Cycling Holiday using GPS

Steve Rock's Cycling Holiday - Riding the French C2C without Paper...
Or - how technology can get a cyclist lost in totally new ways;-)

One of the very special parts of running Breton Bikes is getting letters, cards and occasionally whole articles from old customers who have become addicted and spread their wings with tours to all parts of the World. Steve didn't go far geographically, but broke new ground as far as I'm concerned - read on...

Here's Steve's cycling adventure with nothing but a phone to guide him.

"According to Memory-Map, it should be off to the left here" I thought to myself as I pedalled along a sweeping curve on what seemed to be the Ranville bypass. After crossing Pegasus Bridge, it seemed very appropriate to pay my respects at the "Cim Brit" marked near the centre of the village. I had followed a road sign for Cimenterie, but now I was wondering where it was. I came to a road junction, and just off to the right was... a cement works.

 

I had decided to make a trip all the way across France “While I still can” to celebrate my imminent 60th birthday. I had long been attracted by the idea of Caen to Cannes as the French C2C. The travel logistics appeared doable: cycle from home to Portsmouth for the ferry, train from Cannes to Paris and Eurostar back to St Pancras. Forty-something years after O level my French was very basic (“Enough not to starve”) and my accent inexcrable. What more would one need?

 

Transport, navigation, accommodation, food and fuel. BJ, my sturdy touring bike, would be the transport carrying a tent for the accommodation, and food would be the fuel. Decent food would not be an issue in France. That left navigation – which route to take, how to stay on it and where to camp.

 

I had been using Memory-Map on my PC since 2003, printing out Audax routes on waterproof paper to clip on top of the bar bag. (Maps make following the route much easier. My record is being overtaken by the same “hares” three times in a single Audax.) The appearance of an Android app and a special offer on 1:100,000 IGN mapping of the whole of France opened the possibility of paper-free navigation. Could I really get across France relying just on my smartphone?

 

Planning the route was conceptually quite simple – draw a line on the map from A to B (or C to C in this case), then tweak it to avoid major roads and massive climbs. The first couple of tweaks were easy enough – visit Chartres to see the cathedral, then cut across and follow the Loire upstream until it got too hilly. Threading the route from the Loire to the Rhone through the lumpy bits between Lyon and St Etienne was the trickiest part of the planning.

 

After many hours poring over Memory-Map on my desktop PC I had turned the route into something I was happy with, aided by web searches on Camping-municipal.org and much thumbing of the Guide Officiel. As well as showing total distance, ascent and descent for a planned route, Memory-Map also shows estimated time. This uses a cycling version of Naismith’s rule familiar to hikers. I entered figures of 20 km/h, 0.5 minutes per 10 m ascent and –0.1 minutes per 10 m descent. I verified these figures with some local rides in and out of the Thames Valley, carrying milk bottles full of water in my Ortliebs in lieu of camping kit.

 

Memory-Map was my first choice for planning the route for France, but I also experimented with ViewRanger. This is a GPS app for smartphones that is free to download and can be used with either free open source online maps or premium mapping from the usual agencies such as OS. A neat feature of ViewRanger is being able to plan a route online using its website, then download the route by synching the phone with the website. The website will trace the route between two points automatically, which is a lot faster than clicking on every bend in the road. By exporting the GPX file from ViewRanger on the phone and importing it to Memory-Map I could get the route I had traced on the ViewRanger website as an overlay on Memory-Map’s French IGN map on the phone.

 

Having booked myself on the weekly sleeper back from Cannes, I really did need to get there on time. Chartres for a rest day made good sense, as it would come after three days’ cycling. I had been advised years ago to plan the first rest day of a trip after three or four days, and it works for me. I was keen to visit the Vercors and have a rest day there to soak in the amazing scenery. There was a Plan B option of turning right at the Rhone and going down the valley if I was behind time or felt unable to tackle the big hills. A rest day in Dignes-les-Bains allowed for a trip on the Train des Pignes and provided more contingency in the final week.

