How has technology affected bicycle touring?

Imagine this: Riding your bike from, say, New York to Los Angeles—I have no idea why anyone would want to ride a bike there, but let’s go with it—anyway, you’re in the middle of Pennsylvania, somewhere near Harrisburg. You hear from an online friend, who’s a voice in your ear and is monitoring your location, that you should head south at the next intersection. There’s a cool, spooky abandoned highway near your location that bikes can use.

You’re not concerned about the voices in your head; they’re coming in through the implant on your skull, like most people have these days. (Well, there are crazies who are perpetually fifty years behind the curve, there always are.)

And how does your friend know where you are? Your implant has a GPS receiver the size of a caraway seed. Your online buddies can see your route and current location, but nobody else. (Well, the government can get a warrant if they like, and your ISP would have to hand over the data.)

You head south. The road signs all have metadata you can “click” on, and soon you’re at one of the entrances to the Pennsylvania “Turnbike”. One click-through waiver later (you see it on an LCD-retina-generated heads-up image, “signing” it with motions of your hand), you hoist your loaded bike over the rocky threshold to a hauntingly beautiful landscape: A strip of broken concrete, twenty feet wide, lane striping almost completely faded and not a car in sight. You have the highway all to yourself, in a sense.


I’ve only been touring for a few years, and in that time I’ve seen technology change—or, at least the tech I’m taking along. While our world is nothing like the future I imagined above, we may get there, or we may arrive at something like it.

In 2007, I had a dumbphone, a digital camera, and I brought along a book for entertainment. What’s changed on my bike tours since then?

Music and Books

I started bringing an iPod along early on, to help me sleep through my touring buddy’s snoring; but when we started camping I usually left the tunes at home—we just pitched our tents further apart to solve the problem. (Okay, okay… I did that.) These days, even quiet music gives me energy and keeps me awake. Net change? Not much, really.

I’ve always brought a book along, maybe two or three if the tour was long. I’ve experimented with reading on a laptop, and I can’t get used to it. One of these days, I’ll try bringing along my wife’s Kindle—if she’ll let me.

These days, I end up keeping my self occupied on tour by reading or sketching in my journal. Or, more likely, by falling asleep early. After a few days on the road, I generally dream dull dreams about cycling, similar to dreams where one is falling: I wake up violently the moment my front wheel hits a pothole.

Navigation

I love maps, and I enjoy the planning phase of a tour almost as much as the tour itself. Internet maps have been part of my touring since my very first tour, where I planned the route on Google Maps-derived Bikely. (Anyone still use that site?) I still use Google Maps to rough out a route, checking it by running it past folks on the net, also calling up parks to check on campsites and trail conditions.

When I started bringing a GPS along, the unit didn’t have much in the way of detailed onboard maps; it was, in essence, a fancy and expensive odometer. Eventually, I upgraded the maps and learned how to use some of its more esoteric functions. I’ll leave the maps at home now, but only on short tours in my home state; my Garmin has made some good calls on navigation, but it also makes some boneheaded decisions because I’m in “bike” mode. I have no desire to add tens of miles (or more) because there’s a bike path that’ll get me to my destination—eventually.

I now bring a netbook along, and I love how I can make last-minute adjustments—often, in the middle of a day’s ride. I can be more flexible: if I see an interesting-looking road, I can follow it on a whim, only later, when I pass a cafe with wifi, figuring out the rest of my route.

There’s still nothing quite like the feeling of stretching a well-used map out on a table to plan your route for the next day.

So, while software maps can do a lot more, until I have that retina-implanted heads-up display, or I can bring a 6’ monitor on tour (and that will happen eventually—foldable LCDs have been in development for years), I don’t think I’ll be abandoning paper maps anytime soon.

Bringing a netbook along

This gadget, as small as it is, takes up nearly half of a front pannier. It’s a nice luxury, as I explained above, but it’s useless without wifi. If I were touring in more desolate areas I’d consider leaving it at home. (Getting a 3g modem and a GPS card for the thing is tempting, but it’s not a temptation I’ve succumbed to—mostly for monetary reasons.)

I do get work done on tour these days, but not as much as I’d be able to do at home, mostly because, at the end of the day, I’m tired!


Will the futuristic scenario I described above happen? We already have bluetooth headsets, and 3G cards that can connect us to the net constantly. Speech-to-text software (and it’s opposite, text-to-speech software) exist, so it’s possible that one could interact with IM or forum posts hands-free. The heads-up display stuff would involve operating on the eye, and the risks of that outweigh the possible benefits at this point in time. But we could always do this stuff on a visor or glasses. GPS devices to transmit your location and display it on a web page exist right now.

I would make a terrible hermit; despite choosing to tour alone most of the time, I like talking to people far too much to be a proper loner. I still feel isolated on the road, but it’s comforting to know that, at the end of a hard day of riding, I can get in touch with people if I want to.

Tech has changed cycling, certainly, but I think it’s adapting right back.

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