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Friday, 25 October 2013

Navigating Your Next Bike Ride

I just got back from a two week trip in France with my brother, Chris, and long time friend, Stan.  We shared in planning the route using MyCycleTour (http://www.mycycletour.com/displayroute.php?RouteNumber=79) and flew into Bordeaux in early September to start the trip.  We assembled bikes at the airport then launched ourselves into the morning rush hour, zipping through roundabouts and busy side streets.  This was Stan's inaugural bike trip, and one of the first things he picked up on was the importance of good navigation.  As a group we had no shortage of tools. Chris brought paper maps, Stan brought his Android device with a solid GPS app, and I brought my Garmin Edge 800 and a variety of IOS GPS navigation and mapping apps.  Yes - overkill, but I was keen on trying out first hand what worked the best.

Let's start with the Garmin Edge 800.  This is one of the best purpose built cycling GPS devices out there and is priced accordingly.  In addition to the North America map that came with my device I also purchased the Europe map at added cost.  I've taken it on a few trips now and it is a solid work horse for navigation.  I'd like it better if it provided spoken turn-by-turn directions and if the display were just a little larger.  Like most GPS devices it doesn't always seem to select the most direct path to your destination.  Having said that, mine has been robust, waterproof, easily mounts to the bike, has good battery life and loads GPX route files from MyCycleTour.  It also has all the bells and whistles of the most sophisticated bike computers and stores route and performance information for your rides.

I have to admit, I bought my Edge before the world was filled with GPS navigation apps for smartphones.  I like apps that support offline maps, i.e. do not rely on an active data connection to update the map as you move along.  Why - because I don't like wasting data minutes, especially when I'm roaming.  These apps can easily chew up hundreds of dollars or more in data roaming.  Apps that rely on open standard maps (Open Street Maps - OSM) tend to be inexpensive, usually under $5, the others tend to be considerably more expensive, $50 to $100 or more.  You'll likely want a USB battery to augment the charge on your smartphone if you bike more than three or four hours a day.

OsmAnd (Open Street Maps Automated Navigation Directions) runs on Android and Blackberry, but not on IOS.  Too bad!  There is a free version that allows you to load up to ten maps tiles, and a paid version (well under $10) without restrictions.  It loads Open Street Maps so navigates when your device is offline (so you can avoid ridiculous roaming data charges).  It gives turn-by-turn spoken directions that you can actually hear, calculates navigation routes for bicycles, and even loads routes from GPX files that you can get from MyCycleTour.  We tried it, and it works.  This was the best of the GPS apps that we tried.  Stan rode with this device tucked into his bike shirt with the display normally off.  The voice prompt was loud enough to be easily heard, and the battery life was pretty good.  This is my favorite smartphone navigation app!

I went on this trip with a variety of navigation IOS apps for my iPhone.  Why, because I really couldn't find one that I loved.  The most functional app that I tried was Co-Rider.  It is not supported on Android devices, at least not yet.  It provides turn-by-turn spoken and textual directions, supports loading GPX routes from MyCycleTour, but unfortunately does not support offline maps at this time.  If you are tripping in your home country and have a good data plan, then this may not be a big issue and this app may be good for you.  Unlike some of the other bike specific apps, it also doesn't give typical bike-computer displays, like speed and direction.  If you already have a computer on your bike then that's likely not an issue.  This one is worth trying.

GPS Nav 2 appears to have many of the right elements, but seems to fall short of putting them all together.  It allows for downloading offline maps, but unfortunately does charge for them.  Pretty reasonably priced, but not free like most apps that download similar OSM maps.  It has a nice navigation interface with turn-by-turn directions, but I could only get it to navigate based on routes for cars and not bikes.  What's odd is that it does provide the ability to create a bike route and display it on a map, but I could not get it to navigate these routes.  I did send an email requesting a little more information but no reply yet.  If I get a positive response I will certainly update this comment.  I think this app has promise, but it wasn't quite up to my needs at this point.

There are a variety of apps that are capable of showing maps, downloading GPX files of planned routes, and displaying a current location.  This includes Cyclemeter, B.iCycle, MotionX GPS and iPlanMyRoute.  Interesting apps that can be useful if you don't mind missing the turn-by-turn directions.  Personally I love turn-by-turn spoken directions.  Why?  Because I like to keep my eyes on the road and not on my device, especially when riding in busy areas.  Keep in mind that some of these apps are really more for performance training than navigation, but they are still worth a look.  There are a few others in the $50-$100 range like Navigon and Sygic that support both IOS and Android devices.  I didn't try them out, but if you have I'd love to hear your opinions.  Leave a comment on this blog.

In summary, on this trip we relied primarily on my Garmin Edge 800 but also heavily used the Android based OsmAnd app for navigation.  If there was a conflict between the two I would often pull out my iPhone and open up PocketEarth (previous blog) which gave a really good big-picture view of where we were and where we were going.  Paper maps?  Didn't really need them at all.

Would love to hear your comments and experiences!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Maps for Smartphones & Tablets

In the next few posts I'm going to review some of my favorite mapping and GPS apps for mobile devices.  GPS apps can be great for providing turn by turn directions on your route, but are often not so good for getting a big-picture view of where you are and where you are going.  Fortunately there are some great mapping apps out there to give you the big-picture view.  In both cases it's easy to download your route from MyCycleTour to these apps so you can navigate with ease.

