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OPINION

Paper And String

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VecchioJo isn’t OK with Computers

My first ever bike adventure, to somewhere less than ten miles away, was a list of road names written on a strip of paper Sellotaped into a loop round my handlebars by my stem, a bit like an analogue Sat Nav, about thirty years before Sat Navs existed. It rattled around and kept slipping down to the right-hand brake lever, but its simple directions got me to where I wanted to be via the unfamiliar but empty roads of rolling suburbia. And by reading it backwards it got me home again.

Nothing much has changed. Despite the current proliferation of digital tools I still prefer my rides to involve bits of paper.

Way back when in what are now known as my formative years GPS devices didn’t even exist and bike computers weren’t in any way common, unless you called the car-like speedo that ran off a wheel that rubbed on the front tyre a kind of computer. How I desired the overly large multi-coloured plastic clunkiness of one of those, that and the milometer that mounted discreetly on the front forks which counted the clicks of the passing tab on the spokes, available for 27”or 700c wheels. My father had one on his Dawes 5-speed - a sign of maturity and knowing. I rode circles of the lawn to cover a mile just to watch the little number click forward one. The endless circles of the lawn with a growing feeling of fear that my Dad would notice the change of numbers. He wrote things down did Dad.

As my world expanded further from that pioneering trip through the houses I would spend hours on my tummy on the front-room floor, pink Ordnance Survey map laid out flat in front of me, possibly a cup of tea and some biscuits in the vicinity, legs pedaling the air, index finger worn smooth from tracing out lines on the map, forming a route that used as many of the traffic thin yellow roads as possible. Then the Special Bit Of String from the second drawer down that held all the Useful Things would be fetched and lain out over the proposed route on the map. The length was marked and then measured out against the distance scale along the bottom of the map, anything over four lengths of the scale was a good ride back then. My entire cycling world was boundaried by the margins of that map, fire-breathing griffins and angry spouting sea monsters lurked off the edges, it would be some time before I tentatively made excursions onto another piece of paper and it was like exploring the New World.

About then proper bike computers arrived and knowing the ride distance became instant, making the Special Bit Of String instantly obsolete and slowly it sank to the bottom of the second drawer down, buried under more Useful Things. But the maps still came out to plan days out, although less and less often as routes slotted into memory and a vast database of rides could instantly be called upon to suit distance and mood.

Now there are vast chunks of the world collected in folded bits of paper that fill a large part of the bookshelf. UK ones up there, foreign ones in box files by country down there. When going somewhere new a fresh corresponding map has to be bought. It’s the law. Nothing compares to opening up the crisp folds of an unfamiliar land and spreading out all the imagined possibilities in front of you. Looking for any remembered names, making a note of the crowding of contours, tracing with the index finger worn smooth the tempting wiggle of roads and being suddenly aware of the clusters of black arrows. A mix of longing, excitement and fear.

Over the years I have developed a weird exploratory quirk; a consequence of spending the majority of my life butted against a coast. My local map is 50% useless, everything south of my house is a no-go area for bikes, they don’t do so well in the bottom half of blue. My rides mostly involve going up, and not just because I live at sea level. Such is the habit of a lifetime looking at the top half of the map it takes a massive mental wrench when opening a new map to drag the eyes southwards and see what lurks there, where land and hills don’t ever usually exist.

Those new maps slowly become creases of paper that carry the tattered corners, ripped seams, faded sections and muddy smears of fun, effort and memories. Once more to be unfurled onto the front room carpet, legs flailing the air, pedaling the route again, and this time to be read like a book, recounting stories of the smiles and tears traced out along roads and byways.

Alongside the broad ridge of thin pink and yellow and orange spines is a pile of paper. Folded, creased, torn and stained scraps with lines of roads and names drawn on with fine pen. Sketched to fill gaps in any route knowledge, joining that known bit to that known bit, extending a well known loop a little bit further, exploring outside of the usual jurisdiction, any reason that just a small section of map is needed rather than the whole sheet. The relevant area traced off onto an easily pocketable tear of paper, or maybe if I’m feeling posh a photocopy and a highlighter pen, to be pulled out at that junction that leads away from the acquainted, to help with the leap into the unknown.

