The GPS effect

I haven’t been riding much lately (see Achilles, pain; calf, tightness). And the riding that I’ve been doing — under the combined orders of my doctor, my physical therapist, and my connective tissues — has been decidedly casual.

Because it’s been pretty laid back, whether I’m riding to work, running errands with the Wife, or out riding with the members of the COTSW, I’ve not felt much like tracking the rides with my GPS.

Then, this morning, I dipped into my Strava account and the first thing that occurred to me is “shit, I haven’t ridden at all lately.” Of course, that’s not true: I have ridden most days, one way or another, for the last several years. Sure, some time off for illness, injury, travel, and the odd bout of laziness, but my overall record is pretty solid. It just turns out that I’ve been not using the GPS very often lately.

This, as you can imagine, got me thinking. As I see it, there are two distinct areas ways that we suffer from what I’m calling the GPS effect. (Some others would probably call it the Strava effect, but I think that Strava has only made it easier and more interesting to gather and keep GPS data; they aren’t the source of the problem.)

The GPS effect occurs first during the ride and then after the ride.

During the ride

The effect of the GPS during the ride is much the same as using a cyclometer has always been. It sits there, on the handlebars or stem, showing you little bits of what you consider to be pertinent data: current speed, average speed, elapsed time, time of day, etc. And most of us will admit that having our speed data readily available tends to make us either a) ride faster or b) try to ride faster only to end up riding slower and then feel like we suck.

The crucial difference is that you know that it’s also going to capture your route, the elevation change, and calculate a host of other statistics that most of us wouldn’t be bothered to calculate on our own. And, you know that all of this will get uploaded to the web and displayed with an attractive, interactive map.

Now, don’t get me wrong: if I were going to choose between a cyclometer and a GPS unit, the latter would win out for no other reason that it doesn’t require bike-specific calibration.

After the ride

After the ride is when the GPS effect really takes hold. You upload the trace for the ride to the web. It ends up on Strava or Garmin Connect, or wherever. All of the statistics are calculated. You’re shown your route, the elevation profile, and perhaps how your performance today compares to your performance yesterday, and to that of other riders.

This, in itself, isn’t really much of a problem. The problem comes when you’ve done all of this a few times, and then you realize that your mind behaves differently during the ride because of things that you do after the ride. That is, you might hammer through a particular section of road to see if you can beat your buddy that rode it yesterday, or you attack a hill in the vain hope of a Strava KOM.

I, for one, prefer to think about other things during the ride.

What to do?

As I see it, there are three viable options for mitigating the GPS effect.

  1. Get rid of the GPS altogether, without replacing it with something else. I call this the Grant Peterson solution: Just ride.
  2. Continue tracking rides with GPS so that you can upload them, share them, and so forth. I call this the Strava solution.
  3. And then there’s the middle ground that I’m considering. Use the GPS some of the time, but only for historical purposes. Instead of strapping somewhere in plain view, put it in your jersey pocket or in a bag. Let it gather data without letting it present the data to you in real time.

The other thing I’m doing to do? When the current GPS unit (a Garmin 310XT) dies — and it’s been slowly dying battery-wise for a while now — I’ll replace it with a unit that’s not cycling-specific but that’s more fully functional when it comes to displaying maps.

Or, I just won’t replace it at all.

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