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Yorick Dix's tiler interviews: Sem Elders: From one challenge to another

This interview first published in the Ride Every Tile Strava group on November 1st, 2021.

Q. Hi Sem. Could you please introduce yourself?

I'm Sem Elders, 40 years old and live in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. I started cycling around 2010 after years of injuries in soccer and athletics. From 2016 I really got the hang of it and have increased my cycling year-on-year. Besides cycling I also do CrossFit twice a week and last summer I started kayaking.

[Editor's note: Sem was the first ever (and one of only 9 in total) to complete the Benelux Long Term Challenge - a challenge to visit all the 1038 municipalities in Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg by bike). At the beginning of the pandemic the interviewer (Yorick Dix) only had one ride to in Luxembourg, but the lockdown kept him in the Netherlands. Sem knew Yorick from the Long Term Challenge and introduced me to the concept of tiling.]

Q. When and why did you start tiling?

I started tiling in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I started filling gaps in the area and quickly got addicted. During the lockdown there was not much else to do, so I went pretty fast.

The municipalities challenge learnt me how beautiful it can be just around the corner of your home town. With tiling I basically do the same all over again. And I still discover new places every ride.

Q. I remember when I suggested tiling to you, that at first you were very certain that tiling was not a road you would be going to travel. What went wrong?

If I remember correctly this conversation was about wandrer.earth (where you try to cycle áll roads), but indeed I was a bit worried about tiling too. I just don't like U-turns and I also don't like cycling in cities for a long time, mostly because of traffic (cars, scooters and their smell). After trying tiling a bit (we were in lockdown, so you start doing crazy things), I discovered that I actually like the changes of scenery in a tiling ride. If you make long ride with a bit of everything it feels like a small holiday-in-a-day. And that's what I do like! I Also learned to see the beauty in ugliness. So that's what went wrong. And I love it :-)

Q. Did the way you tile change over time? Were you a fanatic from the start?

At first I was mostly filling gaps and connecting small clusters into bigger clusters. I used the map to find places I'd never been to before, more than to see where I’ve been. When my cluster grew bigger I started planning weekend trips together with my girlfriend Daphne. Now my cluster is so big that I really have to plan a tiling ride. I started doing longer rides and sometimes 2-day trips to decrease the impact of my journey. As a side goal I try to reach Eddington 200 (200 rides of minimal 200 km), so most of my tiling rides are 200+. My rides are counting down to zero. My Eddington is 160km right now. I still have to do 113 rides of 200km to hit Eddington 200.

Q. 113 rides of 200km to go... Doesn't that feel a bit overwhelming?

Actually it doesn't. I don't need goals to enjoy cycling. And since I cycle a lot (around 20,000 km a year) my goals can be long term. Just like the Long Term Challenge. If I could do it in a year I would keep on setting new goals. And I don't have time for that, because I'm busy tiling. Or creating routes, which is half the fun to me. That brings me to a little tip for route making: change the map in VeloViewer to 'opencycle'. It shows all the cycling routes and gives you the most beautiful paths for free (not only in the Netherlands). Mostly it's well worth taking those few extra KMs. Still 113 to go indeed. To me that sounds like 113 mini-holidays, what's not to like about that?

Note: with the Str*Viewer Chrome extension you can change the maps in the Strava route builder too, e.g. to CycleOSM.

Q. Did tiling change the way you cycle on normal rides?

Definitely! When I started cycling I rode the same route every week, sometimes as part of an organized tour. With tiling my knowledge of topography got better and by now I know a lot of roads, so I can just randomly cycle around creating a route. Also I'm not afraid to mix tarmac, gravel, forest roads and even (MTB) single tracks in a route. Adventure over habit.

Q. What are your tiling goals?

Cycling new roads and exploring new places is my main goal. Tiling is just a way to do that. A long time goal might be tiling the entire Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) and reaching the biggest square possible in the Netherlands.

Q. Do you focus mainly on your square or cluster?

Cluster, but since I don’t like gaps in my cluster the square automatically increases with my cluster. Right now my closest unvisited tiles are in Germany and that’s also where I have to go to increase my square. But if I have time (and the weather is good) I’d rather go to Belgium or the North of the Netherlands. Also because the Germans seem to like their cars more than cyclists, especially in the cities.

Q. Your square (84x84) is basically the same one as Willem Oving's (100x100). Do you think you will be able to match him?

Yes, eventually I will. But it’s just not what I’m focusing on right now. The square is also limited, Willem Oving told me that 110x110 would be possible. I haven't tried to figure that one out, because I don't care too much about the square. But I know that the Oostvaardersplassen are hard. I find those even harder then the trespassing tiles on private areas. The Oostvaardersplassen is a fenced national park and a resting area for animals. The lowest tiles are blocking a bigger square. And on the other side I think the 'tagebau' (German browncoal mining) is making life difficult But maybe in a few years we will stop coal mining (talking about long term goals). We'll see :-)

Q. On the map it looks like you need only to fill 'a few' holes before you've tiled the Benelux completely. Any plans in that direction?

Yes, that would be my long time goal. But I didn't set myself a deadline. I usually prepare a lot of routes up front and pick one depending where the weather is best. It might look a bit random sometimes, but I like it that way.

