Podcast

Christophe Balestra – Obstri, PTO, and Fantasy Tri | EP#431

 May 10, 2024

By  Bernardo Gonçalves

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:

Christophe Balestra - That Triathlon Show

Christophe Balestra is a (retired) amateur triathlete with a background in game development. He has brought his talents to the triathlon space with products such as The Obsessed Triathlete (obstri), the PTO's stats pages, and Fantasy Triathlon on The Daily Tri.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • The story behind obstri.com, and why Ironman wanted it shut down
  • Christophe's time with the PTO, including shipping their stats pages
  • Triathlon as a broadcast sport - the needs and the challenges
  • Fantasy triathlon - how it came about and where it's going
  • Christophe's lessons learnt and advice for other amateur triathletes

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Shownotes

Christophe's background

03:15 -

  • I don't think anyone would know me for what I've done in triathlon.
  • However, people might know about me or what I've done through a website that I created called the Obsessed Triathlete, which, unfortunately, I had to shut down a few months back. 
  • My background is in video game production, and I have shipped games like The Last of Us and Uncharted. I was also the co-president of the company that made them. 
  • Then, I guess I just wanted to do something challenging before I turned 40, like an Ironman, which would push me. So, when I was 39, I started gearing up for it, and I did my first race before turning 40. 
  • I was just starting to get into triathlon then and starting to get geeky about it, you know, all the numbers and stats. I was frustrated with how hard it was to find results online, even my results and those of my friends. 
  • I had never made a website before, but I figured I could fetch the data from Ironman.com and write a script to compile it into my database. I left it running overnight; the following day, I had all the results I needed.
  • Then, I realised that if I was interested in it, there were probably others out there who would be too, hence the name Obsessed Triathlete.

OBStri

07:15 -

  • There are two main versions of it, but essentially, the goal was to create a database where people could easily and quickly search for results, whether for themselves, their friends, or their competition. 
  • That's how it all started - just type in a name and get all the information about that athlete. 
  • Then, it evolved as I started thinking about what else I would want to see. I played around with some kind of rankings because no rankings were available for age groups. 
  • I went through several iterations, trying to make something that would make sense.
  • I added features like courses so users can see swim, bike, and run courses for races, helping them know what to expect if they sign up for a race like that. So, historically, I fetched weather data for race days, providing insights into the weather conditions over the past few years for those races.
  • In version one, I aimed to help people in their journey into racing or participating in an Ironman. 
  • I wanted to provide them helpful information, like course difficulties and other essential details.

Challenges in getting the data

10:38 -

  • The real challenge for me was making sure that it was very user-friendly when I created something like this. 
  • It could quickly become clunky, so I spent much time ensuring that data access was easy and intuitive. 
  • It was important that people could find what they needed quickly, almost instantly, without waiting seconds for the page to load.
  • Of course, there was a technical aspect to this: making sure the technology served the goal of providing a good user experience. Ultimately, the goal mattered more than the specific technology used. 
  • I wanted to create a platform that served its purpose well, regardless of the underlying technology.
  • I received a lot of feedback from people who appreciated the clean look and ease of navigation. They liked that it wasn't overloaded with information but still provided access to helpful content. I took pride in achieving this balance.

Monthly users

12:18 -

  •  I didn't keep track of the exact number of accounts I had in the end, but I think it was around 8,000. 
  • It was interesting because I didn't spend a single dollar on marketing. I didn't actively promote it at all. People just stumbled upon it, and when they did, they were pleasantly surprised. 
  • So, the numbers were okay, pretty good even, but looking back, I feel like they could have been a lot bigger if I had somehow marketed it better or if word-of-mouth had spread more effectively. 
  • If I had invested some money in getting the word out, maybe more people would have known about it.

Reasons that led to the website being shut down

13:32 -

  • I was back working on OBS Tri, explicitly focusing on version 2.0.
  • In this new version, I added a news section that compiles triathlon-related news for users who might not be active on social media. 
  • Additionally, I included features like fantasy leagues. Meanwhile, I've been diving deeper into data analysis, exploring different ways to gather and interpret data. 
  • One interesting aspect was collecting race participant lists to see who was signed up.
  • Before a race, I compiled a list of participants sorted by their rank using my ranking system. 
  • It was a great way to gauge the competition and understand what to expect on race day. However, when I reached out to race organisers about discrepancies in results, they weren't happy about me accessing their data. 
  • They quickly shut down my access, leading me to reconsider OBS Tri's direction.
  • I realised that continuing to offer premium services wasn't feasible without access to race data. Eventually, I decided to shut it down altogether. It was a tough call, primarily since it was known for providing detailed race results and statistics, but without access to the necessary data, it didn't make sense to continue.
  • Everything I've built has been a solo endeavour, from designing the platform to curating its content. I've been the sole decision-maker, crafting its look, feel, and logo. 
  • Every course I've included has been sourced by me, scouring the web for publicly available materials. 
  • It's all driven by my passion, and while it's starting to gain traction, I'm not interested in complicating things with legal battles or technical wrangling. That's just not a fight I'm willing to take on.

