Landmarks help you check where you are on your map
Landmarks help you check where you are on your map

When does an adventure begin? Is when you when you leave home? When you have the original idea? Or are you like me? For me, the real beginning is when I take out my maps and begin to see a pictorial view of what I hope to ride the next summer. I may have already looked online and gleaned information from other sources, but once the UK Cycle Route Planner gets laid-out on my cosy lounge floor the adventure really starts. Getting up close and personal with this particular map is the point at which I start to see exactly what I’m intending to do. This is the moment when the places and areas I want to visit can be seen in juxtaposition for the very first time. I stare in earnest at this large-scale map hoping to see tenuous links between them, searching for a route that will become my path.

It never fails to amaze me how something as complex as an ultra-distance cycle journey becomes clear so quickly. How a variety of places can be connected, visually at least, by a string like route that provides a logical and logistically acceptable track. By simply looking at my planning map for a short time a clear route  just seems to jump out at me. It probably took me no more than an hour to outline a route of several thousand kilometres on my overview map and fill in the rough detail using online detailed mapping sources. I can’t do this initial work online where the size of my computer screen restrict the wider view. Unfolding my physical maps has become a statement of intent, the way I do things historically, and I feel as though I’m unfolding the world outside in order to see what delights it holds for the coming summer.

As with many other things we undertake this first acquaintance can be daunting. To see a long route, that may take several months to complete, laid out in front of you can be a sobering experience. Am I really going to attempt this? It’s a thought that often accompanies my mind at the beginning of the planning phase. The initial fear is usually overcome by breaking the route into sections and then working on them in bite-size chunks. Doing this lessens the impact of the bigger picture, but there is also an excitement that I can’t explain when I first see the journey in its entirety. My chosen route then grows organically as I begin to see more tenuous connections formed by the smaller roads by which I prefer to travel. Ever more detailed maps increase my knowledge and fire up my enthusiasm in anticipation of the journey.

I’ve been unfolding maps since I was a child. Between my father and boy-scouts I learned from an early age that maps held the key to exploring beyond my own back-yard. Like books they conjure-up virtual images of worlds that I haven’t yet visited. Reading them is a creative process that always draws me back each year. But in a world of electronic,  at-your-finger-tips convenience, are they still valid?

Any way you choose. They're all good.
Any way you choose. They’re all good.

I have never personally enjoyed expressing things on a versus basis: nature versus nurture for example. The reason is that it often encourages us to ultimately make a clear choice on which is best. Maps are often now seen as secondary to GPS navigation and it’s my strongly held belief that they shouldn’t be. Both systems are useful in their own right and both have  limitations.

The question I ask myself is: what would I rather be stuck with in the event of having to make a single choice? For me the answer is nearly always maps. The strength of GPS navigation lies in its ability to help-out when things get out of shape, not in leading me by the hand as I ride. There are always exceptions to rules and in large towns and cities GPS can come into its own as a navigational tool by providing clear instruction and aiding safe passage, especially when driving. The one thing GPS does, that I’m a big fan of, is to show me exactly where I am at a given point in time. This has proven useful on innumerable occasions during my journeys and is something maps can’t do without using compasses and resection skills. To this end a phone App/GPS is more than adequate for my needs.

When faced long sections of closed and damaged roads during my 2013 journey, maps were my saviour. The forced detours I took were day-long affairs taking me away from the mountains and then back again in search of safe passage and my fix of high places. The tiny screen of a GPS wouldn’t have easily allowed me to plan an alternative route as the view ahead is somewhat restricted even when you zoom out. With my map I could see the alternatives and plot a new course in minutes without distress or drama.

Maps engage me in the journey in a way that GPS never could. I have an emotional connection to them, a history that goes way back. Where I might ride along and take the next left turn, as shown on my GPS, I instead ride along looking for clues as to where that turn might be when using my map. If I know I have to follow a railway to a church on the right hand side I start to look around and interact with the ride.  When I’ve gone out following a pre-plotted route (map or GPS) I have rarely diverged from it to see what lies around the corner. This has been especially true when using GPS. I’m much more likely to turn left or right on a whim when I use maps. In short, they entice me to explore, change my mind, or just go a different way from usual.

