Best Way to Navigate Your Long Bike Route

Best Way to Navigate Your Long Bike Route

I just finished reading a thread at BikeForums dotnet about whether one should use a paper cue sheet, an electronic GPS device, or some combination of the two. CLICK HERE to see the thread. It seemed to me that the contributors to the thread were lopsided toward either paper cue sheets, Garmin Edge devices, or mobile phones that can operate like a computer. Conspicuously missing were people who have used Garmin’s line of handheld GPS devices, i.e., eTrex line, Oregon line, Montana line, and GpsMap line. I’ve been leading bike rides since 2010 and in so doing have used paper cue sheets, a Garmin Edge Touring, and both a Garmin eTrex 10 and 20x. So I have experience navigating rides the way the thread contributors talk about, AND I have experience using a handheld GPS device not marketed specifically for navigating bicycle rides.

I have read more than a few such threads since the end of 2016 when I decided to participate in RUSA dotorg events in 2017. And I have to say this thread was pretty typical of ALL the others I have read. It seems to come down to people who are traditionalists (people who like paper cue sheets) and people who are nontraditionalists (people who embrace technology). Unfortunately,  both types of people apparently don’t like to fully research a topic before they call themselves “experts” when contributing to a forum thread. At least this is my opinion after having done the research and put my research to practice in the field. Over the first few months of 2017 I have now ridden several brevets including a 300k, 400k, and 24-hour fleche. And during each ride I have NEVER used a paper cue sheet during the ride. I have never gotten lost. And I have always used either a Garmin eTrex 10 or eTrex 20x in order to navigate the ride. I have gone off course a couple of times, but never more than a mile. And that time I went a mile off course I was not watching the device, but instead chatting with others on my fleche ride.

The problem I have with paper cue sheets is they are not easy to store on my bike. And they are hard for me to follow. I have to do too much thinking to translate the written word into my brain and understand what they are saying. I think a cue sheet is definitely a necessary part of transmitting information from a ride organizer to the ride participants. However, I do not agree that they are a necessary element in successfully completing a ride. The ride participant should use the paper cue sheet to create his or her gps file for a gps device to be used by the rider during the ride to navigate the course. Some will use a mobile phone, some will use a Garmin Edge device, and others will use a Garmin handheld GPS device. When someone ACCURATELY translates a paper cue sheet into a GPS file that will fully inform a rider where he or she needs to go to successfully complete the brevet at hand, then the paper cue sheet become irrelevant. A breadcrumb trail in a GPS device does not tell lies. And it is incredibly accurate. And it is a picture (that is worth a 1000 words), and the cue sheet won’t have 1000 words.

Some might argue the paper cue sheet will give you warnings about road conditions that are unsafe, or turns that are not well marked. The rider should have eyes and a brain between his or her ears. If so, then he can tell when to ride safely but recklessly and when to slow down. And when turns are not marked well the picture in the GPS device will clear things up much better than some cue sheet drafter’s words.

The problems I have with the Garmin Edge device are twofold. Firstly, the Edge has a built-in rechargeable battery that dies after continuous use of 10 or so hours. Since the Garmin eTrex series uses easily replaceable AA batteries for power, this first problem with the Edge is one strike against it. And secondly, the Edge calculates the routes you load into it. It has been my experience that sometimes the routes work like a charm, and other times something goes wrong. This would not be much of a problem for local recreation rides I’ve done. But when I visit distant states to do a metric century ride where I don’t know the roads and something goes wrong I find myself in deep do-do. Reliability is the issue. I have found my Garmin eTrex’s (10 & 20x) to both be 100% reliable. Accordingly, this second problem with the Edge is a second strike against it.

Another thing that I have found to be really nice about the Garmin eTrex’s that I own is that I don’t need to purchase expensive maps or find maps to load into my eTrex devices. I translate the paper cue sheets into files with breadcrumb trails called tracks which have waypoints titled with street names and/or controle titles. All I have to worry about during a long ride is keeping the current location cursor on the breadcrumb trail. When it goes off the breadcrumb trail, then I know I’ve gone off course. And it is very easy to get back on course by simply turning my bike around and heading back to the breadcrumb trail (course). Eventually the breadcrumb trail will reappear in my device’s screen.

Do I need to know street names? No. Do I need to know what town I’m in? No. Is it nice to know these things. Sometimes, probably more likely during daylight hours. At nighttime you will just want to follow the breadcrumb trail displayed on the device screen because the device’s backlight is functioning well and properly. Will it be tricky if you come to an intersection that has more than just three ways to turn? Certainly not! Just stay on the breadcrumb trail. Keep in mind, paper cue sheets are a real hassle at night. Another reason they are not a good way to go.

The really cool thing about the Garmin eTrex is that you can/should treat your controle stops as though they were Geocaches. Geocaches in hiker terminolgy are called “waypoints.” You follow your breadcrumb trail until you get to the coordinates of your next controle, a waypoint. You don’t need to worry about how far away it is, or where it is on the road. When your eTrex device says you are there, then you are there. Paper cue sheets don’t do this for you. Nor do the Edge devices.

In sum, you can be a traditionalist and be a paper cue sheet user. You can be an uninformed nontraditionalist and use a Garmin Edge device. Or you can be a fully informed nontraditionalist and use a Garmin device from one of the handheld series. The cheapest handheld, and in my opinion “the best” device in this category, is the Garmin eTrex 10.

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