Northamptonshire-based cyclist Jack Peterson is pressed up against the chainlink fence marking the perimeter of the airforce base. We can only imagine what any sentries on the other side must have made of this attack-by-cuddling. But such is the life of the world’s top tile bagger, he explains, if you want to get that elusive GPS tile you’ve got to go to some extreme ends.
“I sort of tromped across the field and literally hugged the security fence, waiting for somebody to spot me on the cameras,” Peterson recalls. “I sort of went down the side of the fence, literally brushing the fence and hoping, like maybe an inaccuracy in the GPS would allow you to just catch it.
“And now they’ve closed that and they’re building houses on it, so anyone can just wander straight in and get it.”
For most of us, tile-bagging is what happens at Homebase after you’ve decided the bathroom needs a new look. But Peterson is part of a small, but extremely determined group of riders for whom ‘choosing your tiles’ has nothing to do with wetroom decor and everything to do with riding, often a very long way, into a new geographical square — a new ‘tile’ in fact — on the GPS world map.
Popular cycling website VeloViewer overlays its maps with these tiles, each around a mile square. When you ride into a new one while out on the bike and using GPS, it registers on the site, letting you build your total, and to build a big ‘square’ or ‘cluster’. You may find a hidden gem in a new tile, or maybe just an industrial estate. Either way, the beauty of visiting one is exploring the unknown.
While the GPS tiles have always been there, it was VeloViewer founder Ben Lowe who managed to turn them into an entertainment form after they were brought to his attention by one of his website users. “I liked the idea of having something non-competitive — I wanted the site to be for everyone,” Lowe says. “It’s one of the things people talk about most. There’s a Strava group and, also on Twitter, the Explorer feature is one of the most discussed things.”
“I’ve swum, used a pedal boat and done various self-propelled things”
Once you’re signed up with VeloViewer – which is a number junkie’s heaven, using Strava data to pump out more graphs and variables than you ever thought possible – there are three separate tile-related ‘Explorer’ scores to work at improving. First is total number of separate tiles visited. Second is ‘max cluster’ (essentially your biggest bunch of tiles); and thirdly ‘max square’, which is your biggest complete square of tiles. While they all sound like they might approximate to the same thing, the reality is surprisingly different.
A word of warning though: if you’re thinking about investigating the tile-bagging world, you should understand it’s extremely addictive.
“At the end of last year I was looking for new challenges and inspiration to get out on the bike,” says Reading-based Chris Bolton. “I had a look at it and my max square, as it’s known, was 13 by 13. I started to look at those tiles where I hadn’t been before and then it becomes strangely addictive. Whenever I go out for a ride, it is normally with the aim of picking off a tile — it’s now 27 by 27.”
“It’s definitely addictive, that’s for sure,” says Leon Addie, a Brit who now lives in Vienna and can often be found riding into the least accessible tiles he can find in the mountains outside the city. “I mean, you see your [tile] map growing… and with me I don’t want any holes there. So you’ve got the challenge of getting into all of these places.”
Addie, who cannot be accused of not being dedicated to the cause, adds: “For me it’s the hard tiles – they’re my ultimate aim more than the cluster or square. I’d rather get one or two tiles where no one has been.” Not all of the super-tough tiles he’s visited are strictly rideable, but the 39-year-old has a rule that as long as it’s under human power, it’s OK.
“We have one of the biggest lakes in Europe, on the border of Austria and Hungary. And I managed to get by various means quite a lot of the tiles on the north side of this lake. I’ve swum, I used a pedal boat which oh, God, was the most exhausting activity of the lot… canoed, done various other self-propelled things.”
And when Addie crossed the border into Hungary to have a go at the tiles on the south side he faced an even more complex challenge. “It’s totally a protected area,” he explains. “So I got my first ones by essentially bribing a local ranger to take me out in his boat which, I will admit, was only partly self-powered. That’s the only time I’ve kind of pushed my rules – we did have to paddle a bit, but his boat did have a motor as well.”
Getting into tight spots is a recurring theme for the tile-baggers CW spoke to, who are surely among the more maverick of bike riders.
