Riding with GPS


A few years ago I found myself in Rome, Italy having breakfast with Marc Weiss, Ph.D. Dr Weiss is one of the GPS pioneers and is also one of the guys who created the first GPS receiver.  He told me that the GPS receiver that he created in the early 1980s is still functioning today and is actually being used by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  Dr. Weiss is now working on teleportation.

The original GPS receiver is significantly bigger than the current GPS receivers each one of us is carrying in his or her pocket.  For years I resisted getting a GPS navigation system since the iPhone has exactly this ability and I firmly believe that less is more.  I argued that everything that I need already exists in the iPhone – a GPS receiver, maps, speedometer and trip recorder (Strava for example).  Not only that, but an iPhone can make phone calls which is sometimes a plus.

There has not been a single ride since the start of the season in which I returned home with any battery life left in my iPhone.  I always stopped counting the number of times I needed to stop, switch on the iPhone, figure out where I was and where I was going, put it back in the jersey pocket and ride on.  Sure I could mount it on the drop bars and get an external battery for it, but that still did not solve the issue of the lack of proper navigation application that was able to record rides as well as show me the path.  For some reason, Strava and anything (for example bikemap) always ended up in the phone or the app crashing.

This became annoying, a great way to loose riding time and at times frustrating.  This also meant that I adopted the “lets get lucky” style of riding.  I would point myself to some direction and then try to see “what’s there?”  Sometimes there were great surprises and sometimes there were long distances of boredom.

I probably would have continued this system for many more seasons, but then I visited Patria at Ride Studio Cafe and she got me to ride a Seven Mudhoney SL.  Since I am certainly not the most oriented person, she created a loop for me to follow, downloaded it to a little Garmin and attached it to the stem.  Her instructions were simple: follow the little arrow and click here when the screen goes to sleep.  It was a great ride and I felt like I knew where I was going all the time – a feeling that was only familiar when riding in Berlin.  Here I was, tearing down some trails, in a completely new area feeling like I actually knew where I was heading and knowing that I can also make it back to home base.

A week later I was riding in Maryland with friends.  One of them attached a GPS to his stem before we started the ride.  Since the ride included a circular loop in a forest I jokingly asked him if he is afraid of getting lost.  He answered that the Garmin device was just there to record his ride and to later Synchronize with his Strava account.  “Novelty” I exclaimed, but my mindset already started shifting.  Here was something useful and it even worked with existing technologies.  Oh…how little did I know.

Two weeks later I was the proud owner of a second hand Garmin 800.

Unlike the iPhone, the Garmin took a while to get used to.  Luckily for me, the web is full of Garmin tutorials, videos and howtos.  The Internet is also full of web sites designed to enable anyone to create riding maps and downloaded them to the GPS.  Once all plug-ins were installed and the appropriate number of chickens sacrificed, I downloaded the first batch of maps to my new GPS, choose a loop of 100 km and took off.

I absolutely loved the way the Garmin attaches to my stem using a clip system that’s both effortless and sturdy.  At no point during this first ride did I feel that the small device could detach itself from the stem.  It was also easy to see where I was supposed to be heading and as soon as I left the path, Garmin notified me that I was “Off Course” and did not let it go until I was back on course. This behavior could be configured of course. Old habits die hard and I certainly had to get off the path a few times.  The Garmin continued tracking me and showing the path while letting me know that I was no longer in Kansas, or on the intended road.  This was actually a useful feature since when getting off the track, I typically would like to return to it, and even when the path was no longer on the screen, as soon as I got back to it, the “Course Found” alert came up and I was directed to where I should have really been going.

Garmin also recorded the ride which meant that once it was connected back to the computer, I could synchronize Strava with it.  So the iPhone, which I still carry on rides, was now back to its basic functions: a mobile phone and a camera.  It also is able to receive GPS courses from various websites such as ride with gps or GPSies. The more I used the Garmin the more features I discovered.  For example, while from a user interface design perspective, having the same function on different locations is a big no-no, Garmin’s ability to configure each course (i.e. a planned GPS track) is actually very useful.  Sometimes you want notifications and recalculations and sometimes you most certainly do not.  So far I stick to riding courses, but proper training programs with targets and challenges are also doable with that little GPS computer.  These might be in my distant future.

After riding close to 1,000 km with the Garmin 800, I also started discovering the device’s transcendence qualities.  I find myself getting upset at the little computer and event cursing it’s little inaccuracies while fully realizing that the map is likely to be the blame and not the actual computer.  Last weekend we (Garmin and myself) certainly had the following exchanges on more than one occasion:

“Really!?!?!?!  Off Course ha!  I don’t think so!  Get it together” I shout at the device mounted on the stem.

“Off Course” it answers and insists that I am really off course even though I am clearly on course since I am literally on the bike which is on the course.

“Course Found” it suddenly informs me even though I most certainly did not change course.

“Nice!” I shout back.

It may be the effect of riding many hours without seeing any other cyclists, but the GPS device is slowly gaining the position of a riding partner – it’s a little scary, but the goal of every successful digital product: enhance the life of the user.  This little GPS device most certainly does.

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