Tag Archives: Bicycle Trails
1 September, 2014

To GPS or Not to GPS

That is no longer the question.

After making our way across North America without the use of GPS (and sometimes without a map or directions) I have turned the stress of navigation over to Google and Garmin. You see, worrying about what we were missing wasn’t the only burden of route-planning that was proving too heavy to bear. It was also the challenge of plotting–and following–an enjoyable route. The UK, as I was quick to realize, was not like the USA or Canada. The shear number of roads, paths, trails, and carriageways that don’t appear on even the largest scale national maps was surprising. And even if I did buy a new county map every other day, the miles of roads that appear to go unnamed and unsigned would still slow our progress to a crawl. The day would be spent stopping at every crossroads to check the map and compass, oftentimes unsure where it was we actually were. With the exception of signed B-roads in Scotland, we were often just following the compass and hoping for the best.

When I said I quickly plotted a course out of Edinburgh to the Lake District, I actually did so using Google Maps and sent the track–a breadcrumb trail of GPS data–to my non-mapping Garmin Edge 305, the very same bike computer that I’d been using since 2007*. The resulting ride was so superior to any route I had tried to plan, that I was instantly convinced this was the way to go. As an experiment, I handed Google my complete trust. We pedaled our way from our airport hotel into the city along a beautiful canal, through Edinburgh University, and then south out of town across Midlothian and into the Borders. We rode on narrow one-lane roads that seldom saw any traffic. We followed the digital grayscale line on my outdated piece of technology as it bent left and right and directed us onto faint singletrack trails, paved bike paths, and straight to the campground that I had right-click-directions-to’d. For three days we enjoyed a glorious, stress-free ride on quiet roads as we made our way to the Yorkshire Dales. Then, from the house of our WarmShowers’ hosts, I plotted a route along the canals skirting the periphery of Manchester, Birmingham, and other  cities I sought to avoid. And I continued using it right into the heart of Stratford-Upon-Avon where we parked our bikes beside Shakespeare’s birthplace and decided then and there that this is how we will navigate through Europe. To abuse the Bard’s language a second time in a single post is indefensible, but here goes: We knew where we were, but cared not how we got there. What? You thought I was going to quote Yorick?

We'd spend the bulk of three days riding alongside a series of canals as we head south.

We’d spend the bulk of three days riding alongside a series of canals as we headed south. Canal Paths I likely wouldn’t have ever known about if just using the map.

I didn’t have to stop at every intersection and consult the map and compass. I didn’t have to curse the lack of street signs or stop and ask for directions, or buy a new extra-large scale map every day. I could just ride. I could just enjoy the view, note the scenery, and let my mind wander.

Of course, using the outdated Garmin Edge 305 does have its limitations. For starters, there is no basemap. I have merely the shape of a line to follow. And sometimes that line can be particularly confusing. More than once we stood on the side of the road and wondered where it was actually pointing to, only to realize over there, in the corner behind that garage, lies the entrance to a bike path. Only a local would have known. And though it serves as a wonderful navigator through the UK’s myriad roundabouts, it’s inability to properly warm me of an upcoming turn occasionally has us slamming the brakes on a descent, only to head back up the hill and turn onto a low-angle road or path I didn’t first see.

Not on the map. No sign at the intersection. But a joy to ride thanks to Google's bike directions.

Not on the map. No sign at the intersection. But a joy to ride thanks to Google’s bike directions.

The Garmin is only half the solution. The other half is Google Maps. And I must admit that I have been incredibly impressed with its ability to plot a bike-friendly route for us when asked. No, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t distinguish between on-road and off-road, and it has been known to lead us onto some very muddy bridle trails, but if given the choice between sticking to high-traffic roads that appear on national maps and faint muddy trails, I’ll take the latter every single time.  After all, going off-road is the reason I built up the Fargos. And though I know many will suggest all manner of other websites from RideWithGPS to BikeRouteToaster to MapMyRide to Strava, my workflow already has me using Google for researching camping locations, attractions, shops, and all manner of other things. After all, this isn’t about going for a bike ride as much as it is about living a life in constant motion. So, for those who are really curious, I send the URL for my Google directions to this page at GPS Visualizer which converts it to a GPX file. I then import it to GPSies, save it in my profile for later reference, and export it as a Garmin Course TCX file straight to my device. It was easier when Google allowed you to export directions as a KML file from Google Maps, but GPS Visualizer’s conversion is quick and painless.

