Roundtable: How do dotwatchers affect the racing experience?

Roundtable: How do dotwatchers affect the racing experience?

9 September, 2021

As the sport of ultraracing has grown, so has its spectator experience: dotwatching. Both virtual and in-person, dotwatchers show their support for the race and encourage riders through their lows and celebrate their highs. However, in the world of unsupported racing, we ask the panel how do dotwatchers affect the race experience?

Our panel for this roundtable consists of Anna Haslock, Managing Director at Lost Dot and Race Director of the Transcontinental Race and Trans Pyrenees Race; The Racing Collective, organisers of GBDURO and multiple Trans and XDURO races in the UK with a strong sustainability focus; James Robertson, five-time official photographer of the Transcontinental Race, TransAtlantic Way, Two Volcano Sprint, independent photographer at the Highland Trail 550 and The Adventure Syndicate's work; and Mike Dion, Film Maker of Inspired to Ride and Ride the Divide.

Safe in the knowledge that the trail/road is shared with a spectator could lead riders to make a decision they otherwise wouldn’t if they knew they were wholly alone. Do you believe riders take more risks when they know there is a dotwatcher nearby?

Anna Haslock, Lost Dot: I think this is an issue that affects set route events more than the Transcontinental Race / Trans Pyrenees Race in general. Undoubtedly there could be a temptation to take more risks in the knowledge that someone is in the vicinity to offer support. However, the question is; is that a wise decision within the framework of an unsupported event. Given that accepting outside support is not within the rules a rider should always attempt to police themselves to behave as if they were alone and without support at all times. Their consideration should be, if I accept this support can I judge myself to have competed fairly with my competitors in an event where outside assistance is prohibited.

Learning to police yourself and your fellow competitors is part of learning about this style of racing. I must respectfully disagree with Sofiane Sehili’s opinion that ‘snitching is wrong’ in the last round table (on safety equipment). We are all responsible for ourselves and also for each other and the future of our sport. It is my understanding that most (if not all) Race Directors strongly encourage riders to report rule breaches. This should not be viewed as malicious against the rider(s) concerned but a favour and duty to the racing community for preserving an honest, self-policing racing culture. It also educates those less experienced or knowledgeable. Most times rule breaches are honest mistakes and not deliberate attempts at cheating. No rule violation on the TCR is ever treated as anything other than an honest mistake until or unless we have evidence* otherwise. Mistakes are an important part of learning and anyone accepting responsibility for their mistakes and learning from them will always be winning in the long run.

*Lost Dot events have a lengthy evidence gathering & appeals process prior to results.

The Racing Collective: In short, no.

James Robertson: I don’t. I think most dotwatchers are stationary and while I’ve seen the odd dotwatcher ride with racers it has never been for anything other than a brief period of time. I actually think media teams are a much bigger risk in this respect especially if they are following an individual rider - the TCR has extensive rules around external photographers/videographers following riders for this, and several other, reasons.

Mike Dion: I don’t believe cyclists necessarily take on more risks if they think there is a random spectator somewhere out there. Because there is always the chance there is not and at the end of the day the endurance cyclist is always thinking about self-preservation. Now this may differ by event, the ethos that the race director has instilled in the event, the type of cyclist the event attracts, and how publicly the event is promoted.

2016-08-04 JR TCR

James Robertson/Transcontinental

Receiving and giving help from and to those who share the trail with us is nothing new. What do you believe to be the difference between a dotwatcher and a trail angel?

Anna, Lost Dot: I would suggest a difference could be that dotwatchers are aware of and engaged in the event and trail angels are unaware of the event. However, in my opinion, if you want to compete seriously in unsupported races that difference isn’t important because it’s the decisions and actions of the rider that matter.

For me the only way to know that you have competed fairly with your competitors is not to accept any outside support that is not commercially accessible* to everyone. There is no requirement to be dismissive of the support offered, it is intended in a spirit of generosity and kindness and in cases where a rider may choose to scratch it could be very welcome or necessary. The support could be from a dotwatcher, trail angel or fellow competitor. It is perfectly possible and indeed desirable to respect the spirit in which the support is offered while explaining your intent to respect and adhere to the requirements of racing unsupported. It is also possible and indeed desirable to accept offered support if you need it. Realising and accepting you need to accept help isn’t a problem, if your health and safety is at risk then accepting offered support should be encouraged. However, the automatic result of accepting support must be scratching from the race, even if you intend to complete the route.