Can OBS be replicated?

22:37 -

  • There might be some obstacles to accessing the results you're looking for. I haven't checked recently, but I believe there are probably still ways to obtain them. 
  • While I used to get results from several different pathways, they've been shut down or blocked my IP address. However, I think others might still have access. 
  • I'm unsure if the data is still available to anyone, especially with their new method of displaying results.
  • It's incredible to think back on how it all started. Initially, I just wanted to cover server costs and maybe earn a bit for my time. 
  • I guess I also wanted to avoid the idea of everything being free—there's something about earning your keep that feels right.
  • Looking back, I learned so much from that project. It wasn't just about the money but about making people happy and helping them on their journey. I'm proud of what it became and the impact it had.

Being the CTO for the PTO

25:31 -

  • When I first joined, I took on the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role, but looking back, it might not have been the best fit for me, primarily since I was based in Los Angeles while everyone else was in London. 
  • My main focus was on familiarising myself with the stats websites, particularly those with results of professional athletes. I also handled backend tasks to help manage athletes and their results. 
  • Additionally, I started exploring ways to display exciting data on the screen and track data using devices.
  • However, after about a year, I decided to leave. The distance and the challenges of working remotely with the team, especially during daily Zoom calls, took a toll on me. 
  • Moreover, I wasn't particularly interested in the company's direction, especially when they started focusing more on amateur athletes. I felt it wasn't aligned with my passions, and dedicating time to it would have been draining.

What Christophe would do in an organisation like the PTO

28:07 -

  • From a technology perspective, I believe it would be valuable to work on broadcasting live data on screen during races, including metrics like heart rate and power. 
  • However, simply displaying these numbers may not be enough to engage a broader audience. To make the broadcast appealing to more than just triathlon enthusiasts, my priority would be to provide real-time context about what's happening in the race. 
  • Unlike other sports, such as soccer or running, where it's relatively easy to understand what's going on, triathlon races can be more complex, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the sport.
  • One way to address this challenge is to provide clear and understandable information about the race dynamics, such as time gaps between athletes, current positions, and strategic decisions being made by the competitors. 
  • This approach would help viewers quickly grasp the overall situation and follow the race more effectively.
  • In addition to data visualisation, it's crucial to consider how to present the information in a way that is easily understandable to a broader audience. For example, instead of just displaying raw numbers like heart rate and power, providing context or comparisons that make sense to non-triathletes would be helpful. 
  • This could involve explaining what specific metrics mean in practical terms or using visual aids to illustrate the significance of specific data points.
  • Ultimately, the goal is to provide viewers with meaningful insights that enhance their understanding and enjoyment of the race. 
  • By focusing on delivering relevant and accessible information, we can make triathlon broadcasts more engaging and appealing to a broader audience.
  • Even with the data we sometimes have, like simple metrics such as speed or pace running-wise, there have been some races where it's taken from either an uphill or timing that is a bit off. 
  • So it looks like an athlete is running at one pace one moment and then at 4:20 the next.
  • But if you're interested in distance running and you see athletes running at 4:20, you'll think that these are really slow, and there's no point in watching this.
  •  Look at women's cycling. It's very interesting to watch, super entertaining, and even though they don't go as fast as the men, who cares? 
  • It's always relative to just the competition. I think that's what people are interested in. 
  • It was more like about the gaps and the groups on the bike.
  • In cycling, they do a very good job with that. You have the breakaway, the time gap to a group trying to bridge up, and then the time gap to the peloton, which gives you the context of the race.

Other sports with good broadcasts

34:26 -

  • Cycling seems to have similarities with Formula One racing. While I don't watch much Formula One, I've noticed some interesting stats and graphics. 
  • The real-time updates during races give a clear view of what's happening, including gaps between competitors. 
  • Triathlon could take inspiration from Formula One's presentation style to enhance the sport's appeal.

Data to be shared on screen

36:17 -

  • Relying on a second screen shouldn't be necessary if you're aiming for mainstream appeal. If it is, you're likely missing out on becoming mainstream. 
  • I suggest prioritising the broadcast experience first, making it as engaging as possible. Then, you should consider adding a second screen. 
  • You're missing the mark if a second screen is needed to understand the racing.

