It’s July, so it must be the Tour de France and the race finished a couple of days ago. The world’s biggest annual sporting event sees just short of 200 cyclists tackle over 2,000 miles in just 23 days. They race through the towns and cities of France, and across the mighty mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees. It’s nothing less than brutally hard.

The official timekeeper for the race is Tissot, the largest traditional Swiss watch brand that was founded back in 1853, in the small town of Le Locle, nestled in the Swiss Jura mountains.

It’s quite a coup to be the brand that times Le Tour but make no mistake it’s anything but straightforward, especially when there can be just milliseconds between a stage winner on a sprint stage and the rider in second place. Take stage seven of the 2017 race – two riders, (Norway’s Edvald Boasson-Hagen and Germany’s Marcel Kittel), crossed the finish line in what seemed to the naked eye and the TV cameras at least, to be a dead heat. Repeated slow-motion replays, with broadcast crews winding the footage back and forward frame by frame, proved thrillingly inconclusive. But the team of elite timing experts in Tissot’s state-of-the-art Swiss Timing truck knew better. With two tons of highly specialised equipment flashing into coordinated action, a meticulously choreographed combination of tactically positioned infrared photocells, tracking devices, transponders, lasers, and digital cameras capable of capturing 10,000 images per second enabled them to announce Marcel Kittel as the victor, by the most ridiculously small margin.

The German had won by an almost imperceptible 0.0003 seconds……a solitary slice of stop motion imagery. The rubber on the tyre on Kittel’s front wheel had met the finish line first, just six millimetres, (that’s one single pixel!!), ahead of his rival’s.

How does Tissot achieve such incredible accuracy under pressure? The magic bit of kit is Swiss Timing’s photo-finish camera. Instead of a conventional shutter, the aperture has a single vertical slit just one pixel wide, which is carefully aligned with the finish line. Through the slit, the camera takes a 10,000 frames-per-second view of the finish as the riders flash past, each frame a perfectly rendered, single pixel-wide, time-lapse image. A picture of the finish line, stretched out, digitally defined, and hyper-real.

It’s incredible to think that after cycling for 200 kilometres the big bunch sprint produced a result that could only be determined by the exceptional expertise of a Swiss timekeeping legend.

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