June, 2015

Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Frondo

Tour of Cambridgeshire Gran Frondo Number

“This is a race!”

That’s what the chap on the public address tannoy kept telling us as we queued up in our pens for Sunday’s start of the UK’s first ever Gran Frondo.

Technically it was a race. And those keen club riders were in a front pen which would be let off first and have Shimano neutral support vehicles helping them. Dependent on timings, they would get UCI qualification points towards something bigger further down the line. The bulk of us, however, were in a second pen which was more akin to sportives. That is, highly organised day rides with lots of assistance and in particular drink and food stops. The only person I’d be racing would be me.

In any event, even if I had wanted to “race” we were released a minute or so after the elite riders, and since there were around 6,000 of us in total, it took a couple more minutes to get past the start gate.

This was actually my first sportive. and I was riding by myself. Although the race started from Peterborough Showground at midday, it still necessitated a 6am wake-up followed by a twenty minute ride to a remote station (my line wasn’t running due to engineering), two trains, another thirty minute ride and then a pre-10am registration.

To be honest, they could have sent us our details in the post. But there were concessions open, and they obviously didn’t want 6,000 people all showing up with about 15 minutes to go. Since the route from the station to the Showground was fiddly (although nice, if you took the cycle paths), a few of us stuck together with a combination of scribbled help and Google Maps.

Once check-in had been completed, there was quite a lot of sitting around to do. There were stupidly long queues for breakfast or coffee. I’d had an early breakfast before I set out, although it would be approaching lunchtime as we set off.

Finally the race was on. And even though I wasn’t “racing”, everyone set off at a really decent pace. I found myself easily averaging over 30 kph. To put this in context, I usually ride at around 23 kph when I’m on my own. But this was a flatter course, and there were lots of people around me. That said, I actually did a very limited amount of slip-streaming over the course of the day.

The thing to note about the route was that it was flat. Very flat. I’ve ridden in Cambridgeshire a fair bit, but in the part around Cambridge itself. This route was mostly amidst the Fens. And the Fens, unsurprisingly, are pan flat. The Fens are a very remote place. You need to travel miles to reach the nearest town. The race coming through therefore represented relatively little disruption. They are a fascinating and beautiful place. I suspect that life out there is quite unlike other places. Because the area has been artificially reclaimed, the roads are straight – very straight. They’re often called droves, and we would find ourselves cycling mile after mile with barely a kink in the road.

A key thing about this event was that it was a closed road event. Fully closed road events are relatively rare in the UK, and the organisers promised that as long as people kept a reasonable pace up, they’d stay closed.

What that meant in practice was that the locals came out in force to applaud riders as they came through. Many families seemed to just set up some deckchairs by their front gate and cheer people on as they rode past. Pubs seemed to be doing good business along the route too.

The first drink and food stop was in a very curious place – the old Alconbury airfield. It was closed as an airbase in 1995, and today seems to have industrial units and is also used as a mass storage area. There were hundreds of lorry trailers parked and many brand new cars stored there. We zig-zagged through the site until we ended up on the main runway, and rode a mile down it, the heat of the day causing shimmering in the distance. We then turned around and rode up one of the taxiways.

It was around here that I first noticed what would become a steady number of accidents. While I never saw one happen myself, it was clear that they were happening for one of two reasons. Either people weren’t seeing problems on the road – unexpected speed-bumps for example – perhaps coming as they were drinking from their bottle. Or they were being clipped by passing bikes. Early on in the event I kind of understood why there was a fast-moving train of bikes coming through – perhaps a group of club riders had been further back in the pen and wanted to get a good time. But I was confused to find with 30 km left, there was still a steady stream of them. Were they taking really lengthy breaks? (I was stopping for ~ 5 mins each time).

And you could also tell if someone was rearing up with deep-rimmed wheels. They make quite a noise as they come through. Whether or not they were smart to use in the windy Fens is another question.

