During COVID lockdowns, people around the world have completed varying degrees of crazy activities in very limited spaces. From parking lot marathons to single-story stair climbing Everestings, it seems we all need our exercise more than we need our sanity. While we are fortunate to not be truly under quarantine in this country, stay-at-home orders and heavily-impacted hospitals are good reasons to look for challenge and adventure closer to home. Enter the “Long Tiny Loop”.
Daniel Aminzade, a runner in the Bay Area with a penchant for geometric algorithms, coded an obscure website to compute, in a nutshell, the spatial density of an activity, e.g. how far one can travel within the most compact area. He has added on a few conditions, the highlights being:
1. The activity has to be a loop.
2. No road may be traveled twice, even in the opposite direction.
3. No intersection may be visited twice, even when using different roads.
The Long Tiny Loop website only went live in the fall of 2020, but Dan has been interested in gamifying endurance challenges for several years. Unlike Strava, which mostly recognizes achievements of speed, Dan explained to me how he sought to gamify consistency, creating tools to count laps on lunch loops near local tech company campus. The techies took to the idea, and Dan was intrigued by the behavioral changes his websites induced.
When COVID struck, he noticed similar behavioral patterns in friends’ Strava feeds, especially in Europe, where stricter rules dictated that people only exercise within a 1 km radius of their home. Some people ran the same perimeter loop ad nauseum, but others found ways to complete long activities with minimal repetition within their respective permissible areas.
As of the end of 2020, a few nutjobs had submitted some truly twisted runs to be validated by his algorithms. Team SDG teammates Brandon Baker, Amanda Nauman, and I set out to do this on our RLT9’s, with an added caveat: we would ride only within the city limits of our hometowns. Amanda planned a route in Lake Forest, California, and I planned a full century within the boundaries of Brandon’s town of birth and my adopted home, Santa Barbara, CA.
We began our day at a nice reasonable hour, expecting to endure maybe eight hours of constant turns at a safe and social pace for navigating urban and suburban traffic. Mentally prepared from what was to come, we rapidly became enthralled with the simple beauty of the concept. Despite the tortuous routing, and my hoarse barking of direction, Brandon thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
“The experience was way more gratifying than I believed it would be. Yes, it was a ride and around my hometown. However, it was so pleasant to ride in areas and streets I have never turned my bars onto before. Few people have been everywhere in their hometown. I still have yet to see some areas, but I am much closer now.”
After an early stop to snap a photo by the downtown pier, we began winding our way through the hills and neighborhoods.
Our sunny city by the sea added another dimension (ha, spatial word pun!) to this challenge. Santa Barbara, population 91,364, exists on 19.5 square miles of land. One and a half square miles of the aforementioned number is the city airport (SBA), "connected" to the city proper by a seven-mile strip of the Pacific Ocean annexed under shady circumstances to circumvent rules of incorporation stating that a city can only annex contiguous land. This "shoestring" annexation of inundated terrain has since been made illegal. Additionally, several unincorporated communities jut into the city; all together, this creative municipal geometry forms a limited space within which to construct a route that meets all of Dan's conditions.
If spatial logic doesn’t interest you, ignore this section, but I know there a lot of fellow bike-riding math and science (Ni)nerds out there who are fascinated by this sort of thing, so here it goes: the Long Tiny Loop challenge is a twist on the classic “traveling salesman” problem, with added rules, of course. Computing a score for activities submitted to the site involves multiple algorithms. First, tracks are smoothed to remove small GPS errors that cause false overlaps and intersections. This is especially important for runs and rides in cities, where tall buildings cause considerable GPS drift that becomes significant when stopped at lights for prolonged periods. After checking for self-intersections to validate the submission, the score is computed with two additional algorithms.