But the common habit now is to look at a screen. All we do now is look at screens, for work, for fun, for friends, for talking, for interacting, for riding bikes. The luscious language of the landscape has been reduced to binary, a list of numbers, lines, stats and graphs. Granted, computers have made things easier in that you can plan a route in the comfort of sitting down, endlessly fiddle with the route so that the mileage fits and then download it to your box of handlebar tricks that will tell you where to go. Or let someone else do the hard work and simply Plug and Play. And then you will instantly know how far you’ve been, at what speed, where the steepest hills were and who you beat along the way. And you can immediately and urgently tell all this to anyone else that just so happens to be looking at a screen at the time.

All very impressive and requisite for showing off but you will never get a feel for the land from a 2” screen. It won’t be able to feed an imagination by describing the woods and forests and lakes and rivers and villages you’ll pass. Why that road does that wiggle, that bend. Computers follow a line, a map adds colour, depth, meaning and history. In this ubiquitous oppressive digital world I still like to escape with my finger, disappear into the narrative of a map. And you can buy an awful lot of maps for the same price as a handlebar mounted toy.

Maps tell stories - electronic devices just beep.

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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37 comments

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trekker12 | 8 years ago
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I'm a map enthusiast, I have a significant collection of OS maps on the shelf and every holiday (most holidays are touring trips in the car with a tent in the boot - it's how my wife and I relax) requires buying maps of the area (OS if in UK, Michelin in Europe). I also spent my early 20's co-driving rally cars with maps on my knee.

I cycle to escape the modern world, as the blog states we stare at screens our whole lives. Cycling is my view of freedom as it was when I first rode as a kid and realised how far a bike could be ridden as a teenager. That freedom for me means not needing to take the 21st century with me on my bike.

I haven't justified the cost of a GPS unit and currently my riding is local to home on known roads. There is an intention to get a GPS at some point soon but that's an Audax thing as I get into longer rides, the paper route notes on a board cable tied onto the handlebars (map in back pocket for emergency) are proving cumbersome particularly in the dark.

Carrying a full folding map on a bike is not exactly straightforward but printed sections from various mapping software is a brilliant invention, they fold neatly onto my Audax route board (Polaris Map Trap from recollection) and can be viewed on the fly without having to unfold a map at each junction and it fulfils my lifetime passion for map reading.

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stever | 8 years ago
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Some of my best rides have been failed attempts to memorise a map. Keep an eye on the sun and the direction of some distant hills, keep turning what feels like the right direction ...get it wrong and make a correction at the next lane along. You can always cheat and get the phone out these days, but I usually end up home again somehow  1

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Cyclist | 8 years ago
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Maps have never let me down & I have served all over the world and used dozens of types. Now GPS on the other hand  102

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WolfieSmith | 8 years ago
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I do the research on M my R and print my own looping route maps for the back pocket when I go to a new part of Spain. Just three 6 inch squares stapled in order and kept in a sandwich bag cover most routes. Works a treat. Phone acts as back up if I need it.

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02curtisb | 8 years ago
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Just read this as i'm looking at reviews for a garmin touring...bad timing but feel better with many people embracing technology. When I lived in the countryside just going out was great fun, but now starting in central London a lack of direction can ruin a ride (or lose the will to ride) and when you get to a busy A-road that's dangerous...maybe a best of both!

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Stouty | 8 years ago
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A most excellent piece of writing. More of this please!

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VecchioJo | 8 years ago
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a nice, um, illustration of the different reasons people go for bike ride right there

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Bazzer | 8 years ago
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Nostalgia - just isn't what it used to be!

For me - plan route on a map, or a digital map, create route & download into Garmin for turn by turn directions. I've spent too much time stopping, pulling a map out of my pocket, putting on reading specs & working out where I am exactly & then figuring out which turn to take. That's OK on a sunny day & with all the time in the world - not so much in the pouring rain!
Get the route on the Garmin & get on with the ride - it's a bike ride after all, not a map reading class.

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KiwiMike replied to Bazzer | 8 years ago
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Bazzer wrote:

Nostalgia - just isn't what it used to be!

