Updated: See below.
I’m beginning work on the route for my next bicycle tour and I got off on a tangent surveying route mapping websites. I’ve used MapMyRide for mapping out all my previous routes and hadn’t really thought about any alternative in years, but one commenter at BikeForums mentioned that he couldn’t view my route since he didn’t have MapMyRide. Well, I’m not sure why he couldn’t view it since it should be publicly viewable even without an account, but it sent me down this tangent to do a quick survey and see if MapMyRide was still the best option for me. I was also thinking about ways to visualize the route and perhaps even create a video of the route. In the past, I’ve actually followed an entire route by zooming in on the satellite view of Google Maps and dropping into Street View whenever I wanted to check an area with more detail, but that is a very tedious process. I’ve seen this Hyperlapse project, which supposedly creates a video automatically using the images from Google Street View, but I was never able to get it to work. But looking at MyCycleTour, I noticed that it had a feature to view your route in 3D, which was really an automated, birds-eye tour using the Google Earth plug-in. That sent me down a path of figuring out how I could use Google Earth to create virtual tours and make a video from that. What I found in all of this is that there are some definite tradeoffs between the top mapping websites and it depends on your goal as to which might be the best choice.
I did a bit of searching to see if there were any mapping websites I wasn’t aware of and I landed on this article at About.com supposedly documenting the top six mapping websites. They list (in this order)…
I’ve used MapMyRide the most over the years and use the MapMyRun app exclusively for running and I’ve definitely bumped into RideWithGPS a lot since a lot of the bike club ride routes around here are communicated using that tool. I’ve also heard of Bikely, but I don’t recall ever using it. The other three sites are new to me. Also on the Google search results was BikeMap.net and I’ve bumped into BikeRouteToaster at times over the years. So, the scope of my investigation was…
Well, let’s get the bad out of the way. First, Routeslip.com seems to redirect to MapMyRide.com whether I click the link at About.com or type it into the address bar of my browser. One down. Second, Bikely, gmap-pedometer, and Veloroutes just don’t seem to be worth a second look. I tried some simple mapping with them and they are all so bad that I just wanted to get away from them.
That leaves RideWithGPS, MapMyRide, BikeMap.net, and BikeRouteToaster as the scope of my deeper investigation. Each of these websites seems to have the basic route mapping features you’d expect plus some ability to export the routes to KML or GPX. So, I’ll focus on what I like (or don’t) about each and then drill into what the differentiators are for me. (I think everyone may well come to a different conclusion because we’ll all have different priorities and preferences.)
There is a lot to like about RideWithGPs and, in fact, I’m not sure how anyone would not like it overall. The page design is clean and very dashboard-like and all the panels slide back to give you a huge working space. (I’ve got a 24″ widescreen monitor and RideWithGPS really opens wide for hardcore route mapping.) One of the reasons why the mapping environment looks so clean and provides so much real estate is that there are no ads! Wow! There are premium features that require a subscription, but you only find out when you try to access that feature; i.e. no nagging.
As I mentioned above, I have gone to MapMyRide most over the years although I can’t really state why. When I got back into cycling in 2009 after about a six year hiatus, I did a bit of a survey for route mapping tools and I was aware of at least RideWithGPS and BikeRouteToaster. I remember being focused on creating routes to load into my Garmin Edge 500 early on before I decided that device was simply a terrible device for routing so it may well be that MapMyRide was the easiest or best fit for that task six years ago. I really like the set of editing tools on this site; they seem to fit my work process. The left panel slides back to provide you with a full screen of horizontal work space, but unfortunately, I so often find myself working on North-South routes and therein lies one of the worst aspects of this site; the ads. It’s not just the ads at the top of the screen or in the left panel; it’s the amount of space reserved for the ads, which is absolutely excessive compared to the size of the banner ads shown there. And add in an overly fat menubar and too much vertical space is taken from mapping activities. The other negative of this site is the constant nagging to upgrade to the MVP version to unlock additional features.
This site was new to me, but a pleasant suprise. Straight up, BikeMap has a great interface, but it has a full screen mode that is fantastic! Not only are the site’s titlebar and right panel hidden, but the browser (Google Chrome in my case) is placed in fullscreen mode as well so every centimeter of the screen is devoted to mapping. Another great feature is it’s ability to pretty print an offline route guide that is composed of detailed map panels.
The editing environment in BikeRouteToaster is very business like. There are a lot of options exposed in the right panel, which can be shrunk down using the splitter bar. Editing is very quick in this environment and that is most important. One negative is that it is not possible to shrink down the left panel, which takes up about 20% of the screen and, while it is possible to shrink down the elevation panel, the map doesn’t seem to fill the space left when you do so. Bottom line is that you really don’t get large-screen editing with BikeRouteToaster.
I choose now to focus on a few differentiators that I think are important.
|Distance Markers (Screen)||Yes||Yes|
|Distance Markers (Export to KML)||Yes|
|Points of Interest||Yes||Yes|
|Cue Sheet (Screen)||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Cue Sheet (Print)||Yes||Yes|
|Cue Sheet (Export)||Yes|
Some of the apps automatically place distance markers at configurable intervals. MapMyRide does this and, given that I’m most familiar to this app, I’ve come to rely on them. I’m very much a researcher when preparing routes and get down to looking at the zoomed map for grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants and having the distance markers makes it easy to note when a particular point of interest will be encountered. In addition, I mentioned that I’m interested in reviewing my routes using the virtual tours of Google Earth and the distance markers make a difference there. You can see from the table that only RideWithGPS and MapMyRide create the distance markers automatically, but only MapMyRide exports them into the KML.