A “convex hull” polygon is constructed around the activity perimeter. By definition, this is the smallest polygon that encompasses the activity with no internal angles greater than 180°. Then a “rotating caliper” searches for the longest diameter that can be constructed across the polygon. This rewards activities in compact, circular areas. Finally, the distance traveled is divided by the longest diameter to obtain a score. As Dan explained to me, it would have been simpler to compute a score using the ratio of the distance to area, but because the area grows with the square of the radius, that would skew the scoring too much in favor of long activities in large areas, and long, skinny rectangles with negligible area compared to the perimeter distance. If you’re still following along, I know you’re interested in trying this yourself, so take solace in knowing that you don’t have to plan a full day ride like Brandon, Amanda, and I did.
Okay, class, you can put your TI-83 and protractor away now. Following all these rules sounds impossible, right?
It turns out it wasn’t actually that hard to plan and execute. Amanda and I are in agreement that a good cycling computer loaded with a preset route is immensely helpfully.
“My Garmin 1030 and being able to route with RideWithGPS was also crucial. I paid for both of those pieces of equipment (not sponsored) and they've allowed me to explore new areas that I would've otherwise avoided. Turn notifications allowed me to pass the challenge without missing a turn, but I wanted to throw my constantly beeping device into the trees a few times. The "Live Track" feature of the device paired with the mobile app also gave my parents and my friend helping me with the Instagram content the ability to locate me the entire day. I had never used that before and it was very convenient.”
Brandon added another item to the gear list:
"My odd shaped puzzle piece was a bell. Yes, a bell. It kept us safe at times, but it also kept me sane. I noticed it in the last few hours of pedaling as we continued to see others on the road... Ringing the bell reminded me to be alert and positive.”
On (digital) paper, planning the route is a fun mapping exercise for the cartographically-inclined. But do you know what actually worried me? Pulling off a full day in a city of any size without any road construction! It's a favorite topic to gripe about all over the world, with many butts for many jokes: construction crews seemingly doing no work, lengthy permitting processes, bridges that take forever to complete, "infrastructure week"...
In places where it snows, the saying goes that there are really only two seasons: winter and road construction. But beyond the usual humorous culprits, the one hidden yet glaringly obvious reason why, even in a place like sunny Santa Barbara, road construction never seems to stop is that we've laid down an astounding amount of cement and blacktop over the past century.
Excluding state and federal highways, the Santa Barbara Public Works Department Engineering Division is responsible for maintaining over 235 miles of roads in my little city pinched between the Pacific Ocean and the jagged 4000' Santa Ynez Mountains ridgeline just a few miles to the north.
Our public works department divides the city into five repaving zones, and typically rotates through the zones each year. Lately, an increase in funding has meant a blitz of repaving all over the city, including adding more miles of protected bike lanes. Great for cyclists, not great for planning and executing an all-day convoluted route that amazingly traversed less than 43% of the Santa Barbara road inventory. We actually got quite lucky and only had to skirt one construction zone, but the ongoing maintenance gave us plentiful opportunities to appreciate our equipment choices.
Gravel bikes are actually perfect for these urban adventures, and Brandon and I find ourselves leaving the dedicated road machines in the garage more often than not these days. With our roadie racing days behind us, the stable handling and comfort on our RLT9 RDO’s win over pure speed on most rides. And this day stretched past nine hours of cracks, bumps, and occasional dirt paths, which would’ve been fatiguing, dangerous, and objectively unpleasant on 25c tires. Instead, we took advantage of our gobs of tire clearance and mounted some 38c Barlow Pass tubeless slicks that Rene Herse Cycles was kind enough to send our way. Back in July 2020, I completed a 250 mile “Everesting Roam” on 40c slicks, so I knew that having fat tubeless slicks inflated to under 40 psi could elevate the experience from drudgery to delight.
As the day wore on, we stayed physically well, though remembering to eat and drink was a bit challenging with the constant turns, pedestrian pace, and friendly conversation, while only almost crashing each other out two or three times. If you ever want to really get know a person, just spend nine hours biking around in circles with them! Unfortunately, my mind got fuzzy somewhere in there, and we missed a few turns, invalidating our Long Tiny Loop entry. Argh!
