Do Garmin think we’re idiots?
Every biker who’s used it moans about the Basecamp route-planning software. Probably because, if you admit to being a biker, it becomes almost unusable.
I should start by saying that I love my Garmin sat nav (an older Zumo 590) and I actually do love Basecamp. But I completely understand why so many people hate it. I switched from Garmin’s previous mapping programme, MapSource, as soon as Basecamp came out. It’s evolved over the years and I’ve stuck with it, so I've had plenty of time to get used to its quirks, but generally each iteration seems to be a little bit less helpful than the one before.
I think that’s largely because Garmin thinks motorcyclists are idiots. Genuinely. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the utter irrationality and stupidity of the way Basecamp behaves when you tell it your activity is motorcycling.
Ask Basecamp to go from A to B in motorcycle modes and it will do anything apart from go directly there. Even if it looks almost direct when you're zoomed out, just zoom in and you'll discover it's making all kinds of pointless deviations along the route, as if somewhere a programmer has encoded into the very fabric of the software a belief that bikers make bad life choices.
If you’ve wrestled with it yourself, you probably know this. But let me give you a few examples. Here’s one just generated while I’m typing…
Say I want to go from West End Café in Llandovery to Newtown: it’s one of the great Welsh biking routes – just take the epic A483 all the way (maybe hopping on the B4358 through Newbridge on Wye to avoid built up Builth Wells). I know that if you’re in Llandovery and just punch Newtown into the nav as a destination, that’s the way it’ll take you – in “fastest route” mode, anyway. Perfectly sensible.
Plotting it in Basecamp, though… If you have it set to “motoring” activity mode, the one for all those sensible car journeys, it does the sensible thing, more or less (bar one pointless shortcut at the top, near Dolfor). But put it into “motorcycling” or even “motorcycling – fastest” and it spits the dummy out, going all round the houses to avoid using the A483. Why would a bike want to use a lovely wide, smooth, twisty A-road when there's a farm track with grass growing up the middle right beside it? They must think we're idiots...
It can be even more annoying for planning big trips. Imagine rolling off the Eurotunnel, wanting to do a few miles on the motorway to get clear of the port before having a bit of a decent ride. If you tell Basecamp you’re in a car, it’ll let you use the motorway to get to the start of the good roads.
On a bike? Forget it… Random deviations everywhere, jumping on and off the motorway, doubling back, swerving even the single-carriageway N-roads (the A-road equivalents) that make up the intended route can pretty much double the journey time. Calais to Reims, half on autoroute and half on good roads, should be four hours… and it is in driving mode. But in a motorcycle mode Basecamp makes it more than eight hours.
Even if you aren’t planning to mix main roads into your route, it’s still a nightmare if you stray near a town. I recently had to plan a trip through the Pyrenees that involved crossing the town of Mirepoix. That’s simple: sit on the main D119 – then carry straight on at the roundabout on the far side of town on the D625. In driving mode it does that.
In motorcycling mode, it won’t even go near the town…
Now obviously the route planner earns his corn by adding points (preferably non-alert shaping points) to make the route go where it needs to go. As a rule, working in the motoring mode, I normally use two or maybe three of these shaping points between each fixed waypoint (a POI); maybe five on a complex route. A whole day’s route will use 15-20 points.
Getting across Mirepoix in motorcycling mode took me seven shaping points. For one town. Because Garmin thinks we’d rather be fannying around in back alleys than just riding through a town on the nice big main road to get out to the fun stuff on the other side. Plotting that one day used nearly 80 shaping points – and it was a short day...
Traditionally, I’ve avoided all these issues by using the car mode to plan every route. Because it works. It doesn’t get off dual carriageways at every junction, it doesn’t leave main roads for back streets in towns, it doesn’t want to take the most wooden-headed, pointedly arse-about-face indirect and idiotic route detours between two given points. It just shows the most obvious sensible routes – the ones I’ve worked out using paper maps and memories of riding around and working out which roads are best on a bike.
Back when I was testing sat navs, I got to play with the Zumo 395 and 396 and I discovered that, if you put a route that’s planned in car mode into it, the unit puts itself into a car mode. Great… until you come to a corner. At which point, it feels the bike leaning over and assumes you’ve rolled the car – so covers a chunk of the screen with an error message. You can only avoid that by leaving it in bike mode… so for customers who use a 395 or 396 as their sat nav, I have to plan routes in “motorcycle - fastest” mode. These need four to five times as many shaping points and take twice as long to do.
Which I wouldn’t mind but it’s so unnecessary. Why are the motorcycling modes so bad? Why are they based on the assumption that bikers, faced with a choice between a direct twisty road or a network of goat tracks, will naturally favour the indirect and inefficient option? It really does feel like they think we’re idiots and all our choices will be stupid ones. And that’s what gets my goat (track).
I think perhaps Garmin have fundamentally misunderstood how Basecamp is used by the consumers. It isn't for finding routes. It isn't for letting the computer decide the best way to get from A to B.
It's for communicating knowledge. It's for reproducing the routes we already know, the ones we've already plotted (and ridden and tested). It's for making it possible to turn plans into reality, dreams into memories, when we get on the bike and go off to ride somewhere special - it's for making sure that when we get there, we don't miss the road we came to ride or the sight we came to see because the sat nav's decided to cut a chunk out of the route we actually want to ride.
And it would be so easy to fix. If Garmin just ditched the pointless “activities” distinction in Basecamp and simply had a single planning mode that behaved with the predictable and reliable consistency of the “driving” setting, everyone could use the software. It would be as simple as Google Maps but much, much more sophisticated. Plus you wouldn’t have 99% of touring motorcyclists of forums slagging Basecamp off or just using their phones instead of a sat nav.
More than anything else, making Basecamp work for motorcycling would make more people use it. They’d see how powerful it can be at compiling and combining routes, how useful it is for building up a library of great rides and how it really unlocks the potential of the sat nav for getting you direct to the kind of roads you dream of riding.
But what do I know? I’m a biker, so I’m just another idiot…