Fantasy triathlon

37:24 -

  • It's been mainly about being busy with this project.
  • So, I created a whole website and added some fantasy elements. I'm also working on his Instagram account, creating some 3D videos of racing stuff because I enjoy it. 
  •  It's a great way for people to become more invested in the race, caring a little more about whether their picks finish in the top five or not. It adds another dimension to their interaction with the sport, beyond just being spectators.
  • For me, the reason I started the fantasy and invested in it is to provide another way for people to interact with sports besides being fans. 
  • It's a fun way for them to engage, stay informed about the sport, and connect with others who share their interest. Ideally, we'll attract more interested participants, and maybe partner with brands to expand its reach.

How does it work

40:00 -

  • The goal of the fantasy league is simple: score as many points as possible. You do this by selecting the top five athletes you think will finish in each race—both for men and women. 
  • Then, based on your picks, you score points. Additionally, you earn points for predicting the fastest swimmer, cyclist, and runner on race day. There are also bonuses: if you correctly predict an athlete's place, you double their points.
  • We tally up all the points, and you can see how you fare on global leaderboards. 
  • We also offer leagues so you can compete with friends. Sometimes, being second or first among your friends means more than being among thousands of people. 

Future features

43:02 -

  • So, one thing we're going to release—it's already on the website, but we haven't talked about it yet—is our ranking system. 
  • It's mainly to help you with the fantasy.
  • So you'll have rankings for long and short courses, and then rankings for swim, bike, run, and overall. 
  • So that's just trying to get people more informed about their fantasy choices and some kind of profile for each athlete. 
  • We want, with the data we've tried, to find a way to get live data so that you can get live results for races. 
  • If you look at procyclingstats.com, you will see all the live information about when a race is taking place, whether it's any cycling race or the big ones. 
  • So, ideally, we'd love to be able to have our tracker there for the triathlon. 
  • It seems like the PTO is okay with us doing it for all the PTO races.
  • The goal is just to make it a place where, if you're a triathlon fan, you can go. You have the news and all the podcasts; your podcast is also in there. 
  • We just need all the podcasts, including the triathletes podcast, so you can see the latest one. If you're a triathlete and there's something that you want or are looking for, you should be able to find it through our website. 

Other projects Christophe is working on

46:06 -

  • just go with the flow. I don't have a master plan of where I want to go or what I want to do, so it depends on the moment and what I think is right. just follow my guide with this. 

Projects and technologies that will improve the sport

47:28 -

  • I think the biggest challenge is not going to be technology but rather how to use technology to help achieve the ultimate goal of making triathlon a bigger and more user-friendly sport. 
  • It's not as simple as just implementing new tech solutions; various factors must be considered. 
  • Triathlon is a complex sport with different organisations, such as the PTO, Ironman, and various triathlon federations, making it challenging to streamline and follow. 
  • Additionally, the sport needs to be entertaining, which it currently lacks.
  • For example, watching a triathlon race isn't always captivating, especially during the cycling segment, which can be perceived as boring. 
  • Even with technologies like Race Rangers to reduce drafting, the race can still lack excitement. Having 20 meters between each athlete creates a dull viewing experience, as cameras focus primarily on individual athletes, breaking up the race's dynamic flow.
  • Cycling itself is thrilling, but triathlon often feels lacklustre. To make triathlon more engaging, we need changes beyond technology. All the technology in the world won't matter if the sport isn't interesting to watch.

Training technologies to improve performance

51:48 -

  • That would be fantastic if technology could remind us to take breaks sometimes. As triathletes, we're constantly on the go, always pushing ourselves. 
  • It feels like we're perpetually stimulated, and I'm not sure if that's entirely healthy. 
  • We spend twelve months of the year focused on training, and maybe technology could assist us in finding a better balance. It might lead to a healthier approach to our sport.

Tips from Christophe's triathlon experience

52:54 -

  • I realized I never really took proper off-season breaks. I wish I had committed to a few months each year when I wasn't on structured training, not just sitting on the couch eating chips, but truly stepping away from the triathlete mindset. 
  • Having that time to reset and recharge would have been beneficial for my mental and physical well-being.
  • It's so easy to get caught up in the triathlon world year-round. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but looking back, I see the value in giving myself that real rest. 
  • Triathlon can be all-consuming, and I  fell into the trap of obsessing over every detail, from bike positions to aerodynamics. 
  • You can dive deep into it, which is fascinating, but it's essential not to lose sight of balance.
  • Triathlon is an incredible sport, no doubt about it. But it's crucial not to be too hard on yourself and not rush into becoming a training machine immediately. 
  • Take the time to build up gradually, and don't neglect the importance of rest and recovery. 

LINKS AND RESOURCES:


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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