Some would argue that GPS makes more things possible, freeing you from the drudgery of navigating. You can add your favourite cafe’s, campsites, shops, and points of interest so you don’t miss them and be directed there without a thought. On many  current units you can read average speed, top speed, current speed, altitude, calories burned,  hill profiles, and view your heart rate. You can upload, download, import and export routes, maps and all manner of stuff. For me, each of these things detracts from my sense of adventure. I like to discover as I go.

Exploring the lanes in Brittany, guided by our maps
Exploring the lanes in Brittany, guided by our maps

I read maps like a book and can spend hours pawing over the detail, trying to glean as much as I can from them. This emotional connection just doesn’t happen when I’m staring at the screen of my laptop. There’s a distance created by the fact that my laptop isn’t tactile in the way paper maps are. The difference for me is much the same as that of turning the pages of a paper book in comparison to tapping the screen of a Kindle.

Perhaps it has to do with permanence. I can take out my map at any time and it’s always the same. My GPS needed batteries or charging, time to upload and time to acquire satellite positions and it’s hard to read in direct sunlight.  Despite what vendors tell us GPS doesn’t always work under deep cover like trees,  when you are riding a gorge, or even in a city with tall buildings. It’s much better than it was but sod’s law says it will only let you down when you really need it to work, something I have experienced on quite a few occasions.

My preferences also reflects my own lack of security  and vulnerability. |Maps force me out of my head on those days I get stuck in it. They help me to be mindful and take notice as I travel. On reaching a fork in a forest trail during my 2011 Round Britain ride my GPS went blank. The sign that should have directed me lay on the floor, useless. Having relied on GPS for this section I ended up taking a punt as to which was the right way to go. Of course the GPS confirmed this as correct once it came alive again. My maps weren’t detailed enough to help at this point but my choice was made by roughly aligning the map to the terrain around me so it gave me a clue as to which track headed the correct way, a skill learned from many years of climbing and hill walking.

Like many other people of my generation I take great pride in navigating. When Michele and I chose to lose ourselves in a maze of tiny lanes in Brittany this year I felt pride in my ability to not only find a safe route but in navigating our way through it. I wasn’t just looking for safe passage but wanted to pick out  and follow a route that would be as interesting as possible while minimising distance, climbing, and time on larger roads. Had I then plotted this to a GPS I would have stopped engaging with all around me as the GPS would have largely taken over the decision-making from that point.

Churches make great reference points. You can often see them from miles away.
Churches make great reference points. You can often see them from miles away.

This cognitive connection between rider, map, and environment is an important one for me. When out riding I’m constantly taking in information that tells me I’m going the right way. I don’t even think about it. It just happens automatically after years of taking notice. In France this year we stumbled across an incorrectly drawn crossroads on our map and took a wrong turning. What told me we were going the wrong way was that the sun wasn’t it should be at that time of day in comparison to our intend heading. This is another example of the skill learned from years of map navigation and being in touch with my surroundings that wouldn’t exist if I had grown up with GPS as my first resort.

I get lost just like everybody else, but it’s only ever a minor inconvenience, and always because I’m distracted by something else. I have seen things I never would have had I not turned left instead of right for a change, guided by my map and inquisitive to find out what that valley a few miles away really looks like. The basic skill of map reading can add to your adventure and becomes essential when you travel further afield. Learning these skills is fun and not at all difficult.

With winter coming on there’s plenty of time to acquire this knowledge. Learn the basics, take out a map and look closely. How steep is that hill? Where might you find a pub for lunch or a good viewpoint?  What clues can you see that will help you find your way? Which is the most interesting road for you to enjoy your cycling? These are a few of the many questions maps answer while you sit warm and cosy in your lounge. Do this and then go out and ride the route using the same map. Is it like you imagined? What mistakes did you make? Did you feel more engaged in the journey? If you have a GPS, and usually rely on it, switch it off for a while. You can always switch it on again for a fix as I do from time to time to confirm my suspicions. Think of map-reading as a game and I guarantee you will find it much more satisfying and rewarding than being led by the hand by electronics.

Little by little, as you gain experience, you will find that your map becomes much more than a tool that simply directs you from A to B. You won’t need an electronic hill profile any longer as you can already see it, where it’s steepest, where it eases, and the best place to take a break and stare at the wonder of nature. I find this knowledge helps me relax. After all, I already know what lies ahead, so what is there to worry about?

Until next time…………………