Touring tips #6: Maps revisited: computer mapping

In the first of these touring tips I wrote about Ordnance Survey paper maps (specifically the 1:50k Landranger series) and why I thought these are the most useful and satisfying UK maps for the touring cyclist, and how they can be borrowed for free from public libraries. A few people pointed out OS Maps are also available free online, via Microsoft’s Bing mapping website. This can be helpful when planning a route, especially if you don’t have access to the paper versions.

More and more people are using GPS devices instead of maps. The way I see it, a hand held GPS device has a lot in common with the One Ring of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

A person wearing the Ring would enter a shadowy world revealing the physical world from a different aspect, and from which physical objects were harder to see… The Ring slowly but inevitably corrupted its bearer, regardless of the bearer’s initial intent.

GPS devices change the way you see the landscape, they conceal as much as they reveal and they will end up enslaving all but the most strong-willed rider. And like bike computers they tend to trick us into to paying more attention to average speed and distance covered than is healthy when touring. It’s far to easy to become a GPS Gollum: a miserable, unthinking slave to the ‘precious’.

That doesn’t mean dismissing computer mapping entirely. One very obvious benefit of computer-based maps is that instead of covering your paper maps in crayon marks, there’s no shortage of websites that will help you draw your routes. There are desktop applications too and though I’ve experimented with RouteBuddy but quickly found its interface very primitive and it kept crashing. In the end I found the BikeHike (free) to have better tools for map-drawing and provides easy access to Google Maps or the Open Cycle Map (a version of Open Street Map made especially for cyclists) and – in a simultaneous smaller window – the OS Landranger map. You can also take a look at Google’s aerial photography which can be handy at times. BikeHike lets you draw your route freehand or do the routing between points itself using Google or Open Street Map (you select which one by clicking on Options). The click-drag editing tool is very handy for making changes to routes, or adapting routes drawn by other people and imported into BikeHike.

If you don’t fancy drawing your own route you can always get someone else to do it for you. CycleStreets.co.uk is a great website that will devise three routes to chose from (fastest, balanced and quietest). These websites will calculate distance, show you an elevation profile for the ride and even generate turn by turn instructions.

Google maps are ubiquitous but they’re a very bad idea for planning a bike ride since they are based on a roads database built for motor vehicle satellite navigation. As a result the don’t show useful cut-throughs, canal towpaths and other tracks that are accessible by bicycle but not by car. Using Google maps means disregarding a whole world of motor traffic-free possibilities. Also missing from Google maps are contours showing hills and valleys and all manner of other historical landscape features. A few years ago Mary Spence, the President of the British Cartographic Society, accused the likes of Google maps and Multimap of wiping out history:

Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history – not to mention Britain’s remarkable geography – at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day. We’re in real danger of losing what makes maps so unique, giving us a feel for a place even if we’ve never been there.

Once you’ve devised a route that you’re happy with, the best thing to do is save it as a GPX file and save it to your computer. This can be transferred onto a smartphone or the dreaded GPS device mounted onto your bike. Or it can be stored for looking at later or uploaded to the web to share your work with other people. The web has become a huge and really wonderful repository of GPX files out there showing all kinds of routes. Many cycling clubs and CTC local groups publish the routes of their traditional club runs as GPX files, as do organisers of long distance audax rides and sportives. It’s a wonderful resource, and all free. I use GPSies to share routes but there are a many other services like bikeroutetoaster and bikely. It’s always worth keeping a local copy of any GPX files you like the look of just in case these web services shut down and take your data with them.

This brings me, in a very round-about way, back to the subject of digital navigation and GPS devices. The power of the GPS device is beyond doubt. Following a route displayed a little screen on your handlebars is a very efficient way of navigating to a pre-designated route. It’s simply a matter of following a coloured line. But the coloured line can exert too much power over you. If you like the idea of improvising your route as you go along, perhaps because you see something that looks interesting along the way or you find that a road is too busy or a track is muddier than you expected, you’re stuck. Sure, GPS devices can display maps but a two square inch screen makes it very difficult to get a clear overview of what lies all around you. You really need to go back to the paper maps. And of course, if the battery runs out… you’re lost.