Being able to place point-of-interest markers and label them look to be a useful feature and BikeMap and RideWithGPS shine on that feature.
Auto-center, which centers the map on the last point you placed in the route, is an accelerator and you can see that only RideWithGPS and MapMyRide have that feature. However, I found BikeRouteToaster to be equally quick at routing without that feature, but I’ve not looked into it in detail to figure out why.
Finally, cue sheets are a differentiator and you can see that RideWithGPS takes home the Oscar in this category/categories with BikeRouteToaster and MapMyRide taking honorable mentions. I think it is probably this feature that makes RideWithGPS so popular with the club rides since the goal is usually to produce a cue sheet that can be handed out at the start.
Based on this comparison, I really think that RideWithGPS is the hands-down favorite. It is simply a great app for building cycling routes. But let’s take this to the next step and export the route into Google Earth to use the virtual tour for review.
Virtual Touring in Google Earth
Now, you need to know that there are two types of virtual tours in Google Earth. One, that seems to be the most discoverable and documented, is a manually created tour. You enter a tour recording mode and all your navigation actions are recorded and can be saved, played back, and shared. Having markers placed in Google Earth is very helpful because Google Earth will “fly” from one marker to another as you double click on each. Furthermore, you have complete control over the view at each marker so you can select the best view for each point of interest prior to recording the tour and Google Earth will fly to that optimum view as you tour through.
The second type of tour in Google Earth is an automatically created, birds-eye-view tour along a path. Once you have a path in Google Earth, all you have to do is locate and click the play button and sit back and watch your tour. (Unfortunately, locating the proper play button wasn’t entirely intuitive and took me some time to discover so I’ll probably write up a post on how to do this since the online documentation and videos seem to be lacking.)
So, what happens when you export the routes from each of the mapping web sites and import into Google Earth? I’ve created a short route that I frequently ride in each of the mapping sites, exported to Google Earth, and then created a video of the automated virtual tour to show you the difference between each.
(One more detail first, KML is Google’s format and seems to allow more information compared to the GPX file format that is more standard for GPS devices.)
BikeMap.net exports to KML, but does not export points-of-interest and does not support automatically generated distance markers so all you get is a bare path. With no POI nor distance markers, you get no help in creating the manual tour; you’ll have to place markers yourself.
Even though RideWithGPS supports both POI and distance markers, neither are exported into the KML so you only get bare path just as with BikeMap.
BikeRouteToaster seems to have a problem in Google Earth straight out of the gate. It supports an export to KML, but once imported, there is no path from which to create the tour. Therefore, you have to switch to the GPX export and, with this, I got over a hundred small points that bogged down the fly through on my computer (decent specs I just built a few weeks ago). However, you can turn off these points and once done, I seem to prefer the look of this in Google Earth to the others. But like the BikeMap and RideWithGPS, you don’t get distance markers nor POI from which to make a manual tour.
Importing a route from MapMyRide into Google Earth, you immediately notice that it is different; the distance markers show up just as in the route editor environment. This is very helpful in creating an manual tour, but is also a great reference in the automatically generated tour.
IMO, RideWithGPS is the best environment for mapping routes and creating cue sheets, but MapMyRide is much better for creating virtual tours with Google Earth. So, what’s a boy to do? Well, my first thought was to export from RideWithGPS and import into MapMyRide and, sure enough, these apps line up on both TCX and GPX format. It takes a little poking around to find out how to do this, however. There is an obvious Import Workout button on the Home menu, but that only produces an error because there is no workout information contained in the file. When you create a route, there is a popup that is displayed while the editor environment is being loaded and, if you look closely, you’ll see a small hyperlink that prompts “Upload a GPX or TCX file instead”. Sure enough. This is the trick to bring the best of both worlds together. So, I think I now have my new work process. I’ll use RideWithGPS going forward for creating routes, but if I want to get that route into Google Earth to produce a virtual tour, I’ll import into MapMyRide using GPX and then export the KML to get it into Google Earth.
Maybe there are route mapping tools that I don’t know about and I’d love to hear from you in that case. (I guess some people might use Google Maps or Google Earth itself.) In addition, I may have missed some options in these tools that cause me think one or the other just doesn’t have a feature. Or there may be other inaccurate information. Please let me know if you have other information I should include here and I’ll be happy to update this post or write another to correct or complete.
Reader Jullie left a comment to make us aware of an online utility (gpx2kml.com) to convert GPX to KML and visa-versa. I ran a couple of very quick tests. First, I used the utility to convert a GPX file from RideWithGPS to KML and imported that into Google Earth Pro. Second, I used the utility to convert a KML file from MapMyRide to GPX and imported that into Google Earth Pro. Now, the obvious thing is that the work process of RidewithGPS->GPX->GPX2KML->Google Earth skips the MapMyRide step so you don’t get the mile markers. The less than obvious thing is that the path produced with the RideWithGPS->GPX->MapMyRide->KML->GPX2KML->Google Earth was more smoothed.
I think this utility looks very useful although I’m not sure if it will help with my particular goal here. Certainly, it adds flexibility, especially when you’re getting routes from bike clubs and may want to get them into GPS devices for directions.