 

After some research on travellingtwo.com, a website dedicated to “inspiring and helping you to get out and travel by bike”, I decided to buy a SON28 dynohub for my front wheel and some clever electronics from PedalPower+. These held out the promise of keeping my phone charged without recourse to mains electricity. An electronic “black box” called the Super-i-Cable provides voltage regulation to allow the dynohub output to be fed to the phone, and a limited amount of battery storage. Pedalpower+recommended that I also buy a V4i battery pack. This is slightly larger than an audio tape cassette (remember them?) and can be charged from the dynohub via the black box or direct from the mains. It allows up to four recharges of a typical mobile phone.

 

I strapped the black box to my top tube and put the battery pack in a pocket inside my bar bag. The standard Ortlieb mobile phone waterproof bag is designed to fit on top of a bar bag in portrait mode, but does not allow space for a charging cable to be connected. Instead I made a wooden cradle for the phone so that it would fit in an Ortlieb map pocket in landscape mode. With cunning adjustment the charging cable would get around the Velcro fastening without letting water in.

 

So how did it go? I arrived in Cannes on schedule, though not without some “learning events” along the way. I camped where I had planned each night, except for in the wilds of Haut Provence. The municipal campsite was closed up and looked like it had been moribund for a couple of years. Out of water, with no other sites nearby and night falling I carried on to the next village, where I found an open bar. After the first Orangina I asked “Est-ce qu’il y a un site du camping près d’ici?” As far as I could understand it, the answer from one of the ladies working there was along the lines of “No, but I have a room you can rent”. This turned out to be a holiday apartment in the basement of the family’s wooden farm house. Following the lady and her husband’s van to it for 2 km from the bar was fairly exhausting, but the apartment was perfect –a small lounge with kitchen facilities and separate bathroom and bedroom. I had my best night’s sleep of the trip. The kindness of strangers is alive and well in Provence.

 

As Adam Ruck says in his book France on Two Wheels, “it is not the hill climbs that get you, but the wind”. I had imagined that French weather in May would be fairly benign – a few showers early on maybe, but gradually getting sunnier and warmer in a bucolic (and slower) version of the Paris – Nice Race to the Sun. Maybe sometimes, but not the same year that southern Britain was experiencing its wettest drought on record.

 

My lack of awareness of another factor seems very naïve in retrospect, as I was used to it from family rides at home. Planning a route on Memory-Map underestimates actual distance, because the plotted route leaves out the wiggles of the road. I should have added 10% to the estimates for wiggles and a further 5% for detours and occasional navigational errors. These factors and some atrocious weather meant that what should have been a reasonable five and a half hours’ riding from the ferry to my first campsite turned into a nine-hour epic.

 

Navigating using a map on the phone was good. I did not take many wrong turnings, though it was usually necessary to stop in shade in order to see the phone’s display. When I did go wrong the phone was particularly useful in helping me get back on route without going back to the point of the error. Although IGN’s 1:100k mapping shows the main Departmental roads in yellow, it does not distinguish between minor D roads and unclassified surfaced roads, some which were quite steep. I learned the hard way that a dashed line on one side of the road does not mean unfenced on IGN, but unsurfaced. I didn’t enjoy walking for over a mile down a steep and rough track to extricate myself from the Lyonnais hills late in the day as I got increasingly more tired and hungry.

 

The part of the Lore à Velo cycle route I encountered appeared to be more like a network of local leisure routes than part of the Eurovélo 6 superhighway from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Upstream of Sully-sur-Loire was a lovely tarmac path along the Loire’s flood bank, but towards Sancerre it meandered around and ended up on a bumpy farm track that I blame for a broken spoke. On the other hand, the section of the Via Rhona I used from St Pierre du Boeuf to Saint Vallier had a lovely tarmac surface. I believe some parts are still to be built, but when complete Via Rhona will provide a continuous bike path from Geneva to the Mediterranean.