If you chose to use a GPS device, another tricky question is which digital basemap to install. It probably came with a basic map installed but this is very unlikely to be much use as, like Google maps, it was designed for car travel. Andy Allan, who devised the Open Cycle Map, sells it as a digital download for £9.99 (other countries besides the UK are also available). There are free OSM-derived base maps at TalkyToaster. An equivalent product from the Ordnance Survey costs well over £100.

If all I ever want to do is stick to a pre-determined, GPS is fine. This can be useful for complex routes involving lots of off road trails and tiny lanes with many twists and turns that can be tricky to follow accurately using a paper map. When I’m touring I prefer to ride more freely, with a basic idea of where I’m going. For this, paper maps are better.

On the few occasions when I’ve attempted to use my Garmin GPS device to plan a route for me (like a car sat nav) I found it sends me down all manner of footpaths and bridleways that are completely impassable on a bicycle. I’m not sure why it insists on doing this but it’s incredibly irritating.

In summary, my experience is that paper maps are best, online mapping is fantastic way of planning routes and sharing them with others. GPS devices are OK if you know you want to stick exactly to a pre-determined route without any exploration and improvisation along the way. But that’s not really touring, is it? Using a GPS device to ‘get you home’ is asking for trouble.

Its clear that I’m quite skeptical about electronic route planning and navigation for touring by bicycle. Maybe it’s still a developing technology. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Please enlighten me in the comments.

Vous Faites le Tour de France?

With this year’s Tour de France just a few days away, Kieron Yates and Jack Thurston talk about the best places to go touring by bicycle in France. They share their ideas on where to go, where to stay and how to get there and back.

Touring tip #5: Resist the multitool

Superficially, multitools are very attractive. They’re small, light and there’s definitely a Swiss Army Knife wow factor as you unfold the various blades, revealing one handy function after another. And this… for removing a stone from a horse’s hoof!

But just as you wouldn’t want to sit down to the twelve course tasting menu at a fancy Michelin starred restaurant with just a Swiss Army Knife by way of cutlery, you’d be very unwise to go on a cycle tour with just a multitool to fix any mechanical problems you might encounter. Multitools are designed for weight-conscious sporting cyclists who carry everything in a tiny pack attached to the back of their saddle. All they want is a way of keeping their bike on the road until they get home to fix it properly or, more likely, take it in to a bike shop to be fixed.

Mechanical ineptitude or disinclination should never be a barrier to enjoyable cycle touring. In most parts of Western Europe there’s usually a bike shop not too far away. Eventually though, you will find it’s easier to know how to fix the most common mechanical problems. It’s just part of the self-reliance that is one of the attractions of touring. Have bike, will travel. Don’t fear. The bar is not set very high. If you can mend a puncture and put up a tent then you have the mental acuity and physical dexterity required to replace your brake pads and adjust your rear mech. As Eben Weiss (aka Bike Snob) observed, most bicycle repair tasks do not require any voodoo, just loosening and tightening certain bolts in a certain sequence.

Many touring cyclists choose to make their lives easier still by selecting bicycle components that are durable and easily repairable. This is why they shy away from mysterious components like STI shifters and hydraulic disc brakes that require all manner of exotic, proprietary tools and fiddly spare parts.

We’re all after an easy life and fixing your bike is a lot harder if you’re using a multitool. The screwdrivers and allen keys (hex wrenches, for stateside readers) aren’t long enough to reach the bolt head and can only make a quarter turn before the bulky body of the multitool obstructs any further rotation. You can’t use two tools at once as is necessary when tightening a nut and bolt from both sides. The tyre levers are too fat and lack leverage.

The person who invented multitool could just as well have been looking for a way to turn a moderately proficient bicycle mechanic into a ham fisted klutz. After a frustrating session of fettling what you’ll need more than anything is a stiff drink. Which may be why every multitool has a bottle opener, though never a corkscrew.

Leave the multitool at home and instead fill a little canvas tool roll with the following:

– A set of Allen keys of the sizes required for the bolts on your bike.

– A pair of small screwdrivers (one flat, one cross headed) or a screwdriver with interchangeable heads like this one which costs just £1.

– A pair of metal tyre levers (plastic can snap). Why do tyre levers come in threes? I’ve never used more than two to remove a tyre.