*Commercially in this sense does not necessarily mean that money exchanges hands. Accessing water from a public water fountain would count as commercially accessible to everyone, the important aspect is that it is available to everyone all the time or within publicly accessible opening times (like a shop).

The Racing Collective: A trail angel has no knowledge of the race or who the rider is, whereas a dotwatcher does. That means the dotwatcher is no longer a ‘stranger’ and riders cannot rely on their help.

James: For me a genuine trail angel should be unaware of the event, and ideally unaware of the rider. Their presence should be coincidental and their help should be the genuine help they would offer anyone. I would even argue there is an ethical consideration to the amount of help you are prepared to take from someone - particularly if you are at the pointy end of the race, and particularly if there is another option open to you that would simply take longer.

Mike: In the context of this topic, in one sentence, a trail angel is a “regular person” that knows nothing of the cyclist or event whereas a dotwatcher is fully “in the know”.

Race directors have traditionally written their own rules around the “unsupported ethos”. Many rulebooks have been heavily inspired by the Transcontinental and Mike Hall’s original rules. How would you sum up unsupported racing in one or two sentences?

Anna, Lost Dot: For us unsupported racing is underpinned by what we call ‘The Spirit of the Race’. A commitment to autonomy and self-reliance and the integrity to uphold the values of equality and fair play in order to truthfully test an endeavour. With only ten rules to guide them our riders must understand and commit to riding a genuinely unsupported race without private resupply or dedicated outside assistance. Mike Hall spoke about the importance of respect and integrity in our sport in his 2016 interview with Neil Beltchenko of [Now featured here].

“We are really in a contract of integrity with our peers and it’s only [those] who have really been there who know the nuances of what is involved.” To me, the commitment to fairness and equality is one of the major rewards and values of the race. It’s the reason the finishers party is such an emotional, joyful celebration. Each person attending the party should be able to look each other in the eye and know that they shared a unique experience and that their respect for each other and respect for the race ensured a genuine, shared endeavour we could all be proud to have contributed to.

The Racing Collective: Self-supported means riding without private resupply or dedicated outside assistance. The latter stipulation causes the most confusion as riders can accept help from others providing they are genuinely strangers (hint: with no knowledge of race or rider). The key test is one of ‘equal opportunity’… riders should only do it if it’s i) available to all riders, and ii) would be available even if the event wasn’t happening. As a side note, the self-sufficient format we ran for #GBDURO20 avoids this ambiguity as the ethos shifts from ‘equal opportunity’ to ‘no assistance from others’.

James: I think Mike’s own videos that he recorded and are now available on the TCR YouTube channel are the best place to start, however;

Whether you describe these events as unsupported or self-supported I think that, on their own, those words do a lot to explain the ethos. The aim of every rider, in every self-supported race should be to complete it without any support.

Everything after that is just clarification on specific situations.

Mike: Cycle to the finish without any outside support utilizing only public services found along the way.

The rules of the Transcontinental have been summarised in 10 short rules:

Spectating a sport is often policed in some form or another. Is it fair that each race writes its own rules for riders but not for dotwatchers?

Anna, Lost Dot: To my mind it is the rider’s responsibility to know, understand and abide by the rules of the event they are participating in. I don’t think there is any harm in dotwatchers offering support because the rider in question may choose to accept it and effectively scratch from the race and either finish there or continue to ride in the knowledge they cannot be considered a competitor in an unsupported race. If the rider is truthful and honest with the event organisers and their fellow competitors then the event can be an honest endeavour.

Where a rider is unclear (I can only speak for the TCR here) they are encouraged to reach out to the organising team and seek guidance. On the TCR that advice is available 24/7 via our rider helpline - which is designed as a limited resource available to all riders in case of confusion over a specific situation. We expect it to be used infrequently because we expect riders to be able to judge situations themselves; however, we would always prefer rider’s to ask if they are unsure.

“If you are the person questioning the event rules, asking about nuances, and various what-if situations and how the rules could apply - then you might not be the person who should sign up for these self-supported events."

The Racing Collective: Given the sport is progressing rapidly it makes sense to formalise these. We are considering the following for 2022:

  1. Do not interfere with the rider e.g. by supporting them by offering food/advice/knowledge of other riders etc, riding with them, or forcing them to stop/conversing with them if not forthcoming;
  2. Do not add to the number of cars on the road (with implications for the planet and cyclists) in order to see riders – cycle/walk/use public transport instead;
  3. If a rider asks for help, it is the dotwatcher’s duty to inform the event administration (with supporting evidence where possible).