For me - plan route on a map, or a digital map, create route & download into Garmin for turn by turn directions. I've spent too much time stopping, pulling a map out of my pocket, putting on reading specs & working out where I am exactly & then figuring out which turn to take. That's OK on a sunny day & with all the time in the world - not so much in the pouring rain!
Get the route on the Garmin & get on with the ride - it's a bike ride after all, not a map reading class.

Hear hear!

But we all know where this is going, don't we?

Man says he likes Old Thing That Has Been Supplanted For Certain Use Cases

Others agree with Man, recalling own experiences with Old Thing

Others build symbiotic self-congratulatory meme of shunning New Things

Yet Others point out that whilst Old Thing was Nice At The Time (with no alternative) the principle objective is better met with New Thing

Others restate that Old Thing was better than New Thing for additional or restated reasons, state that supporters of New Thing 'don't understand' / are somehow less [insert obliquely-derogatory inference here]

Yet Others back away slowly

Point of fact: 240km single-day ride around the Solent. About 200 intersections at least. Covering 5 different OS paper maps. Group average speed of 20kph needed, therefore minimising time spent navigating critical. Doing this with paper would be possible, but would require considerable time and attention, considerably more pre-planning/printing/writing, and fundamentally require at least one person to be constantly on-edge for the next turn/waypoint.

Sod that. Plan route online, load into phone, plug in external battery, press go. Just ride.

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Simon E replied to KiwiMike | 8 years ago
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KiwiMike wrote:

Plan route online, load into phone, plug in external battery, press go. Just ride.

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Here's a nostalgia-free, future-proof, low-tech battery-independent alternative with zero faff suitable for all ages:

Don't plan route
Don't take mobile phone
Just ride.

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KiwiMike replied to Simon E | 8 years ago
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Simon E wrote:
KiwiMike wrote:

Plan route online, load into phone, plug in external battery, press go. Just ride.

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Here's a nostalgia-free, future-proof, low-tech battery-independent alternative with zero faff suitable for all ages:

Don't plan route
Don't take mobile phone
Just ride.

Suitable for 'all ages'? really?

Leading a club run of 10+ people to a pre-advertised distant destination not visited before, on new roads.
Not wanting to end up with the only option being a 10-mile stretch of A-road, in the dark
Not wanting to get home 2 hours late to a seriously pissed spouse
Not wanting to waste even 30 minutes of ride time faffing with paper/string beforehand
Not wanting to waste even 5 minutes of in-ride time getting said paper out, orienting it, using compass to triangulate position (if even possible), etc etc

Sounds like a lot of inevitable 'faff'. There is much less 'faff' involved in 5 minutes on Viewranger stringing together a 60-mile route, 10 seconds to sync to phone, another 20 seconds to get running/set screen to low/set auto-lock to off. I've lead hundreds of long rides over strange roads over the last 3 years using exactly this method. Apart from the odd 2-minute phone reboot, it's been bulletproof.

Seriously people, quit with all the 'things were so much better in my day' faux-hipster-Luddite bragging BS. They weren't. Things move on. Unless you also eschew every single technical innovation/evolution in cycling over the last 30 years, quit bagging GPS/mobile navigation. Jeeeeze....

p.s. anyone wanting to play the 'but half the beauty is getting lost and seeing roads you'd never ride' card - we ride very minor roads often not even marked on large-scale OS maps specifically *because* we plan and use online navigation. It *enables* discovery, not discourages it.

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Simon E replied to KiwiMike | 8 years ago
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KiwiMike wrote:

Seriously people, quit with all the 'things were so much better in my day' faux-hipster-Luddite bragging BS. They weren't.

Blimey, it's you that's getting all hot under the collar about it and hurling insults.

I don't comment repeatedly on GPS reviews about how much better maps are and insult sat-nav users, so why are you so desperate to prove a sat-nav is waaaay better in an article about maps?

Sat-nav can be great, and having one seems to be a great spur and even motivation for many people. I can imagine they are a godsend in unfamiliar territory.

If you prefer to use a sat-nav that's perfectly fine but that doesn't make maps any less useful or enjoyable. Jo was celebrating his own interaction with maps. What seems faff to you may be engaging and fun for others. Live and let live.