Okay, so this isn't perfect...

Okay, so this isn’t perfect…

I suspect when we finally reach Central Asia (or southern Morocco for that matter) and the number of roads and trails diminishes to just a handful of choices (like riding across Montana or Ontario) then we’ll be able to rely entirely on maps. But for now this is how I’ll be handling navigation. It’s been two weeks since the switch to this method and life on the foreign road has gotten much, much more enjoyable.

*Not exactly. The one I had since 2007 fell off a table three times in a span of ten minutes in Ely, MN, effectively killing the mode button and freezing it on the data screen that was last visible. I can hear parts rattling around inside when I shake it. I bought a used replacement from somebody in China on Ebay during our month off in July and though its battery seems to drain faster than mine did, it is working well. I’ll finally upgrade to one of the newer models if/when this one should perish.

Special Thanks: Tremendous thanks to our WarmShowers hosts Sylvie and Ben (aka “Frogs on Bents“) for welcoming us into their house for two nights in Warwick, for sharing their tickets to Warwick Castle with us, and for allowing us to eat and play and relax with them and their children. We were also extremely fortunate to spend three nights south of London with a couple we met on the QM2. Carolyn and Kevin opened their home to us, stuffed us with food, and made it oh-so-easy for us to use their house as a home base for exploring London. Carolyn’s mother Liz, who we also met on the QM2 and lives next door, was also keen to shower us in generosity. We’ll be leaving the UK with new friends, including Emily Chappell (who also generously hosted us for a fun night in London), great memories, and an even greater sense of what it means to be generous and kind.

Kevin and Carolyn made us feel at home for three nights. We can't wait to return the favor when we're back in Washington.

Kevin and Carolyn made us feel at home in their house for three nights and treated us like longtime friends. We can’t wait to return the favor when we’re back in Washington.

8 June, 2014

Bienvenue Cyclistes!

Perdon. Nous bicyclette de Seattle, los Etats Unis. Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez-vous anglais?


Tres bon! Merci beaucoup!

The change came at once upon crossing the Ottawa River. Or, as the map upon my handlebar said, the Riviere de Outaouais. The first of a week’s worth of La Route Verte signs lay just a kilometer beyond the provincial boundary, welcoming us onto Quebec’s famed bicycle network. No longer would we have to balance our bikes along the narrow edge of pavement and keep constant vigil for trucks and cars trying to pass with too little room. After weeks in Ontario we would finally be able to direct both eyes to the scenery and not our safety mirrors!

La Route Verte 1, the Voyageur’s Path, led us across the countryside of L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, through wetlands and forests where bouquets of trillium grew wild among the ivy and the scent of lilac and honeysuckle floated on every breeze. We crossed farms, rolled through acres of dandelions, and turned our pedals along the shores of lakes and streams and, of course, the Ottawa River. The crushed gravel path we so longed to reach, the very network of trails I had in mind when building our Salsa Fargos and selecting our wider 700×38 tires, was now leading us through Fort Coulonge to Gatineau and onward to Montreal. LRV1 was a land-based route that followed the annual journey of those hardy French-Canadian canoemen who made the fur trade possible so long ago. What a joy to lay awake in my tent, wild-camped on the side of the trail, reading of their history in Grace Lee Nute’s “The Voyageur” and to hear the names of the very towns and villages we had ridden through that very day!


La Route Verte 1 near Fort Coulonge.

After two nights back across the river in Ottawa, a wonderful capital city, we were anxious to return to the Quebec side of the river and continue our journey to Montreal. I fell in love with Montreal on a business trip in 2012 and couldn’t wait to show Kristin the sights. And after three nights in the old quarter, we continued along the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. La Route Verte 5’s urban bike path was our guide out of Montreal, just in time to avoid the arriving Formula One crowds in town for that week’s Grand Prix. Three days later, after a trip through the St. Anne River valley, La Route Verte 6’s undulating gravel trail brought us straight to the old fort’s ramparts, just blocks from our hotel perched high above the hilly, historical city. La Route Verte doesn’t just make cycling in and out of large cities possible and safe, but it shows that even the oldest of cities can be retrofitted with bicycle infrastructure. And if a city founded some 400 years ago can find the room to squeeze in some bike lanes, then surely the younger cities can too.

