The app that adds adventure to your everyday cycling
Ridge Road started out fine. The hard-packed gravel was nothing I hadn’t ridden plenty of already that day. When gravel gave way to bark-covered 4WD track though, the going got considerably tougher. When that 4WD track turned into gnarly, root-covered single-track I started to think my GPS had led me astray. And then it got steep. Struggling-for-traction steep. Stepping-off-the-bike-and-pushing steep.
As the gradient lurched savagely to beyond 20% I had to stop pushing and take a rest. It wasn’t just that my calves were on fire, getting purchase in my Shimano SPD-SL cleats was proving more than difficult.
This was no road. This was a hiking track that no bike could get up; certainly not a road bike with slick 25 mm tyres.
It was roughly 15 minutes from when the road first disappeared until the moment I popped through the dense undergrowth and onto Ridge Road proper. Fifteen minutes of unexpected hike-a-bike on a track my map suggested was a road.
I clipped back in and continued riding. The road was still gravel and still climbing at well beyond 10% but compared to what I’d just endured, this was a cinch. The hike hadn’t been Type 1 fun exactly (enjoyable in the moment, enjoyable later) nor was it Type 2 fun (horrible in the moment, enjoyable later). This was something in the middle. Physically unpleasant at the time, but spiritually fulfilling all the same.
I’d set out in search of adventure and that’s exactly what I got.
It was roughly a month ago that I signed up for Wandrer. My friend and colleague Andy van Bergen had been talking for weeks about how much motivation and joy he was getting from the site and suggested I would love it too. I trusted his judgement – he knows me and my riding well. And it did sound right up my alley. In the midst of the pandemic, he and I had thrown ourselves head-first into ‘Burbing’ and had a lot of fun riding the backstreets of north-east Melbourne. Wandrer was a natural extension of those explorations.
If you aren’t already familiar with Wandrer, here’s how it works. Connect your Strava account and for every unique mile you’ve ever ridden, you’ll get one point. The more you ‘wandr’, the more points you’ll get. Complete a certain percentage of a given region and you’ll be eligible for bonuses. Likewise if you’re the person who covers the most unique miles in a given region in a month. In short, it’s all about gamifying cycling.
The moment my ride data had finished transferring from Strava to Wandrer, I was hooked. I couldn’t just see every kilometre of roads I’d ridden since 2011, I could also see which roads I hadn’t ridden; roads where points were ready and waiting for me.
And then I saw the Wandrer leaderboard. Remarkably, on a ladder of more than 16,000 people, and after roughly a decade each on Strava, Andy and I were within just 100 points of each other. I could see him there on the same page of the leaderboard, just a few places ahead of me, ranked somewhere in the 670s. If amassing more points wasn’t motivating enough, trying to chase Andy down certainly would be.
It’s not so much that I want to beat him (although who doesn’t like bragging rights?) – rather it’s the friendly competition and the banter that have the greatest appeal. And really this is just the latest in a series of friendly competitions; a series that’s also included racing to ‘Inbox Zero’ at work (advantage: me), racing up mountains in Indonesia (I won that one too), and games of pool at lunchtime (Andy’s ahead on that score).
In the month or so since joining Wandrer I’ve been trying to snag unique miles everytime I ride. Before I head out, I’ll check the map and see where I haven’t been before, and incorporate that into my route. When I ride to and from CT HQ I try to find a different route every day (some of those routes end up being pretty … indirect). On the days I work from home I try to get out for a short ride to visit unexplored local streets, working towards the bonuses I’ll get for ticking off entire suburbs.
I’ve taken a similar approach in recent weekends too, heading out for longer rides, as much of them on unique roads as I’m able. Which brings me back to the road that wasn’t.
Wandrer’s ‘Big Map’ shows where you haven’t been, but there’s an even better way to maximise your exploration. The Wandrer plugin for Google Chrome integrates beautifully with route-planning tools like Strava Routes and Ride With GPS. Turn on the extension, zoom in on the route builder, and you’ll see all the roads you haven’t done before, ready to be included in your route. It’s an easy and effective way to create a course that strings together all new roads. Export the TCX or GPX file to your GPS or phone, and you’re good to go.
A few Saturdays ago I was in the market for something big and explore-y in the hills east of Melbourne. Using Ride with GPS I ended up with a tough, five-hour, mixed-terrain ride out the back of the Dandenongs. Of the 115 km I ended up riding, a solid 80 gave me points in Wandrer. Along the way I’d discovered beautifully narrow sections of fern-lined tarmac, visited parts of the world I’d always been meaning to, and strung together a series of gravel roads in honour of that evening’s Strade Bianche. And then there was Ridge Road in Kallista.
It looked like a road when I was planning my route on Ride With GPS. The name was right there too (as you can see in the image below). I didn’t think twice about it – I added it to my route and continued planning.
Perhaps I could have done a bit more research. I’m glad I didn’t. There’s a kind of perverse joy in being caught off-guard by something so thoroughly unrideable. I’d been keen for adventure and exploration, and I got plenty of both.
Sure, plotting out a route beforehand can only ever lead to a kind of pseudo-exploration — you aren’t truly exploring – but you are visiting places you’ve never been before. That is the point of Wandrer, after all. And in the end, I’ll remember that hike-a-bike section more than any other section of the ride, and more than most rides I’ve done in recent times.
When I arrived at CT HQ one day last week I thought I’d finally caught Andy on the Wandrer leaderboard. A concerted effort to tick off some suburbs near home, plus a few rather creative commutes, should have seen me edge ahead. But when I checked the leaderboard, I couldn’t see him anywhere. It turns out he’d leapt from 10 points ahead to more than 650. He’d been the most prolific explorer in a couple regions last month, and his bonus points had just come in.
I’ve got plenty of work to do to catch him. I may never get there. I’m totally fine with that. Chasing points is still its own reward, and exploring by bike? That’s the real joy. And given I’ve only ridden 3.5% of the roads in Victoria, well, I’ve still got plenty of exploring to do.