Thursday, June 30, 2011

Some Thoughts on Technology and the Tour Divide

As I write this some people have already finished the 2011 Tour Divide. Others are still out there racing along those awe inspiring miles between Banff Alberta and Antelope Wells New Mexico. As is the case every year, many riders have been unable to complete the full distance for a variety of reasons. Each rider's effort is sincere, each journey difficult and filled with sacrifice. The race is hard, harder than anyone whose never ridden it can ever imagine, and beautiful, more beautiful than any words or photographs can ever capture. Each year is unique, with weather and the world making the challenge of the moment something each racer must face as a great personal test.

I'm not going to comment much on the various racers this year, I'm sure they will tell their own stories better than I ever could, but I will state some of the obvious things:

Holy crap some of those guys are fast!

My god some of the conditions this year are horrible!

Justin Simoni is one brave, smart, stylish, tough dude. See the picture at the top of this page? Picture it covered with snow. That's the ridge along the edge of Richmond Peak, and I'm pretty sure that's about the spot where Justin and his bike tumbled down the mountain. BTW, it's steeper than it looks in the picture. Justin climbed back up and carried on. Several days later when he climbed Union Pass to find that the top of the mountain was a dazzling white undifferentiated snow, he wisely retreated to get better maps and some sunglasses. And then he went back up and over, barely paused at Pinedale and pushed on into the Basin. Sitting here in the world where hot coffee is at my fingertips and my main effort is clicking a mouse to refresh a screen filled with blue dots, I can only say "Well played, Mr. Simoni, well played!"

I would like to say a bit about technology and the Tour Divide, not to judge it as good or bad, but to point out how it has changed the race over time. In 2005, when I race the Great Divide, it was a small field of racers (seven of us started). We called in from payphones, we navigated from paper maps and very few people we met on the route had any idea that we were racing. When I raced the Tour Divide last year we all were tracked via satellite and people I'd never met would greet me by name. When I'd go off course in 2005 I'd just think "Damn, I'd better find my way back" but when I'd go off course in 2010 (some things never change!) I'd think "Damn, I'd better find my way back because I know Christine is at home looking at my SPOT dot and freaking out." It was harder to call in from payphones in 2010 because payphones are disappearing from the world. GPS may guide us perfectly and while the fast folks wisely use them, some, like Justin and myself, go out in the world to find a place where we don't spend the day staring at a screen. That doesn't make us better and it may make us slower but it's a choice some find worthwhile.

Technology has changed the Tour, as has its fame. 70 riders eat more Snickers bars than 7 so if you're a back of the pack rider in 2011 you may find emptier shelves at the mini-mart you were counting on. And the conversation with the clerk may be less of a "what the hell are you doing?" and more of a "so and so was here 4 hours ago and there is this weather coming from the east and let me show you the position of the other racers on my iPhone." Again, not good or bad, but different. Racers can and do update their Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. The stories unfold in real time.

In the next year or two remote drone cameras on mini-RC helicopters will be cheap enough that people will use them to shoot video of events like this and we'll be watching live feeds of racers struggling over snowy passes or sprinting the last long dry miles to Antelope Wells. The drama will still be in the miles, muscles and minds of the racers and in the wild weather and the harsh landscape. But the front row seats are getting ever closer and the land out there doesn't seem quite as distant as it once was.

I keep saying this isn't good or bad, it's just different. We've gained a lot with our SPOT dots and GPS and cell phones, but I think we've lost something too. I can be thrilled to watch the drama and still be a little sad because some of the distance has been lost. But out there, right now, folks are rolling, baking in the heat, freezing in the snow, trudging or turning the pedals. The effort is heroic. And that will never change.

Godspeed to the racers. Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


rkt said...

I like this post, thanks Kent.

GeekGuyAndy said...

After crewing on the Race Across America this year, I kinda wished that more teams had a SPOT. Though for that race, it was more about the crew having this ability, while the riders just do their thing and just go straight until we yell out a turn to them. As the tech gets smaller (even the new Spot we had was 1/2 the size of the older model), it can be more of a just there and available thing rather than big gadgets to carry. As a type 1 diabetic, I know I wouldn't want to be out there alone without some way to check in.

Anonymous said...

A nice balanced post on the subject. Personally I think over reliance on gadgets is only asking for trouble.


Johann Rissik said...

Too true Kent, the space has been invaded.

Bob said...

Nice post, Kent. I was a bit annoyed at the "official" GPS track that was given out this year. It used to be that navigation was part of the race and if you used a GPS it was at your own risk. Now if you have the official track loaded you are OK even if the track turns out to be wrong, whereas the map-readers can get relegated for errors.

I can't imagine doing an entire race with my head down looking at an LCD screen, but I suppose it is faster.


GeekGuyAndy said...

Bob, fortunately that's not how a GPS works. When you have a route preloaded, you never need to look down unless it beeps at you to indicate that there is an upcoming turn. I use a small GPS on most long rides, and have found it much easier and more reliable than needing to stop and look at a map. I know it's very easy to criticize those who choose the gadget route, but since most of them finish faster and are rarely if ever off course, it really is an improvement over maps and cue sheets. If I'm venturing off roads, I do carry a map as a backup, but have yet to need one. For all the concern of electronics failing, I have relied on cheap GPSs for 10 years and have never been lost, never had one break, never ran out of batteries (this latest one last 20 hours on a set of AAs available anywhere).

Just as cell phones were once a fancy gadget no one thought they needed, GPSs are coming around to be the same way. While you can certainly get along without one, they are amazingly helpful and reliable, and at least for me they make riding so much easier because I don't have to think about the route once I'm riding.

CSA said...

Anyone that finishes the Tour Divide race, let alone wins it, deserves to have their picture on a WHEATIES box (that means you Kent). Paper maps, GPS, whatever they use to find their way ... these people are athletes beyond compare. Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, who cares ... Jefe Branham is a freaking machine.

Anonymous said...

I'll say it then: surveillance drones are bad, particularly in the wild when used for spectatorship. Soon the wilderness will be a big videogame. Watch the Great Divide Tour, follow a grizzly, see the couple coupling in a remote meadow, thinking they're alone.

I agree it's coming, I disagree that it's value-neutral.

Just ask Pakistan.

Cellarrat said...

Good thoughts kent!

jimmythefly said...

I like the idea of map-reading as a skill that is required for the race, but I also like the idea that GPS helps level the playing field a small bit between the rookies and veterans (or those that have pre-ridden the course).

These are just my ideas of what happens, not sure if it really works that way, though. Kent?

Anonymous said...

Not related to your post, but here's an article you might like:
from the NY Times. Take care, Line

Sheilar said...

Balanced and well said.
I loved having the SPOT. My family and friends were glued to it. The people who popped up here and there and knew who we were "seemed" harmless ;) We also loved our GPS. We had maps and cues, are seasoned adventure racers who are experienced map readers. The GPS was just another tool in the box.

bike princess83 said...

Kent is there any forum I can find where i can locate other riders who want a teammate???

Kent Peterson said...

Bike Princess83

The forums on

are where a lot of Tour Divide stuff gets discussed. You can connect up with other Tour Dividers there.