6 Million Trackleaders

I’ve been meaning to write this code for a while. It would dig through the trackleaders archive, and do a little counting. The results are a little staggering, at least to me.

That’s a lot of tracking, a lot of adventure covered. 6 million miles!

It started back in 2008 or 2009. I was still finishing up my PhD, and working on TopoFusion when I could. Matthew Lee was keen to promote ‘the’ Tour Divide, and bring home the experience of the race to friends, family and fans. He put together a small fleet of SPOT Gen1 devices, and tracked the (then small) event with the help of Kevin Montgomery.

Matthew offered to track my event, the Arizona Trail Race. I turned him down! I felt like it changed something fundamental in the race, and like it might give some indication that it is a ‘real’ event (it’s not). I was resistant to new technology, just as I had been when I first starting riding with a GPS — back in 1999 (when Selective Availability was still in effect). I don’t need no stinking GPS! Map and compass has always worked just fine! Silly me.

Somewhat ironically, it was my friend Mike Curiak that pushed me towards tracking. The next winter he was heading out for another go at his fully unsupported Iditarod expedition. He was carrying a SPOT device. Jill Homer and I took over his blog and were tasked with writing speculative updates as he hauled his 100+ pound bike across Alaska. Our primary source of information? SPOT tracking data.

I started writing code inside TopoFusion to read and analyse the data. Soon I had the pieces I needed to create a tracking system. It sounded like a fun distraction from my PhD work, which I was trying to draw out until they kicked me out of school for taking longer than the 10 year (!) limit. Of course riding bikes was the main distraction….

Matthew saw that I was building the system he wanted, and quickly got in touch. I agreed to track the next Tour Divide, a little hesitantly. You see, at this point I was still the webmaster and a co-organizer of the Great Divide Race. The GDR was the original divide race, and though it was quickly dying, the dust had not completely settled from the ‘divide wars.’ That Matthew and I were able to see past any previous differences and work towards a common goal is something I’m still proud of.

We had a lot in common — a passion for mountain biking, camping, bikepacking and racing. We wanted to share bikepacking passion with the world and get more people into it. We also were looking for a way to make all the time we had for years been volunteering towards the sport be… more justified, at least in our heads. We knew there wasn’t an actual *living* to be made from bikepacking (and there still isn’t) but we could feel better about the time spent answering thousands of emails and zapping SPAM on bikepacking.net, if a little bit of actual rent-paying dollars were coming in.

And that’s how it started, more or less. We had a small fleet of trackers sitting idle most of the year, so it was only natural that we look for other events for them to participate in. The goings were very slow at first. People were resistant to technology, resistant to change, just as I had been. We had to ‘seed’ events in the beginning — working for free, or for peanuts. There were lots of late nights working on the code, with very little reward. Race directors had lukewarm responses to tracking. There was no room in their budget to pay for it.

Luckily, and this is another great thing about the trackleaders partnership, we are both very fiscally conservative. We kept our expenses to a minimum — trying for a sustainable business model. We know how to live like dirtbag bikepackers, and that mentality transferred over to our business, I guess. Keep it simple, carry only what you need.

We were also very self-motivated. The (then small) set of bikepacking races kept going every year, and we were as big of fans of them as anyone. I’d be following the Colorado Trail Race and wonder what the weather was like over Eszter’s head, over the ‘EH’ not-quite-yet-pink dot (pink came later). So I’d add a radar layer. We’d be following the leaders on the divide and want to compare paces and rest/run cycles, so the Race Flow chart was born.

Somehow we survived through the early years of almost no revenue coming in, while working our asses off. Slowly, things began to change. Race directors started to see tracking as essential. After a year or two of free tracking, adding it to the budget was a no-brainer. Other events saw that people were using tracking and said ‘me too!’. Our hard work in seeding had payed off. Whole new genres were opening up to us.

There are only two of us, so there’s really only so many events we can handle (sustainable business, or something like that). We didn’t need to go seek out new events, and seed them, after a while. We tracked some major ones that proved to be too much work and too much stress. Sleep deprivation is one thing on the bike, but I’m much less a fan of it on the computer. 3am phone calls get old, after a while.

And it’s working. I guess we’ve achieved some small level of ‘success’ in that we are making a living out of it, and have plenty of work. I’m very happy and grateful for that. It’s rewarding work in that it can be fun, and aligns with my interests and passions. It’s portable work, allowing Eszter and I to live our vagabond lifestyle that we love so much (even if there is a lot of uncertainty involved in how and when I need to work). Both of these advantages outweigh the ‘downside’ that I could maybe be making more money doing something else, or working for someone else. Time and quality of life are worth a lot, too — much more than money, in my humble opinion.

Along the way we’ve had some considerable luck and the kind and patient help of many. Dave Harris has offered many suggestions and wrote BlueDot for us! (Thanks Dave). Enthusiastic fans have offered all sorts of input and feedback that has shaped the software and the way we run things (particularly in the dog sled world). Eszter’s dealt with late nights, 2 am phone calls from Matthew, and sudden changes in plans (let’s ride! oh wait, maybe not!). Early race directors believed in us, and believed in tracking. Bikepackers offered their support, and kept renting devices from us, helping us stay afloat. Fans, family and racers alike have hit the ‘donate’ button to support access to ‘radio free’ tracking.

Brush Mtn Lodge – the legend

I’m very grateful for Matthew and how understanding he’s been throughout the partnership. I mean, I was a homeless bike bum for four months last summer, with only a shiny new smart phone and a cheap laptop waiting in strategic Post Offices. We tracked *a lot* of events during that time, and somehow avoided any major catastrophes. We work well together, even though we’ve only spent a ~week or so in each others presence, total. Matthew lives in North Carolina. We met at the start line of the 2005 Great Divide Race. He came to Arizona to race Coconino and hang out at my house for a few days. We spent a few more days at Brush Mountain Lodge, meeting racers and running TD unofficial HQ, one year. That’s it, that’s the total time we’ve ever spent together.

home cooking for TD racers

It’s been a bit of an unlikely and maybe an odd partnership, but it’s been a good one, even as we’ve made some mistakes. SPOTs get lost in the mail or held up in customs. Races have been delayed waiting for a shipment. I’ve fallen asleep with my phone on vibrate — unable to wake me. The server has crashed, overwhelmed with traffic. Bugs have prevented people from getting updates. I’ve torn my hair out over differences between web browsers and anything having to do with Internet Explorer. Then there was the time I got a text from Matthew saying he was on a last minute flight to Canada (!) to personally deliver a box of SPOTs that weren’t going to make it otherwise. Or the time we forgot to renew the trackleaders.com domain registration, and it happened to expire the very day Tour Divide started. Oh yes, there have been some funny ones. Or at least stories that are funny now, in retrospect.

same awesome logo – we are so PRO

But by and large, it’s been incredible. We’ve tracked many cool events, seen records blown away on our website, and provided additional safety and peace of mind to many. It’s fun work, and I hope it continues to be so for another 6 million plus miles.

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