Remember To Think

A GPS is a powerful tool. It’s almost impossible to imagine riding in a rally these days without one. Even those of us who rode in rallies when paper maps and Polaroids were all we had have come to depend on them (and Basecamp or Streets and Trips). Old-timers and curmudgeons lamenting the “good old days” of rally riding must admit they aren’t coming back.

These tools though are only that – tools to be used by our brains, not replacements for reason and common sense. It is of course not an original observation to suggest that these amazing technological tools are making us “dumber” as they remove human agency from our decision-making. Watching Butt Lite IX unfold, it’s clear that this process is accelerating, with occasionally frightening consequences.

If any bonus on either leg of Butt Lite IX required a rider to take an unpaved road in order to obtain it, this requirement was clearly noted in the bonus instructions in the rally book. Riders were told (and reminded) that if they found themselves on an unpaved road (or worse) that this was not necessary nor the intent of the rallymasters unless specifically noted in the rally book. This was done to alert riders uncomfortable on unpaved roads or riding a motorcycle unsuited for this in advance. We never intend to lead a rider onto a road that is wildly unsuited for a large street bike.

These reminders and instructions were largely ignored. It is clear to us that the text in the rally book is infrequently read, that riders do not bother to look at a map and pause to think whether the road ahead really makes sense or is even safe to ride, that the only thing that appears to matter is the waypoint provided as a convenience on the flash drive, the mapping program and the GPS response. Download the route and follow the magenta line. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot could go wrong. As more and more secondary roads, and goat paths that aren’t even real roads, are added to the database of a GPS, the machine is happy to instruct the rider -“hey, you should take this short cut! It’ll work out fine.” The unthinking rider then follows this advice and too often ends up in a bad place.

On leg one, we observed riders allowing themselves to be led to such bad places. Two veteran riders in northwest Arkansas wanted to obtain a bonus south of Mt. Judea on Hwy 123. This highway is very twisty and commercial trucks are advised not to use it, but it is paved and a great motorcycle road if you like curves. Rather than take Hwy 123 north from the intersection with Hwy 7, these two riders followed the GPS’ instructions and continued north on Hwy 7, then east on unpaved county roads. One hour or more later, one of the riders found himself part of the way up a rock-strewn hill that he could not ascend and was forced to back all the way down. All of this simply because the riders allowed the machine to think for them.

Again on leg one, a rider called the rally phone to let us know that he was 16 miles into a National Forest north of Atlanta, attempting to ride from his previous bonus to the next on the “road” that the GPS told him to take. He’d dropped his bike and couldn’t pick it up, the rocks on the road were “boulders” and the hill ahead of him appeared to be insurmountable. He was in a real jackpot. Fortunately, some locals showed up to help him pick the bike up and give advice on how to get out of there – which he eventually did. Proving this rider’s decision was no anomaly, minutes later we observed the SPOT icon for arguably the top rider in our sport start up the exact same road, though he did have enough sense to bail out earlier.

After these and other incidents on leg one, we reminded the riders again, at the mandatory meeting before leg two, that if they found themselves confronted by a challenging unpaved road not specifically noted in the rally book (and there were very few unpaved roads required on this rally) that their GPS was leading them astray. This reminder of course fell on deaf ears, or so it appears.

Once again, riders rode themselves into bad places. One got their bike stuck, incurred minor injuries and may or may not be on the road again as I type this. Another dropped their bike on an obscure unpaved road in remote Maine and called us last night wondering what to do. Fortunately for this rider, a local resident eventually appeared and helped the rider extricate himself from this bad place. While we’re always happy to hear from a rider in such straits, there is little we can do but suggest they call the local sheriff’s department.

This post should not be interpreted as a critique of the overall ability of our riders and their efforts. As they head toward the finish tomorrow morning, there are some amazing rides unfolding. Some of these rides would have been very difficult to pull off without these tools, and I’m not suggesting riders were better (or worse) back when these tools were unimaginable. I am suggesting though that reading the rally book, or at least the entire bonus description for the location you intend to visit, and having a paper map to consult before blindly following your GPS’ instructions, might be prudent and wise.

At the very least, remember to think before you follow the magenta line.

2 thoughts on “Remember To Think

  1. That was a very good write-up on the dangers of a GPS. Although it is almost mandatory on rally’s of this type, more and more riders just follow it without much thought or common sense. They need to remember…the GPS is nothing but a computer that will do what you tell it to do. If you have it programed for “fastest route”, that is what you will get. Also shortest can mean almost anything, including goat trails you don’t want to be on. Care and common sense is still a good rule of thumb…
    Dave Bourdeaux

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  2. So well stated. As someone who foolishly rode a top heavy sport touring bike (running on two of four cylinders at the time) through a rocky drainage ditch in rural Iowa on the second to last day of BL4 in suspect brain capacity, because the gps said it was the best route…and who has a cabin in rural Wisconsin, where gps’ regularly direct people down snowmobile trails that are not roads at all, my best advice is that a little bit of common sense goes a long way.

    Three years ago, my wife and I were snowmobiling on a trail in the woods and came across a lady in a Ford Focus stuck on the trail about 2 miles from the nearest plowed road. This was near dusk and She had a young child with her. We helped push her along and she managed to make it out. But imagine if we or someone else hadn’t come along? It could have been tragic. She claimed to have followed her gps.

    The point being, if you’re somewhere you don’t think you should be, you probably shouldn’t be there.

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