I didn’t have any issues myself, but the likely causes were fast chains on the right running into inexperienced riders who weren’t riding in straight enough lines. There usually seemed to be first aid on hand, but it certainly made you want to be cautious.

While as I’ve mentioned, the course was flat, the big issue out in the Fens was the wind. It was a very clear day, and the temperature was comfortable. But there was wind. It wasn’t obvious when you were riding along hedgerows. But basically there are no hedgerows to protect you. Indeed, you’re riding slightly higher than everyone else in the landscape.

As I mentioned, only occasionally did I manage to hook onto others – they were either going too fast for me or too slow. So for a lot of those exposed roads, I ended up going down on my drops to minimise air resistance as much as possible and just ploughed on doing my own thing.

Near enough everyone was on a road bike, but there was at least one tandem that I saw regularly. Usually it overtook me, before stopping at the side of the road allowing me to overtake it, then it’d happen again. I noticed that both riders had their own GPS units, I guess because the rider at the back doesn’t have the greatest view ever. There were also a lot of upright bikes. When I was still seeing them with just a few kilometres to go, I was full of admiration. As I’ve mentioned, the wind made me want to keep a low profile.

There were three stops along the course, although I didn’t know we’d be getting the third. But I did need the stops – if only to stretch my legs a little. Because it was flat, you were pedaling the whole time as opposed to working on a climb and then freewheeling down it. There was very little freewheeling.

We returned into Peterborough, and I road the last few kilometres at over 30 kph, even putting on a sprint finish (in retrospect “sprinting” at 500m to go was not sensible).

Over the line in 4:47 according to my Garmin, although my official time, which will include my three stops, will be higher than that.

There was a little confusion about where you had to go to collect your medal, but eventually I got in the right queue. Subsequently I read that some people felt roads were opened too early, and that the first food stop shut down too soon. Maybe it was as well that I headed off out fast?

On the plus side, it seemed well organised, and it was a good day out. Using the entire road is a wonderful privilege.

Risk

Our understanding of risk is very much misplaced. When we hear about fatalities in train or plane crashes, the news is widely reported. New safety regimes are put in place. There are large scale changes made. But the reason these incidents are reported is because they’re so unusual.

Sadly, the biggest transport killer is our roads.

Last week there was an accident on a ride at the Alton Towers theme park. Rides have been closed in other theme parks, and Alton Towers itself has only just re-opened. Refunds are being offered to those who no longer wish to visit.

But the way the incident has been reported suggests that most people really don’t take heed of real risks.

I would not for a moment want to make light of last week’s awful accident at Alton Towers. The injuries sustained by the victims of it will be felt for the rest of their lives in some cases.

But to put things into perspective a little, let me do some maths.

Alton Towers had around 2.5m visitors in 2013.

In the year ending June 2013 (the most recent reported year), there were 24,580 killed or seriously injured casualties on our roads including 1,760 deaths (Serious injuries are defined here. In short, they’re serious).

To put that in perspective, this is a good number. When looking at deaths in particular, it’s the second lowest figure since records began – the lowest being the year before. Deaths have been reduced by 44% in the last eight years.

There were an additional 168,710 casualties who were “slightly injured.”

In the year ending June 2013, a total of 239.4 billion vehicle miles were driven by cars (I’ve excluded commercial vehicles, and totalled four quarterly numbers for cars).

I’m going to have to make some assumptions now.

Let’s assume that 75% of people who arrive at Alton Towers do so by car. I can’t find a proportion reported, but while there will be significant numbers arriving by rail and coach, Theme Parks by their very nature are set up for car drivers. 75% feels like a fair number.

Let’s assume that each car is carrying on average four people. A family.

Finally let’s assume that each car is driving an average of 100 miles to and from the theme park. 50 miles each way. That seems reasonable. Two hour drive times are often quoted for theme parks, and that’s well within that distance. I suspect I’m low-balling this number with many prepared to drive significantly further.

That gives us 46,875,000 vehicle miles driven to and from Alton Towers.