James: I think riders need to be responsible for their own ride and that includes their interaction with spectators or media teams or indeed other riders. It’s essentially their responsibility to tell someone that they can only ride and chat with them for a few minutes, or that they can’t accept any food from them.

Mike: It is difficult enough to track and enforce the rules for the cyclists let alone random dotwatchers. I believe it would be nearly impossible to enforce rules for dotwatchers. If you wanted to eliminate on-course engagement from dotwatchers, take the event totally offline and only race directors can monitor the dots. And I guess you would then perhaps need to have cyclists not post to social media or carry a cell phone...

I’m not sure who said this, but it was something like, “If you are the person questioning the event rules, asking about nuances, and various what-if situations and how the rules could apply - then you might not be the person who should sign up for these self-supported events." Remember, anyone can go ride these various race routes and see how fast they can finish. Ask yourself, why must you do it as part of an event?

2015-08-03 JR TCR

2015-08-03 JR TCR

The emotional highs and lows of a dotwatcher. James Robertston/Transcontinental

Lastly, do you believe any change needs to be made to make racing and spectating “unsupported” races less ambiguous and more fair?

Anna, Lost Dot: Before I answer this question I’d like to say this:

Two of the most valuable aspects of unsupported racing to my mind are as follows:

  1. Self reliance and the confidence and self acceptance that comes from learning what you’re capable of.
  2. The value that comes from contributing to something larger than yourself. Unsupported racing, in its purest form, exists for one simple reason; to find the fastest human to complete the course alone and unsupported. Ideally each competitor and spectator is interested in discovering who that fastest human is over and above their desire to be, or help, that human. That way every competitor and spectator’s commitment is to the essence of the endeavour above any more self centred aims.

I guess my answer to this question is yes and no...

Yes, or more accurately ‘maybe yes’… Because the sport is growing and nothing can stay the same, because everything has to evolve and develop to suit a changing reality. Maybe as more people are getting involved who have less knowledge and understanding of the history of the sport, events have to adapt and to cater to these people. Races could have larger rule books to cover more and more specific breaches however the further down that route you go the bigger the rule book has to get; which has its own drawbacks.

However, this is where my ‘no’ comes in, and this is what I hope we can maintain for the TCR. This race, and in my opinion all adventure including unsupported racing, is about taking responsibility for yourself, your decisions and your actions. That is how we all grow, from taking responsibility for our own failures and triumphs. By growing the rule book, spoon feeding information and explanations to our riders we are taking away a rider’s autonomy to make the right decision for the good of the race and their fellow competitors and we actually detract a little of the value that these events offer. I feel that making mistakes and learning from them is valuable, if Race Directors and riders are transparent and open about situations and outcomes then everyone can learn from any mistakes made.

Some Race Directors have different attitudes to what exactly constitutes outside support or have different approaches to some rules. However almost all bikepacking races were originally inspired by Mike Hall’s rules and race manual. I suppose if riders come to our event from those events they might be confused. However, to my mind the Transcontinental Race is one of the original events, taking its cues from the Grandparent of unsupported ultras; the Tour Divide. If any riders want to participate in the Transcontinental Race they need to know about it’s history, it’s ethos and it’s attitude to what constitutes unsupported racing

To hear directly from Mike Hall how he felt about the rules you can access our YouTube playlist here.

The Racing Collective: It has been ambiguous in the past and it would be good to have the rules crystalised. Our draft guidelines are above but as ever, the Transcontinental sets the tone and we would like the GBDURO and other events to adopt their guidance on this. After all, it was inspiration from Mike and Anna that led us down this path in the first place.

James: I think conversations like this are a really important part of the community moving towards a set of shared values around what self-supported means. There is always room for some differences between races, but I think it’s important we agree on the major points even if it is just to avoid rider confusion from race to race.

As the sport grows and more people become a part of this community there should be an understanding of the history of these events and also an acceptance that things will inevitably develop and evolve over time.

I also think “fair” is an important word and perhaps the bit that really needs clarification. While unsupported races are perhaps more fair than a race that requires a large entry fee, or a team to support you, they are still inherently unfair. They are expensive to take part in; they require large amounts of free time; a sponsored rider may be able to spend more time training and a wealthy rider may be able to own a “better” bike, or afford to replace it if it breaks mid race. Some rides will be won because of an uneventful ride, and others will be won despite everything going wrong. That’s part of the attraction, at least for me.

Mike: It seems simple enough… If a particular event has rules and you knowingly sign up for the event, then follow the rules. Every cyclist knows if they bent or broke the rules.

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