The Self-Navigation Dilemma
With more and more gravel events showing up on the calendar, it’s high time we had a thorough discussion on the somewhat controversial issue of course signage and self-navigation. Course signage can make or break a gravel grinder. Actually, it really doesn’t make the event, but it can certainly break it. The latter is why VO is going entirely self-nav. This article discusses our reasoning behind that decision.
Here’s our usual course signage process for the Overland. We start by spending hours actually making the signs. For my first year of the race, I had signs made professionally with the VO logo on them, but after losing about 20 of them to sign sabotage, we decided to go as DL as possible while still keeping the signs highly visible. I bought two laminating machines and I use my heavy-duty printer at my law office to color print dozens of simple red arrow signs on 8.5 x 11 office paper. I then laminate all of the printed arrows and staple them to wooden stakes.
When race weekend rolls around, the Friday afternoon ritual is for me and Jesse Ware, one of my devoted staff members, to drive the course with me getting out every two minutes to hammer a sign into the ground. We do so much hammering that Jesse actually bought me a titanium hammer with a hickory handle. I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to have a quality hammer when you’re hammering for hours on end.
Those who’ve never marked a gravel course before will probably be asking themselves, “What’s the big deal here? How can it be that hard to sign a gravel course? Just stick a sign at the intersection and move on.” Well, I can tell you that, to sign a course properly, it’s not that simple at all and it’s certainly not easy. Unless it’s a T intersection, you need to sign the daylights out of any turn or riders will invariably ride right by it and get lost. Our usual protocol is to put at least two signs on the right-hand side of the road before the turn and then one on the left side of the road and then at least one on the corner of the actual turn. That’s four to five signs for one turn.
Then you need to sign the “confuser” roads. These are roads that look like they might be turns to the rider but aren’t. They require a straight-ahead arrow right where the riders will be looking to see if it’s a turn. We spend quite a bit of time actually thinking about and deciding on where riders will be looking as they approach an intersection. Then there are the hazard sections. As a rule, I don’t use caution signs liberally as they can become white noise if they appear too frequently. VO event participants generally know that if I put a caution sign up, I mean caution. Slow down or there’s a substantial chance of crashing. Still, the placement of caution signs is crucial and usually requires multiple signs as they’re often needed on fast descents.
Then there are signs for the pavé sectors, sag stops, etc. Altogether, the signing process for the Overland takes about 6 hours going as fast as we can go. But that’s only the start. On Saturday afternoon, we send out another staff member to drive the course “blind” (using only the signs for guidance) with a bunch of replacement signs. The staff member has the course map on his or her phone or gps in case there are missing signs. There always are, so the staff member replaces those signs.
Then, a half hour before the race starts on race day, we deploy Jesse with a full set of replacement signs. We don’t dare send him any earlier because we’re terrified that some truly devoted saboteur will steal or move signs the morning of the race. Some years, Jesse’s had to replace up to a dozen stolen signs. I’m in the lead race vehicle and all of our 4x4 staff members communicate with each other on our ham radios (yes, we’re all FCC licensed) and if Jesse’s had to replace a lot of signs, the front group can be as close as a few miles away from him so he has to literally get out of his truck and run around like Benny Hill furiously replacing signs and then rail it to the next intersection to start the process all over again.
But wait, that’s not all. Shortly after the lead riders finish, Lazz McKenzie, bless his British heart, does the worst job by far. While most of the riders are sipping craft beers and enjoying the after-party, Lazz drives the course solo in his Range Rover picking up not only all of the signs but stopping literally every two seconds to pick up any race food litter on the course. We do this as soon as humanly possible after the race to ward off any public complaints about the signage being left up or, worse yet, the litter (so do poor Lazz a favor and ALWAYS PUT YOUR WRAPPERS IN YOUR POCKET!).
But that’s not even the issue with the course signage. Here at VO, we actually pride ourselves on our excellent course marking and our lightning-fast cleanup and we fully understand that it just goes with the territory of being a gravel promoter. No, that’s not even the real issue. The real problem is that, even with the very limited amount of time our signs are out there, there’s something profound happening within our local communities. The visual impact footprint of the ride or race on the communities is exponentially magnified by course signage. It’s one thing to be riding in large numbers on public roads open to traffic, but it’s quite another to be placing signs at every intersection. When a local person is driving around seeing these signs all over the place for a couple of days and then that person is delayed by all the riders that Sunday, it’s often the last straw.
