Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tour de France 2013, Part 1: Marseille

As part of our summer work-vacation trip with the biketopus, I had a chance to see the 100th edition of the Tour de France. We managed to tweak our schedule so that I was able to see four stages, one in Marseille and three in and around Gap in the French High Alps. Lots of pictures were taken, and here is the first installment of photo essays.

Marseille was the finish of the fifth stage of the Tour. After three stages on Corsica and the team time trial in Nice, this stage was a mostly flat 228km from Cagnes-sur-Mer to the Marseille beaches.

Having never been to the Tour in person, I didn't have a good idea of what to expect -- how many people are going to be there? How close to the action can you get? What's the best place to be at? -- and therefore just made up things on the go. I knew that on such a flat stage there most likely would be a mass sprint at the finish and so I decided to head out to the finish area. Wanting to get a good spot, I headed out there on my Le Velo bike share bike several before the projected arrival.

The roads were already closed to car traffic, and as I assumed they'd be closed for cyclists, too, I dropped off my bike and continued on foot along the Avenue du Prado.
Two kilometers to go
While walking along the wide street and past the 2 km mark a bunch of cyclists passed me on the closed-off section of the road -- I now regretted having dropped off my bike instead of also riding on the same road that the pro riders would soon be on.
Soon after, the first team buses appeared.
It was quite funny to watch...
... how carefully they navigated through "la flamme rouge", the marker for the final kilometer. On the very first stage of the Tour in Corsica, a team bus had crashed into the finish line, causing all kinds of complications.
Untitled When I arrived at the final straightaway it was still pretty empty. I walked as far as I could, but access was restricted at the final 200 meter marker. I walked back a little bit and secured myself a nice front row spot at about 220 meters from the finish. Now the waiting began, as the riders wouldn't be arriving for another two hours.
Untitled Fortunately, the Tour organizers try hard to keep spectators entertained, and that's what "La Caravane Publicitaire" is for. It's basically a big parade of all the main sponsors, giving away free crap.
Untitled The quality of the floats ranged from "well done and funny"...
Untitled "rather strange."
Untitled What was at least as much fun as watching the caravane itself, was watching how excited people would get over a free bottle of water, polyester hats, or a pack of candy. Raining Haribos!
Kids' race arriving After the caravane had come through, two groups of young riders came racing through. First the really young ones...
Untitled ... then the somewhat older ones sprinting it out.
Here they come! The long waiting had taken its toll and I felt increasingly roasted under the Mediterranean sun, but finally the riders arrived! As expected, it was a mass sprint and as such it was over very quickly.
200 meters to go Going all out on the last 200 meters. At this point, Gert Steegmans was in front, but he was only doing the work for his team mate Mark Cavendish right behind him, who would eventually win this stage. If you zoom in on the picture you can see the big crash unfolding in the background.
Crash! The mass crash looked pretty bad at first, but it seems that nobody got hurt too badly -- which is kind of surprising, given how fast the riders must have been.
Ouch Scrapes and bruises, however, were plentiful. Ouch!

The next part of my Tour reports will follow soon.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Plan your bike rides with aggregated Strava data

Edit 2013-08-17: Please read the update at the end of the post.
Edit 2014-05-31: As this post appears to be getting a lot of search engine traffic, I'd like to point out that the functionality I'm describing here is now available much more comfortably as part of Strava itself. I guess I was not to only person intrigued by the concept.

Most people would not think of Strava as a planning tool. Sure, it's a great performance and training tracker and provides lots of opportunities to compete with fellow cyclists and yourself, but its use for route planning is less obvious.

The basic problem is this: You want to plan a ride in area that you don't know well. There are many roads, but how can you tell apart the heavily trafficked, narrow highway from the lovely scenic back road? There already are a number of tool that can help, but they all have some shortcomings. For the amount of traffic on a given road, one can look up traffic count data from state or local departments of transportation (e.g. New York State). Depending on your location, this works reasonably well for major roads, but the small back roads that are often the nicest to ride on often lack count data. Google Street View can give you a good general impression of a road -- how wide is it, does it have a shoulder, are there big potholes? -- but it can be tedious to check longer stretches of a road. OpenStreetMap allows everyone to add useful information to their geographic database, like the existence of shoulders, the smoothness of the road, or its speed limit; but so far a lot of those features are not displayed on the map and the data especially in North America is very incomplete.

Probably a nice road for cycling -- unless the road is only this empty on early Sunday mornings ... (Screenshot from Google Street View)

So wouldn't it be great if you could just ask a fellow cyclist what she thinks of the road in question? Or, as different cyclists have different preferences, if you could ask a hundred cyclists? Or a thousand? Well, why not just do that: Hundreds of thousands of athletes log their bike rides on the Strava website, and fortunately Strava provides an API that allows other applications to access that data. The folks at offer a number of different analysis tools, but for our purposes the "global heatmap" is the one that's most useful.

What the heatmap does is to basically accumulate all the GPS data from Strava and overlay it on a map, with the color of the tracks representing the number of times a road has been ridden on. If you look at Montreal, for example, you can very clearly see some of the most popular cycling routes: the Estacade across the St. Lawrence, the Lachine Canal bike path, or the various ways to climb and descend Mont Royal.

Screenshot from

 Just like the approaches described above, there are limitations to the global heatmap for ride planning as well: Less populated areas often don't have sufficient data to be displayed on the map. In addition, it's important to keep in mind that Strava is mostly used by road cyclists, evidenced by the fact that for example the very popular bike path along the Chambly Canal doesn't even appear on the map -- presumably because it has a gravel surface.

Some traces of activity on the two highways along the Richelieu River, but nothing on the bike path (Screenshot from
That being said, my own experience with using the map for route planning has been very positive. It has allowed me to discover some great cycling roads -- and avoid some of the not-so-awesome ones.

Update: As Andy and Brian have pointed out in the comments, the data used for the global heatmap is more limited than I thought: Instead of representing all or even a large portion of Strava ride data, it is only a small subset of those Strava users who explicitly have allowed the raceshape website to access their data. And at the moment there isn't even a link on the raceshape homepage to do that. If you would like to have your data included and get your own personal heatmap, use this link.