Maybe I lied. We were, in fact, starting to feel the miles and over 7500 ft total ascent by the end. And now is good time to put my nerd hat on again... I wrote a few lines of code to analyze my GPS file, and it found that I had to accelerate back up to speed from a walking pace (< 3 mph) a grand total of 170 times during the ride. If I increase that cutoff speed to 5 mph, that adds up over 600 accelerations (about 7 per mile), which is not surprising considering that the route had over 270 right and left turns (each) and who-knows-how-many lights and stop signs. Can we call it an interval workout?
But all was not for naught; there was an unplanned burrito stop on the route! With less than ten miles to go, we surrendered to our grumbling tummies and wolfed down some of Santa Barbara’s finest authentic Mexican food, while watching the sun paint the sky pink. I think Brandon describes the day best:
“Do this with a friend. I honestly would have cut it short had I not been with a good friend, in it with me. Getting dizzy, calling out streets and turns, and then slamming a burrito fifteen minutes before dark... What more can you ask for?”
Fortunately for the team, we had a second shot at claiming the top of the Long Tiny Loop leaderboard. The next day, Amanda went out and successfully navigated over 80 miles in Lake Forest, without missing a single turn!
“The city has a total area of 17.9 square miles, and I was amazed I could string together over 80 miles for this challenge. I also rode by so many public parks that I looked it up on the city site to find there are thirty-two that the city maintains. I admire the effort to maintain these open spaces and appreciate the value that the city has placed on outdoor activities and access, especially during this ongoing pandemic."
Unfortunately for the team, our efforts already inspired one total weirdo geek of cyclist to go blow Amanda’s score out of the water… my own father. But watch out, old man, this battle isn’t over. Just a few days after our rides, I asked Amanda and Brandon if they would consider ever doing it again. Their answers probably won’t surprise you.
“A couple days removed, I can look back on it with appreciation. Planning the route and even riding sections beforehand opened my eyes to some new areas I had never been before. I grew up in the city next to Lake Forest, but have never quite seen it the way I did on Sunday. Slowing down and riding in new areas gave me a new perspective on this city I've now called home for a couple years.
I would [do another Long Tiny Loop], but in a smaller area. I made it a city limits challenge to match the Santa Barbara story, but it certainly could have been done more efficiently. There are a lot of gated communities or mobile home parks that aren't on public roads for me to ride through. I feel like I could create a route in a smaller area to increase the score. Orange County has plenty of suburban areas that would be ideal for a challenge like this. I appreciate how Dan turned this logic problem into a game that has enticed the crazy cyclists among us to reveal themselves and their whacky plans."
Consider this a challenge: get out there, or not so far out there, and navigate your way through local roads less traveled. Maybe those roads are just a block over from your normal routes, but you never take them. Perhaps you’ll find some interesting architecture and hidden public alleyways. And hopefully you’ll feel something akin to what I did: an expansion of the mind as my local worldview was infilled with the everyday details produced by the thousands of people I coexist with.
Ride slowly, don’t miss any turns, and upload it to LongTinyLoop.com. And throw a #longtinyloop tag on anything you post so we map-lovers can find each other.
-Menso de Jong
Stats, Equipment, and Helpful HintsMenso and Brandon’s Ride
Select Gear Choices:
RLT9 RDO – Barlow Pass 38c tires – Shimano GRX Gruppo
Read the rules and plan your route ahead of time
Comfort is king. Use some fast-rolling slicks, and maybe don't do what Brandon and I did: use a century to break in our brand new shoes! It turned out okay for us, but I can't recommend brand new anything for a long day in the saddle.
Your Strava file must be loop, so start and end at a location outside of your Strava home privacy radius.
Check your route for one-way streets. RideWithGPS doesn’t warn you of wrong-way routing.
Make sure there are no closed gates. Brandon and I had to rock climb one stone wall to continue our loop!
PLAN NATURE BREAKS. Unless you do this somewhere rural, make sure your route passes public parks at appropriate intervals for water refills and other needs. And don’t loop back on yourself when you ride to the restroom!