Edit: I also don't appreciate being told what to post on a public forum.

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KiwiMike replied to Simon E | 8 years ago
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Simon E wrote:
KiwiMike wrote:

Seriously people, quit with all the 'things were so much better in my day' faux-hipster-Luddite bragging BS. They weren't.

Blimey, it's you that's getting all hot under the collar about it and hurling insults.

I don't comment repeatedly on GPS reviews about how much better maps are and insult sat-nav users, so why are you so desperate to prove a sat-nav is waaaay better in an article about maps?

Sat-nav can be great, and having one seems to be a great spur and even motivation for many people. I can imagine they are a godsend in unfamiliar territory.

If you prefer to use a sat-nav that's perfectly fine but that doesn't make maps any less useful or enjoyable. Jo was celebrating his own interaction with maps. What seems faff to you may be engaging and fun for others. Live and let live.

Edit: I also don't appreciate being told what to post on a public forum.

'Insults'? Sounds like you need your forum reader recalibrating there.

No-one's desperate to prove anything. A bunch of folks - including yourself - Said/inferred maps were better. They aren't inless your specific aim is to re-live nostalgia (which is perfectly valid, and I own a stack of maps dating back to the early 1900's). If they were better, they would be in widespread use. They aren't. Fact.

I don't dispute more skill is needed - when conducting Adventure Races I use paper, because GPS are banned. It is more faff. Much more likely to lead to errors. That's part of the fun/challenge.

The 'live and let live' - my point *exactly*. Why commenters felt the need to bag riders using GPS is beyond me.

I didn't 'tell you what to do' - I *asked* people to quit with the anti-GPS nonsense. Live and let live indeed.

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Jez Ash | 8 years ago
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Just me that was posh enough to have one of these then? No string round our way.

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Leviathan | 8 years ago
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Hey, um, Cracked already did a very amusing video that covers the whole epic quest vs technology issue in an amusing video that I have cut and pasted the link to below to passively take credit for their work, because it is very amusing and they totally put a lot of effort into it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnXdlYR4eAw

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Herbie | 8 years ago
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Love it! I took 6 of us plus 23 stagieres from Land's End to John O'Groats with pages taken out of a road atlas marked up with a highlighter. We went wrong once near Ingleton! I think we circled the village and got back on track! I used to convert every Randonnée instruction sheet into a continuous roll of 7 cm wide paper and rolled it between 2 dowels in an old plastic box nails came in from B&Q, and stuck this on the handlebars with once-only ties - I'd still use it now if anyone issued instruction sheets with every turn described, rather than cluttering the countryside with 'lazy boy' laminated arrows!

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onecogmind | 8 years ago
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Love OS maps. Though these days I use the iPad with View Ranger installed with OS maps.

Plot a route on View Ranger then upload to the Garmin and ride. Or sometimes I just ride to no where and use View Ranger on the phone to find my way back.

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Dicklexic | 8 years ago
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I so wish I'd kept all the old OS maps I used to use. As they became too tatty I would replace them, or when a new outdoor leisure version came out I'd get rid of the old landrangers. The old maps had notes and highlighter marks for old routes. Would be great to have those back for reminiscing.  2

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Bez | 8 years ago
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When we're on holiday in France the missus takes a tome or two of pulp fiction to read. I just grab the Michelin road atlas from the van and find a pen  1

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joemmo | 8 years ago
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One of the best investments I made was in a Tracklogs digital OS map of my local region at 1:50k. You just print out the area you want to take and scribble or mark on it as much as you like. Stick it in a plastic pocket, tape up the seams and it will survive a few damp rides. Then just bin and reprint it when it's fallen to bits. Saves a lot faffing about with expensive multiple full sheet maps

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mingmong | 8 years ago
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I love a good map for C2Cing. The fun you can have mapping out your C2C in the pub with mates over a pint or two. The fun you can have at a cake stop, plotting the next section of a route. The satisfaction you have when you reached the other coast to open the crumpled map to digest the endeavour! What is not to like?