This impact footprint can lead to anything from complaints to the local Selectboards to people actually taking the time and effort to sabotage the event by stealing or moving the signs. I mean think about it. The mere presence of simple, anonymous 8.5 x 11 arrows staked in the ground is making local people so upset that they’ll actually sabotage a bicycle ride. No matter how you view this issue, the impact is real. You may find it disgraceful that people do such things, but that still doesn’t negate the fact that the impact of that signage is driving local people to ALWAYS do it.
And VO is not alone here. I don’t think I’ve ever ridden a gravel event where there wasn’t some issue with signage, everything from riders missing a poorly placed sign and having to backtrack to the entire first 100 riders having to hike-a-bike for three miles through snow only to end up where they went off course and now the riders just getting there have learned from their mistake and avoided the wrong turn!
And then let’s look at the issue of rider safety. Generally, when riders are approaching an intersection, they’re coming in hot and scanning for the sign. Once an experienced rider sees the sign and knows where to go, it’s pretty much full-send right through the intersection. Sure the riders look for approaching vehicles, but it’s a cursory glance at best. In other words, signs unfortunately tend to increase ride speed through sometimes dangerous intersections.
Finally, there’s social interaction. Who among us hasn’t ridden a gravel grinder where you’re literally time trialing for miles on end 10 or even 5 seconds behind or ahead of another rider determined to hold your placing, even if it’s for 200th place?! Throw some self-nav into the mix and now you have riders looking over their shoulders waiting for another rider for no other reason than to confirm nav cues. Before long, there’s a laughing group having a blast riding together. Even if your group is railing it, you’re in it together confirming nav at each intersection. Next thing you know, your whole group is together at the after-party having fun and telling war stories about the ride. Come next season and your group is making plans to come and pre-ride the Overland course together. All this for one reason: no freaking signs.
You might be thinking, “Well tough crapola event promoter, it’s your job to manage signage. After all, what are we paying for?” I can tell you unequivocally that the incredibly stress-inducing, time-consuming and riddled with risk course marking is definitely NOT what you’re paying for with a gravel ride. What you’re paying for is the venue, course planning (an artform in and of itself), social gathering and, most of all, the conditions necessary for a truly epic shared adventure. If it’s anything, it’s the latter that carries the real value with any properly run gravel grinder.
And here’s the other thing. Make it a little easier on the event promoter and the riders usually get it back in spades. Free the event promoters from the shackles and stress of signage and now they’re free to focus on things that really matter for the riders, things like reasonable entry fees, better after-party food, better parking, faster number pickup, more portajohns, better camping experience, etc.. What goes around comes around.
So what to do. It wasn’t until I did the Irreverent Road Ride, arguably one of the most challenging gravel grinders in the country, a couple of years ago that I realized what it was like to ride a gravel grinder without a signed course. While I did have the course downloaded to my phone, I found I rarely even needed to look at it because the group I was in (desperately hanging onto) had a few guys who were basically the nav leaders. What made it so cool was that the riders in the group kind of looked out for each other. It was fun to arrive at an intersection and have the social interaction of confirming where to go. Plus, it tended to slow things down at those turns which I, for one, really needed on such a long hard ride.
That got me thinking. I mean, isn’t the whole idea of gravel grinding to have an awesome shared adventure? Well, one of the ingredients of any quality shared adventure is to have as many participants as possible truly “invested” in the endeavor and contributing to same. What better way to accomplish this than to have as many people as possible keeping tabs on course navigation?
In a nutshell, here are some of the many attributes of gravel grinder self-nav:
Contributes to rider safety (slows the riders down, especially in the intersections).
Drastically reduces event impact on the local communities which in turn drastically contributes to the sustainability of the event.
Substantially reduces, if not eliminates, the chances of course sabotage. Sure, you can still have loggers completely annihilate a section of pavé two days before a race (last year’s Overland Pavé Sector 7) and we’ll always have the angry pick-up driver out there, but this at least gives us a fighting chance to not have the riders’ day ruined by getting completely lost due to a stolen sign.
Greatly enhances rider camaraderie. Riders will naturally jell into groups for the purpose of confirming nav cues and then start to actually talk to each other and socialize. This shared experience is addictive and often the reason why people love gravel so much in the first place.
Phenomenally reduces workload, stress, liability, staffing pressure, timing constraints and overall anxiety for the event promoter.