But we know that there is one person killed or seriously injured every 9.7m miles driven, and one person killed every 136m miles driven.

In other words 4.8 people a year are likely to be seriously injured on their way to or from Alton Towers each year, with one death happening every three years.

This would seem to be the most dangerous part of a visit to the theme park – driving there and back.

Lots of assumptions, and of course this makes no difference to those who’ve suffered in this accident. But getting in your car and driving is one of the most dangerous things you do. Yet aside from massive multi-lane pile-ups, or accidents involving famous people, it’s not an area that gets reported even though nearly five people a day are dying in car accidents.

Yahoo Pipes RIP

Yahoo Pipes was one of those very clever things that not too many people were aware of, but those who did use it, probably quite liked. Essentially you could take feeds of various bits of data and do things with them, using a graphical layout to program your output.

In the distant past, I’ve used it. Although I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve not turned to it for quite a while. Years probably. However, Yahoo is closing it down. Once upon a time, people wondered about the processing power Yahoo was essentially giving you free of charge. I suspect today that it’s still chunky but nothing it couldn’t really handle. But given that Pipes’ own blog hadn’t been updated in 2.5 years, Yahoo has clearly lost interest.

That said, it still sits there producing some output for me until this day! Essentially I took this blog’s RSS feed and merged it with RSS feeds from some of my other output – Twitter, Flickr and YouTube – to create one giant “everything I do” feed.

But since I changed to WordPress a couple of years ago, I’ve not promoted the feed. And since Feedly says the feed has a single reader, I suspect that’s actually me, testing the feed works. In fact it doesn’t. Twitter has changed its API rules on many occasions, and the YouTube feed doesn’t seem to work. So anyone following that feed will currently see the output of this blog alongside any photos I publish. Of course, my better photos tend to get posted on this blog anyway. And if you love my photography, following me on Flickr is the way to go. Or just adding my Flickr RSS feed to your feed reader if that’s how you roll.

On top of this, although Pipes was of it’s time, I suspect that things like IFTTT have really been at the cutting edge of this kind of thing more recently. It’s not the same, but it has a wider set of tools to play with.

Feeds are seemingly always out of fashion despite the fact that I swear by them. My Feedly Pro susbsciption is essential.

Anyway, I thought I’d reference Pipes’ passing, and if you’re a person reading this in a feed reader who sees photos alongside these pieces in your feed, then you need to update!

Live Video Streaming

Last week Periscope, the live video streaming app now owned by Twitter, was released for Android. This came a month or two after it was first available on iOS. It isn’t alone in this marketplace – we also had Meerkat which got a leap on Periscope when it was released at SXSW. But the traction seems to be with Periscope with that Twitter integration (and the “un”-integration with Twitter of Meerkat).

This is all well and good, but these two apps are by no means the only live streaming apps around. YouTube has had it for ages – you just need to turn it on for your account. And there are numerous other apps which you can find if you search the various app stores.

But I remain dubious about the long-term demand for these apps, and particularly with the latest bunch led by Periscope.

Here are a few reasons for me saying this:

1. Most of us really don’t have anything interesting to livestream.

Perhaps the best examples (and I use “best” very lightly) that I’ve seen so far for Periscope come from journalists and broadcasters. So a TV show or radio show that was already being broadcast suddenly has an iPhone propped up somewhere so you can get either an alternate view, or to see a show that otherwise had no video (i.e. radio). Whether this is any better than a webcam is debatable.

Otherwise I’ve seen some live reviews, or discussions happening on Periscope. But I remain unconvinced that “Live” is particularly important. How is this any better than just posting a video on YouTube?