 In this post I'm going to focus on my favorite big-picture mapping application.  I trip overseas quite often and don't appreciate the crazy prices charged by my mobile carrier for data roaming - so I looked for a mapping app that supports off-line content so the maps are actually on the device, not downloaded as you view them.  My favourite app for my IOS devices (iPhone/iPad) is Pocket Earth and that's what I'll focus on this time.  Unfortunately this app is not supported on Android devices, but we'll look at alternatives for Android later.

Get the App

Pick up Pocket Earth from the app store or click here from your mobile device.  The following steps will help you get started with this app, and show you how to load your route from MyCycleTour.  I'm using an example route that I'll be cycling next month in France.  You can display this route here: http://www.mycycletour.com/displayroute.php?RouteNumber=79

Download Regional Maps for Offline Use

Once you have the app you then need to pre-load the area maps of where you are going while you have data connectivity at home.  Under "settings" go to the help menu and look at "Downloads".  Click on the country or region you will be cycling in and tap the star icon to download the area (adds to your favorites).  Repeat this to cover the area that you will be cycling.  Once loaded you can see the map detail regardless of data connectivity, but I highly recommend you test this by turning off your device data and restart the app.

Download your Route from MyCycleTour

Display the route that you want to download in MyCycleTour (e.g. select from the home page, from MyRoutes etc.).  Above the map click on "Download GPX Track" and save the file to your desktop.  To get the GPX file to your iPhone or iPad you can email it to yourself or, if you have Dropbox, you can also save the file there.  (In future you may be able to email it directly from the Download GPX options box in MyCycleTour).  In this example I have chosen the route at: http://www.mycycletour.com/displayroute.php?RouteNumber=79.

Import the Route to Pocket Earth

Open the file from your Email program or from Dropbox on your iPhone or iPad - it may open in a default app or it may ask you to choose an app.  Select the "Open With" (top right of left image below) icon as shown below - then open it in Pocket Earth (click on the Pocket Earth icon below left).  This will open the image on the lower right.  Select "Import".


Display the Route in PocketEarth

You now have the route in Pocket Earth.  To display it simply go to your favorites by clicking on the Star at the bottom of the map (left image below at the bottom).  Select your route from the middle screen, and again on the right screen.

The route will now be displayed on the Pocket Earth map.  From here you can zoom in to street level, and can enable the GPS find me capability of the map (lower left button).  Get familiar with Pocket Earth using their Help menu.

As you ride you can open this app and have it locate you using GPS, then compare to the route downloaded from MyCycleTour.  While this app has GPS, it does not provide turn-by-turn directions (we'll check that out in a later post).  This app does, however, provide a great way to see the big-picture, and to track your location and progress relative to your route - without burning up data minutes on your mobile device. 

Happy travels!

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why MyCycleTour?

I started touring on my bike ten years ago.  A four week trip with my brother starting in London then into France and Italy.  I'd been to those countries before but really had little idea what it would be like on a bike.  To prepare we purchased 1:200,000 maps for all the areas through which we were going to cycle.  We marked up the route with a highlighter and cut the maps up so only to take the pieces we really needed.

Putting bikes together on arrival at airport in London

It wasn't until 2006 that we started using a GPS.  We still did our planning with maps, and continued to highlight the route physically and cut the maps once again to take on route.  The GPS did help us follow the route, but at times it made mistakes when we relied on it too much, and we ended up backtracking a number of times.  Relying on maps and GPS actually made things worse.

The last few trips were different.  I really relied on the internet to plan the route (Google maps, Garmin, and a variety of bike specific sites) and used GPS as a complete replacement for maps.  It worked pretty well.  It seemed that technology was catching up and with some difficulty could really help in both planning and navigating a trip.

To take that one step further, we created MyCycleTour.  A one stop shop for planning a great cycle tour.  We haven't been around for long but we're evolving and picking up user momentum.  You can browse other peoples' routes and take a look at route, ascent, difficulty, places along the route (campsites, hotels, places to eat and more), pictures, descriptions and more.  You can even "See it in 3D", a virtual video tour of the trip using Google Earth.  If you like the route as is you can download a "GPX" file which can be loaded into a GPS or Smartphone to navigate the trip.  Still using maps, then you can simply list and print the directions to keep you on track.  Even more, you can create your own custom route with all of the features listed above.  All from one site!

More than the planning, we've added a whole resource section to help new trippers to learn a little about bike options, what to bring along and even how to pack your bike for air travel.  Just check out the "Resources" tab on the home page.

Ready to go!

I'll use this blog to look for some feedback on what you like and where we can improve.  I'll also use it as a guide to help you figure out how to best utilize the site, and to connect the planning phase to the navigation phase.  More and more I see people traveling with smart phones that have mapping and GPS apps.  There are lots of apps out there, and over time we'll try to make sense of some of them and make it easier for non-techies to select and adopt the best.  I hope you enjoy this blog as it develops.

Happy riding!

Founder MyCycleTour