Using a cycling GPS for navigation

I’ve been using a cycling GPS for navigating on my bike for around 15 years now.  For me they were a game changer – one of the most significant technologies I’ve used on my bike.  I’ve always loved exploring, from the moment I was old enough to ride without my parents keeping an eye on me.  As a child it was easy – I just explored the place I lived and grew to know it like only a child can.  When I was old enough to travel further afield I’d study maps to figure out where I was going to go, then I’d take the maps with me so that I could find my way.  As I started to take cycling more seriously and ride long distances this method didn’t work so well.  I’d have to take loads of maps and by that time I wasn’t keen on taking a bag full of maps with me.  I tried taping cryptic instructions to my stem which worked but always meant I got lost from time to time.

cycling GPS

The moment cycling GPS units became available, I was first in the queue.  My first was a Garmin Geko301 (pictured above at 4600m in Tajikistan).  It was really primitive; it couldn’t display maps and had a tiny black-and-white screen, but it was enough.  I could plot my route on mapping software, upload it to the unit which would give me a line to follow.  The lack of maps didn’t matter: if the line showed a 90 degree right turn ahead I didn’t need to know what sort of junction it was, it would be obvious when I got there.  It was like a foolproof version of the cryptic instructions I taped to my stem.

The Geko301 served me well for years.  It was primitive but it did what I needed so I took no notice of the newer units coming to market.  In fact the technology was moving away from what I was using it for.  It turned out that for cyclists navigation was a minority interest; they were more interested in performance data and cycling GPS units became able to hook up to all sorts of sensors like heart monitors, cadence and power meters.  Strava came along and GPS units became invaluable for recording the data needed.  Pros demanded smaller units whose screens were too small to show maps and so the navigation features I wanted became less important.

Eventually the Geko died so I ventured into modern GPS technology with a Garmin Edge 800, pictured below.  It was expensive, but could display proper maps and had all sorts of interesting features, such as being able to plot routes for itself.  In many ways I loved it, but it was obvious the navigating side of things had been neglected.  It was so bad at plotting routes that a free app on my phone did a better job, but it was still able to follow a route I’d plotted so that was fine.  In its defence, bike routes are tricky things.  Cyclists are more interested in the journey than the destination and often do circular routes, so plotting the quickest route from A to B like a car GPS is no good.  Avoiding traffic is always good and nice scenery is always a bonus.  Some cyclists want to avoid hills while others seek them out.  I was annoyed by the Garmin to start with, but I quickly realised I’d always have to figure out my own route and the unit was very good at following what I’d plotted.

Garmin Edge 800

Now I run a cycling business, GPS units are essential.  Most of our customers are couples wanting to ride together, so a GPS means they don’t need a guide, nor do they have to stop every few minutes to read a map.  It’s so quick to plot new routes that I’m able to customise where customers ride as required; there’s no need to send everyone around the same routes whether they’re suitable or not.  Some customers bring their own cycling GPS units, others hire from me (see pic below).  I don’t recommend smart phones because the battery life is usually not sufficient, they’re tricky to attach to the handlebars and the touch screens don’t work in the wet.

Garmin Edge Touring

I’ve written a guide to buying a cycling GPS for navigating which is here.

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