Do you ever go on a ride and see an enticing-looking road? You wonder what might be down there, but your GPS device informs you that it’s not on your route, so you obediently pedal on by without even thinking.
This happens to me frequently and I find it very frustrating. GPS devices have slowly and sneakily become the rulers of every ride and, frankly, I think every so often we need to ditch them.
The GPS device has become too ingrained into everyday cycling, so much so we let it dictate every road, every trail, every turn. These computers are robbing us of an intrinsic value of the sport – exploration.
Photo: Bike Citizens
Don’t get me wrong – when following a set route with a particular training goal in mind, these devices are great. The turn-by-turn directions let you focus on riding, safe in the knowledge that you are generating copious amounts of data that you can pore over later.
Bike computers tell us everything we need to know about our FTP, TSS, IF and W/kg. But what about riding for the fun of it? What happened to simply following our noses?
They’ll never take our freedom!
Photo: Mike Massaro
Whenever I ignore my bike computer and follow my own senses, it can feel like I’ve been set free. Ditching the map gives me the total liberty to choose my route based on what I see and how I feel.
I can genuinely explore and discover new roads, all without a little machine telling me which way to go. I can take the roads that tickle my fancy, veer off when I want to, and yes there are a few U-turns every so often, but they’re worth it. Who knows where I might end up?
When I last left my computer at home and ventured off into the wilderness (OK, the area just north of the M25) I was meandering along narrow country lanes, peering through the gaps in the hedgerows, until I found myself at a quaint little cafe somewhere just outside of Stevenage.
It was the smell of freshly baked cinnamon rolls that made me stop, and they didn’t disappoint. Fluffy, soft, melt-in-the-mouth. Utterly scrumptious. I ate two.
Would I have found this cafe if I had been following my GPS? Would I have stopped, or would I have ploughed on remorselessly, driven onwards by the arrow on a computer screen? Who knows, but what is certain is that instead of having my ride dictated by a little box on my handlebars, I followed my senses. And it was glorious.
Good for the brain
Photo: Gavin Kaps
Studies have shown that when people use GPS they engage less with their hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for navigation, and this can then lead to the hippocampus shrinking. London taxi drivers famously have greater grey matter volume in the hippocampus because of how much they use this part of the brain to memorise the city’s labyrinth of streets.
Thus, sacking off digital directions and actually using our brains is not only good for our sense of freedom, it’s good for our intelligence. We are forced to pay attention, take heed of where we are, read signs – manmade or natural – and develop our own internal compass.
Plus, it also means we can appreciate things that aren’t marked on a map, like the towering old oak tree in the centre of a village, a chocolate-box thatched cottage nestled at the start of a climb, or the rhododendron-lined avenue that signals the road home.
Instead of being entirely at the behest of a device and obsessed with knowing exactly where we are, we could be paying attention to our surroundings, learning about a place and, most importantly, using our brains.
Keep it simple
Photo: Gavin Kaps
Riding a bike is a very basic pleasure. Its beauty is in its simplicity, and a GPS device often serves to complicate things. That little black box needs constant attention – charging, syncing, uploading, updating, and that’s before we fall victim to the siren call of the marketing campaigns that persuade us we need to upgrade to the latest model.
Ditching the device means there’s no need to worry about making sure the computer has enough battery or panicking when it doesn’t reroute because of unexpected road closures. We can forget about whether we have a signal and focus purely on riding for enjoyment, on riding for the love of it.
If you can’t bear to fall short on your annual distance accumulator, by all means chuck your bike computer in a pocket so you can upload your ride to Strava later, but in the moment why not focus on something else than a little arrow? Why not use our brains and senses to direct our ride instead?
Ditching the GPS device strips cycling back to what really matters: you, your bike and the road ahead.
Emma is features writer at Cyclist and as you can probably tell she likes an adventure. She also likes her cycling to be kind to the planet, and, as well as using eco-friendly kit, that means charging devices as little as possible – even if she gets a little lost now and then
Main photo: Alex Duffill
Disagree with Emma? Check out our guide to the best GPS bike computers