Which is faster: a GPS-equipped bicycle or a bike courier’s brain?
What happens when you pit cutting-edge GPS technology against the brain of a London bike courier? Our pals at Bikes Etc decided to find out
From military grade satellite systems to Mr T telling you to turn left at the next junction, the rise of GPS has made us all navigators. But how does it all stack up for cyclists? Well, we thought we’d put it to the test by pitching Garmin’s high-end cycling computer, the Edge 1000, against the most powerful computing tool in the world, the human brain. More specifically, the brain of seasoned cycle courier and one-time holder of the 18,000-mile record for circumnavigating the globe on a bike, Mr Julian Sayarer.
Pitted against Julian was BikesEtc’s very own Craig, who we armed not only with one of the best bike GPSs in the world, but a Bombtrack Tempest. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering Julian was on an old single-speed steel conversion, which was worth a lot less. Having cycled the streets of London for three years, however, his head holds knowledge of back alleyways and beelines that can only be gained through hard experience.
As the wind buffeted our competitors on a grey Friday morning, they were both handed three postcodes to reach in London. Their starting point was the middle of Dalston, in sunny Hackney, east London. While Julian sped off, our chap entered his destination into his device. The Edge 1000 spat out his route almost instantaneously and away he went. Two metres down the road, though, he stopped. Through his own buffoonery, he’d somehow managed lose the map the Edge had given him and couldn’t seem to recover it. Drastic seconds flew by as he fiddled with it.
When he finally got the map back and clipped in again, vital minutes had been lost. We’d like to be able to report that this was the last mishap he experienced in the race. But it wasn’t. No, siree.
Taking the scenic route
As Craig pummelled down Kingsland High Street, he got his first order from his electronic brain. Channelling him from the hustle and bustle of the main roads, he soon found himself ploughing along quiet back streets, bunny-hopping speed bumps and keeping an eye out for car doors. This smooth ride gave our chap a chance to marvel at the wonder that was his electronic guide. The intelligent mapping technology developed by Garmin tracks 6.7 million miles of road across the UK and Europe, and here he was being led along just one tiny sliver of that digital world.
As he sprinted down towards the river, using all the back roads that his Garmin could find, his fellow racer chose to ride alongside the city’s canal system. Julian’s knowledge of London saw him take the steady but scenic route. Whereas our man found himself tangled up in every red light, Julian simply whisked his way along the old waterways of London’s industrial past.
The wind grew and grew as Craig neared his first destination, The Grapes pub on Narrow Street, deep in the heart of London’s old Docklands. By now, he and his Garmin were working together perfectly. Consulting it every other second, he felt confident that he could make up for the time lost at the start. It had positioned him on London’s blue east-west Cycle Superhighway, which leads through car-free parks and over footbridges.
As he approached his initial objective, however, he heard someone shouting his name. Looking up, he saw Julian waiting by his bike. Apparently, he’d been there for a while, expecting to meet the BikesEtc photographer for pictures. ‘No, this is a race! You get to the spot and move on,’ Craig told him. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘About a minute,’ came Julian’s reply.
A minute? The life of a cyclist is counted in seconds. Tiny snippets of time that are the difference between glory and despair. Craig was devastated but being an honourable chap, offered to wait 60 seconds so Julian could restore his lead.
‘A minute? I won’t need it mate,’ Julian laughed as he sped off into the distance.
Lost in the city
As the pair raced to their next point in Vauxhall, five miles to the southwest, Craig was drawn deep into the heart of the metropolis, while Julian’s know-how led him south of the river. As Craig struggled through the traffic-choked streets, he knew that this was where the Garmin could make or break his race.
He hit his first test by the Tower of London – roadworks. Amid fluoro-clad workmen, and the cacophony of pneumatic drills and blaring horns, Craig’s Garmin told him to go right over a 5ft by 5ft hole in the ground or take a one-way diversion around the block. Like an urban cyclocross pro, he disembarked and jumped the pavement with his bike hoisted on his shoulder and legged it. With the obstacle suitably negotiated, he then clipped back in and got the cranks spinning as fast as he could. Unfortunately, he stumbled upon several more sets of roadworks over the next couple of miles, slowing him down further. In the meantime, the savvy cycle messenger was steadily weaving his way through a maze of lanes on the south side of the river.
Caught in a jam
Having squirmed through the unforgiving gaps on Queen Victoria Street, Craig found himself on Blackfriars Bridge, where a race-day nightmare awaited him. Road works either side of the road meant the bridge was solid with traffic. Julian’s pre-race wisdom now rang in our man’s ears. ‘You can look any address up on a phone or GPS,’ Julian had told him before they set off, ‘but it will always give you a very narrow context.’ But it wasn’t a narrow context that was going to cost our man the race – it was idiocy.
