Bicycle mapping tools
Leon Hill road tests bike-specific mapping sites that help you to plan a ride, find new routes and track your progress.
Modern route-sharing websites let you spice up your riding life in ways that simply weren’t possible in the olden days. The solo rider no longer needs to pore over a motorist’s road map. Now you can browse other riders’ recommendations and share routes of your own creation, record your journey and track your performance—either on your home computer, and even out on the road with your smartphone or tablet.
Mapping tools for bike riding range from quick and easy online systems, to complex and precise cartographic software. In addition to plotting out the best place to take a ride, many of the tools allow riders to recommend routes, record ride data, navigate using a GPS, analyse statistics and share their riding adventures with others. The current crop of mapping tools offer something for all types of riders, from parents taking kids to the local park, to mountain bikers, to competitive training cyclists, through to long-distance cycle tourers.
Keeping a track of how fast and how far you ride also has clear performance benefits for recreational cyclists and commuters. Those who wish to can choose sophisticated GPS and ride data display devices such as those made by Garmin, Magellan and Bryton, with their accessories and clever bundled software. However, there are also a range of apps and online devices available, designed specifically for bike riding, which cover all the things that people want for mapping and navigating their rides, without the purchase of any additional hardware.
Dozens of bicycle-specific route mapping options are available online—most applications are free, some are paid, many are entirely web-based, and a few require software to be downloaded and installed on a computer. Fortunately, the best of the mapping systems out there are entirely free and wholly web based—available to all riders without the need for specialised equipment or computer software to get started. Ride On selected the best of these and assessed their ability to map rides, find rides, track rides and share rides. After spending hours virtually pedalling the information superhighway, we decided to take a closer look at the top five free online cycle mapping tools:
as well as Bicycle Network’s own tracking app RiderLog.
Before jumping on the bike and riding away, most people have some idea of how they are going to get from point A to point B, even if the finer details of the route can sometimes be a little hazy. Road maps can be handy for riding on public roads and major cities all offer some kind of local cycling maps (although these don’t always allow a rider to link together the often convoluted labyrinth of bikeways, footpaths, main roads and back streets that make up a typical urban bicycle route). This is where bike-specific mapping tools come in.
The five mapping tools tested by Ride On allow the user to select a ride’s starting point, finishing point, and an infinite number of additional points en route. Users choose to plot their routes with a variety of maps, including Google maps, topographic maps and satellite imagery. Points along a ride can be plotted manually, using fully automated ‘follow the road’ algorithms based on the shortest distance, lowest elevation, or even the amount of traffic expected.
For many, the social aspect of cycling is just as important as the actual riding, and in the 21st century this social interaction extends far beyond when the last pedal has been turned and the last latte sipped.
Of the five tools tested, the mapping system of Ride With GPS really stands out due to its use of Open Cycle Map: a map set featuring all public roads, along with thousands of kilometres of bike paths and cycle routes submitted by users worldwide. To fully harness the power of Open Cycle Maps, Ride With GPS allows users to automatically plot accurate courses along a combination of roads and cycleways, making the system particularly useful for mapping urban and off-road rides. Once a route is plotted, edited and finalised, each of the tools allows riders to save the route privately to their own profile, or publicly so it can be viewed by other users. Bikely, Map My Ride and Ride With GPS are able to generate turn-by-turn cue sheets detailing the route, which can be accessed on your smart phone or printed out and taken along on the ride.
When plotting a new ride, turn-by-turn navigation is only part of the story. In addition to providing a top-down view of the route and generating cue sheets, each of the cycle mapping tools tested generates accurate elevation profiles with just the click of a button. Map My Ride and Ride With GPS take the elevation profile a step further, generating an elevation profile overlaid with a graph of climb gradients, detailing the steepest ascents and descents along the route. Map My Ride even allows riders to categorise climbs based on the same criteria used in the Tour de France (I was shocked to discover that I have never, ever ridden anything like a ‘Category 1’ climb!). Ride With GPS allows users to add their own points of interest, such as coffee shops, camp sites, trail heads and water points.
Whether you’re lacking inspiration for a new place to ride, about to set off on a tour around the world, or you’re simply looking for a better commuting route, the current crop of bike-route websites are an invaluable resource. In addition to allowing you to map your own route, the sites offer the ability to search out routes plotted by thousands of other users around the globe. Bikely, the longest-running site tested, offers text based searching of the thousands of publicly available rides in its database. For each of the tools, searches can be refined based on the type of ride (MTB, road), the amount of climbing and even the amount of traffic likely to be encountered. Strava, Map My Ride and Ride With GPS offer the same comprehensive text searching of routes, along with the ability to search for new routes by zooming over a map in which all the publicly available rides in the area pop out in highlight, along with user-generated points of interest. Once a suitable route is selected, users can add it to their own database of favourite rides and routes.
