Men have been the butt of jokes about map making, map reading, navigation and otherwise getting lost since the beginning of recorded history, to wit:
- “Men can read maps better than women… cause only the male mind could conceive of one inch equaling a hundred miles.” Rosanne Barr
- “My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for 40 years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler
- Christopher Columbus didn’t discover anything; he thought he found a shortcut to Asia when he came upon islands and land masses he didn’t know existed populated by people who knew exactly where they were. Any good history book
As cyclists who venture out onto the open road, we too have been challenged with finding our way for over a century. Even with the aid of Global Positioning Satellites and GPS enabled devices, we still find ourselves not where we supposed to be from time-to-time. At times it is due to our inability to use the devices, others because of a poorly developed GPS map or any one of several other issues. In regard to the latter, an executive from our Corporation half-jokingly noted that the GPS III constellation of satellites we’re currently putting into orbit to replace the 2nd generation GPS satellites will finally make sure that when your GPS device says, “You have reached your destination” you’ll really be at your destination, not just near it.
But, not everyone who rides a bicycle at a rally or tour has or uses GPS devices to help them find their way. Therefore, the most conscience of folks who plan bicycle routes and tours have always gone to great lengths to provide cyclists with maps, cue sheets and road markings of varying detail to make sure riders can find their way.
Some route planners have taken full advantage of advances in computer technology to create GPS-based route maps to kill two birds with one stone, if you will: software products that produce GPS maps typically can also produce printable maps, turn-by-turn cue sheets and downloadable .GPX files to drive personal GPS devices. This all sounds like goodness, but can too much information become a problem? It sure can…
At a recent tandem rally I listened as a more seasoned tandem team member at a rally talking to the ride organizers about the elevation maps on-line and on the printed cue sheet / route maps. More specifically, after a somewhat hilly first day of riding on a route that had an elevation map with what appeared to be steep, jagged and soaring climbs, the couple was concerned all three days of riding would be equally as challenging, despite a website describing the terrain as:
RIDES: We will host mostly flat and gently rolling rides on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday visiting nearby villages and rural communities. Roads in the area are gentler than many in other parts of the south and should please all levels of cyclists (particularly those from flatter states).
The gentle lady’s point was, she and her husband had struggled with several of the very steep climbs on Friday’s route (we saw 11%, 12% and 13%) and in looking at the route and elevation maps for the Saturday and Sunday rides, they were left to assume those routes would be equally difficult and clearly not what they expected… nor something they’d like to ride.
While I quietly poo-poo’d their concerns, it suddenly dawned on me… If I’d never had to interpret elevation maps before, I might also draw the wrong conclusion. After all, unless you have really good eyes, know where to look and how to interpret what a map that plots elevation on the Y-axis with a scale of 100 – 800 feet and distance on an X-axis of 30 to 40 miles is really conveying, you could either find yourself facing unexpected and grueling climbs, or a ride filled with nearly dead flat roads. Case in point, here are the elevation maps for the rides on three different days at this event:
Note that each of the above elevation maps use a different elevation scale that is further skewed by the different ride lengths. Therefore, even though at first glance the 2nd and 3rd elevation maps would seem to be just as hilly and grueling as the first, it’s simply not true. However, making sense out of that as a novice to GPS-based elevation maps isn’t necessarily intuitive.
Let’s take a look at those three maps where the elevation scales have all been normalized to be about the same and plotted the ride length along a common axis. Now, bear in mind that the elevation axis is still way out of proportion and exaggerated compared to the ride length axis.
It’s better, but the climbs are still greatly exaggerated due to the disproportionate elevation and distance axis. So, lets just go ahead and reduce the disproportionate elevation to distance ratio to something that the mind can grasp a bit more easily. Of course, to be able to “see it” I’ll still have to keep one of the exaggerated elevation maps above it (flattened by about 50%) because once you compress the elevation axis to something more in proportion to the distance (like 90%) , you really have no idea what to expected for elevation changes… it’s just a lumpy line.
The moral of this story is, as much as we’d like to think that most of our fellow tandem enthusiasts are “up to speed” with the latest technology and what not, there will always be a few who are either a bit behind the power curve or “old school” just as there will be a few other who are even further out there “on the bleeding edge” of technology.
Of course, you can also adopt the old alpine skier’s mantra when it comes to elevation, “If it’s too steep then you’re too old.” Ouch! Yeah, that’s pretty harsh. However, having past the 1/2 century mark a few years back ourselves and not being cycling monsters who get out and train I get the “ouch” part. That said, Friday’s ride was definitely NOT mostly flat and gently rolling. Heck, there was even a 13% grade on the final leg back into town with the word, “Ouch” painted on the route… we had to agree! Thankfully, we didn’t have to walk but others did.