Navigation – finding your way the stressless way

[I have nicked most of the content from my post describing ride no. 20 – but you are very unlikely to have read it anyway…]

Around May 2008 I bought myself the most advanced Cycling Computer that Mankind Created (to that date) – the Edge 705. It is really a highly advanced beast and can do all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. Most importantly for me is that if I manage to load it with the route I am planning to take (or the AUDAX ride organiser has planned for me) – it can keep me on the straight (seldom) and narrow (sometimes) path so that I will lose the least amount of time when trying to read the cue sheet, trying to match it with reality and retracting from a bad call to hwere I am SUPPOSED to be going. I hate losing my way. So I invested in the gadget that helps me.

OK – so the basic is simple: I use one of the many tools available (online ond offline) to create a route and then download it to my Edge. It then keep an eye on me and my position and if I happen to deviate it beeps furiously at me until I find the right path and follow it. So far – so good.

The first hurdle is plotting the route on a map. There seem to be a large number of web sites that allow you to do so online. I think most, if not all, of them are based on Google Maps and their published API. Here is the list of the sites that I am aware of from my bookmarks:


At first I was very enthusiastic and learned the (sometimes odd) interface quite happily. Alas, with some use, few glaring problems started to emerge:

1. The ‘Follow the road’ (a.k.a ‘auto routing’) facility, whereby you click on a point further down the road and the software links your current end point to the new end point via existing roads is NOT universally available. Some programs expect you to ‘draw’ the route yourself. Literally!
2. When ‘follow the road’ exists, it would ignore minor roads and insist on taking you round and round the place, instead of getting there in the shortest possible way. That’s because they were designed for CARS – not cyclists. In such cases one has to go as far as the program allows, then switch OFF the ‘auto route’ facility and draw the lines over the minor roads and resume ‘auto routing’ once the course hits a respectably large road.
3. The programs have different degrees of easiness in placing ‘marks’ along the way, such as where controls are to be, rests are to be taken or anything else of importance. It’s nice if you can do it – but one can live without them.
4. If you decide to ‘retract’ and try another route WHILE you create one, it takes forever to ‘undo’ your previous moves. With routes having thousands of points you have to literally click as many times to backstep (‘erase’) the last entries in turn. It is REALLY a painful experience. The only exception I found is ‘bike route toaster’ which keeps the locations you CLICKED on and backtracks to that place instantaneously. It is an amazing relief – in comparison. I prefer the site for just that reason.
5. The ‘killer’ problem is making corrections after you have SAVED the route. Here even the celebrated ‘bike route toaster’ falls flat. You can make changes, but it will not follow the route and I couldn’t find a way to make it work seamlessly. Needless to say, ‘undoing’ the route up the place where I wish to make a small change was not an option.

So what does work fine? Well, not surprisingly perhaps – the good old original Google Maps!

It has the big advantage of ‘drag and drop’ functionality. You pick up any point on the route and as you move it to another location, the route changes so that the course includes the new location. It’s just great! Moreover, while building the route with all the other online tools you get to know the full length only once you have finished the plotting (by which time you may realise that it is either too short – too long – or just about right (one does get lucky occasionally). With Google Maps you have full visibility of the total length at ALL TIMES and any change is immediately reflected. Finally, Google introduced ‘walking’ as a transport mode, in addition to ‘car’. What this mode does is to to find the absolute shortest route between the designated points, using any available path (but not just going in a straight line crossing ‘everything’ arbitrarily. It is as damn near to ‘cycling’ as possible. So here is what I do now:

– I meticulously create my course in google maps. See for example my route for the next ride (near identical to the one I just did).
– I then use the nifty utility to convert the map to a GPX file – GMapToGPX (use the ‘full’ option for best results)
– Having saved the file, I upload it to the bike route toaster, which also looks up the elevation data and creates route ‘profile’ + calculates what is the total elevation
– Finally I upload the TCX file to my Edge – all ready to go!

OK – so now that you have all this wonderfully useful and informative knowledge fully absorbed – here is an interesting side effect Well, the route that created by Google maps in the above manner is TRULY for pedestrians! That means that on three separate occasions during ride No. 20 I faced the prospect of going via non cycle path towards my destination. One of them was a dirt road up the mountain (forget it!), the next asked me to cross a 2 meter barbed wire fence (yeah right) and the last one took me down a beautiful valley in what seemed to be a respectable, albeit little used, road. That turned out to be a very unpleasant, bumpy and full of stones ride, which turned into walking up the hill when the cycle just would not hold its own in the slippery surface. So now I know to be more careful, and am trying to avoid the clearly ‘for hikers only’ alleys. Sadly, one can never be absolutely sure…

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