Friday Group Ride #179

SextentSometimes, late on a Friday, when I’m plotting a course across a digital map, seeking out roads I haven’t ridden, trees and lakes and towns I haven’t seen already, I get the Pogues’ Navigator stuck on repeat in my head. Though I am not certain, at this point, I would assign route-finding responsibilities to Shane MacGowan, the song’s story of British railway building gets me thinking about the history and tools of navigation.

Some of my favorite novels are travel epics (this, this and this, for example). There is a dramatic tension inherent in not knowing where you’re going, of having a goal and not being entirely sure you’re going to make it. Sometimes, as when you’ve bonked, it’s a question of survival. Sometimes, as when you’re meeting someone out on the road, it’s a matter of connection.

As I sit comfortably in my spot at the end of the couch, the dog at my feet, and the computer slowly warming my lap, I cut a far different profile than the million or so sailors who have worried at the treacherous rounding of Cape Horn or the foolhardy adventurers who made for magnetic north.

Of course, my own efforts at navigation have evolved rapidly in recent years. There was a time when you just needed to know your way around. You got lost a lot, so that later you could not get lost.

I have employed the strategy of inviting myself on group rides with older, more experienced riders, people who know how to get to Lost Lake, who know the back way out through Carlisle and Chelmsford, the little nothing turns that yield long rambles through farm country.

And then, of course, I spent time studying maps, both paper and digital, committing turns to memory and hoping the street signs would be enough to get me around the loop. This was an incremental approach, branching off of roads I knew, slowly growing my ride territory.

And finally, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) came on line with practicable cycling applications and devices. I have the Garmin Edge 200. I am a minimalist, but even this entry-level computer frees me from many of the mental and logistical constraints I have been fumbling with for years.

I like it, but sometimes I also wonder if I am removing too much of the experience of riding. Would the Aeneid still be in circulation, if Aeneas had been equipped with a digital Italy-finder?

This week’s Group Ride asks how you get around? Do you Garmin? Do you use some other magic box-like device? Do you tuck cue sheets in the leg of your bibs and cut for sign? How has what you do changed, and do you like the way it’s changed? What have you gained or lost?

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  1. Michael Schlitzer

    Scott Eltringham was the best ride designer and navigator that I ever rode with. His book “Scott and Jim’s Favorite Rides” for those in the Washington DC area is full of maps that will not steer you wrong. This is especially true when he could still ride with us, before Parkinson’s Disease robbed us of the pleasure of his company on the bike and cruelly robbed him of the ability to ride his beloved Black Beauty Cannondale with down-tube shifters.

  2. Ransom

    I love getting rides off the Internet, but I’m bummed about printing them onto sheets which may or may not disintegrate before I figure out where I’m going. Not to mention trying to remember enough to make it a worthwhile stint between stopping, fishing them out, and trying to memorize a few more waypoints.

    Looking forward to eventually being able to rationalize bringing GPS to my handlebars.

    That said, it’s nice to know the ride and not think about navigation, though if I were fitter and had more time, I might enjoy the “wrong” turns of exploration…

  3. scaredskinnydog

    One things for sure, if Aeneas had a GPS Dido sure would of been allot better off. I think the story would still be popular though cause most of the action came after they “discovered” Italy and then had to kill all the local inhabitants…Anyway, how do I find my way arround? I’m Old School. I climb to a high point and sniff the air.

  4. Michael

    I returned recently to the town I lived in as a university student thirty years ago. Things have changed, especially in town, but I had my bike and went riding, searching for vaguely remembered rides from long ago. I found most of them by instinct. I rarely remembered the turnoffs, but just turned onto the right ones without thinking about it.

    Today, where I live, I turn onto roads I don’t know as often as I can. There are not that many paved roads, so the joy of discovery there is rare, but I push my road bike’s tires a bit to see where dirt roads go. I have a cross bike for when I feel like committing to a ride finding new routes. But maps? Sometimes I look at a forest service map to see what they show for an area, but about half the roads are not shown, so exploration is key. A Garmin or GPS would not be very useful. I do find having a cycle computer to know the distances traveled can help in figuring out where I am though.

  5. Paul

    Edge 800. I use it both for feedback while riding, as well as for planning rides in advance (I use the RideWithGPS site to actually map out the rides).

  6. seattlerider

    I tend to use a little of all of the above. I ride routes I know when I need a quick ride, occasionally branching off to checkout promising side roads. Other times I pick out rides from mapping sites, local club ride maps, and so on, and try to figure out the route using cue sheets. And if I ride a local tour that has a route I enjoy, I try to add that to my repritoire of rides.
    But my bail-out plan is always the same: smartphone in my back pocket.

  7. Peter Leach

    I Garmin.
    But my Garmin is a recent enough addition that most of my rides are committed to memory, so most of the time it is a recording device, not a planning one.
    I like to ‘take the road less travelled’, but family commitments have me leaving a message behind on the kitchen bench that says when I left, describes where I’m going and gives an estimate of when I’ll be back. So, most of my planning is done using MapMyRide.
    Still, Mike’s “Hmm, I wonder …” and scaredskinnydog’s “… sniff the air” approaches resonaye strongly.
    With that, I’m off to Lake George 🙂

  8. Scott

    I don’t use a Garmin. Not that I wouldn’t like one, but it’s $$ I can’t spend.

    While GPS is a great innovation for cyclists, many riders become overly dependent. In so doing, they’ve “freed themselves from the mental constraints” of actually knowing where they are, where the next turn is, and how to get home. There are many places where GPS loses satellite contact. In other cases, a simple mapping glitch has caused riders to literally turn into a driveway, because that’s where the GPS said to go. Finally, these units run on batteries and can suffer other technoglitches that can strand a rider without directions.

    I pre-plan club (and personal) rides using It provides a simple and practical interface for route design. It shows routes and elevation gain in one screen so you know what you’re in for before you go. Those who do have a GPS unit can download the map file. In our club, leaders have standardized on this tool and provide a link to the map in all ride announcements.

  9. ScottyCycles

    I prepare new routes using Garmin connect then download to my Edge 500. I like to set the pace “I want” to ride so I can see how I’m doing during the ride. And sometimes I just see a road (usually a steep hill) and take it.

  10. christopheru

    Since I can only go so far from home and make it back in any given day, and am still living in the same city I grew up in, I basically just pick and direction, and go like mad until I get tired and then swing around and work my way home. I know all the roads 60 to 80km out in any given direction from where I live.
    Southern Ontario (most of it) is a grid. Very boring to drive, but it means that basically, you have to work at it to get lost. Rivers change the grid up, and introduce some interesting roads, but most of the southern part of the province has mostly straight roads. So if you get tired, either turn around, or jump over a concession and look at different farms on the way back ;p

  11. John Kopp

    I use maps for planning and finding my way on the ride. I have found that county maps are the best for both the scale and the detail of rideable roads. A good regional map works also if county maps are not available. Map aps usually leave out the details if scaled to show the whole ride. Also GPS navigation can get you in trouble. In California, a nav nanny sent a car up a non-serviceable trail in the desert and got stuck. The driver didn’t survive. So I don’t trust electronics. Too much can happen, like batteries going dead and software glitches. I can at least read a map.

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