Note from the future (well, June 2015). This article was written in 2012. RideWithGPS is still the best route planning option, but hasn’t really moved on in the last three years. My current recommendation would be Strava and VeloViewer, which is also a much cheaper combination. There will be a post on that soon!
I’ll freely admit that I like numbers. I also rather like cycling. Conveniently I can combine these using a Garmin box of tricks on the handlebars and a variety of software tools (offline or online) to analysis the data said box spits out. Strava and RidewithGPS (RWGPS from hereon in) seem to be pulling ahead in this area, with the former more popular in the UK. Here’s why I like the latter.
RWGPS has three levels of accounts – free, basic ($50/year) or premium ($80/year). I started with the free and then moved onto the premium, which in real money works out at just over £4 a month. I’m happy with this – I can see new features coming in regularly, the site is booming in popularity and the founders are enthusiastic and respond to emails. In fact, here they are:
So, what can you do with RWGPS? To start with lets mosey across to my profile. I can see a little more than you (well, I is my profile) including a feed and some tabs for segments (more on that lower down).
You’ll spot on the left the two bikes I have on here (albeit only one with a suitably glamorous photo), and some summary stats. Note the hilariously high number of recorded trips is mainly due to my commute logging four trips a day (there’s a train in the middle of each leg).
The big edge that RWGPS has over, say, Strava is the ability to plan routes in advance rather than just upload rides from the GPS. This works pretty well, although it can still be a bit frustrating until you get the hang of what type of actions to avoid. It’s miles ahead of any other mapping stuff out there though, so let that soothe your angst. The advised method is to click around your proposed route in small chunks (say 10km), dragging the line as you go to make tweaks. The main engine is Googlemaps, so it’ should be familiar to most. You can flick across to satellite or terrain overlays, or bring up OpenStreetMap and map on that. A caveat to the last – the drag and drop to amend route doesn’t work with OSM. Dunno why; it just doesn’t.
I’ll freely admit that my usual approach is to look at the map, pick a suitably tasty looking loch a suitably manly distance away, and then click on it. I’ll then scoot down the proposed route to make sure it looks roughly ok. Save as you go, because drag-to-edit on these long stretches occasionally throws a wobbler and you end up with weird loops you can’t remove. I’ll then make about two further clicks to bring me in a loop back home, and job’s a good ‘un. You’ll end up with something like this, which is the route I planned for Pedal On Parliament:
Note that I’ve highlighted the spot on the map that corresponds to the peak of the chunky hill, but I could also do this the other way round by hovering over the elevation graph. This works well if you’re trying to get somewhere without arriving in a sweaty heap, as you can detour around the odd mountain, or at least pick the least aggressive looking ones (this is Scotland, after all)
An aside: this elevation stuff (and RWGPS in general) relies heavily on Flash and Java. That might be a problem for you, but it works fine on my Ubuntu laptop and Windows PC.
Now, let’s move the route on to the GPS. Connect your Garmin of choice – I’m wielding an EDGE705 with free OSM mapping (post to follow…). Assuming you have all the drivers and you’re not on Linux (bah humbug to Garmin on that one) your system and browser should be able to detect the thing. Under the ‘Export’ tab click ‘Garmin Write’. Allow permission. You’re done! RWGPS tells you where to find it, so load it up, get a leg over and spin away. Note that direct write to Garmin is a ‘premium feature’, from the free account or with Linux you’ll have to download the gpx to your PC and then shunt it across manually. Not a biggy.
Having returned victorious from conquering the hills and holding your celebratory mug of tea (other caffeinated beverages are available), you’re obviously desparate to see some numbers. Plug in the GPS, go to ‘Add Content’ / ‘Garmin Sync’ and let the browser do the work. A point here – RWGPS does not have the Strava ability to keep private the area around your home and workplace. Three options to counter this:
- Mark the checkbox to keep the whole route private.
- Be disciplined with when you start/stop the GPS to avoid recording the start and final stretch.
- Live in a tenement flat so even the rough street area doesn’t reveal much and have your workplace surrounded by nested razor wire and the MOD Guard’s finest.
I’ve gone with option three. I suppose there’s also an option 4 of ‘don’t care’, but just make sure you’re not advertising when you’re out of the house on that glorious week long cycling holiday.
Now we get the the sexy stuff. Lets take this ride home from work via the Red Cross HQ which I did last Friday1. You can do nice things like play the route back with time acceleration and view graphs of time/speed/gradient/heart rate/power (which are more readable when you zoom in on sections).
On the metrics tab, as well as some basic info, you can do some neat things like divide the trip up into set intervals (distance or time) and then view average speed and elevation gain for each:
You also get some graphs, or which the most interesting in my view are the two below. Both give you a bit more information about your average speed. From the top one, I can see that my average sits around 27-30kph. The spike at 11kph is my ‘twiddling up hills’ speed, and the other at 4kph is my cruising towards red lights/walking speed. The second graph (ignore the spikes either end caused by the GPS being a bit slow locking on) shows nicely that my average speed on the flat sat around 27-28, with smooth movement either way as the gradient shifts.
Note this was an almost entirely level route. Looking instead at 175km of much more lumpy stuff from the 1st April, the average has dropped to around 23kph and the difference of speed with gradient is much more obvious:
Two more things to talk about. The first is ‘segments’, which are remarkably similar to Strava’s segments if you’ve used that. Effectively you select a chunk of road, and the system beavers away in the background across all recorded rides in the system and gives you a leaderboard. Sadly fewer people use RWGPS in the UK than Strava so there’s a bit less competition, but it works really well. Rather than try and explain I’m going to borrow their video on the subject:
Quick caveat – you’ll spot from that video the old RWGPS logo which includes a motorcycle helmet. There’s still a few tracks logged by people using internal combustion to get around, so you’ll find the odd leader on a segment with clearly dodgy average speeds. You can flag these to get them taken off the segment, so it’s not a huge issue. The leaderboards on your profile occasionally get your position wrong as well, which is odd. It’s still correct if you open up the segment, so I’m sure it’ll get sorted at some point.
The final aspect I’ll talk about is the maintenance logger, which I’m pretty sure is unique to RWGPS. Remember back at the top where you could list your bikes under ‘my gear’? If I select one, I can bring up the Maintenance Log, which allows you to record, you know, maintenance. So what, I hear you ask. Well, it also tracks when you did that maintenance, and how many miles you’ve done since. So if you stick a new chain on and want to know how much mileage you get out of it, you can see at a glance. It’s still in its infancy as a feature (ie if I swap out the chain for a new one, there’s no way to stop the old chain still racking up distance) , but RWGPS have made some promising noises about where it’ll go.
Right, I’m going to stop there, as I’m beginning to bore myself. A quick and dirty summary? RWGPS lets you plan routes, record trips and dig into the numbers via a slick and obvious interface. There are a few bugs, but the feature set is way ahead of anything else.
1 You’ll notice how the trip is a mainly straight line, and yesterday was pretty sunny? You can’t beat that ‘one side of the body burnt’ look.
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There is an unofficial Garmin Communicator plugin for Linux. I have successfully installed it on Fedora.