the power to penalize you. The goal is no more guesswork; no more rearview mirrors to check commanders.
But like anything, what works great on paper can look very different in real life, so Elvery and RaceRanger face an uphill battle with advanced technology. RaceRanger finally made its live racing debut on 24 Pro bikes last weekend at the Tauranga Half Race and we caught up with Elvery immediately after the race to see how things were going.
related: Race Ranger Announces High-Tech Airflow Detector
(Note: Interview edited for clarity and brevity.)
triathlete: What has been the biggest challenge of “installing” RR in the competition so far?
James Elvery: Building RaceRanger has been a real R&D challenge. It’s not a simple case of combining some existing technologies to make a flash! Over the years, there have been periods where we spent a lot of time—one, two, six months—on a path where we had to give up and try a different approach. When you get into it, the drafting challenge is a pretty complex one, so there had to be some real innovation to make things work.
Telephone: What makes Tauranga Half a good race for a live release platform?
We get to a point where it feels like we just need to be present in the world in any form. As a startup with no revenue, things can’t go on forever, or you’ll eventually run out of cash, and we’re approaching that point. When we first announced RaceRanger in late 2021, we thought it would be possible to have some race trials in early 2022.
New Zealand’s summer may turn into May at the 2022 Collins Cup, but that too has come and gone. Then our goal is to participate in the WTS ETU event in Spain in September 2022. This trip will be funded by World Triathlon and PTO. They all want to properly evaluate the technology before putting it into their top game. We booked everything for this, flights accommodation, sim cards… I even had race number stickers printed with the race logo ready to travel. But eventually, when we hit the road and tested everything properly, it became clear that things still weren’t good enough to put in there. It’s a frustrating string of missed deadlines until 2022.
Finishing it now in Tauranga and doing it on New Zealand soil feels really good, it’s a long-term race with Dylan and myself. (Dylan won the event in 2018.) It’s also good to be racing in early 2023, since the year is just getting started. This isn’t anyone’s “A” game of the year. Yes, they want to do well, but there’s a pretty relaxed vibe here.
Telephone: What problems did you encounter during the event?
Until Thursday of race week, we still have a pretty good idea of whether trials will actually go ahead. Since September, the main work has been improving the software, basically trying to make this thing do what it’s supposed to do. For the 10 days leading up to Tauranga, we basically tested on the road every day until the day before the race. By Wednesday, it was “normal”, working as we wanted it to, but only about 75% of the time. We continue to do this, just to warn athletes and officials that strange glitches may occur, it will not be used for actual refereeing during games, this is just a trial and we want everyone’s feedback.
We did not observe any inappropriate behavior during the event, but we did receive some reports from athletes which we will now investigate after a few days off. One of the issues we initially tested a long time ago was the odd situation where a group of people were heading in one direction along a road while another group was heading in the opposite direction, and their units would seem to temporarily interfere with each other. They do recover fairly quickly, but these devices should completely ignore riders who aren’t heading in the same direction.
Telephone: What is the reaction of professionals who use it?
Before the race, there was really no concern or resistance. This concept has been around for a long time, so I guess it took them some time to understand it. It’s very easy to understand when you get down to it. We put these things on your bike when you check in during the transition; this is what you should see on the course. 3 colored lights for three distance ranges – that’s all.
After the game, we got overwhelmingly positive feedback. A common theme of athlete comments revolved around their saying that the 10m (Zone 3) traction zone was much closer than they thought – especially when it comes to actually racing at high speeds. They also comment on how easy it is to track and use, taking the guesswork out of distance. Finally, pros notice the side effects of watching other pros on the pace line—learning how to read lights, know when someone is pulling a gap, passing, and even knowing if someone is actually riding legally. They love that peace of mind.
Ton: What was the referee’s reaction?
Tri New Zealand officers are very helpful. They put us in the pre-race officials meeting and provided us with a seat on the moto to help us observe the behavior during the race.
I think it’s a bit of a surprise, as the athletes are about how close that distance actually is. For the first few miles on the bike, I follow two riders who are more than 14 meters apart – the lights are not on yet, they will come on once the riders cross the 14 meter threshold. But in those early stages, we saw the referee warning the drivers behind, asking them to stand back a bit. Therefore, both athletes and referees thought the gap was 10 meters, but it was actually more than 14 meters. Once they both get a feel, those gaps close and they use the lights as a reference. Feedback from referees has been very positive. They don’t need any draft penalties on the elites because it’s pretty clear – if you drift into the blue zone (below 10m), you have 20 seconds to complete that pass.
Telephone: How many penalties were awarded to the RR group?
Telephone: What’s the next event?
We have just confirmed we will be competing in the Wanaka Challenge on 17th February and are in contact with the New Zealand Triathlon organizers to arrange a race on 4th March.
Beyond that, we’ll be assembling the next 80 rigs we have parts for, at which point we’ll be able to service any professional race in the world with our fleet of 110-120 rigs.
Telephone: Have you had any conversations with Ironman – especially after the Kona and 70.3 World Championship penalty “problems”?
Over the years we’ve maintained a fairly steady relationship with all the major players in the sport, including Jimmy Riccitello and the European Triathlon Team. The general feedback over the past year has been basically “sounds great, we need to see it in action before we can take it seriously”, and we totally get that. So it’s our responsibility to make it work in some trials. By the time we have two more Tests in Wanaka and Taupo, we’ll be looking to have a more serious conversation about where we want to go for the rest of the year.
related: Do triathletes really want to end the draft?