– A small pair of good quality pliers with a cable cutting blade.

– A chain tool. I recommend one made by Park Tool that’s designed to prevent you from pushing the rivet out of the chain entirely.

– A small, lightweight adjustable spanner or ‘monkey wrench’.

– A spoke tightening key. You may not know how to use it but you might meet someone who does. Ask her to teach you.

This is enough for 99% of people. Rugged folk embarking on ‘epic’ tours into the wilderness might want to take spanners for adjusting wheel bearings and headsets, or crank extractors and bottom bracket tools. But for everyone else, those are tasks for the bike shop.

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I share what I’ve learned in half a lifetime’s cycle touring adventure and misadventure.

Touring tip #4: Star water carriers

Not long ago, someone discovered that cycling water bottles (or bidons) contained a toxic chemical called BPA that was potentially seriously harmful to human health. Some, though not all, bidons are BPA-free, but even if they are, it doesn’t stop them making your drink taste all nasty and plasticky nor providing an excellent long term breeding ground for all manner of unpalatable, and possibly unhealthful, fungi and bacteria. This latter problem is particularly bad if you fill a bidon with anything other than water, particularly sugary drinks. I don’t expect milk is much good either.

Cyclists who return home after a ride can wash out, or even boil their bidons to keep them tasting fresh. For touring cyclists this is more difficult. And that’s one of the reasons I really like the Topeak Modula XL water bottle cage. It is designed not for cycling bidons but for your standard-issue mineral water bottle. This is the kind that doesn’t taste of plastic and that can be easily recycled & inexpensively replaced if it starts to get a bit whiffy.

More than that, mineral water bottles are bigger than normal cycling bidons, which makes them ideal when you’re wild camping as it’s always nice to have a plentiful supply of water for cooking, making tea, brushing your teeth and all that kind of thing.

The bottle cage is vertically adjustable so it will take a variety of different types of water bottle. I’d recommend using sparking water bottles as they tend to be more durable than most still water bottles which are a bit flimsy.I’ve used one for years, though there are reports of the cages breaking when ridden over rough ground. Being aluminium, they’re lightweight but difficult to repair. Maybe someone will come out with a steel version.

Another approach is only to use bottles up to a litre in capacity, so as to reduce the strain on the cage, or not to put more than a litre of water into the bottle unless you absolutely need it. For cycle tourists heading to really dry, rough or remote places, it’s worth considering taking a water bag to supplement a frame-mounted  bottle for drinking while riding.

I really like stainless steel waterbottles. They’re super durable and don’t have any nasty plastic coatings. They’re easier to find than ever, and cheaper too. But I’ve never found a way of keeping a metal water bottle securely fastened in a frame-mounted bottle cage. Maybe a leather or neoprene wrapper would help. Any suggestions?

Touring tip #3: Pump me up!

As a young cycle tourist in the late 80s and early 90s I used to get a lot of punctures. Fortunately, at that time the charts were full of tunes featuring lyrics about pumping this or that up and I was able to pass the time while fixing punctures by singing them to myself.

Pump it up a little more
Get the party going on the dance floor
See cos that’s where the party’s at
And you’ll find out if you’re too bad

These days, the recording industry seems a lot less occupied with pumping stuff up. This is because good quality modern bicycle tyres mean that we’re all getting far fewer flats. Yet a puncture remains a minor inconvenience for which every bicyclist should be prepared. Commuter cyclists can always jump on a train or hail a taxi to get home, but if you’re touring, you’re on your own.

Besides a couple of spare tubes and a repair kit, it is definitely worth carrying with a good pump so that you can get your tyres back up to the correct pressure. A minipump is a nice thing to find inside a Christmas cracker but you will find it very hard work to inflate your tyres to anywhere near high enough pressure using a minipump. The best pump for the touring cyclist is a frame mounted pump. Because it’s mounted securely on the frame, it’s always right there so you can keep your tyres topped up as necessary and it frees up some space in your bags for carrying flapjacks.

