If you’re a bike-dork like me then it’s probably safe to ignore this post, but if you’re curious about bike GPS stuff or are considering buying one, or you just want to know how I navigate then read on.
GPS is great. It’s so good I’ve basically given up on maps (I admit there’s a place for them, is just not here). When I’m walking around in cities I don’t know, I use me phone. If I want to drive somewhere new, I’ll use my sat-nav (actually I often just freestyle it, but rampant congestion means the direct route is usually not the fastest anyway) and when I’m going out on my bike I use my Garmin.
They come in many flavours, and mine is pretty much the cheapest. The fancy ones work pretty much like a car sat-nav. You punch in a destination and it plans a route for you. I think you can set your tolerance for traffic, hills, circuitousness etc etc. I don’t know because mine is more basic than that. Mine requires you to plan a route with an online mapping app/website first. I use Strava, because it is the dominant cycling ‘social network’ where you get to passively boast to your mates about how fast you are, how far you’ve ridden and how much you’ve suffered. It works fine for mapping too.
Once you’ve got your route sorted, you download it and transfer it to the Garmin and it comes up as a ‘breadcrumb’ trail on a blank monochrome screen. Like a slightly more intricate game of snake (I’m confident that reference will hit home because anyone reading this will almost certainly remember owning a Nokia 3210). If you don’t you probably only need to navigate in video games by pressing R2 or something. Anyway, ‘You’ (actually an arrow) follow the line to your eventual destination. There are no roads marked, nor junctions, nor speed cameras, nor McDonalds which is probably a good thing. You trust yourself to have planned a decent route and you stick to it.
Unless it goes wrong. Which in fairness it does very rarely. Maybe once every 500 miles Strava will let me plan to cycle down a private road, or footpath, or across a field. Then you make the choice to persist, or abandon it and break free from the snake-squiggle in the hope of rejoining later, when it will hopefully be a road again.
Why can’t you just use a phone? You may ask. Because nowadays phones do more than just play Snake; they’re the gateway to all human knowledge, music, trivia and cat videos; they’re a vehicle to getting you laid, taking rubbish fat-faced selfies and ordering pizzas to make you even fatter of face. The result of all this is that there isn’t much space for battery and what capacity there is gets used up. If I use my phone I might get 4-6 hours or navigation/tracking but my Garmin (I think I mentioned it’s the shit one) will apparently do 15 hours. I’ve never ridden that far. Even as I get fitter on this tour I can’t imagine doing 2 consecutive 7-hour days without being able to charge it up again. It should work fine for me. In fact it does.
But there are niggles. Little annoying things that get on my tits every now and then, that just make you wonder what sociopath engineered this thing.
Sometimes it takes ages to find a satellite. You’ve just hitched your panniers, mounted your bike and waved goodbye to your gracious Couchsurfing host and then you have to wait by the curb for upwards of 90 seconds until it can tell you where to go. It makes you look like the kind of idiot that relies on a two-inch, 50-gram, 5-megabyte computer to give you any sense of direction.
Other times it takes ages to sync with your computer. You get back from a ride, eager to tell the world how great you are whilst confirming how many calories you’ve burned and it refuses to acknowledge you.
The worst thing by far though is ‘Virtual Partner’. I don’t really get what it is. I think it’s like an idealised version of you that exists inside the device and races you to the end of the route. On the expensiver Garmins I think you can set how fast it is. Or turn it off. On mine you can do neither. So usually when I’m a few hours into my day, I get a disappointing downbeat bleepblipblopbloop sound that informs me that my ‘Virtual Partner’ (more accurately ‘Asshole Antagonist’) has just finished, and is presumably lying on your bed, drinking your beer and uploading its ride to show all your mates how much better it is than you.
This bleepblipblopbloop sound is infuriating when it punctures your bliss on a sunny day, flying down a fast descent, but it makes me want to smash the little blowhard R2D2 to bits when I’m crawling up a 12% gradient in the slapping rain.
In fairness though, it’s amazing how useful they are. If you like to ride a bike, and would like to try some new routes, they trump telephones and colourful A2 folding pictures. Get one.