Central to the success of any cycling navigation device are the routes it picks for you to follow. It doesn’t matter how clear the directions are or how long the battery life is – if you don’t trust that it’s taking you the best way, it’s tempting to dispense with the device and start plotting your own routes again.
That’s why although the Blubel is not perfect, I found it very easy to forgive any faults because it’s the first device I’ve come across that reliably improved on routes I would map out myself, both in terms of how quiet and cycle-friendly the roads were, as well as how fast and short the routes were to actually ride.
For my first ride with the Blubel I set it the challenge of guiding me home. This is a 20km ride and I believed I had honed the route to perfection over many months, so I was sceptical when I entered the details in the Blubel app and it picked a different route as the best option. Blubel had also found my normal route and listed it as one of the options available. You get three “fast” and three “quiet” routes for each trip, though even fast Blubel routes are generally good at avoiding busy roads without cycle lanes.
I expected trying the Blubel’s recommended route to lead to a moment of triumph for me but this time the Blubel had the last laugh: it had indeed found a shorter, quieter route. This is something that far more expensive and advanced GPS navigation devices with screens had failed to do.
For the first half it wound through back roads and used London’s Quietway network to keep me away from traffic, before I emerged on a very busy and direct road I had always avoided when planning routes. It turns out this busy road has a wide and often segregated cycle lane for almost its entire length. Well played, Blubel, well played.
That’s not to say it was a flawless ride, by any means. Blubel uses a circle of lights to guide you through turn-by-turn directions. The lights flash and turn from yellow to green as you approach a turn, with beeps helping to attract attention to the instructions. Generally it’s a system that works well, but when you have two turns in quick succession or ride around a roundabout it can get confusing. The Blubel will show the second turn along with the first if you do have two in a row, but it’s still not always easy to follow, not least because you also have to pay attention to the road.
I went off-course several times on my first ride with the Blubel, but it is quick to reassess the route and provide your next instruction. You also have a blue light on the device that indicates the general direction of your final destination, which you can use as a guide if the turn-by-turn directions get too confusing. I did get more accustomed to the lights as I used the Blubel more, but there were still one or two confusing moments during every ride.
The Blubel would also sometimes go too far in trying to find a quiet route. It seems to delight in taking you off a busy road and onto a quiet one that runs parallel. If you’re going to be on that parallel road for a couple of kilometres, then fair enough, but if it’s just a few hundred metres I, and I assume most people, would rather stay on the busy road rather than deal with the hassle of turning off it to ride along a more cycle-friendly option for a couple of minutes.
You can share your rides directly to Strava from the Blubel app and the device itself will last for 21 days on one charge. The Blubel frame attaches to your handlebars and you can twist the main device out and take it with you easily. It will even mark where you’re parked – handy if you’re someone who often forgets where their bike is.
The Blubel is also a bike bell and a very clever one at that. When you ring the bell during a ride it will mark a hazard on the map. You can then tag what that hazard was when you finish your ride. That info is pinged to other Blubel users and taken into account when they use the app to plot a route. It’s a feature that’s slightly limited at the moment, but if Blubel is taken up by many more people it could be extremely useful. Although only if those users remember to actually use the bell for that purpose. I rode past the same roadworks twice, both times completely ruining a section of my route, and on both occasions I forgot about the bell until five minutes later.
Of the new wave of cycling navigation devices that use your phone’s GPS and eschew a screen, like Beeline and SmartHalo, the Blubel is my favourite. It plots better routes and adapts faster when you go off-course than anything else I’ve tried. The light navigation system isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that you’ll never go wrong for long, and the hazard-warning system could one day be a game-changer in finding the smartest way around cities.
One final bit of good news is that the Blubel is pretty cheap. It’s £79 and you even get a choice of six colours so you can match it to your frame.
Buy from Blubel | £79