Forget silly glasses with digital overlays, augmented reality is already here if you know how to read the language of trails.
Think of a well-ridden ride and a topographical route with summits and valleys will miraculously pop into your head… well, it does for Sim Mainey anyway, as he explores the art of mental map making.
Words and photos: Sim Mainey
Despite having a dozen or so mapping websites bookmarked on my computer and a bookshelf stacked with well thumbed OS sheets my favourite kind of maps are the 3D relief kind. Squares of moulded plastic that, were it not for some green, brown and white paint, would look more like a section of crumpled duvet. They are a pretty rare sight these days but they can still be found on the walls of discerning youth hostels and proper outdoor shops, usually brittle with age and snow capped with dust. To me they are a perfect way of giving context and fulfilling a maps primary purpose, letting you know where you stand in your surroundings. They also have the bonus of making you feel slightly God-like as you look down on them.
Part of my love for them is pure nostalgia, the association with good times exploring new places way back when, but I also think they are genuinely useful in gauging your position, the scale of your surroundings and the reality of a planned route. Contour lines on a map, even with plenty of experience, can be misinterpreted and underestimated. The jump from scaled-down 2D to real-life 3D often loses something in translation and gains something in altitude. Satellite imagery, virtual fly-throughs and a host of mapping apps in your pocket are of course much more accurate and useful, giving you information in almost overwhelming detail, but they lack the romance that a map that physically represents a landscape holds. And yes, I know that makes me a sop, because however great a relief map looks it’s inherently flawed. You can’t take one with you on a ride for a start and they are not best known for their accuracy – vertical heights are exaggerated and there are definite limits to what you can do with a vacuum formed piece of plastic. Despite this, or because of this, I love them.
It’s probably no coincidence then that when I think about where I live the image I have in my mind is that of a relief map. My mind map, if you like, is an elaborate rendering from above of the place I live, the trails I ride and the boundaries of my geographical knowledge. Onto this map are projected trails in the form of lines, points of interest and notes. It’s taken a long time to accumulate these lines, points and notes. Years of tapping into other rider’s knowledge, exploration on and off the bike, sleuthing maps and websites from the comfort of home and riding the same trails over and over again have helped me to make sense of the landscape and how it all connects together. In truth it’s the trails that have informed my knowledge of the landscape rather than the other way round. They are what link up my small corner of the world. There are plenty of areas I have little to no knowledge of, either because there are no trails worth riding or I’ve not got round to exploring them yet. There are areas I know in intense detail thanks to the number or quality of the trails, making them worthy of further exploration. A well charted mind map is a useful asset to have, for one thing it makes planning a ride a lot less of a faff.
Stood outside the train station waiting for Dan to arrive I go over the map in my head trying to piece together a suitable route. We’ve only got a brief window of riding opportunity before we both need to get home for family duties – a last minute ride snatched from an otherwise dreary weekend. I run through the options to maximise on the fun stuff and cut out the filler, even if it means having to take on some horrible climbs. Mentally I go over the map linking trail to trail until I have a suitable route ending, conveniently, at the pub. We have a plan.
Our route has been pieced together based on a number of variables. Time is the main one, but factors like recent weather, our riding ability and fitness along with our general mood mean certain trails are struck off the map, options are whittled down to leave trails that fit our criteria for today. A recent spate of grotty weather means we’re sticking to areas that drain well and I think we’re both up for something with a bit of speed and flow after weeks of slogging through mud. Riding out of town towards the first climb I can virtually see the entire ride in my minds eye, playing it through at 100 times our actual speed. From the hillside we’ll start the ride on down to the best line for the rock we’ll drop off at the end, from macro to micro, I can see it all.
That’s the great thing about a mind map, it’s hugely scaleable. From being able to view and move around an area that covers tens of kilometres edge to edge and seeing the overall topography I can also see how one trail links to the next and zoom in further and further down into the tiniest of details, like Google Streetmap for trails. As well as knowing that Fast Bit can link into Beech Nuts I know which line to take around a specific corner, where the rock that has claimed many a rear mech is and how to avoid it, I know which roots to go high on and which ones to tackle straight on. It’s a map with rally-style pacenotes, a map that doesn’t just tell me where to ride it tells me how to ride. Mental markers down the trail tell me where to brake, when to drop my seatpost, when to put in a few pedal strokes and when to click up a few gears for a hidden climb. These markers act as a mental crutch to help make up for any lack of ability. Home turf knowledge can keep you ahead of much quicker riders, even if just briefly.
