When technology really works…

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About four months ago I set myself a target, which was to write about something (anything) every week. The hope being that with an ‘organic’ approach to this, I’d naturally talk about stuff that intrigued and interested me. So most of the stuff (generic term) I have talked and thought about so far has intersected technology, cycling, volunteering and those aspects of working in a fast-paced large organisation which catch my fancy. Happily – train wreck alert – I don’t try to mash them all up together but once in a while a few of them do cross paths, and create enough natural synergy to warrant a mention.

And thus it was that a few days ago I sat on a mountain top in the French Alps and received real time information from an altitude much closer to sea level about the ongoing cycle-based efforts of one of my children. So let’s rewind a bit and try to make sense of this statement.

As I have previously mentioned, I began to develop a participative interest in road cycling in early 2013, partly fuelled by the semi-obsessive cycling activities of my older son (name with-held to protect the innocent). Two years later, and a few weeks ago, I managed to complete the Ring of Kerry cycle of 180k. As did my anonymous son, albeit he did it a lot quicker than I did. Fast forward three weeks or so.

We are standing in a village in the French Alps called La Toussiere. It’s 6.15 am. 18km down the hill and below us, 15,000 crazy amateur cyclists are going to try to emulate what the professionals of the Tour de France peleton will do five days later. This involves climbing three brutal mountain passes, the middle of which (Col de la Croix de Fer) is so difficult that the professionals will be asked to do it two days in a row, on July 24 and 25. The name of this mad exercise is ‘L’Etape du Tour’ and it’s seen as a high water mark of amateur road cycling in Europe. You can’t just ‘turn up’. You register, you pay your fee and you train a lot beforehand.

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My son departs down toward the start. I go back to a fitful doze in the camper where a friend of ours has selflessly ‘put us up’, smack in the middle of La Toussiere. At 8.30 AM my phone beeps and I snap into what passes for wakefulness. And lo and behold, it is the official ‘course recorder’ telling me via the contact number (which my son supplied) that said son has passed the start line. Woah. We’re into new territory here. Someone has harnessed the tech stuff to create an interactive experience? I have never seen this kind of joined up tech stuff. I am used to bananas and hot cups of tea (added sugar for short term energy bursts) at food stops. Not the full ‘where is he now’ situation unfolding. I surmise that this quantum leap is due to the interaction of the microchip in his race number and mobile phone technology, even though my mobile is based in a country other than France. Then I do the only logical thing, put my phone on silent, turn over and doze for another two hours.

By now my son is well upon the road, getting great footage on his front and back mounted Go-Pros (a subject in itself) and generally pumping his legs at a phenomenal rate. I get another text. Wow. He’s done 45k now. Only another 95 hard km to go (for him). I give in and get up. At this rate he should be home in, oh, another six or seven hours. Oh and by the way, that’s a good/great performance in prospect, these are really brutal climbs. I dawdle. I have a café crème. I buy a bottle of water. I wander through the ‘village’ of bicycle themed stalls in the ‘fan zone’ and manage to buy only a few modest souvenir items. I congratulate myself on my discipline. I get the ski lift up to the start of the grassy Alpine meadows and begin walking through ‘Sound of Music’ territory.

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After two sweaty hours of upward progress I get to the absolute top of the mountain. There is simply no other word for the surrounding views but ‘stunning’. All round me are high, jagged and (in some cases) snowy Alpine peaks. Overhead (but disturbingly close) vultures circle. And way, way down below I can see the ant-like cyclists descend the hairpin bends on the other side of the disturbingly high ‘Col de la Crois du Fer’. Is my son among them? Well no, not yet. Because the latest text message to me says he’s 20km shy of the top of the pass and presumably working very hard to get up that hill. But that is the point. He’s working very hard and I am COMPLETELY informed of his progress. Somebody joined up the dots, and brilliantly.

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He descends, eventually. So do I (much less dramatically). I hang around the ‘1 Km to go’ marker for quite some time, watching all the madmen and women grind their way up the last winding hill from St Jean de Maurienne to Las Toussiere. It’s hard to keep clapping and shouting ‘Allez, allez’ all the time but these people really deserve it, so I keep it going as does everyone around me. Finally MY guy inches up the hill. Funny how you recognise the style/gait of someone you know so well. He’s got 600m to go and he digs it out. I take a few pictures and he slides away from me. I trot after him toward the finish line as he comes in after nine hours on the road as finisher 6409. He’s shattered but ecstatic and I’m thrilled for him. I could never have done this, and as Clint Eastwood said many years ago in ‘Magnum Force’ – ‘well, a man’s gotta know his limitations’. Very true. And I know mine.

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Fast forward (and this in many ways is the most interesting bit). 36 hours later and at our own kitchen table in Ireland my anonymous son is getting wildly excited by the fact that the organisers have just released online a) a set of photos of each finishing participant and b) a set of videos featuring them ON AN INDIVIDUAL BASIS. For 9,600 ‘official finishers. Obviously there is a fee involved, but it’s not astronomical, And IF you have paid a significant initial entry fee, driven down to the Alps, found and paid for accommodation, and (most important of all) done the hard yards, then of course you will be prepared to pay for the privilege of your ‘official’ portraits on your (probably) ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre vehicle of choice. Not to mention the videos of YOU from multiple angles on the hard climbs, the descents, the sprint and – best of all – the finishing straight. Oh yes – get out that credit card now and start downloading. Because you’re worth it. Every last cent.

And that’s the real point. I have never seen this level of joined up thinking before. They tell you (Mr Spectator) where your ‘persons of interest’ are. They keep you engaged. You know roughly when to stand at the railings and start clapping. And if you are a participant then they use that chip to sell you chunks of high definition video and digital stills that you can download. And they don’t really have to sell the images. Every drop of sweat and every grind and every leg cramp and every pause and every question in your mind going ‘can I do this’ is compelling you, once you get over that hard-won finish line, to buy every single souvenir available of your once in a lifetime experience. Trust me – if they could create a fridge magnet of you limping across the finish line – you’d buy that too. And honestly, you should, because if you finished this monster you are a hero.

And this is where the story ends, for now. The images are available, a few short clicks and a credit card number away. The technology is simply amazing. But it works, it’s timely, efficient, targeted and used for a very specific purpose. And on Friday July 24th I will fly to Rwanda #ibmcsc rwanda on my volunteering mission, while even the hardened professionals of the Tour de France inch up those mountains. I do hope to watch the taped footage of that day’s action at some future point.

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And yes, even they will find them tough going. They’ll have helicopters overhead, and spare wheels and team cars behind and every food known to man available on demand and we won’t even mention the possibility of illegal substances. But I bet they won’t get the pleasure and the sheer buzz that the amateurs got from their individualised video footage and stills of high drama. And that is where the magical intersection of the hard grind and the technology takes place. I’m excited by technology yet again…

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