Thursday 14 May 2015

GPS George Runs Amok

Current location: Santiago de Compostela, Spain

If GPS George was human you would not choose him as a travelling companion. He can be difficult, contrary, misleading, and downright bloody minded. He also has an infuriating habit - his constant beeping that we are off course even when it's obvious he has a demented worm running around in his brain and it is leading us up someone else's garden path.

The smile was getting strained as GPS George led us along an old railway track that bumped its way to our campsite. George was set up to avoid unpaved roads, but he ignored the instruction.

On the plus side (and sometimes it is difficult to appreciate the pluses) GPS George can have flashes of brilliance. When you least expect it, he can find you a campground late in the day when you are tired, hungry and in need of a shower, beer or wine, and not necessarily in that order.

George is really GPS George the Second - a Garmin Edge 810 cycling computer which when we bought him earlier this year seemed to be the best model on the market for cycle touring. We purchased him to replace George the First and while their names might hint at a royal lineage, this latest addition to the family is a bastard child.

GPS George - Garmin Edge 810 

Using him is meant to be intuitive, but we find him impossibly difficult. After three months, things seem to have become worse rather than better - we are little further ahead. The "manual" that came with him is hopeless, and how much of our lives do we really want to spend pouring over Garmin forums on the Internet to learn about his quirks and idiosyncrasies? To us, it's a bit like giving someone  a rocket ship and saying,"It's all fuelled up, take it to the moon." It's just not that easy.

Over the past few days we have used George to try to help us cycle from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, about 200 km as the crow flies, or 330 km for those who like us have time to meander.

We have been using George to help us navigate the Camino Way to the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela. The small blue sign has become a familiar sight, and ahead of us is a pilgrim walker.

We thought it would be an ideal task for George as we wanted to avoid the worst of the traffic in Portugal's second biggest city, and then find the most peaceful country roads North to Spain's famous pilgrim destination.

Using something called Garmin Connect, an app on our IPad, we plotted a course from our campground south of the Rio Douro, over the upper walkway on Porto's Dom Luis 1 bridge and onwards. Within eight kilometres of the campground, George tried to lead us the wrong way up a one way street to the bridge. When we resisted, he proposed some impossibly steep steps when there was a perfectly good road.

We ignored George's advice to push the tandem up steps to Porto's footbridge across the Rio Douro.

We stuck to the road while George beeped angrily to tell us we were off course.

Having defied George, we got onto the bridge but took a wrong turn soon after leaving. This time George was at first vindictive, then threw a tantrum. He tried to persuade us to retrace our path. Then he recalculated our route and I swear he tried to get us to go backwards - revealing a nasty streak in his personality that we had not encountered before. Finally he spat the dummy altogether. He ignored us, put his hands over his ears, locked his screen and fell silent just when we needed him most - cycling slowly uphill in heavy traffic with no knowledge of where to go next.

We pulled the tandem out of the traffic as far as we could. George remained silent - frozen, immobile and recalcitrant. In desperation I pressed and held his on/off button for about 30 seconds. Suddenly he sprang back to life, but both Judy and I were so disillusioned we threw him in a handlebar bag and resorted to a small scale freebie map from a tourist information office.

"Next bridge we come to let's toss him in," suggested Judy. "See if he works better underwater."

Porto from the Dom Luis 1 bridge. Judy was of a mind to drop George off a bridge somewhere.

We needed gas cartridges for the stove, so after a bit we tried George again - entering a Decathlon store as our destination. Maybe it was the relatively uncomplicated route, but this time George behaved perfectly and led us to the door.

And we had more success later that afternoon when we had managed to escape Porto without his help. We asked him to take us to a campground and like a dog sniffing out a bone, he did so. Never mind that he chose the most diabolical route imaginable over kilometres of teeth rattling cobblestones and then a narrow track that alternated between gravel, mud, a small river and finally sand.

Kilometres of cobblestones but eventually George got us to our destination.

But get us there he did, and suddenly George was our new best friend.

The next morning we checked George's settings to ensure we had told him to avoid unpaved roads. We had. But again he rebelled and within minutes of leaving our campground we were pushing the tandem along a sandy track.

Within minutes of leaving our campsite George had us pushing the tandem along a sandy track.

Since then we have relegated George to managing just one task - showing our position on a map. "George, leave the navigation to us," we have told him. "You just keep track of our position."

It's a very expensive toy for such a menial task in this age of mobile phones and Google Maps.

Photo op as we seek directions from a group of Portuguese cyclists.

Which brings us to a sudden thought. Could it be that handlebar bar GPS as we know it is outdated technology? A kind of parallel universe that just doesn't function as well as Google Maps. 

After all what does our Edge 810 offer over a phone or tablet? Well, a couple of things - it has a battery that according to the manufacturer runs for 17 hours. That's great, but we have discovered George's stamina falls well short of that if he is giving turn-by-turn directions. The day we left Porto, we had to top him up with a spare battery pack as we rode.

