Data As Story

This is the story of the numbers. My journey from Boston to San Francisco, mostly by bike, was relatively tech-ish, or at least more techy than any cross-country ride 10 years ago could have been. Everything I needed was in the form of one app or another my phone. In Colorado, I met a couple at Lizard Head Pass in Colorado who were taking in the view when I reached the summit. The gentleman had done his own cross-country ride decades ago when he was in his 20s, and he told me he had to carry a big road atlas to navigate. That would be different…

I recorded my ride every day with two apps on my phone: Ride With GPS and Strava. Sometimes Ride With GPS was also navigating me along routes I had pre-planned, and sometimes I used Google Maps to override my original plan. I took pictures with my phone, checked the weather with Weather Underground, shared pictures with Instagram (@mccronecolin), blogged with WordPress, and kept in touch with friends via texts, Facebook, Twitter (@colinmccrone), and Gmail on my phone. It felt odd but also pleasantly old-timey when I switched to using paper maps between Pueblo, CO, and Carson City, NV.

With tech comes data. Elevation gain and loss is notoriously difficult to calculate, and the two apps I used to record my rides gave different results. Either way, the scale of the thing is still insane even for me to think about.

Tot Distance                  3,614 miles       5,816 km
Tot Moving Time                 317 hr            317 hr
Tot Avg Speed                  11.4 mph          18.3 km/hr
Tot Elev Gain (Strava)      141,783 ft         43,215 m
Tot Elev Gain (RWGPS)       179,620 ft         54,748 m

Max Distance/Day                111 miles         179 km
Max Moving Time/Day            9.05 hr           9.05 hr
Max Speed                      44.7 mph            72 km/hr
Max Gain/Day (Strava)         6,101 ft          1,860 m
Max Gain/Day (RWGPS)          7,648 ft          2,331 m

Weight of Bicycle                75 lb             34 kg
Weight I Lost                     9 lb              4 kg

Yes, 44.7 mph on a heavy bike is terrifying. Each time I “bombed” down a hill, I was hyper-aware of pebbles, sand, or any possible cracks in the pavement that could ruin me. I hit the greatest speed on a stretch of UT-12 on Boulder Mountain. I learned later that the Tour of Utah uses the same road, and cyclists regularly hit 100 mph there. My normal daily maximum was more like 35 mph.

Obviously I daydreamed several times during the ride about how I would visualize all the juicy data I was collecting when it was all over. Part of my professional self-definition is that I’m a “computational designer,” which mostly means that I like to solve design problems with math and logic. At Autodesk, I was once the “Computational Design Evangelist” (exactly as it appeared on my business card, in fact) for Dynamo, which is a visualscripting program for architects and engineers. I won’t show you the script, which would be meaningless to the uninitiated, but the results are fun to see.

In the visualization tool I made, data about the distance traveled, time, moving speed, and elevation gained each day are shown with an animated bar chart, while a drawing of the bike (or the rental car during my week-long New Mexico side trip) makes its way across the country. You can play with it yourself at Colin’s Cross-Country 2017. You just need an Autodesk ID to sign in, which is free to setup.


Making this little toy was another way for me to process what I just did with my life. And numbers, we all know, often tell a different story than our memories might. For me, looking at the data, I learned a few things:

  • The ride from Denver to San Francisco was just as long and at least twice as difficult as everything else that came before. So it really was kinda crazy to plan to fit that into 3 ½ weeks as I did. I think I only made it because I was stronger than I realized after the eastern half of the country trained me.
  • My average moving speed each day was relatively constant, even after the plains turned into mountains. That says something about the physics of bike riding and air resistance, but also that my strength increased significantly over time to compensate for the increasingly challenging terrain.
  • That second day in Western Mass, which at the time I sheepishly called “A Little Too Ambitious” really was that hard. It was was tougher, elevation-wise, than every other day save one. For where I was physically at the time, that was a mistake.
  • My cross-country ride had three very distinct phases:
    1. Boston – Cleveland: rushed and somewhat inconsistent
    2. Cleveland – Kansas: Steady, consistent, with evenly-spaced rest days
    3. Denver – San Francisco: Intense rides every single day with no break
  • The middle of the country isn’t nearly as flat as we all think it is.

So here it is, data-as-story:


2 thoughts on “Data As Story

  1. And always a headwind. Brave man. Love the data visualization – did you happen to track any biometrics? It’d be interesting to see the change in VO2max or resting heart rate as you progressed.


  2. Oh that headwind. It was brutal some days–you must know it well yourself. No biometrics because I didn’t have any of the devices, but I agree with you that they’d be telling. As a before-and-after comparison, just cycling around the city, I’ve noticed that now I can pass almost everyone else without sweating much or breathing any harder.


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