2. If you do have something interesting to show, you might not be allowed to.

The biggest example of this so far was perhaps the Pacquiao v Mayweather fight last month. With PPV costs in the US running close to $100, there were lots of reports of people seeking streams via Periscope. Of course, if you really wanted to watch the fight illegally, there are probably better places to go that aren’t based around someone propping up a portrait-oriented smartphone and directing it at their landscape-oriented TV.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to go to the FA Cup Final where Arsenal trounced Aston Villa 4-0. As the final minutes approached, I thought I’d have a go at Periscoping the end of the game. I’m on EE. Wembley Stadium is “Connected by EE” – let’s see how it would cope. Not enough bandwidth was the answer. With 90,000 in the stadium that’s perhaps not surprising. Ordinarily I can barely get a text out from a football stadium, let alone use streaming video. To be fair, I thought I was doing well getting Twitter working and being able to send photos out on my feed during the match. Either way, I clearly had no rights to be “broadcasting” the FA Cup Final. At the moment, this practical limitation is probably enough to assuage some rights holders. Pointing my phone at a TV at home is something else though.

3. Most of the time I miss the event.

Yes, the app pings me to say that someone I know has started streaming, but as a rule, I’m not just sitting about hoping someone is going to stream something interesting.

I might miss the live notification from the app, or not see the Twitter message until it’s a few minutes old. By then it’s often too late. And I’m not aware that you can post out URLs in advance of your broadcast so that recipients can be ready for, say, a 4pm broadcast. All you can do is alert your followers to the fact that you plan to broadcast then and that they should keep watching for a link.

4. Much of what’s streamed is dull.

You know this is true. Yes, because it’s young, you probably get a few viewers to your broadcast. But time is short, and most people have got something more interesting to do than watch somebody else’s party.

That may not be entirely true for everyone – teenagers for example. But how many of us really want to experience your fantastic social life remotely on our phones.

If you happen to be on the ground during some kind of major news event, then great. Broadcast away. But most of us will never be in that situation. And in any case, you’re still better just videoing things on your phone and uploading the video later. At least that way you can be sure your video doesn’t expire after 24 hours – something I truly don’t get aside from more salacious uses (see Snapchat). There’s a certain false exclusivity created – you had to be there to see it – but that’s about it.

And if I’m a celebrity then I sort of get it. They could be fun Q&As, or streams from exclusive events (the event holders may have something to say thought). But most of us aren’t celebrities.

If you really do have something to say, are you not better putting your video up on YouTube?

5. Portrait.

Truth be told, this is my biggest issue of the lot. Why are we forced to use portrait? It’s mostly dreadful.

For 99% of use cases, landscape (i.e. the orientation we use computers in and watch TV) is better. We have two eyes and they are not positioned one over the other!

We see the world in landscape.

There are only a limited number of use cases where portrait video makes sense. Don’t do it. If there is more than one person in your video, it begins to get awkward very quickly. Even if your video is only going to be seen on other mobile devices, it still doesn’t make any sense.

I know that phones are mostly used in portrait mode. But it’s not as though people are incapable of turning their phones 90 degrees. (If I designed a smartphone I reckon I might mount the camera unit so that photos came out landscape if they held the phone in portrait mode, just to flummox people!)

Try watching a Periscope video on a laptop. It’s a horrible experience leaving most of the screen empty. Amusingly you can zoom right into the centre section, but that’s even worse – a fuzzy mess.

Incidentally this is also why I don’t really use Instagram. Why should I be forced to take all my photos in square format? How about letting me decide my own ratio for my photos?

Flickr’s mobile app used to prompt users to turn their camera to landscape, but sadly it no longer seems to do so.

Summary

Look I realise I’m “old” and probably just “don’t get it.” But I’m going to take a bit of persuading to be convinced that live video broadcasting like this is going to be a thing. Certainly I understand Skype and Facetime, or Google Hangouts. They make sense. I even understand – vaguely – the appeal of Twitch. Then there are the YouTubers. They’re financially incentivised to use that platform, and their ever improving production values tend to require post-production before publishing rather than an unedited stream. Doing live broadcasting decently is hard.

There may be some limited use cases where these services fill a hole. Time will tell. But I remain utterly unconvinced, and think it’s just a fad right now.