A perfectly good road ...

.... but George wants to take us off to the left onto cobblestones, adding time and km to our ride. 

George is also water resistant - important for a cycling computer. And he has a natty little mounting system that attaches him to the handlebars. But for us, that's about it.

According to the publicity, the 810 enables users to record rides and transfer the data to social media (perhaps useful for those doing the Saturday morning coffee run, but irrelevant to us). The 810 can also keep track of your fitness, tell you how many calories you have burned and even provide a virtual training partner. Again, of no interest to us.

Sometimes George triumphs as on this occasion when he led us down a perfectly good road and onto a pretty little bridge closed to cars. Unfortunately, we had entered the coordinates for our campground incorrectly and once again we were up someone else's garden path. Our fault this time.

We just want a good GPS for cycle touring - and in George's innards is an option for just that. It says "cycle touring". If only. Now imagine if the people at Google came up with a cycling computer that was based on Google Maps. It would give you the shortest route, the quickest route or maybe even one with the least hills. Perhaps it would tell us about traffic. It would have a clearly readable screen, even in bright sunlight, and would work without missing a beat. It would be perfect for a touring cyclist. How about it Google?

As for George, will we keep him? We will. As Judy says, he may be a bastard child but he is still part of the family and he can have his uses.

Judy the Stoker's Quotable Quote

Mike: "The number of times George took us around that roundabout....."
Judy: "Anyone watching would know we had a Garmin."

Henry the Navigator led Portugal's drive to explore the far corners of the earth. His sailors managed without GPS, and it makes you wonder whether electronic gadgetry is a help or a hindrance.

Thinking of buying a GPS for cycle touring?

Our advice would be:
Buy it well in advance and practice before you set out.
Take paper maps with you. A GPS is not a total solution.
Consider alternatives like a GPS enabled cellphone or tablet.
Check what kind of battery powers the GPS you have in mind. The ability to use replaceable batteries could be a big plus, instead of having to plug the GPS into the wall.

What we would like to see in a touring GPS.

Simple and easy to use with a layout similar to Google Maps.
A menu that includes genuine options including:
Shortest route
Hill avoidance
Paved/unpaved roads
Uses replaceable/rechargeable batteries for those days spent crossing the Gobi Desert.
The ability to plot routes on a computer or tablet by entering specific addresses or co-ordinates, view elevations etc. 
Genuinely intuitive.


It's possible some of the problems we face with our Garmin Edge 810 are of our own making. We are not computer geeks. Maybe if we spent more time online we could get it to function better.

But we are not novices either. We have used GPS for more than 20 years for hiking, boating and cycling.

And we believe that ahead of anything else, a GPS on a bike should be simple to use. And when the chips are down, it's performance has to be faultless.

Finally, it's possible there are cycle tourers out there who love their Garmin Edge 810. Good on them. We would like to love ours too. 

Judy cools off at a roadside waterfall. Despite our issues with George we have had some wonderful cycling over the past few days.

Campsite - early morning.

Magic Moment

It's not often we get the chance to revel in the downhill speed of our tandem - formerly The Beast of Burden, now known simply as Bic.

It came yesterday as we were on a long downhill. Bic was running freely, but I was touching the brakes every now and then to reassure Judy that I hadn't gone to sleep. I think we both became aware at the same time of a trim, Lycra clad figure pedalling furiously just behind and just outside us - determined to overtake. We were freewheeling. We watched him pass, and I could sense Judy's impatience as she glanced over my shoulder at the bouncing bottom in front of us, his colour co-ordinated clothing and his fancy racing bike.

It was too tempting. Our speed was such that we could not go faster by pedalling - even our top gear was way too low for that. It was up to gravity and momentum. Within seconds we were on his tail. He was still pedalling - his top gear must have been right up there. But he didn't stand a chance. We passed him at 66 kph. As Judy said afterwards, it was one of those moments. 

"Here we are on our tractor tyres, clothes flapping in the breeze and luggage hanging off. He won't be admitting that to his friends."

Time for a breather.

Down to Earth

Today there was a very different moment. As we cycled the last few kilometres into Santiago de Compostela we witnessed a tail ender - a car ploughed into the back of a motorcyclist who had stopped for a pedestrian crossing. 

There was the terrible "thrumping" sound of car body panels giving way, a bang as the motorcycle hit the road and then silence as the motorcyclist lay in the tangled wreckage.

A couple of onlookers and the driver of the car offered assistance, but the motorcyclist waved them away and some time later got to his feet unaided.

He was well protected with leathers, boots and helmet and did not appear seriously hurt.

But it was a reminder to all of us who travel on two wheels of just how vulnerable we are. The rest of our ride into town was conducted in a sedate and cautious manner.

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