Frame pumps have a reverse spring action that keeps them firmly wedged in the frame, either along the top tube or the seat tube. I would recommend using a velcro cable tie (the stuff sold to gardeners is the best value) to ensure the pump is even more securely fastened to the frame, just in case it’s dislodged. While some manufacturers recommend mounting on the seat tube, this takes up space that could be used for a water bottle cage. So it’s usually best to mount the pump on the top tube, thus:

Ellis Briggs Randonneur Tiagra Brunswick Green with Zefal HPX pump

The best frame pump is made by Zefal. It’s the HPX model, made from aluminium, not flimsy plastic. It can reach a tyre pressure of 160 psi. As a touring cyclist you will never pump your tyres to anywhere near such a high pressure, but it’s good to know you’ve a pump with plenty of power in reserve. In the unlikely event that any part of the pump breaks, replacement parts are available.

There are lots of other pumps, but this is the best one. For some reason it’s now called the Zefal HPX ‘Vintage’ Frame Pump. I am taking this to mean vintage as in vintage champagne (i.e. better than non-vintage champagne), not vintage as in old-fashioned or retro. Mind you, the Zefal company has an impeccable retro lineage, having been making pumps since inflatable tyres were invented. The company even employed Tour de France stars Octave Lapize and Eugène Christophe as technical advisors. Eugène Christophe is one the greatest cycle tourists ever to have competed in the Tour de France. According to Jock Wadley,

He said not the first time during my visit that he was not a rich man in the monetary sense but had a wealth of happy memories and good health to show from his racing exertions. He still rides a lot, is at most of the touring rallies in the Parisian area, but likes to take it easy. ‘I have suffered enough on a vélo,’ he said, but last year he did 115 miles in 8½ hours, with 12lb of luggage, stopping 10 minutes every two hours to eat biscuits, pears and grapes and drink a glass of Vichy water.

The Zefal HPX comes in four sizes for different sized frames. Make sure you get the right one. At £20 this pump is less than half the price of a bottle of vintage champagne and less than a quarter of the price of certain other top end pumps. It’s a bargain.

Selected tracks from Jack’s pumping teenage jukebox:

Pump Me Up – Trouble Funk
Pump It Up – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Pump Up the Volume – M/A/R/R/S
Pump Up the Jam – Technotronic
Pump, Pump – Snoop Doggy Dogg

Touring tip #2: the Lifeventure insulated mug

When you’re heading off on a cycle camping trip, you’ll need some kind of cup to drink from. Unless, of course, you prefer the rugged Bear Ghrylls drinking-from-waterfall-with-cupped-hands look or you take your inspiration from Ray Mears and prefer to fashion a sturdy and sustainable container for your beverage by weaving together a mess of dock leaves picked from the hedgerows.

But if you disregard the TV survivalists and get serious for a moment you’ll want to pay attention to this recommendation: if your intention is libation and you have an appreciation of insulation, there’s no better creation than… the Lifeventure thermal mug.

The merits of this mug were first demonstrated to me by Dixe Wills, a sturdy cyclist and author of the highly original and deliciously mirthful Places to Hide, as well as a very handy guide to Britain’s best tiny campsites. Dixe is a very moral man and a strict vegan. He won’t even drink a pint of beer unless he knows for certain it was brewed without the slightest harm to a sentient being. Before I met Dixe, I was ignorant of many things. I knew nothing of the Lifeventure insulated mug and I had know idea that some beer was vegan and some contained ground up sheep pancreas or some other unspeakable horror of industrialised food production. Spend a few days with Dixe and I’m certain you’ll learn many new things about the world. Alternatively, you can follow him on twitter.

Given his lefty leanings and vegan ways, I was somewhat surprised by the the eagerness with which Dixe told me the that very same Lifeventure mug as was cupped in his mitts is widely used by the British armed forces: a group not known for an anarcho-syndicalist Weltanschauung nor an aversion to violence (killing is part of the job description, after all). Anyway, Dixe told me that it’s common for soldiers to discard the crummy standard-issue Army drinking vessel and fork out for their own Lifeventure insulated mug.

If a piece of equipment meets with the approval of both a bicycling vegan who scrapes a living writing books about visiting tiny islands and towns and villages that begin with the letter Z and a bunch of tattooed hard nuts who scrape a living promoting peace and justice down the barrel of a gun in the Hindu Kush, then it must be worthy of consideration on any cycle tourist’s packing list.

