Many of us, including myself, have found our way to cycling watching Tour de France on TV. It has been possible to watch cycling live on Eurosport and national TV channels in some European countries for many many years. Today the services are widespread and it's possible to watch almost any cycling race, anywhere with a mobile device. There has been some exceptions though, including the Finnish cycling races. Fortunately the passion for cycling has brought a change to that. This year we were able to watch the Finnish National Road Championships live on YouTube. For the first time ever it was now possible to follow both the women and men race live for the title. I had the possibility to meet Harri Syrjä, the man behind this live-streaming initiative. We sat down for a coffee a sunny day in July in Linnanmäki.
One of the reasons Harri started the project was his passion for cycling, that awoke bit by bit during 2010, when he discovered cycling after trying out both ice-hockey and running. Harri grew up in Rauma playing ice-hockey. Later on he started running and did some half marathons and marathons before finally turning into cycling. This cycling enthusiasm has also spread in the family, and today there are already two young cyclists in the Syrjä family. With this passion came the idea and will to provide cycling fans in Finland with the possibility to watch national road cycling races live.
Cycling is one of the few sports where spectators actually don't see, more or less anything about the race, and since I became more interested in cycling, in 2010, I started thinking about the possibilities. How could I broadcast different races in Finland, especially with the thought that both races for women and men would be covered. I simply wanted to make it possible to watch our national races live on TV, and I was willing to take the risk and make it happen.
Harri pointed out it was equally important to be able to broadcast the Finnish elite women's National Road Championships as the men's race the day after. It was clear that the budget and infrastructure would somehow restrain the project in Finland.
If we take a UCI race-coverage as an example. There are 3-4 helicopters sending the signal to various vehicles on the ground, and the signal is then transferred via satellite. The infrastructure needed for that type of broadcast is enormous and there was no way I could even think about that as a possibility. There would need to be another way to do it in Finland.
Harri has a background in IT and 3D graphics which made it easier to begin mapping out the project. He also had some friends who played a key role in making the project happen.
I started looking at 4G technologies in Finland, which today, are pretty widespread. I knew there had been similar 4G live-broadcasting projects already in Estonia and Denmark, but it's still a rare thing to do. It was actually a year ago I figured out that 2015 would be the year to do this. The 4G coverage in the capital region in Finland is surprisingly good, which enables a fast upload or live-streaming of video.
Harri is not just any kid of tech-guy, he was able to put together both hardware and think of the software needed for the actual live-streaming services. Hardware meaning the cameras and the 4G linking modules, and software meaning the user interface and programs, that would then be used to decide which camera signal would be sent at which time, and how the audio and video would be synchronized. This would both make it cost-efficient and reliable, since Harri had backup-plans for almost any scenario.
I started testing during last winter, just driving around by car and testing how the equipment worked around the already known route for the upcoming national championships. Later in spring, I tested the equipment again in our own race in Nurmijärvi, sitting in the front car. I wanted to know how the network and the components would do, and if they would do good enough. There was only a handful of people who knew about this back then.
All the preparations and testing really seemed to be worth it. Watching the live-stream when it happened was close to what any cycling broadcast from Eurosport looks and feels like. Of course there was no aerial footage, but neither was there any commercial breaks, and switching between cameras worked at times even better than on Eurosport. You didn't miss any critical moment of the race.
I understand that people were excited about the live-stream finally coming to Finland. Actually when I first started looking at the "test-material" I got excited myself. Having downloaded it from the server I found myself liking it a lot, and was surprised by the quality. I knew that everything would work and just hoped for the race itself to be interesting.
According to Harri, 3 - 4 cameras are enough to cover a race in Finland. During the National Championships there were 3 cameras in use, and hence, it was possible to cover both breakaways and the peloton. Harri needed of course some help to make everything happen. Fortunately he was surrounded by friends who were eager to help him out in the various tasks.
I had many friends who were eager to help me out. Some of them had motorcycles and some were into photographing and shooting videos, so pretty quickly we managed to gather a small group of people who all were excited about the project, and each played a critical role in making this all happen. The final decision for broadcasting the National Championships was made just a few days before the events when the last missing pieces were put together. Therefore, we really didn't want to publish anything before we were 100 % sure we could make it.
Besides some good friends who were able to help out with the filming and broadcasting, Harri also mentions the importance of the commentators, who made watching the races interesting. Kalle Laanterä, Tommi Halonen and Jyrki Terävuo all know a lot about cycling, and they were able to provide us with many interesting details and plenty of information during the races. This is critical for a broadcast to be successful. Kjell Carlström also joined the commentators on Sunday, which actually wasn't planned beforehand. "Kjell was watching the race himself and joined us spontaneously, which of course added value to the broadcast".
Financing this project was all done by Harri himself. Asking Harri about the financing, he laughed.
We'll see if I ever get that money back, let's just call it a contribution for the sport. All work was done as voluntary work and no wages were paid. We were a bunch of people, either cycling enthusiasts or like-minded people with an interest in creating and being involved in a live broadcast. In total we were 10 people making this possible.
I also wanted to know if there were any lessons learned from day one or if there were any issues during the broadcasts. According to Harri, one camera died once, but that was quickly taken care of and caused actually no trouble for the live-stream service.
What we learnt from day one, filming the women's race, was that we focused on filming the peloton and breakaway groups more from the side-perspective, than from the front of- or behind. It was actually Marko Vauhkonen who contacted us, suggesting it would probably be better to have the guys shoot from the side of the group, since it would be more interesting to look at for the people watching the live-stream. Otherwise we made no changes since everything was working so well from day one. YouTube servers dropped the stream once, but that's nothing we could have done about. Fortunately the drop-off was really short and we didn't lose viewers because of that.
In total there was some 400 viewers watching the live-stream on Saturday and some 800 viewers watching the live-stream on Sunday. Today those numbers are roughly 4 600 views and 9 000 views respectively. In my opinion, especially the live numbers, could have been much higher had the live-streaming service been promoted more in advance. Something we will probably see an increase in, in the future.
In the future? Yes, this project has a future. After the first live-stream event in Vantaa, the team has already produced live coverage from two events, one roller skiing event and last Sunday the Tour de Helsinki 2015. Despite some technical difficulties we were able to watch the race live, and I have to admit, having ridden that race before myself, it was really exciting watching the Elite race it live! The video today is seen by more than 14 000 viewers, and that's a good number for a "local race" in Finland and a nice progress from the previous live events. I guess the race attracted watchers from not just Finland but from other countries as well.
So start following Live cycling streams Finland on YouTube, and choose to receive notifications from the channel. By doing that, you'll know when there are new videos available.
It was really nice to meet Harri in person. Harri is a really great guy with similar ideas and thoughts about cycling. I truly believe this project will continue to grow and that it will give cycling fans a lot. I will stay in touch with Harri, so more information about the project will be shared on The Invisible Hill in the future as well.