“You were well within your comfort zone down there!”, says Dan pulling up behind me. The trail is one of my favourites, one I’ve done time and time again. It’s one I’ve learned from repetition. I know which side of the trail I need to be on at what point, where to jump and where to pump, that you can keep hard left next to the overhanging bush to keep your speed despite it not looking like the smoothest line and that on the final corner you need to stay off the brakes to carry enough speed over the awkward rocks. When it all comes together and a well annotated map matches what the trail does you get that incredible feeling of almost effortless flow.
Problems can occur if you lean to heavily on your previous knowledge. Trails are ever changing – weather, use, erosion and interference can all alter the nature of a trail. Relying on past experience is not always a guarantee of future success, indeed relying on it too heavily rather than looking at what the trail is actually doing can lead to problems. A mental map is never definitive, it needs to be constantly refreshed. Lines change or disappear altogether, trail features appear or vanish and the trail itself might slide out of use and existence.
Dropping down a trail I ride on a near weekly basis I’m given a harsh reminder of this. I’m following the usual routine and I feel good. I hit the right lines at the right speed, avoiding the obstacles I have jotted down on my mental trail notes, my internal navigator (who inevitably sounds like legendary rally co-driver Nicky Grist) reads from the script for this trail, “Flat right, pedal, brake up to crest…”. All is well until my front wheel drops into a hole in the trail that wasn’t there a week ago. Dan, ahead of me, clearly saw it and avoided it but I was just going through the motions rather than reacting to what was in front of me. I come to a halt sideways in a shower of mud and swearing. I make a mental note to either avoid the hole next time or come back and fill it in. Gaps in knowledge and gaps in the trail can be equally annoying.
Gaps in trail knowledge aren’t always down to change or ignorance though, sometimes they are quite deliberate. As we grovel up a climb known affectionately as Bastard Tarmac I spend a good deal of time staring at my stem and thinking that I don’t remember it being so long and drawn out. A trick of the mind to protect itself maybe, or just that when I do ride it my mind goes into low-power mode and stops recording. This is one of the problems with a mind map, it’s powered by memory and memories aren’t always reliable. They can be haphazard and misremembered, subject to mood and conditions, rose tinted or degrees of black. It takes a good while to turn memories into something more concrete that can be relied upon.
Riding a new trail is such a thrill because there is none of this, it’s a clean sheet. There’s no mental map to rely on or let you down, there’s no expectation. You are riding purely on instinct and ability, filling in your own cranial cartography as you go. For me this is as important a part of riding a bike as the quality of the trail, in fact it’s probably why I ride. I need to know where a trail leads and what it’s like to ride, I need to know the best way over a hill or what’s hidden away in a forest – I need to fill in the gaps on my map. As the gaps are slowly filled in the search for the new means I have to start pushing the boundaries of that trail knowledge, linking the known into the unknown and venturing further afield.
Feeling the heatmap
Love it or loathe it Strava has its uses. While some folk use it to log their rides and collect KOMs I use it as a handy tool for filling in the gaps of my map and to see if trails exist where I think they might – the beneficiary of other people’s rides. Strava also has some other interesting features for the trail-curious, one of these is a heatmap – a visual indicator of which trails get the most traffic. Without even looking at it you can probably work out for yourself which trails in your local area will be ‘hot’ but whether you ride with a GPS or not you’re mentally creating your own heatmap as you ride. There are trails that are old favourites, that are ridden time and time again, classics that are the backbone to a ride.
Logging rides and creating a virtual map of where you’ve been and what you’ve done doesn’t differ greatly from a mind map, you just get more statistics out of it and it’s less likely to be distorted by vagaries like time and temperament.
We make it to the pub with time to spare before Dan has to get his train home. The mind map has done its job. Sipping a beer I mull over the brain’s incredible ability to store so much navigational information and the level of detail it does it in. Evolution, the traits of a once nomadic species, something innate or something hard learnt I don’t know. I do know that despite the wonder of the brain I can’t remember where I put my house keys. Another pint maybe?