Opinion: No place to get lost

Saturday was a beautiful day – warm, dry, a few puffy white clouds – so I rode up to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park to watch Jacob Black race in the CSBK double-header. Mostly, I just wanted to ride through the Ganaraska Hills on my Low Rider, enjoying the sunshine.

I live in Cobourg, east of the track, so it’s 65 kilometres of sometimes-winding country roads to get there and I rarely take the same route twice. This time, because I was in no hurry, I tapped in the track as a destination on my GPS unit, set it for “winding roads”, and followed the directions.

The “winding roads” option is a thing for motorcycle units, together with waterproof housings and touch-screens that can be used with gloves. These are why decent motorcycle GPS units cost $500 and up, much more expensive than basic units, but they’re all necessary for riders.

The TomTom Rider 400 is designed specifically for motorcycles, and includes a waterproof housing and an option to choose a route with more winding roads. It’s now been replaced by the TomTom Rider 550.

I’ve never really bothered with a GPS on a bike. I’ve used them with cars since they first appeared because I’m usually trying to find an address or monitor traffic, but on a motorcycle, I either know where I’m going or I want to explore. I still like to gaze up a sideroad and wonder where it leads to.

A couple of years ago, TomTom sent me a Rider 400 unit to try out and I used it a few times and then put it away. I didn’t wire it in to the bike for power, so I had to remember to charge it before use and, frankly, I usually knew where I was going. This spring, though, I wired it to the bike’s battery and I’ve been using it more.

I followed the suggested Mosport route out of Cobourg and knew all the roads it was taking me on. Then it told me to turn left on a small sideroad I’d never travelled and, before I knew it, I was leaning and curving underneath overhanging trees on a gorgeous motorcycle road just 20 km from home. Who knew? It didn’t look interesting on a map afterwards, but it was. I emerged from the greenery at the obscure rural hamlet of Osaca and I was hooked.

Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, is Osaca, Ontario, and yes, that’s a sweeping left-hander up ahead.

There’s a modern alternative to any GPS unit in your smartphone, of course. Google Maps and Apple Maps will both guide you where you want to go, as will Waze and other apps, and Google Earth will show you what’s at the end of the road. As well, many phones now are waterproof and shockproof. RAM mounts are available for attaching phones to your handlebars, and their voice-guidance can be Bluetoothed into speakers in your helmet. I often use voice guidance now from the iPhone in my pocket for finding a city address.

A GPS unit, however, does not need cell reception to work, since it has downloaded maps and uses satellite reception to locate itself. It also might have Winding Roads, which you can set to “very winding” or “a bit winding”, and now the new units and software include hilly roads, too. And unlike the built-in Navigation units available on some top-of-the-line Hondas and Harley-Davidsons, the unit can be removed and carried in to a restaurant or hotel.

Remember the pleasure of opening a paper map over lunch and figuring out the next stage of the route? Now TomTom and Garmin and a few others have you covered for that.

Ugh. The extension to Hwy. 407 slashes right through the countryside east on its way east from Toronto to Peterborough, and cuts off most of the north-south roads in its path.

They’re not without fault, though, these GPS units. Just south of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the province is building an extension to the six-lane Hwy. 407 and it cuts a swathe through the countryside to Peterborough. All the little roads that run north and south along its way now come to a dead-end and my TomTom didn’t know this. I’d not updated its maps in two years, which costs extra.

And on the way home, it tried to route me on a sandy trail through the Ganaraska Forest, which would have been fun on a dual-purpose or dirt bike but just wasn’t going to happen on a Harley-Davidson. It made me think of the driver in Germany who apparently drove into a river thinking there was a bridge when there was actually a ferry.

This unassumed road would be fun on a bike with some knobby tires, or at least a bit of extra suspension. Which ain’t a Harley Low Rider.

At home afterwards, I went into the settings and updated the maps, though the new version, from April, still didn’t show 407 construction and its many detours. (In its defence, neither Google Maps nor Apple Maps show the closed-off roads, either.) I also set the preferences to avoid dirt and gravel roads. I may never get lost again, and I’ll probably always know what to expect around the next corner.

This is progress, I guess.


  1. I just completed a one month/7500km ADV ride through Canada and the US using a Garmin Montana GPS with purchased maps and Open Source topos—a setup costing well over $500. Friends riding with me each used a setup based on a second-hand Samsung S7 phone (waterproof, with bar mount and no SIM card, so offline only) bought on eBay for $100, free OSMond mapping app and Google offline maps data. We all used the same GPX route I’d created in Garmin Basecamp.

    Hands down, and other than a few minor nits, the phone/app solution was vastly superior to the Garmin solution in almost every way—at a fraction of the cost. Maps were better quality, usability was much easier, and reliability was comparable. Despite being a longtime (and experienced) Garmin customer, my takeaway is their consumer GPS products have lost too much ground to open-source (free) solutions and are now hopelessly uncompetitive. I wish they’d take a hard look at their product line and update it to incorporate modern technology and usage models.

    As a result, I’m now looking at building a custom, ruggedized, Android tablet-based GPS to replace my Garmin setup on my bike. It will have the option for a SIM card and online updates. I can’t see ever buying another Garmin product unless they offer something of better quality—or at least comparable to what’s been available in the mobile app space for the last 5+ years.

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