Q. Can you tell us about the "10k ride" you did in Luxembourg?

I saw this ride on Strava and downloaded it because I liked the graphic look of it. It was a 460 km ride in Luxembourg, with about 11,000 meters altitude. The route never crossed itself, so it was a kind of Strava art (route here). Later I discovered a challenge by this ride: 10K roam. It's a variation on Everesting, the challenge is to ride at least 10,000 meters altitude in one ride of minimum 400 km and within 36 hours. I called a friend and immediately he was enthusiastic. Without good preps we went to Luxembourg and started to ride at 3 am. We wanted to finish within 24 hours but that was way too optimistic. The climbs were extremely steep and we had to do a lot of those.

When it got dark the second time we knew we weren't going to make it through the night (lack of water and light batteries dying on us), So we went back to the camping for 2 hours of sleep and to wait for the daylight to finish the ride. It was extremely cold at night and because we were too late for the check-in to collect the shower coins for hot water we were forced to have a cold shower. Going into a cold, damp sleeping bag... it felt like hypothermia.

Getting out of bed in the cold and pull on the cold, dirty, wet cycling clothes was mentally hard. But how nice it was to start cycling and getting warm again. Physically it went unexpectedly well. I t was my longest ride ever, and of course also with the most climbing. We managed to finish within 36 hours and within 24 hours of cycling. We had a lot of fun and are planning a revenge ride to do within 24 hours. Here is the link to the activity

Q. Do you have a special tile of which you have special memories? Any tile which took extraordinary efforts to reach?

In Beringen (Belgium) is a shooting range for civilians on a military plot. When I was there to hit a tile on the shooting range a few guys were actually shooting. So I asked them if they could stop for a while, so I could run that 100 meters on the range to reach the tile. And they did! I think it was my fastest run ever :-) It was one of those things that probably won’t work 99 times out of a 100.

Other special tiles are the IJmeer tiles I recently did with Willem Oving by kayak in fog. The IJmeer is big body of water near Amsterdam, near the Ijsselmeer and what used to be the Zuiderzee. The sun in combination with fog made it look like we were kayaking on oil. It was a beautiful experience as you can see on the picture. With hindsight maybe not the smartest thing to do and we were fined because we (albeit very carefully) crossed the shipping lane in the fog.

Q. What particular type of tile ride do you like most?

A mix between surfaces and changing landscapes, with some raw areas like harbours and industrial plants

Q. Tiling brings us to the most beautiful and weird places. What did you discover because of tiling, what you otherwise never would have known?

Kayaking is really fun! And passing by on water level gives a complete new perspective to places I thought I knew, like my own city Eindhoven.

Q. Are you ever fed up with tiling? Have you ever cancelled rides when already started?

I never stopped a ride when started, but I sometimes skip a whole day mostly because of really bad weather. Tiling is fun for now, but it’s gets harder when the cluster grows. I don’t like the travel to the start of my ride. And those journeys are getting longer and longer. Maybe bike-packing holidays are an option in the future, if I can get my girlfriend interested.

Q. What extraordinary feats of other tilers did you notice?

Elmar Hoogenboom did a variation on Strava Art. He wrote his own name in tiles. That's something that intrigued me, just like the normal Strava art does. I gave it a try in my hometown Eindhoven . Maybe I'll try a piece of pixel art in near future :-).

Q. In your surroundings, has anyone started tiling because of you?

Not as fanatic as myself. Most of them say they don’t, but sometimes I catch them on typical tiling places (those places were you only go for a tile).

Q. Any ideas on the whole concept of tiling? Any possible improvements you are thinking of?

People often ask me how many tiles I still have to do before covering the Netherlands. Or what percentage I’ve done already. I can’t give the answer. Maybe it’s possible to count the tiles per country and give a percentage of completion?

Note: Gerard Burgstede has recently been tiling the Netherlands, and the Netherlands only. He doesn't have too many tiles over borders and needs to finish only a few of the islands. His total is now almost 17,000. So I would guess that makes the Netherlands about 17,500 tiles big. Gerard's activities.

Q. In whose story would you be interested?

Arec Vegerunner. Not sure If he’s tiling or just cycles a lot in new places. And what's with the name?!

Bonus interview with Daphne, a cyclist but not a tiler, oh no!

Q. Hello Daphne, you are the partner of Sem and do some cycling too. Do you go with him on tiling rides?

I prefer not to. I like to ride together with Sem, but I don't like ‘floepsies’ (that little ride into a street for 200 meters just to hit a tile and then make U-turn to go back). I also don’t like trespassing, climbing over fences, ugly roads and drive a car for 2 hours to start a bike ride. And I don’t like must-do rides or must-do tiles. I just like to cycle around enjoying nature, good company and pancakes.

Q. Where you ever tempted to start tiling too?

No! I’m not one of those lunatics. I do have a life :-)

Q. What do you think of the concept of tiling? And it's participants?

A. Totally crazy :-) although I like the concept of exploring new (legal) beautiful roads. Riding my bike is a great way to experience new places, but I just don’t like the "must-do" attitude. If I don’t like a road I’ll take another. Why would I worry about missing a tile?

Sem Elder's vital statistics

A face picture of Sem Elders and his girlfriend Daphne.

Sem Elders and Daphne.
A picture of Sem with his finger to his lips

Doodstil is Dutch for 'dead quiet'!
Sem cycling on a gravel track in the high mountains

Sem has cycled in many parts of the Alps as well as so much of Benelux.
A GPX trace of Sem's amazing 10,000m of ascent ride

10,000 meters of altitude gain in one ride!
Tiling on oil

Tiling on "oil"!
Sem's cluster covers much of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg

Sem's huge cluster