In praise of… paper maps

Planning a ride? Nothing beats OS maps. No wonder they’re enjoying a comeback, says Rob Ainsley

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Illustration: Joe Waldron

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This article appears in issue 351 of Cycling Plus magazine, published on 21 February. To subscribe and take advantage of our latest offer, head here.

When I visit websites, I get ads for Zwift. In case you’ve been stuck for three years at one of those traffic lights with an induction loop that doesn’t detect cyclists, Zwift is an online platform that enables you to cycle at home on your turbo trainer against others round the world on screen. You never have to leave the house. All you need next is a robot to cycle the trainer for you.

Now, we know that advertising algorithms are hit and miss, but in terms of relevance, this advert is as remote from me as Meet Telugu Speaking Women In Your Area! or Do You Have A $1m Pension Pot? You may have good reasons for spending £2k on a smart turbo trainer and £4k on a big screen in order to not go out cycling yet still need a shower and a change of clothes, but you wouldn’t catch me staying indoors just because it’s raining. I’m a real, everyday cyclist. Which means I stay indoors to plan routes with maps, tea and Jaffa Cakes instead.

For ride planning, the internet can be very useful. Mapmyride and similar are great for working out distances and height profiles. Openstreetmap often has intricate, up-to-the-minute, non-standard path details. Google Street View is handy for seeing how busy a road is, say, or whether there’s bike parking outside that cafe. Sustrans’ website has a helpful catalogue of its National Cycle Routes, so you can easily avoid them.

The most useful cycle-route-mapping platform for me though is Bing, because it has old technology: Ordnance Survey maps. Some old tech is, thankfully, obsolete, such as bike lights the size of milk churns that gobbled batteries like Jelly Babies, or rod brakes with the grip of a marshmallow. But not OS maps. (Or Jelly Babies, actually.) For me, there’s no easier, more vivid guide for planning a ride.

Because what I expect from an OS map is always what I get. A Landranger or Explorer gives me a clear, reliable idea of how pretty that village might be, how quiet and scenic that road, how decent that surface, how fast that downhill, how angry that farmer if I try to cut across their land.

I once rode to the officially Emptiest Square in the UK (SE830220, Landranger 112 – a field near Ousefleet in Lincolnshire). There was nothing there. Proof.

Most important, they give me that overview, that sense of possibility. Ah, I’d thought of going that way, but look, instead there’s a back lane here with a viewpoint up top, and a short bridleway along the ROMAN ROAD (course of) to the lane round the village pond and Castle (rems)…

I take them on rides of course. My GPS is invaluable – for revealing exactly how lost I am in the middle of that suburban industrial estate, say, or pinpointing the coordinates of the pothole I’m reporting. But I much prefer an OS map to anything on screen. Sure, I have to stop and get it out when I’m checking my position, and if it’s windy I look like I’m playing an accordion. But it’s respite for my bum, and an excuse for crisps or a banana. 

OS maps make mid-ride changes of plan easy: a shortcut, extra loop, soft-option train, PC or PH, church with or without spire, or in extremis, Hospl or Cemy. They don’t need a battery or a mobile signal. And you can’t swat a wasp with a tablet, or use a smartphone as a drinks coaster. I know, I tried.

The received wisdom is that paper is dying. You can pick up road atlases for a couple of quid in remainder bookshops these days; they make nifty wrapping paper. Yet OS maps are apparently resurgent. Sales dipped between the 1980s heyday and 2014, but now they’re rising again (mainly thanks to walkers) and digital licensing is proving lucrative.

So, you can keep your turbo trainers, 85-inch screens, and software that turns an outdoor pleasure into an indoor computer game. I’m off out cycling, to wherever OS Landranger 106 (Market Weighton) takes me.

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All I have to do now is find it. I think it’s propping up a table leg under my PC.