Behind the scenes #2: Follow My Challenge
Most stories about bikepacking and ultra-cycling events are told around the marvelous achievements of riders: The days and nights with close to zero rest, the mechanicals that cannot stop the soon-to-be winner, the exhaustion of neck muscles “fixed” with whatever is at rider’s hand and many more. BEHIND THE SCENES shades a light beyond.
This episode is all about tracking! Everyone needs it from event organizers over riders to dot watchers – and most of you love it! GPS tracking brings adventures from around the world to the screens at our homes to follow along at any time. But what happens behind the scenes? Check out the interview with Tedde de Boer, the founder and owner of Follow My Challenge, to get an idea of what makes the dots move and experience a big announcement around this year’s edition of probably the most iconic ultra-cycling event in Europe firsthand.
7.500 - 10.000 KM
ON AVERAGE PER YEAR
Tedde is a Netherlands-based founder, tech guy, outdoor enthusiast, father and cyclist. He started cycling early on and got fascinated by technology – both ingredients of what he turned into a business: Follow My Challenge.
While growing up, he always had a fascination for technology. After some hobby electronic projects and a side job at a sound & light company, he started coding once computers got more and more into people’s daily lives – and so he does today at Follow My Challenge. Messing around with computers, servers, writing code and still building his own amps on the side.
Back in 2017, his girlfriend and he decided to pack their panniers to cycle across the US. They flew to New York and started their tour towards San Francisco mainly following the Trans Am route – a 10.000 KM ride they would never forget! After their return from the trip Tedde put his main focus on building Follow My Challenge.
Over the years cycling dropped to a lower priority and after becoming a father in 2020, it dropped a little more. Nowadays, he’d call himself a ‘nice weather rider’. When the sun’s out, that’s the time to clear his mind, think of new ideas and enjoy nature on a ride. Never riding fast, but always thoughtful.
What is Follow my Challenge and how did you come up with the idea?
Follow My Challenge is a live GPS tracking company. We provide (custom) GPS tracking maps for all kinds of adventures, challenges and races. Our large rental fleet of 2.000+ GPS tracking devices allows us to provide complete GPS tracking packages to any size of events. We can even take care of participant registrations.
Back in 2015, I provided the late Lee Fancourt (cyclist) with a promotional website while he went on various record attempts. On the first attempt, we embedded the default SPOT widget. Unfortunately, this widget only showed the last 50 waypoints while Lee was cycling from the North Cape to Tarifa in Spain.
Given the length of this challenge, only 50 points did not do it justice. I started collecting the data through the SPOT API, storing it locally in my own database and so I could display the track recorded as a whole. From there on, I kept developing the tracking platform. The more data I gathered, the more calculations I could perform upon this.
Not too long after this record attempt, I was asked if the tracking could be used for other challenges as well. Of course, why not? We should make it possible for others to follow their challenges, too. Voilà, Follow My Challenge was born.
In 2022 you will provide GPS tracking to about 100 events all over the world. What about the importance of bikepacking and ultra-cycling events and how do you engage with the community?
Bikepacking and ultra-cycling events are very important to us. It is the majority of what we provide tracking for and it is what started Follow My Challenge.
Being a cyclist myself, it is a great pleasure to provide tracking to these events. There is a whole variety of events, from collecting cake to super fast ultra sprints. The amount of mutual respect and camaraderie within these events is enormous. While riders chase each other on the bike, there’s always room for a beer and a smile afterwards.
It is also a great pleasure to see how these events evolve. Some events we’ve been tracking for over five years in a row now. Not only do they grow and mature, they have also contributed a lot to the development of Follow My Challenge.
We engage with the community primarily through social media, like Instagram. We try to follow the social happening around each event in order to pick up bits and pieces that we might turn into enhancements of the software. We also monitor references to ‘Follow My Challenge’ online, for example on forums.
I remember, some years ago, while digging into a thread about a certain race, somebody mentioned ‘it is a shame we cannot see the average moving speed’. It is these feedbacks that are very important to us. We developed it and before the event finished, it was there – and it still is. This, once again, indicates the importance of the community. The community feedback adds value to our platform and we hopefully return this by fulfilling their demands.
What makes the perfect tracking experience for organizers, riders and dotwatchers?
I am not sure if there is such thing as ‘the perfect experience’. We have to serve a very broad audience. From organizers trying to monitor their event over participants checking in to see where their competitors are all the way to friends, family and even grandparents trying to follow along. Everybody is interested in certain specific details. The organizers want to know where everybody is, are they on track and are their batteries still charged? The participants want to check on their own progress and competitors in the ranking.
In my opinion, the key is keeping things simple. Everybody should be able to find what they are looking for with few clicks and without an on-screen overload of data. It is our task to guide you intuitively towards the data you’re looking for. I can tell you that is quite challenging with many different devices and screen sizes.
When I started, I made the promise to myself to make ‘good decisions’. I did not want to create a platform with a lite, normal and premium pricing model. Premium should be the norm and available for each and every client. In the end, it is our platform that we are proud of and want to showcase in its full potential.
I have always chosen quality over quantity. That is why our platform, for example, does not run on the free tiles of Leaflet (note: Leaflet is an open source library for building maps). I decided to run Follow My Challenge on paid map layers from Maptiler. I wanted to have weather data, so we have a paid weather provider. And these are just two out of many more features that we license.