I try to find the thinnest lines on the map. And then sometimes I just follow the compass.

I try to find the thinnest lines on the map. And then sometimes I just follow the compass and a hunch.

Of course, the bicycle has to play a bigger part of the culture for that to happen. It can’t just be a recreational piece of sporting equipment. And that’s where the region’s origin as “le Canada” really shines. A cyclist we met in Deep River, Ontario said that of all the places in the world he cycled, there was none better than France. “In France, the cyclists are number 2 on the road. The farmers will always be number 1, but cyclists come second!”

Montreal was a joy to cycle in.

Montreal was a joy to cycle in.

We won’t be in France for several months, but I couldn’t help but feel as if a dormant strain of French was untwisting itself from my DNA as a cyclist and bubbling to the surface. I found myself greeting every passerby with a hearty “Bonjour!” as I rode, smiling at the day, and waving to the flowers. I’d enunciate with awful anglicized phonetics the words on the signs we’d pass and bellow, “Bienvenue Cyclistes!” whenever our chosen campground was emblazoned with the sign marking La Route Verte supporters.

A river had flooded the trail and it was only after the water rose above the panniers and I noticed fish swimming past me that I turned around. Kristin took this from dry land after I managed to turn around.

A river had flooded the trail and it was only after the water rose above the panniers and I noticed fish swimming past me that I turned around. Kristin took the photo from dry land after I managed to turn around.

We wild-camped at a picnic area on the trail. Long pants and sleeves for mosquito protection.

We wild-camped at a picnic area on the side of the trail. Long pants and sleeves for mosquito protection.

Unfortunately, the abundance of apostrophes isn’t the only thing that’s throwing me off with regards to the French language in Quebec. I also have a problem with inconsistency and double-standards. And after seeing, what seemed to be, every single piece of text in Ontario written out in both English and French, from the labels on the cookies in the Dollarama to the overbearing billboards on Highway 17 explaining all of the numerous ways motorists will likely perish, it came as quite a surprise to find virtually no English in Quebec. It is certainly disappointing to find no translation on any of the monuments, statues, or plaques we’ve encountered along our travels in the province. What a wasted opportunity to educate the Anglophones on French-Canadian history! While the French Language Services Act seems to guarantee that all governmental agencies and the like are to be bilingual in Ontario (and we’ve seen plenty of French in British Columbia as well), it seems that Quebec swings the other way and goes out of its way to keep English from its signage. Or a store owner’s use of social media, for that matter. As an observant traveler just passing through, I found it interesting to see some of the historical explanations and plaques in Quebec include the Inuit translation but not English.

C’est la vie.

Strolling along the Rosary monuments depicting the stations of the cross at Our Lady of the Cape shrine in Trois Rivieres.

We enjoyed a meditative walk along the Rosary monuments depicting the stations of the cross at Our Lady of the Cape shrine in Trois Rivieres.

Enjoying a nice meal at the Bonaparte Restaurant in Montreal.

Enjoying a nice meal at the Bonaparte Restaurant in Montreal. Thanks JVP!

Special Thanks: The last couple of weeks have been great fun thanks to the arrival of summer, pleasant cycling conditions, and the generosity of those in our life. Want to thank Steve and Kate, our WarmShowers hosts in Deep River for a great night of drinks and board games. Also have to extend a hearty thanks to my good friend, “The Real Brian Donahue” for e-buying us a round of drinks and dinner at the Highlander Pub in Ottawa, and to our realtor and friend Justin Vander Pol for a lovely French dinner in Montreal. Would also like to give a quick tip of the cap to Bill Harris, a longtime pen-pal of mine, who so graciously allows me to send along a monthly dispatch for inclusion in his blog, Dubious Quality. Be sure to check it out.