How to navigate a brevet…

13 05 2011

Navigating in the dark in the rain - what fun!

Rando Disclaimer: I am not an expert randonneur. I am just a guy who has ridden a few brevets. I’m average and I am okay with that! Use any info on this blog at your own risk.

Staying on course is far more important to me than training for a brevet. Going off route and having to do bonus mileage isn’t fun and if the mistake is not caught early on can lead to a DNF. Even if you are on course, but not confident of your navigation skills it can ruin an otherwise fun ride with anxiety.

Assuming you are totally new to riding brevets:

  • find a cue sheet online for a route close to you that starts in a city/town
  • ideally it will have a bunch of turns close together to get you out of town
  • follow the first 10-20kms of directions on your bike as if you were riding the event
  • don’t use a GPS to help you even if you plan to use a GPS for the actual events
  • figure out where you’ll place your cue sheets so you can read them on the bike day/night, dry/rain, strong winds, etc…
  • cue sheets are navigated using your bike computer so ensure you have entered an accurate wheel roll out value
  • if the directions start okay, but the mileage on the turns starts to vary more and more the further you go your bike computer needs adjustment
  • if you are a GPS person ride the same route again using GPS and confirming with the cue sheet that you stay on route
  • once you’ve got this far it would be a great idea to ride a 50K or 100K route to really hone your navigation skills

Sample 100K event map...

So you’ve confirmed you can navigate with the cue sheet and with your GPS on a practice route and you have your first 200K coming up in a week or two:

  • check your rando club’s website for a cue sheet and/or map
  • if you have a discussion group for the club you can ask there for any navigation resources members might have posted online
  • if you can get map review it for a general sense of the route
  • if you can get a hold of any ride reports from previous year events read them to get the flavour of different parts of the route and note any discussion of navigation challenges, bonus mileage or getting lost
  • read the cue sheet in detail for any areas that look difficult to find your way through..if there is no map use Google Maps to help you visualize the directions
  • if you are going to use a GPS either locate a electronic route online or make your own using the cue sheet
  • keep in mind usually the only official version of the cue sheet is the one that they hand out at the start so be aware there may be changes to your planned route
  • ride organizers will usually let the club know a week or two in advance if the course is radically different from previous editions of the same event
  • if you get to the start and something has changed don’t panic!
  • just note where the official route differs from the one you studied/programmed into your GPS
  • when you get there ignore the GPS and follow the cue sheet until you are back to an area where your GPS is navigating the correct route

The navigation station!

During the event:

  • get to the start early and chat with the ride organizers about the route
  • mention which cue sheets/maps you used in preparing so they can correct any big problems for you
  • make sure you get the official cue sheet
  • find some experienced local randos who are likely to know where they are going
  • make a note of any new people or out of the area randos and keep them in mind as they are not as likely to know where they are going
  • with a big group start it’s okay to roll along with the crowd and enjoy yourself without stressing about navigation
  • it’s highly unlikely the entire group will go off course at km 5! and often the most complex navigation is at the start of the ride to get you out of town
  • as the ride progresses the group will break up…make sure you are on top of your navigation by then
  • don’t ride too fast to stay with people who know the route
  • this will hurt you later in the ride and navigating alone during a bonk is no fun
  • trust yourself and your skills….ride your own ride
  • use both your GPS and your cue sheet
  • at the first sign of disagreement between them stop and sort it out
  • if in doubt your GPS is wrong and the cue sheet is right
  • stay sharp for any areas that during your route prep you noted were tough to navigate through
  • it’s okay to ride with an experienced local rando and let them navigate, but continue to read your cue sheet just to be sure everything is cool
  • if things do go wrong – stop riding, figure out where you went off course, figure the easiest/fastest way back to that point and get on with it
  • there is usually plenty of time for a goof up in a brevet so again don’t panic
  • if things went wrong it’s everyone’s fault in the group not just the person who was navigating
  • if you choose to follow someone and not read the cue sheet take responsibility for the mistake yourself
  • remember who the new folks and out of town folks are…have less confidence in them being on route
  • keep your route sheet dry
  • if the event calls for a lot of rain see if the organizer has enough cue sheets for you to have a second set and put it away somewhere safe

GPS technology...

If you use a GPS:

  • the route you program on your computer and the one your GPS navigates may not be the same!!!
  • your GPS has navigation settings that you may need to play with to get the route from your computer to happen on the GPS
  • you may also need to use more route points than you thought to get the GPS to follow the correct route
  • either program the route yourself turn by turn or use a route you downloaded, but confirm it’s correct using the cue sheet and checking each turn
  • you will only learn the real deal about your GPS by using it on rides and comparing the GPS route to the cue sheet
  • eventually you will learn how to best program a route and where it is likely to fail
  • don’t ever trust your GPS 100%
  • if you are ever in doubt assume the GPS is lying
  • the smart plan is to let the GPS run and navigate using the cue sheet
  • when they are both telling you the same thing you are solid
  • when they disagree it’s time to think carefully
  • be aware of how fast your GPS eats up batteries and bring spares
  • if you are on a long easy section of the route turn off the GPS for a few hours to save power
  • don’t get lazy at night and just rely on the GPS because the cue sheet is hard to read
  • reading the cue sheet at night will keep your brain active at a time when it wants to get sleepy

Rando essentials...