 

Using GPS all day meant the phone was out of battery by early afternoon. The dynohub and the black box generally provided enough power to run the GPS, but not to recharge the battery at the same time. This is where the battery pack came in handy, as it can store enough energy to recharge the phone three or four times. An overnight recharge of the battery pack in a campsite sanitaire’s shaver socket every third or fourth night did the necessary. This arrangement was mostly fine for me in France, but I would be wary of relying totally on it for somewhere more remote.

 

Memory-Map app crashed frequently, requiring a forced close and a restart. It does not auto-rotate between portrait and landscape mode, although ViewRanger has no problem with this. These could be issues with my particular phone (HTC Desire HD) rather than the app, though it’s hard to be certain. On days when the sun came out, the phone appeared to overheat and shut down when I was using it on top of the bar bag. This has also happened in the UK, but is usually much less of an issue here under normal summer conditions!

 

I thought the build quality of the Pedalpower+ equipment was poor. The various connector cables provided did not fit well, so frequently the phone or the battery pack were not charging when they should have been. I bought a new connector at a mobile phone shop in Digne-les-Bains, which helped, but this should not have been necessary. For the price I paid I would expect something that could be relied upon.

 

When I got to the Mediterranean the wind was blowing spray from the sea right across the coast road, but it didn’t dampen my sense of achievement. Around a thousand miles in three weeks, and not a paper map in sight.

 

Memory-Map advantages

  • Plan on PC (with large screen)

  • Licensed for multiple devices you own (eg PC, iPad, phone)

  • View profile while planning

  • Naismith’s rule calculation

ViewRanger advantages

 

  • Semi-automated route planning onViewRanger website

  • Can use free open-source mapping

  • Off-route alarm

  • More stable (on my phone at least)

  • BuddyBeacon allows you to record your route (and post photos and Tweets) on the web as you travel

 

 

Resources

www.memory-map.co.uk

Multi-platform digital mapping software

www.ViewRanger.com

Free to download GPS app for smartphones

www.camping-municipal.org

French municipal campsites

www.campingfrance.com

Publishers of Le Guide Officiel Camping Caravaning

www.travellingtwo.com

Publishes the online Bicycle Traveller magazine and theBike Touring Survival Guide ebook.

www.trainprovence.com

Train des Pignes, metre-gauge railway that runs from Nice to Digne-les-Bains

www.nabendynamo.de/english

Makers of SON dynohub

www.pedalpower.com.au

Official Pedalpower+ site

www.aushiker.com/pedalpower-super-i-cable

 

Independent review of the Super-i-Cable “black box”

www.ffestiniogtravel.com

Experts in railway travel itineraries and tickets

www.evernote.com

Free award-winning app that synchronises between the various phone and PC platforms

 

Things I did with my smartphone

  • Navigated, mainly with Memory-Map

  • Kept in touch via Twitter, Facebook and email

  • Stored travel documents, route itinerary and profiles and notes en route with Evernote

  • Checked the local weather using apps from La Chaine Meteo and Meteo France (both free)

  • Looked up unfamiliar words using Larousse’s dictionary app (£4.99)

  • Had the British Red Cross First Aid app “just in case” (free)

  • Listened to music stored on the phone

  • Listened to The News Quiz on the internet

  • Checked things on web sites

  • Took photos

  • Made a few phone calls

 

Photos

Decent food

V4i battery pack and phone

I strapped the black box to my top tube

wooden cradle for the phone

Sully-sur-Loire

a lovely tarmac path along the Loire’s flood bank

Via Rhona

a steep and rough track

Vercors – Combe Laval

rest day in the Vercors

Train des Pignes

a small lounge with kitchen facilities

Mediterranean

the wind was blowing spray from the sea right across the coast road

The author at Gorges du Verdon – note the multiple layers

Title slide

Title slide without title

 

More photos at https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Va1A7Tf6mNnd7XE7xq1Q0AxgT5U79oIrtPPn6u3I6ec?feat=directlink