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Get lost: cycling with Google Maps

National Cycle Route 12

Google's GPS would be perfect if it didn't keep insisting that motorways and road bikes are a perfect match

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly directionally gifted. I always end up where I set out to go, but getting there is often a matter of trial, error and map consultation, rather than some innate bee-like instinct for geo-location. Needless to say, GPS was pretty much made for people like me.

I can’t afford a proper cycle GPS (I don’t drive and find mainline trains both painfully expensive and deeply annoying), but I have a smartphone, a handlebar mount and faith in Google Maps.

Unfortunately, although Google has implemented cycle maps, it hasn’t yet extended them to cover the UK. This means that if I ask for a route between, say, High Barnet and Welwyn Garden city, I’m given a route via the terrifying and illegal-to-cycle-on A1(M) rather than the delightful National Cycle Route 12, which is both beautiful and easy to cycle on (ignoring the 100m section where the smoothly tarmacked path transforms into a heavily rutted track for no readily apparent reason – see photo).

National Cycle Route 12

To get that route on to Google Maps so I could navigate it using my phone/GPS bodge, I first had to find it – it came from the GPS Cycle and Walking Routes website – and download it as a GPX file. Then I had to convert said GPX file into a format which Google Maps can read. You can turn GPX files into KML files, which GMaps can handle, using the free GPS Babel or GPSies online tools. We’re almost there now…

Finally, while logged into your Google account on your PC, you have to go to Google Maps and click on the My Places button, click Create Map and then use the Import option to upload the KML file you just created. Once you’ve done that, you can either email the URL for the map to your phone (if you’re in a hurry) or – after a slight wait for the services to sync – open it using the My Maps layer on Google Maps for Android.

It works, but the entire process is infinitely too complicated. It also means you can’t do route adjustments based on your current location – you can only track where you are relative to the planned route you uploaded. And it depends on someone having actually created the GPS route in the first place. There are other tools to help you plan and map rides, including Open Cycle Map, CTC Maps, Sustrans’ online map of cycle and walking routes and – if you’re prepared to refer to a PDF, the UK Cycle Maps Directory.

If you live in London, TFL provides an often-accurate Cycle Journey Planner, which makes it gratifyingly easy to download GPX files.

However, none of these options is without a bit of inconvenience and none of them provides the kind of live route planning on your phone which you can achieve using Google Maps on foot or in a car without the risk of directing you along a route that’s unsuitable for cyclists.

If anyone has alternative suggestions for cycle-friendly Android GPS apps, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, I’ll continue periodically swearing at Google Maps, because – cycle support or not – it’s still the best free GPS tool around.

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