A safety and navigation essential for long-distance riding? Or another bleeping digital crutch for those who shouldn’t be in the wilderness in the first place? Rich Rothwell looks at the dramatic influence that GPS units have had on our sport.
Words Rich Rothwell Photography Singletrack
The morning was getting hotter. I’d set off before dawn from the coast to gain as much height as possible before the Greek sun became too vicious. My legs were scratched from the sharp grasses and thorns that carpeted the dry scree slopes.
I was playing my favourite holiday game. Visit a Greek island and find the highest points on the map (Greece seems to specialise in steep, rocky mountains that rear improbably out of the sparkling blue sea). Keep assaulting the peak until I find a way up through the mazes of crumbling olive groves, scree slopes, and in this case, scrubby plants and ancient gnarled trees.
This was Crete and I was trying to reach the summit of Spathi (2,148m). From my experience of living and working on the Greek mainland, I knew that accurate maps were hard to come by, and incredibly accurate OS mapping is not a universal luxury. So I’d set off armed with my wits.
The vegetation was grabbing my bike and my legs. The slope was getting precariously steep. Dragging the bike upwards was becoming increasingly unnerving. The sun was beating down hard now. Sweat crept into and stung the scratches on my ankles. Loose stones skittled down the slope as my feet sunk into the dry, unstable ground.
I was falling into the Incident Pit and I knew it. Pressing on was painstakingly slow and, now in a gully, my sense of direction was lost. Looking back down, well, it didn’t look very appealing; the valley floor was 1,000m below and I felt that I could throw a stone down to it.
Then I remembered. I had literally just invested in my first full mapping GPS (sat there on my handlebars, but virtually unused). I switched to the mapping screen… and realised that it came with full base maps for Europe! Hurrah! The cold sweat that was building calmed down to feel more in tune with the now 35°C heat.
Panning around the area, perhaps half a painstaking mile to my right, I saw the distinctive sweeping bends of what was clearly a mountain access track of some type. Pushing through the lacerating scrub no longer felt futile and unnerving. I had a goal and route out of the maze I’d trapped myself in.
You’re spoiling the fun.
As a late adopter, though still earlier than some, I used to think that GPS would take away the spontaneity, dilute the purity of adventure, make things ‘safe’ and predictable. My experience on that Cretan mountain instantly converted me – GPS can give you the opportunity to go deeper and further into the wilderness. You can take on new challenges. Step further from the comfort zone. Then I started thinking, not for the last time, about this Quiet Revolution.
GPS technology has crept into our riding lives progressively and without much shouting, but with a very significant impact. Similar to the developments in mobile phones and their influence on everyday lives, GPS has affected our riding in ways we couldn’t have imagined even ten years ago. It has changed mountain biking, and cycling generally in so many ways, and created niches and subcultures which are exciting and innovative.
Back in the day, I competed in a few Polaris events (though ‘competed’ would be an overstatement). These were basically orienteering events on mountain bikes. The British Mountain Bike Orienteering organisation (bmbo.org.uk) now promotes them, if map reading on the fly floats your boat… It doesn’t float mine – I remember standing in a muddy field outside of Keswick, looking for the exit point of the campsite, with my bemused and slightly disappointed wife (‘It’ll be fun’ I’d told her). Now I love to read a map like the next geek, but while riding a bike? Nope.
Many years were spent studying maps, exploring by trial and error and returning home late after trudging through what looked like on paper to be a perfectly good bridleway… Great days for sure. It was also an opportunity to develop valuable map skills; always useful for those who love exploring wild places. However, GPS now enables us to ride or race on the best trails completely blind. With a bit of research, it’s possible to head into completely new terrain with a trusted .gpx file and get straight onto the best trails as curated and suggested by riders who know them well. This has opened up whole new worlds and opportunities for adventure – long-distance wilderness rides and races being examples.
Things weren’t slick from the start, though. The internet was not awash with GPX files and if you wanted to ride a specific route accurately, the plotting process could be quite painstaking. This was the case several years ago when I planned an end-to-end ride of Tim Woodcock’s Coast to Coast. The route is the mountain bike-legal version of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire and has some very challenging sections, both physically and navigationally. Many evenings were spent highlighting OS maps with fluoro pens (we’ve all done it), and then transferring the route into a .gpx file via rudimentary mapping software. I’m sure glad I did some recce trips before the ride or I’d probably still be out there.
Join our cult.
One of the most exciting impacts of the GPS is in the cultish and slightly underground world of bikepacking. A little bit like the rave scene in the late ’80s, you can turn up to a deserted warehouse, hook up with like-minded adventure seekers and have a party. Erm… on a bike. (And swap ‘rave’ for the Yorkshire Dales 300.)