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beomacman | 8 years ago
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I've found I explore a lot more new roads since following routes on a Garmin. Poking around maps and plotting routes at work, has become the poring over paper maps of my youth. A lot of roads according to Google, turn out to be farm tracks, or even bonus singletrack, in reality, so the art of getting lost isn't gone forever.

For touring though, paper maps reign supreme. Picking oout a route over coffee in the moring, only to end up following another road just because Michelin deems it worthy of edging in green, and being able to divert your route when the valley you were planning to ride up has a howling wind blowing down it, is priceless.

I've never figured out a satisfactory way to store maps on a bookshelf, they always end up in a big tatty pile.

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dafyddp | 8 years ago
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I use maps if out for a walk or climbing a mountain, but for the longer distances covered on a bike give me GPS every time. Just as I once poured over OS maps, I'm very happy these days to sit in front of Garmin Connect and plot out a new 80mile epic. Garmin's maps (based on Google I think) aren't as informative as an OS so many a time I've ended up riding along some god forsaken bridlepath, but frankly, that's just part of the adventure, and there's always the option of launching Google Streetview in a separate window to check out roads before hand.

My GPS is a very basic Garmin Edge 200 which only offers a minimal breadcrumb trail (that can't even differentiate between a bend in the road and a junction), but I quite like it that way.

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dottigirl replied to dafyddp | 8 years ago
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dafyddp wrote:

I use maps if out for a walk or climbing a mountain, but for the longer distances covered on a bike give me GPS every time. Just as I once poured over OS maps, I'm very happy these days to sit in front of Garmin Connect and plot out a new 80mile epic. Garmin's maps (based on Google I think) aren't as informative as an OS so many a time I've ended up riding along some god forsaken bridlepath, but frankly, that's just part of the adventure, and there's always the option of launching Google Streetview in a separate window to check out roads before hand.

My GPS is a very basic Garmin Edge 200 which only offers a minimal breadcrumb trail (that can't even differentiate between a bend in the road and a junction), but I quite like it that way.

I'm with Daf - most Saturday nights, I spend quite a bit of time on Strava, mapping a route for the following day. If it's new, I'll have a look at the junctions on StreetView. When you have ten or so cyclists of various ability following you, it's safer to have some idea of where you're going.

One of my regrets about a cycling trip in Italy is that I spent too much time squinting at inadequate maps and not enough time riding and enjoying the views.

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mtm_01 | 8 years ago
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Do love the feel of a map but it's rare for me to actually use one on a ride. Thesedays I try and remember as much as possible, write down a few directions and use the Garmin to bail me out of trouble when you get that uneasy feeling you're going the wrong way...somehow you always seem to know!

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Pompey Tim | 8 years ago
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I was only hit by how mindblowingly useful the OS maps are when I moved to Australia. This piece brings a whole load of great memories back! Was I the only one too poor for magic string to measure route distances? I used old bits of rough paper and a pencil - placing the edge of the paper along the route and using the point of the pencil as a pivot whenever the route went round a corner. The well used maps have a lot of inadvertent pencil marks on them. A route that went all round a piece of A4 was a long day in the saddle.

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southseabythesea | 8 years ago
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That reminds me of when I used a map and ruler to mark out how many miles I had ridden. Happy days.

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SeymourPaul | 8 years ago
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Loving that first hand drawn map, that's one of my favourite little training loops in West Sussex. I notice you left out the mighty Kidds Hill in the top right though! Fancy a ride sometime?!

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VecchioJo replied to SeymourPaul | 8 years ago
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SeymourPaul wrote:

Loving that first hand drawn map, that's one of my favourite little training loops in West Sussex. I notice you left out the mighty Kidds Hill in the top right though! Fancy a ride sometime?!

that was scouting out a lumpy route from Balcombe Tea-Rooms to Kidds Hill IIRC, i've done it twice this year so i'm okay for now

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Al__S | 8 years ago
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Brittany a couple of years ago. Couldn't find sensible downloadable mapping for my phone. Bought a paper map. Sorted. Got a bit dog eared quite quickly- I wasn't cycling with much more than a vague plan, so the "trace the route out" wouldn't have worked for me!

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