I like gadgets. I always have. Watches, computers, head lamps, GPS devices and digital this and that have always intrigued me. I have been known to spend hours surfing the internet reading up on the latest piece of gear that has caught my attention. From user reviews to manufacturer descriptions, I try and soak up everything I can about that next ultra high-tech toy.
And like everything else in the world, gadgets have progressed over time. GPS devices are smaller, more accurate, and have more features. Head lamps and bike lights are brighter, burn longer, and cost less. Computers just keep getting more powerful, faster, and cheaper. While the internet and the networks that support it are also keeping up the pace.
The result is an ultra connected society. Where everyone is everywhere.
The gadget evolution is playing a major role on an unexpected stage. Unsupported mountain bike racing. As the sport of endurance mountain biking has grown, so have the demands that people have placed on their gear and their bodies. People are riding longer, further, and into more and more remote areas of the wilderness than ever before. And while back country exploration is nothing new, the gear available now is bringing an entirely new level of possibilities.
People at home can now get real time information as to the location, speed and pace about everyone riding in a remote underground event. We can see what the weather is like, find out how close the nearest competitors are, see who is off route, who is leading, trailing, gaining, and fading. Observers know more about the race than the participants. And somehow an unsupported mountain bike race has eclipsed the major tours of professional cycling in the scope and speed of news and coverage.
It is a terrible and wonderful thing.
As you may know, the underground race movement is deeply grounded in self-policing its events. The rules are supposed to be simple. ‘Carry what you need or do without’. However in recent years, as more people have participated in these events a need has arisen to define what is acceptable when it comes to being able to communicate with the outside world. The ethics behind tracking devices, cell phones and telephone call-ins have and are being debated across the internet.
I own a SPOT Satellite Tracker It is a nifty little device. Is it perfect? No. But it is a step in a very intriguing direction. The SPOT lets me send text messages to email addresses and phone numbers. The messages are pre-programmed. I can send an ‘OK’ message that might say something like ‘Just checking in to say all is well’. I can also send a non-emergency ‘Help’ message. Something like ‘I am DNFing the race. I am unhurt, but need a ride’. And of course, I can send a 911 message which can also be pre-programmed. All three types of messages include GPS coordinates so the recipient can see my exact location. This is all in addition to the device being able to track my progress in real time, pinging a map every 10 minutes with my exact whereabouts.
And while this is cool, there are some blaring weaknesses.
The first is that the SPOT provides no confirmation to the user that any message is getting out. It would be brilliant if I sent off a help message, and was able to receive a confirmation from the satellite that it has been relayed. But that is not the case – yet.
The other limitation is that I am unable to receive messages. This would improve the functionality of the tracker tenfold if someone at home could send me a message. I don’t know if it will be SPOT that takes this technology to the next step, but it seems to me to be a natural evolution.
In other words, a satellite powered text messenger.
The possibilities are explosive. Racers in the Great Divide Race could text each other back and forth. Mom and Dad and significant others could check in on riders, not only getting updates on their location, but details about their mental and physical state, their attitudes and emotions, and all in real time. I can just imagine the firestorm on MTBR this would cause.
But it is the next step in GPS tracking technology.
Eventually we will all be carrying pocket sized satellite phones that will allow us to call or email anyone in the world, from anywhere in the world. The issues of coverage will be moot. There will no place that is not reachable by phone.
In the wake of the terrible tragedy this week on K2 I have to wonder how many lives could be have been saved if communication could have been faster. Maybe none. Maybe several. Even the SPOT in its current form may have helped rescuers find and locate the trapped climbers faster.
There are some who claim that a tracking device, or a GPS, or even a paper map is a crutch and should not be relied on in a competitive environment. I can see the merits of such a view. But I also realize that all the gadgetry in the world will not replace pedal strokes. It will not replace sound planning and good execution. It won’t create fitness, and it won’t prevent catastrophic failures. However, in the event of an emergency, it just might save a life.
And as soon as that happens all the arguing about the ethics behind such a device melt into irrelevance.