The summer of 2018 was a corker and as Phil Addyman and I drove down to Yorkshire in warm late afternoon sunshine, it was obvious the ground would be bone dry and fast. It was going to be a brilliant weekend.
The ‘warehouse’ in this case was the Riders Cycle Centre in Skipton. Quiet because it was the end of the day at the end of the working week, but people gradually trickled in the door. The atmosphere was disarmingly intimate; familiar old hands turned up along with plenty of new faces. Introductions were made and conversations soon branched off into bike set-up… bivvying or riding through? Which resupply points? What tyres? We were all committed to a massive ride and had been drawn together with the knowledge that the GPS could guide us all.
Stuart Rider has done a fantastic job with the Yorkshire Dales 300. The route is absolutely superb with a huge variety of terrain (though it mostly involves big hills). Open fell, farm track, road, superb singletrack, and even the super rocky ‘direct’ route down Gunnerside Gill. It’s a classic.
Riders Cycle Centre workshop is HQ and Stuart puts on a big workbench of food to make sure everybody is fuelled up before the ride and refilled after. The kettle is always hot and there’s always a warm pot of soup to tuck into.
On any Saturday…
Early on the Saturday, everybody rolls out for a day or two of riding or racing a giant loop of North Yorkshire. However you engage with the ride, the GPS has helped make this possible. Flowing and seamless. A carefully plotted .gpx file helps every turn go smoothly. Descending previously unknown trails with several splits ahead, we can choose and push through the dips, corners, and turns at speed. A mass-start event of this type and distance probably would not have happened 15 years or so ago – even in the early days, GPS technology was far more basic and had not been adopted by a significant number of riders. Few would know this route in its entirety and completing it by paper map navigation alone would severely limit the appeal of the event. Map navigation impacts hugely on ride flow and time and certainly demands a very specific skill set (imagine a 300km Polaris). As the hardworking owner of a small business, Stuart can’t dedicate time to course signing and removal. Knowing Stuart as I do, I also sense that he enjoys the low-profile, low-impact approach. He also likes the idea that anybody at any time can load up the .gpx file, follow the route, and enjoy one of the best long-distance rides in the North of England. The Yorkshire Dales 300 in 2018 clarified what I’d had been feeling for some time – the GPS revolution really is a paradigm shift that has matured fast. Whether it’s to fill a valuable spare hour in an unfamiliar place or a planned full-blown epic, GPS gets us straight into the trail.
At the far end of the scale, the ultra-distance endurance racing and challenge world is entering a golden age. Bikepacking events are increasing in number and popularity. Routes and distances are getting more diverse and demanding, and yet are more tangible and ultimately doable. Event listings on race tracking websites like Trackleaders.com are growing each year. Heck, ‘dot-watching’ is actually now A Thing! Events like the Tour Divide, The Highland Trail 550, and The Silk Road Mountain Race are becoming widely recognised and appreciated for the challenge, adventure and drama they can create, even for the spectator. We can tap into the experience through the use of GPS tracking devices and technology. The ability to easily study route profiles, and pin points on routes, helps massively with planning and preparation for these monster challenges.
Respect my authoritaay.
Guards should not be dropped though. The wilderness needs to be respected, however you got yourself out there, and you need to be prepared and able to get out if things go wrong. This will never change, even though GPS location technology is now widely available and can be used to help get us out as a last resort. Injuries, mechanicals, exposure and exhaustion are risks that need managing whether you know your location or not. Nobody wants to be a Mountain Rescue statistic, though do they?
Some justifiably argue there is no substitute for a map and compass, along with the knowledge of how to actually use them. It is hard to break a map and a GPS is far from foolproof (I found this out several years ago when I smashed one, ten miles into my first ride on the West Highland Way). A paper map and compass stuffed in the bottom of a bag is always worth having, along with a knowledge of the surrounding land. Nevertheless, a second GPS is my preferred backup resource on a big route in unfamiliar terrain. Whichever way we navigate, an appreciation of where we are and what is around us should never be lost.
The effective use of a GPS is not without its nuances – working with plotted routes as well as ridden routes takes practice. Battery management and appropriate use of scale needs experience. I’ve even heard of some riders forgetting to insert SD cards before important rides or running out of power *cough*… Nothing is foolproof.
Give me the choice between a GPS and a map? GPS every time. They have broadened our horizons and helped develop our community. I’ve hooked up with some great riders in several countries through using GPS. Rides and events that simply would not or could not have happened ten years ago have become accessible to a wide audience. Many riders, myself included, have dared to explore further, and travel over unknown horizons. There has been little fanfare and a gradual build-up of users, but the impact has been massive. It is one of the most significant paradigm shifts in mountain biking and cycling generally. I’m happy to embrace this particular technology and be part of the Quiet Revolution.