So what does it do? Well, perhaps a better question is what it doesn’t do. It has a lid that doesn’t leak. It’s vacuum insulated so it doesn’t burn your hands. It’s made of stainless steel so it doesn’t break if dropped. Most importantly it will keep your  tea / coffee / hot chocolate / soup / hot toddy / mulled wine (delete as appropriate) hot for nearly half a day.

So how do I use it? Well, it goes something like this. When I’m camping I’ll usually boil some water first thing in the morning, perhaps to make some porridge and a hot drink, to have a shave or do the washing up from the night before. Call me a effete sophisticate but I draw the line a using the same water for washing up and shaving, though I imagine residual grease in the water could provide some additional lubrication for the shave and an interesting eau de cologne for the rest of the day. I’ll leave such antics to the TV survivalists.

It’s a trifle to fill my mug with a hot drink for later in the morning. A couple of hours down the road I’ll stop, sit myself down in a flower meadow, inna Laurie Lee stylee, dig a flapjack out from the deepest recess of my pannier and partake of the fine British tradition of elevenses, or as our Italian cousins call it, la merenda.

The Lifeventure insulated mug costs less than £10 and is available in no fewer than eleven colourways including the eye-catching US Navy Seals “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Special Edition (pictured, right).

This post is part of an ongoing series in which I share what I’ve learned in half a lifetime’s cycle touring adventure and misadventure.

Touring tip #1: Why Ordnance Survey maps are best and how to get them for free

The British Isles are blessed with the world’s best maps for travel and adventure, made by the expert cartographers of the Ordnance Survey. There’s nothing like stopping by the side of the road, leaning your bicycle up against a dry stone wall and wrestling with a rapidly, uncontrollably unfolding paper map, like a waiter at a windy seaside restaurant fighting a losing battle with a large tablecloth. Eventually, you get the map under control, pinpoint your location and are filled with joy to discover that just a few yards away, in the field on the other side of the dry stone wall, is a neolithic hut circle!

Of course, proponents of the wiki-democratic Open Street Map loath the Ordnance Survey with a passion. It stands for everything they’re against: closed systems, the tyranny of the professional and paying for stuff. The Open Street Map is a marvel of internet technology and collective, volunteer action. In many ways, it is far more powerful than a paper map. But there is such a thing as too much information. And too little. On my travels I have found whole villages absent from OSM (I dutifully added them to the OSM database when I returned home).

If maps are works of art, I find the Open Street Map less attractive to look at and less easily comprehensible than an OS map. Open Street Map feels cold and computer-generated when compared to the subtle craft of the Ordnance Survey’s cartography.

Ordnance Survey Landranger Series (1:50,000)

Andy Allan's Open Cycle Map (a version of the Open Street Map), for comparison

More importantly, the Open Street Map is only available on a computer screen. Call me a Luddite but I like a nice, big paper map where I can gaze, like Gulliver in Lilliput, over an entire landscape laid out before me. With a computer map I get lost scrolling back and forward and zooming in and out. And once you’re on the road, what use is a computer map?

That’s all very well, I hear you say, if you’ve got deep pockets. It’s true, OS paper maps are expensive. OS Landranger maps are 40km x 40km, and an enthusiastic cyclist with a decent tailwind could well travel across a whole sheet in a single afternoon. At £6.99 (less on Amazon) the costs for a tour can mount up. Some might quibble that the optimum scale for the touring cyclist is 1:80,000 rather than the 1:50,000 of the OS Landranger series and they might have a point.

But help is at hand in the form of your nearest public library. Most keep a complete range of OS maps: both 1:25:000 (best for walking or for scoping out possible wild camping spots) and the more cyclist-friendly 1:50,000 as well as the somewhat rough-and-ready Touring Series. They’re usually the more expensive, laminated, weather-proof, fold-resistant versions too.

My local library allows me to borrow up to twelve maps for three weeks at a time. I can even renew them online. Even if you prefer to use a GPS device for navigating – and there’ll be a post on digital mapping and GPS to follow – for general route planning, there’s nothing like sitting down at a gigantic table in a library map room with a chaotic expanse of OS maps to make you feel like a real, bonafide adventurer. On a rainy day such as today, can there be any better way to prepare for a bicycle tour?

This is the first in a series of articles, tips and notes about cycle touring.