In the beginning, these decisions have been tough from time to time and even more during the covid pandemic. All these investments, year after year, did not seem to come to an end. But finally, it pays off as it formed Follow My Challenge into what it is today.
Finally, I do believe that communication is key for organizers. Organizing an event takes a lot of time and you want things to go as expected. We often hear that other companies are very slow or sometimes don’t even reply at all to inquiries. That’s a shame. You can contact us, at any time, in various ways like social channels, chats, WhatsApp, mail, etc. Does your event start at 4:00 a.m.? Then we set the alarm to monitor the start of the event in order to ensure things run smoothly. After all, it is in our best interest as well.
As you mentioned, there are a couple of tracking providers out there. What can you tell about the market?
You can find tracking providers in almost every country. All of which have their own specialty. Some are more focussed on adventure races, some on trail running and others on bikepacking and ultra-cycling events. There are simple platforms, which are more affordable and more complex ones which are a bit more expensive.
In the end it is just like bikes: There is a mountain bike, a gravel bike and a road bike. Are you going for aluminum or carbon? It is good and healthy to have choices.
You have a software engineering background coming from a tech business. What’s the role of technology in your business?
It is huge. I think at least 50% is about technology, 30% client contact and 20% logistics. When I started in 2015, we ran the application on a simple shared hosting package. That went fine, up until we had a challenge that reached the BBC and other large news stations around the world. The shared server, including all kinds of websites from others, went down multiple times. I was kindly asked to migrate the application towards a cloud server.
Fast forwards, we now own and maintain two physical servers hosting over 10 virtual private servers with a total of almost 100 CPU cores. It is interesting and you learn every day.
Gladly, we have been able to build things up step-by-step over the past years. This also applies to the application. We build, enhance and improve it every time, bit by bit.
What are the challenges that you and your team face in providing a great tracking experience for cycling events?
The biggest challenge for us is to make sure everything keeps running smoothly during the events. All vital servers are set up at least as N+1 (i.e. immediate fallback) but still, it is humans who developed the code. And no matter how much you test, there is always something that could occur and needs attention.
Therefore, we have set up a variety of monitoring tools. They monitor the basics, like server availability/uptime, but also detailed graphs upon performance of all servers and the whole platform. How much time does it take to load per request? How much time does it take to process the data? This data, in the form of graphs and an almost flight data recorder like application, allows us to detect weaknesses that need attention before they become problems.
If they are flagged as high risk, they will trigger my emergency phone which is with me at anytime, 24/7. Imagine, Lachlan Morton finishing Badlands or The Alt Tour: Events like these cause enormous peak loads. These things are challenging for the platform, for the servers and for us monitoring everything.
And what was your most challenging request for a tracker?
Custom trackers are always more challenging because you have to deal with newly written features that are designed specifically for an event.
Think of SUCH (Suisse Ultracycling Challenge): We have linked the platform to an external API in order to request in which Swiss Canton the participant is. This resulted in the event ranking based upon the Canton count.
Another challenge is, for example, an Everesting attempt tracker. We perform distance on track detection based upon a reference GPX file. But how do you detect the position of a rider going back and forth on the same 2.000 meters over and over again?
COVID-19 has been a challenge. While the cycling industry has skyrocketed, many events were postponed or even canceled. How has the pandemic affected you?
It was pretty tough. At the beginning of 2020, we re-invested almost everything earned during the previous year into Follow My Challenge. It was supposed to be the busiest year ever. We just ordered a large amount of new GPS trackers, new SIM cards, flight cases, a brand new server, and a license for the map tiles when COVID-19 was about to start.
It was tough waking up with cancelations on a daily basis. The bank account was empty and the schedule got more empty day by day. We suffered hard like many small companies around the world did. Not much that we could do about it. I could rewrite the code to work as a virtual tracking platform, like some other tracking providers did, but I decided not to.
I wanted to stick to the plan and use the time wisely to keep working on the tracking platform and infrastructure. We also managed to establish partnerships worldwide. Besides that, the extra spare time happened to come in handy, as I became a father for the first time, in April 2020. Although 2020 was a tough year business wise, we made the best out of it!
What’s coming up next in 2022 and beyond with Follow My Challenge?
I am really grateful to be tracking that many events already and together with amazing partners worldwide. It is a pleasure to work with all organizers as everybody is so positive and energetic. I am looking forward to seeing what the future will bring and how we, together with the feedback from the field, can grow our platform even further.
I am also very excited to share the news that we will be providing tracking for The Transcontinental Race as well as The Trans Pyrenees, organized by Lost Dot, in 2022. The Transcontinental is one of the most respected events out there. It was the inspiration for many of the events that we now work with, so it’s genuinely an honor to provide the GPS tracking for this year’s edition.
Any advice you want to share with organizers looking for a tracking provider?
Pick us! No, seriously, determine your requirements up front and specify a budget. Then you’re able to select and compare different providers. Some events are more than fine with just a map and a dot, whereas others look for more features or even specific GPS tracking devices.
Finally, if you had a tracker and some time off, where would your dot be moving?
Good question. Following all these great events is inspiring. Maybe, I should go for some cake in Switzerland (DEAD ENDS & cake), while checking off some Cantons (SUCH) or take things one step FURTHER.
FOLLOW MY CHALLENGE
- Live GPS Tracking for adventures, challenges and events worldwide
- More than 2.000 trackers available
- 7+ years of experience
Fotos: Follow My Challenge, Tedde de Boer