Edit 4/6/13 – A lot has changed since this was first written almost 2 years ago. Mainly, open source maps makes using a GPS even more economical. No cycling specific GPS units have come out since the original writing. The Garmin Edge 800 is still the “latest & greatest” as of this edit. And the Edge 800 has the advantage of being able to be charged and remain on, allowing the use of something like an E-werk. Prior units, like the Edge 500 need to be turned off to be charged.
There are various ways to navigate a randonneuring route. The tried, and official way, is to follow the Cue sheet handed out on the day of the ride. But, if you’ve ever been riding, attempting to read directions, check your mileage and not crash at the same time, you know that slows you down. The worse part is the feeling you made a wrong turn. Try doing it at night. On my first rando ride ever, a 300k, we went so far as to have the entire group stop when it was dark to check the directions. That’s how important navigation is.
Enter my GPS. I (actually D and I) own a Garmin GPSMap 60 CSx. The “C” means color, “S” means sensor (e.g. barometric altimeter, magnetic compass) and the “x” is for extra memory. We purchased this GPS for a silly little hobby we have called geocaching. And this unit was essentially purchased for its functionality and more important, its rugedness. I read one review of an individual who dropped the unit off of a cliff, climbed down to retrieve it and all that was needed was to dust it off. While that is heresay, and while I’ve never dropped my unit off of a cliff, it has been dropped from my hands and tossed around while hiking. Not a “Will it blend test,” but just every day use.
Turns out, the Garmin GPSMap 60 CSx is an excellent cycling unit. While it is bulky, it is completely water proof. And if it ever does fall off of your bike, don’t worry about it still functioning unless an 18 wheeler is right behind you. But, buy the RAM mount and don’t worry about it. Depending on the length of your head tube and stem, you can girth hitch the lanyard around the handlebars, as I do. But, you only want to do this if you are sure your unit won’t end up dangling around your spokes. Otherwise, you’d be much better served by letting the unit hit the deck.
There are many units to purchase, some are even cycling specific. But, the GPSMap 60 CSx is the best value, selling for $220. And it takes AA batteries, making the replacement of batteries quite easy. Some units, like the Garmin Edge 800 have lithium ion batteries and the batteries aren’t replaceable. With a battery life of 15-16 hours (I’ve found it to be less if you are using the backlight during night riding), you want to be able to replace the batteries on the fly. Or get an E-WERK or PowerPedal+. If your rides are during the day and under 15 hours, one of the other units may be satisfactory. But, I have yet to finish a 400k during daylight and under 15 hours.
One major complaint about the Garmin system is the way they handle the sales of their maps. Many people complain about it and give their units poor reviews, but the products work just as they are described and I find nothing unethical about it. But here is what you need to know. If you want to get turn-by-turn directions on your handheld, you will need to purchase a GPS receiver (what I call a “unit”) and maps. For riding on roads, you want to purchase Garmin Mapsource City Navigator North America. There are three ways you can have the maps delivered–by downloading, on a microSD card or on a DVD. Each has it’s advantage. Downloading is obviously the most immediate, but you must be careful to download the maps to the computer and the unit. If you go straight to the unit, you will not have the maps on the computer and it can be a hassle to get them on your computer (read: it costs more money). Also, if your computer crashes, you’re S-O-L. The advantage of the maps being delivered to you on a microSD card is you can move the SD card from unit to unit and still have the maps. No other delivery method will allow you to use the maps on more than one unit. Don’t think you can use the maps on the computer with the microSD card though. And the method I generally recommend, a DVD. You can ensure the maps are installed on your computer and on your unit. If you’re computer ever craps out, you unlock the maps for another computer. The downside is, you can only use the maps on a single GPSr unit. Forever. Even if the unit kicks the bucket, the maps are gone (same is true if you download the maps). But, If my unit ever dies, I would look to get the maps on a microSD card, as I already have the maps on the computer…
If you opt to skip the maps, your unit will still track your rides and you will be able to upload to a website such as Garmin Connect (which is free). You can also use the unit as a cyclo computer. And you can plant waypoints (using a free software such as GMAP to GPX) which you can follow “as the crow flies” (doesn’t follow the road). You cannot get turn-by-turn directions without purchasing the City Navigator maps.
Once the maps are installed on your computer, you can use the appropriate software for your operating system. I use Macintosh computers, and Mapsource isn’t Mac compatible. So, I am left with a 2 to 3 programs which does the same as Mapsource. I use Roadtrip to plan my routes and upload to the GPS unit.
When using Roadtrip (or Mapsource) it is important to remember that a via point isn’t needed at every turn. In fact, if your route has more than 50 via or way points, your GPS will upload the route and everything will seem fine. But when you go to navigate on your unit, you will not be able to follow the roads if you have more than 50 points. So, it is important to maintain as few via and way points as possible. If I exceed 50 points, I stop the route at a control and start a new route.
When building my routes, I like to locate the controls first and create a waypoint on them. I ensure the address and phone number is correct, verify the location with Google Maps street view and I change the symbol to the orange looking cyclist guy. I also look at the Cue Sheet to see if there are long distances between controls. If so, I do research to find services and note them as waypoints using the “Water” symbol. If it will be late, I’ll actually call the store to ensure they will be open.
I then create the route by using the “Route Tool” button on the top. I typically connect just the Controls represented by waypoints. I see what the program calculates the route to be. If it doesn’t follow the same route as the Cue Sheet, I use the “Selector” tool (across the top to the left of the “Route Tool”). Using the “Selector” tool, you can click on the colored route and drag to where you want it. This works exactly the same as changing a route in Google Maps where it adds the white dots. I do this by using as few waypoints as possible. Remember, limit your points to 50.
The final step at this point is to ensure the route isn’t doing anything funny. For example, a lot of times a control is on a corner, but the map may show it offset from the corner. If you are going to and leaving the route the same way, the program may calculate the route to do something weird. So, using the selector tool, I tidy up the route by moving the Control into the intersection.
When I arrive at the start, I like to turn the unit on and have it locate my position. I will then find the route which I would like to navigate and select that (hit “enter” on the route you choose, then “navigate” on the bottom and then “follow roads”). Then I ensure my tracks feature is on. I then flip to the screen which has all the trip information such as distance, avg speed, moving time, stopped time etc and head to the start. Since I am a slow starter, I let everyone go ahead while I make sure to reset all the information (hit “menu,” then select “reset,” select all the stuff you want to reset and hit “enter”). It stinks to not reset this and then you have to try and remember the past ride’s information and do math the rest of the ride.