Once the route is set and the ride is on, Map My Ride, Ride With GPS and Endomondo allow riders to keep track of their own ride history and statistics—a feature valuable to training cyclists and those recreational riders wanting to take a closer look at how they spend time on the bike. With Map My Ride and Ride With GPS, you can import data from your smartphone or GPS-device straight to your online profile, or manually enter the details of your time over a particular route. Using this data, the sites keep a detailed calendar of rides, kilometres, calories, nutrition and even bike maintenance schedules. These statistics can be tailored to be as basic or as complex as desired. Map My Ride, Ride With GPS, Strava and Endomondo allow users to download a free smartphone app that seamlessly integrates the route planning, sharing and tracking process. Endomondo and Strava offers riders detailed sector time splits and allow real time comparison of previous personal bests.
Tracking your progress with Strava or Endomondo is simple: at the beginning of a ride just open the application, wait a few seconds for a GPS signal, press start, then pop your phone back in your pocket and enjoy your ride. The applications can update your online profile in real time, allowing your chosen friends to track your progress during the ride—although in Strava’s case, this is available only as a new paid feature. Endomondo allows your friends to get involved using the innovative and hugely entertaining ‘pep talk’ feature. While you’re out cycling, your friends can track your progress on a map in real time, and type in ‘pep talk’ messages that are converted to speech then played back to you through your phone speaker or headphones mid-ride. Getting a little unexpected talk out on the road is usually a huge boost to motivation and live-tracking allows messages to be timed to perfection, such as sending someone a joke to make them laugh out of breath as they near the top of a massive climb! Endomondo and Strava also offer comprehensive in-ride features, including the ability to “virtually” compete with other riders’ personal bests over the same sector.
When the riding is done, Strava, Endomondo, Map My Ride and Ride With GPS overlay the ride data on to a road map, topographical terrain map or satellite imagery, including a combined elevation and speed graph. With live recording of ride data, Strava and Endomondo take ride statistics a bit further, recording information about personal best sectors, number of hamburgers burned and even the weather at the time of the ride.
The Bicycle Network app RiderLog has similar ride tracking and data analysis features as the other ride tracking tools tested, but with one important difference. After each ride, RiderLog anonymously submits the ride data to the Bicycle Network database, where the travel logs are aggregated to show where, when and why people are riding. Users have total privacy control of how much, if any, of their personal data is used, with the collective ride data compiled to improve the planning of bike infrastructure and to convince authorities to invest more in the locations where people ride. By integrating individual ride data into bicycle facility planning, the RiderLog app effectively turns each ride into a vote for better bike infrastructure.
For many, the social aspect of cycling is just as important as the actual riding, and in the 21st century this social interaction extends far beyond when the last pedal has been turned and the last latte sipped. Strava, Endomondo, Map My Ride and Ride With GPS all offer riders the chance to create personalised profiles and interact with other riders before, after and even during a ride. Much of the social interaction of these sites involves being able to comment on the rides and routes of others, as well as creating ‘events’ to help organise upcoming rides. Strava and Endomondo, with their more competitive focus, allow riders to challenge their friends to reach particular goals, such as the most kilometres in a week or the most calories burned in a month. Strava, Map My Ride, Endomondo and Ride With GPS also give users the option to automatically upload routes, stats and rides to their Facebook and Twitter profiles, so that their wider circle of non-cycling friends can see what they’ve been up to.
The best of the best?
Choosing the ‘best’ bicycle mapping site is a difficult task. Just as it’s a good idea to test ride different bikes to see what suits your style, it’s a good idea to test ride the different mapping systems to see what suits your needs and personal preferences. Strava, Bikely, Map My Ride, Ride With GPS and Endomondo are all intuitive, comprehensive, accurate and powerful. There are small differences between the systems, and in the end the choice for each individual rider will be as personal as the needs and wants of the riders themselves. Some riders may even choose to create profiles on a number of different cycle route mapping sites: the price is right and it provides the benefit of searching the widest possible range of other users’ routes.
Ride On content is editorially independent, but is supported financially by members of Bicycle Network Victoria. If you enjoy our articles and want to support the future publication of high-quality content, please consider helping out by becoming a member.