“There was a combined total of 55 satellites out there in space helping him to cross the capital.”
As Craig began picking his way across the bridge, to his total surprise the Garmin told him to turn around. It didn’t seem right but Craig’s response was to do EXACTLY what he was told. After all, he figured, this device uses the Russian GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System) network. It also uses the US-built GPS (Global Positioning System). That was a combined total of 55 satellites out there in space helping him to cross the capital. Surely the Garmin must know what it’s doing? Well, yes, it did, it’s just that our chap didn’t. And as he rode back to the north side of the river again, the Garmin told him to do another U-turn. By now the penny was beginning to drop. So poking into the map, Craig zoomed out to get his bearings, only to realise that, in his haste, he’d missed a small side road on his return trip across the bridge. So he crossed the bridge for a third time(!), finally found his slip road and sped off towards his destination.
Doing the knowledge
“Eventually you learn it,” he tells BikesEtc after the race, as he fingers the pages of a shabby AtoZ, “it just sinks in.”
The idea of pitching a well-versed brain against a computer device that has access to technologies floating in orbit around the planet is a tricky one. ‘The brain is actually able to do more calculations per second than even the fastest supercomputer,’ says Kwabena Boahen, associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University in the States (he clearly hasn’t seen our Craig on a Monday morning). These calculations are basic instincts, though, like how deep your next breath needs to be or how much grip you’ll need to pick up an object. Julian’s brain calculates his route with ease, the streets of London are instinctive after years of cycling them. ‘Eventually you learn it,’ he tells BikesEtc after the race, as he fingers the pages of a shabby AtoZ, ‘it just sinks in.’
However, not everyone has the time or inclination to learn the roads this way and that’s where a GPS device comes into its own – especially in the thoroughfares and alleyways of an urban sprawl. The accessibility of its technology means you don’t have to spend years memorising every cobble and corner when you go to ride in Paris, Bruges or Amsterdam. It means you can fly to the Alps and find your way to the summit of Alpe d’Huez without having to test the limits of your GCSE French by asking for directions. That alone warrants the highest praise.
Now back on track, Craig found himself riding head on into the wind along Albert Embankment, and struggling to pick up any threatening pace. The newly paved Cycle Superhighway was a pleasant change from an undulating ride along Belvedere Road and Lambeth Palace Road. Arriving in Bonnington Square, Vauxhall, there was no sign of Julian. Craig’s Garmin bleeped – a reminder that he needed to press on to his final destination – The Mall and Buckingham Palace.
Ride like the wind
With the wind at his back, he rode hard, not knowing whether he had finally lurched ahead of his fellow racer or not. As he sped over Westminster Bridge and past Big Ben, swells of tourists poured in and out of Westminster Square. Racing along Whitehall, trying to ride the wave of green lights, his Garmin pushed him on, as Craig got himself in the zone. He wanted to win this and the idea of a sprint finish was something he’d been talking about for weeks. Up ahead, he spotted a rider. Getting down over the bars, Craig dug deep. This was it. Both riders turned the corner onto the Mall, with Craig a mere 10 metres behind him. Sprinting up towards the golden statue of Victoria Craig sped past the other bike. He was a colossus, a hero, a man who could rightfully take his place in the Pantheon of road cycling fame alongside such luminaries as Wiggins, Simpson, and Merckx… well, he could if the guy he’d just taken had actually been Julian. It wasn’t.
“Craig!” a voice called at him from across the road. It was Julian.
‘Craig!’ a voice called at him from across the road. It was Julian. Sitting by the side of the road looking well chilled. He’d been there for 15 minutes. Comparing routes, it became clear where our man had gone wrong. The Garmin was a great little device, it had dragged Craig down routes he’d never have considered and along cycleways that let him switch off and race. But it had also played its part in Craig’s failure. Along with his spindly legs and general incompetence.
Julian is a local’s local though, his brain had gone over these streets a thousand times or more. And one positive we can take from this little experiment is that we humans can rest easy in our beds. The rise of the machines, it would seem, is still some way off.
The final verdict
In defence of Craig’s little electronic friend, however, it did the job he asked of it. Yes there were problems, but he mostly found it easy to follow and the Open Source mapping meant it was extremely accurate. Operating with superb satellite coverage and smart technology, the Garmin gave our man expert guidance through London. Julian and others of his ilk have navigational superpowers, no doubt, but for us mere mortals a GPS-equipped cycle computer can help level the playing field. Well, maybe just a little.