Navigational Etiquette:

  • this stuff is personal and only represents my personal take on stuff…YMMV
  • like energy levels people have high and low points on a ride in terms of navigation
  • if you are solid and on track share that navigation energy with those randos riding with you
  • if you are feeling, tired, confused or just need moment to regroup it’s cool to tag along with other people
  • do what you can to help the group
  • don’t just expect the person at the front to show you the whole way around the route while you sightsee
  • when you are back on track and feeling better offer to navigate
  • if you were following and things went off track accept the bonus mileage with grace
  • if you are leading a group signal turns early and be aware not everyone behind you is at 100% mentally
  • if you are leading a group and not confident you are on the route stop ASAP and figure it out



11 responses

13 05 2011
Dan B

I’ve found that the single best thing I can do for any unfamiliar brevet route is to do a virtual ride by mapping it on Bikely or RideWithGPS or some such app.

That helps me familiarize myself with the route, as well as nearby landmarks like other roads and towns; lets me easily reformat into my preferred cue sheet format; and enables me to validate the route and cues by either finding errors in the cue sheet, or by finding areas of ambiguity that can be clarified in advance by the RBA.

All that said, it’s really easy to start playing rando-lemming and just follow the tail light ahead of you…

13 05 2011

@Dan – I agree and plotting the route out for your GPS makes the whole navigation process later easier. Some folks go so far as to use Google Streetview at critical junctures in the route. I haven’t done that yet.

13 05 2011

Definite advantage to the DF bike there, having a navigation cockpit like that. What was your cue sheet setup back in your Fujin days?

13 05 2011

@Zyzzyx – back in Calgary there were 8 turns on a 200K – LOL – no joke…all of Alberta is laid out as range roads in a big grid pattern. So I just put all the turns on a business card and hung it around my neck, but the GPS was perfect there as there were no real ways to make a mistake.

Riding in BC with tons of roads is a whole different ball game. I bet the US desert randos have the same benefits vs. the guys in Vermont for example.

14 05 2011

Vik, kudos for continuing to promote this very fun sport with such varied topics but all the steps and advice listed above somewhat detract from the enticement of adventure and spirit of these brevets.

My advice to first timers is not to wait until the night before to learn a new route or try to ride it without any preparation because you’ll probably find yourself following an equally lost rider.

Divide and conquer has always been my approach breaking the ride by controls into smaller segments. This lets me enlarge the map into a few maps that are easier to read (a single 200k map will just inform you that you need to proceed West).

Planning for a ride, I start with the cue-sheet and highlight the tricky turns on it adding a matching highlighter mark to the map, sometimes numbering them T1, T2, etc.. I then do my best to visualize these waypoints and commit them to memory, using the maps as a backup.

I do use a cycle computer but my feeling is that dialing in your precise tire circumference doesn’t help you navigate in the same way that road side mile markers and your odometer doesn’t help you reach a destination by car: if you’ve missed a road sign you will simply continue on expecting the mileage to increase.

I’ve yet to read a compelling reason for navigating by GPS but I’m open to the idea. If I had an earpiece instead of a screen and I was prompted for turns ahead of time, then I’d find it a useful aid letting me keep my eyes on the road and the scenery.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to mark up the cue-sheet and maps with a highlighter before each ride.

14 05 2011

A detailled “how to” article is for those that are into such things. The other less interested folks won’t bother to even read it. Just like I don’t read articles about how to weld up your own rando bike.

I don’t have to look at my GPS when riding. It beeps when a turn is coming up and at night the screen turns on so it’s obvious that you need to do something.

My most compelling use of a GPS to date I’ve had is:

1) riding in the pouring rain where it was next to impossible to read the cue sheet through the plastic map case with all the water droplets on it. I could relax and just ride using the GPS’ much more easily read backlit screen to show me the way.

2) at night when you are tired having the GPS to confirm the much harder to read cue sheet is very nice.

No matter what I still use the cue sheet whenever possible and that redundancy is nice. It’s very unlikely I’ll go far off course if both the GPS and the cue sheet agree.

16 05 2011
Mike McArthur

In all the tips & etiquette talk, am surprised you didn’t single out “don’t read cue sheet while riding”. Reading and riding don’t mix on an ‘open course’

17 05 2011

@Mike – well I don’t say not to read cue sheets while riding because I don’t know anyone here who doesn’t do that. Bikes rarely stop rolling on a brevet. If folks stopped every time they wanted to read a cue sheet we’d be stopped every minute or two.

19 05 2011

Good tips. I’m new, and just did my first 600k. I edit and re-print the cue sheet with large font, and highlight the controls in red, cautions in yellow (i.e. rough RR tracks). Caution on getting lost by following others: some brevets combine 200k, 300k, etc in one mass start. The routes branch off at various points. If not careful, one could follow the wrong route. Danger reading cue sheets while rolling? Sure. But there are too many turns to stop for each one. A helmet light makes reading road signs easy, and is good for spotting dogs and other animals.

19 05 2011
Conor Carroll

Excellent tips. I have almost the exact same setup, but I use I a different GPS unit. I spend a significant amount of time before a ride checking to ensure the route is correct on my computer and on my GPS unit. This helps me to more or less “remember” turns. It saved my bacon on a 300k last month. All the others ended up following those on longer rides and racking up 33 or so bonus miles.

For night time navigation, I find a headlamp draped around my neck to be perfect. That way the light is aimed down and not in the eyes of cars. I prefer red light, as it uses less battery power and is easier for my eyes to adjust between the road and reading the cue sheet (while riding).

23 08 2011
Randonneuring | Enginerve : Bikes

[…] complete a 200k,300k,400k,and 600k brevet within the time limits.And the LazyRando tells one how to navigate a Brevet,the starting distance.Now,next year all I have to do is join and get going!Share and […]

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