“I don’t deliberately trespass,” says 57-year-old Bolton. “But you might find yourself in a situation where you follow the byway to get to where you need to be, but then you find the exit out is actually a private road.”
Peterson, who decided he enjoyed tile-bagging so much (“it’s a cheap way to entertain yourself”) that he quit his job to do it full-time, currently tops the VeloViewer world leaderboard for total tiles with 43,972 tiles. This comes at least in part thanks to bikepacking epics such as the Europe-wide Transcontinental, the Trans Am in the US and Ireland’s Transatlantic Way. And the 56-year-old has a creative get-out clause for those times he might find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“One I’ve prepared locally is that I’m investigating all these out of the way places because I’m training up for Uber Eats deliveries,” he chuckles. Such things come with the territory when you’re a tiling devotee.
One constant thorn in the side of the tile-bagger is the military base. Clearly any kind of wayward wandering in this situation is not even up for discussion, and there are certain tiles around Salisbury Plain and Portsmouth for example that have been deemed forever unrideable by the tile-bagging community.
Anywhere outside of that perimeter fence is, of course, fair game, hence Peterson’s aforementioned hike-a-bike across a field to get cosy with that airforce perimeter fence.
The one fairly obvious conundrum in tile-bagging etiquette is what counts as cheating and what doesn’t. VeloViewer guru Lowe was keen for everyone to be able to enjoy the pastime on their own terms so there are no hard and fast rules. One thing all the tilers we spoke to definitely agreed on was that driving up to the edge of a tile, riding in and straight out again and then going home, was simply not cricket.
“I’ve got a lot of little pockets around the country where I’ve done races – I’m not going to discount them because I drove there,” says Peterson. “My only rule is I wouldn’t go to walk somewhere to get one. If I’m not with the bike, I would consider that.”
And Addie says: “I’m not the ultimate purist… I’d be pretty hypocritical if I was because I’ve moved country in the time I’ve been doing it so I’ve got that huge advantage over a lot of people for a start.”
Bolton, who even as a relative newcomer now has to do a 60-mile round trip just to bag a tile, concludes: “It gets exponentially more difficult. I think in my mind, if I was doing an organised ride and that required me to travel to the start then I think that’s acceptable. But to drive, you know, a mile away from the tile you need; I don’t think that is in the spirit of the of the challenge.”
Giving it a go - CW goes tile hunting
I’ve ridden past this road a thousand times. It’s on one of my regular evening loops, but for reasons that I couldn’t really tell you I’ve never actually been down it, writes Vern Pitt.
You’ll know the kind of route I’m talking about here. The one where you know every inch and every pothole.
Your legs know where to push and where to ease off, independent of your brain. This loop tells you if you’re in good form, the sensations of countless rides over the years seared into your synapses.
But I’d never taken that left turn down this road and in all honesty I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe it was the fear of the unknown or a contentment with my route or maybe I did come down here once in the days before Strava to find a potholed mess of rubble.
This road, though, snaking gingerly around the edge of an army firing range, is the only one in this tile so here I am.
And it’s great, to my surprise there’s smooth tarmac, but more importantly I’m exploring again.
But I’ve not had to fly to a foreign land, I’m about 20 minutes from my house and yet having lived there for over a decade here I am finding a new road.
As a horse looks at me quizzically as if to say, “We don’t see many of your type round these parts,” I realise it’s daft that I’d never dared venture down here before.
Here I’m a kid again and it’s joyous. You can be sure I’ll definitely be going for another tile tomorrow, guaranteed.
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After cutting his teeth on local and national newspapers, James began at Cycling Weekly as a sub-editor in 2000 when the current office was literally all fields.
Eventually becoming chief sub-editor, in 2016 he switched to the job of full-time writer, and covers news, racing and features.
A lifelong cyclist and cycling fan, James's racing days (and most of his fitness) are now in the past, although that doesn't stop him banging on tirelessly about "that one time" he nearly rode a 20-minute '10', and planning the big comeback that everyone knows will never actually happen.