Yes, there are certainly significant drawbacks to eliminating signage. Proper, well-placed course marking frees the riders to focus on the race and the competition at hand. No signage might mean a less competitive event. But, hey, this isn’t the World Tour or even sanctioned racing. We’re not getting ranking points out there. Sure, we’re competing, but, if you’re like me, you’re just trying to stay in the group you started (way too fast) in. You don’t really care about the placing as much as you care about not getting dropped.
And, yes, there will be some who can’t/won’t learn to download the course files and they don’t want to use the old-school cue sheet method either. For those folks, I’d say go ahead and ride the course au naturale. In the larger events, you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid being in contact with other riders on the course pretty quickly if you’re confused at an intersection. Better yet, just glue up to a group that’s riding at your pace and Bob’s your uncle.
It’s for these reasons that VO has decided to go 100% self-nav for 2019. We hope that we’re paving the way for other local gravel events to follow suit as we really believe that self-nav is a key component to any fun and, of equal importance, sustainable gravel grinder event. Don’t get me wrong. We’ll still have ample course markings warning riders of dangerous conditions and we’ll have plenty of signage at the finish, but that’s about it. Only what’s needed for safety. The rest will be up to you guys (and my nav app map-making skills!).
Okay, so enough pontificating. Let’s talk about the best way to actually carry out self-nav. Here’s how to do it:
If you have a fancy Garmin (or another brand) cycling GPS, just download the course GPX file to your computer and then upload the file to your GPS and follow the GPS functionality to follow the course. Be warned though. Only the more expensive GPS units have map graphics matching that of your smartphone (see below). Full how-to instructions here.
If you’re like me and do not have a dedicated cycling GPS, just use your smartphone. With apps like Ride with GPS or Strava, as long as the event promoter has prepared a map on one of the apps, you can just click on the map link in the app and follow the directions to either download the map file to your computer and then upload it to your phone (Strava) or just send the map directly from the app’s map page to your phone (Ride with GPS). More instructions here.
Download the appropriate app to your phone from the app store and then open the map in the app. Make sure you fully download the map rather than just open it. It can take up to a minute for some downloads depending on your coverage or wifi speed at that time. Once the map is downloaded, double check to make sure it’s in your offline file library. How-to article here.
Before the ride starts, simply open the app, click on the map to open it and click navigate/start ride or whatever the start prompt is and then just leave it alone and the map will do the rest.
Now, here’s the most important part, the all-important user tips:
Airplane Mode and extending battery life: When I first started using nav apps on my iPhone, including the IRR, my phone’s battery did not last very long. After all, ideally you want to have the map live on your screen for the whole ride but that just chows battery life if the phone is searching for coverage at the same time. That was until a fellow rider told me that, as long as the map was fully downloaded, the app would work fine with the phone on Airplane Mode as the app uses the phone’s built-in GPS functionality. Having the phone on Airplane Mode hugely improves battery life as the phone is not searching for coverage all the time. Other battery saving measures include dimming your screen brightness to about half-way and making sure all other apps are off. You only want to have your nav app running during the ride. I also try to leave my phone hooked up to charging power until the very last minute before a longer ride. Lastly, I used to disable the auto-lock so the map stayed up all the time, but now that I use an earbud (see below), I just let it go to lock and look at the map only when I’m not crystal clear from the audio prompts. This also greatly extends battery life.
Quad Lock phone mount: I swear by these mounting systems. Knock on wood, my phone’s never come undone with these mounts and I have them on all of my bikes. Mount the phone to your stem and it’s front and center whenever you look down.
Wireless Earbud: Now this is the real game changer. With a $30 rechargeable unit like this one (https://amzn.to/2Sf7hMo), you can pair the earbud with your phone, activate the audio prompts on the nav app and you’ll have turn by turn audio prompts right in your ear for the whole ride. What’s more, we’ve discovered that any cue sheet prompts on Ride with GPS also come through in audio. Skilled ride promoters can add notes to the route cue sheets warning against dangerous intersections, steep downhills and loose terrain or even alert riders to beautiful views or other attractions and points of interest on the route. What’s also cool about the audio is that, if you miss a turn, you’ll get an intermittent beeping noise until you’re back on track.
So please do yourselves and your valued gravel promoters a huge solid and embrace this awesome technology or, if you’re old school, just print out the handy cue sheets from the nav app, like the ones that Ride with GPS gives you, and use them. Either way, we’re convinced you’ll have more fun out there, your promoters will love you and the ride itself will be safe from those who are determined to lead us astray.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Yours in gravel,
Peter Vollers | Vermont Overland