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Dotwatching: What is it and why do people do it?

Emma Cole
29 Oct 2021

The addictive and increasingly popular way to spectate ultracycling races

Watching a dot on a map might not drum up the same sort of explosive atmosphere that a WorldTour spectator could expect at the Tour de France, but dotwatching is an experience in its own right and it is becoming increasingly popular.

The term dotwatching describes the act of watching dots move on a map during an ultra-endurance cycling race such as the Two Volcano Sprint or the Transcontinental Race (TCR).

Ultracycling events are often in remote locations and dotwatching allows people to follow a race from anywhere in the world and from the comfort of their sofa.

Each rider is represented by a dot on the map, which includes their status (active, DNS, DNF etc) and shows their position in the race.

What is the appeal of dotwatching?

Dotwatching is the way to follow an ultracycling race, which usually spans a few thousand kilometres, and many find that watching a dot on a map transportive.

'You can follow a rider on an epic race, wherever they are in the world, and all it requires is a bit of imagination,' explains Beccy Waters who works for DotWatcher, a website dedicated to dotwatching.

'It is so addictive; you won't want to leave the map alone and the community is great too.'

Dotwatching maps, known as dot maps, are often filled with data such as how long a person has stopped for, and how much time they've spent on and off the bike.

'For those who are detail-oriented, dotwatching is great as you can analyse all of a rider's decisions, route, and sleep time, and discuss with other dotwatchers whether you think they made the best choice' adds Waters.

The dot map is also important for the riders as it is the only way most racers know where the others are.

'There are varying strategies on how riders use the map,' says Waters. 'Some choose not to look at it at all, some prefer to wait until a few days into the race whilst others look at it all the time.

'Where another rider's dot is on the map can really impact another rider's decision on whether to stop, sleep or carry on.'

How does dotwatching work?

Race organisers and riders usually provide links to a GPS map before the race, and so anyone with an internet connection can dotwatch.

Since its third edition, the TCR has had official dotwatchers, who are chosen volunteers, and those who do a good job are offered a place in the race the following year.

People apply for a volunteer position every year, and around 50 volunteers are taken on and given seven riders to dotwatch.

They are asked to spend around two hours a day following riders, checking they haven't taken any banned routes and ensuring that information about the race is accurate.

Why is dotwatching becoming more popular?

With the growing interest in ultracycling events, not just in terms of participation but also spectating, dotwatching is becoming more popular.

According to race director, Anna Haslock, the number of people who apply to be a volunteer dotwatcher at the TCR is growing each year.

'The number of people who want to volunteer as a dotwatcher is increasing every year,' explains Haslock. 'Some of our volunteers are very experienced and have been dotwatching for years, others are new and intrigued by the race.

'Dotwatching is a really great introduction to the race as it gives you an idea of the competition and the kind of scrutiny that will be on you when you are racing.

'People think they will just check the map briefly but hours later they are still there. You get totally hooked.'

Notably the website DotWatcher has seen a massive increase in appetite for dotwatching women's racing.

'We make sure we keep abreast of anything going on with the women in a race,' says Waters. 'All our commentators are volunteers, and we have to make sure they mention the women who are racing as people want to hear about it.'

Is there a dark side to dotwatching?

Whilst watching a dot may seem harmless, there have been some major incidents over the years which have shined a light on another side of dotwatching.

Haslock's partner, Mike Hall, who was regarded as one of the best endurance cyclists in the world, was killed after being struck by a car during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia in March 2017.

Hall's dot stopped suddenly and dotwatchers speculated online about what might have happened.

'There is a side to dotwatching where if it goes wrong, you can feel quite helpless,' explains Haslock. 'When Mike's dot suddenly stopped, people were getting in touch with me speculating about what had happened.

'It can be a very distressing situation.'

The future of dotwatching

Watching an ultracycling event is never going to be like spectating the Tour de France, but that's the nature of the sport and what makes it so appealing to many.

Dotwatching allows you to live vicariously through the likes of ultra cyclists Ulrich Barthomoles and Omar di Felice as they battle it out on gruelling roads far, far away, relishing the fact that they are doing it, and you aren’t.

Just don’t blame me when you go all dotty as you can’t tear your eyes away from the map.

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