Cycling Contemplations

Planning Routes in Unfamiliar Territory

588 words 3 minutes to read

Smooth asphalt, low traffic, great views, and maybe a coffee mid-way. That’s all I ask for when cycling and what I aim for when planning routes. Beginnings were difficult. I tried to guess which way to take, then usually hit potholes or gravel. With time, I collected techniques and tools that feed me the information I need to plan a quality ride.

Ready routes

My first rule of thumb is: steal whenever possible. Many of the rides shared on Strava are gems of local cycling knowledge. Whenever I see someone had an interesting route, I use the ride-to-route feature and stash it for later.

I keep an eye on races organized wherever I’ll be travelling to. These all have routes that had been carefully planned and tested for quality and safety. Usually they’ll publish a .gpx file that I can import into Strava and Garmin.

There are also many online route catalogs. My favorite one is bikemap, but I also frequently see people use Ride with GPS. On bikemap I can search for a starting location, then browse the routes others uploaded, filter for road cycling, length and total ascent. Finally, I can save the ones I like into my personal collection.

Bespoke routes

I do a lot of planning on my own. Often times I can’t find a suitable ready route to follow or decide to stitch multiple ones together. Plus, people tend to ride familiar routes that may not be optimal in terms of traffic and comfort, or miss out on interesting branches that I can spot on the map.

I prefer roads that have higher numbers or no numbers at all. The higher the number, the lower the road’s category and the lighter its traffic. These will often be the most picturesque roads around. Alas, they also carry a higher risk of having bad surface or potholes.

OpenStreetMap helps me evaluate road quality. The Cycling layer uses solid lines to indicate paved roads, though these also include cobblestones and other uncomfortable materials. A road’s meta-data often names the specific type of surface, but the accuracy of this information depends, obviously, on whoever entered it.

To really see what the surface looks like, I turn to Google Street View. Their cars normally don’t venture off asphalt, so if a road has Street View coverage, that’s a good sign. I pick a few points on the road, especially at junctions and away from inhabited areas, check whether it’s asphalt, how patched up it is and such.

Unfortunately, Google Street View is often grossly outdated. I frequently see photos shot a decade ago. It’s also not available everywhere—a major blank spot being the ever-privacy-minded Germany. My last resort in these cases are satellite images from Google Maps, hopefully in high resolution and a clear view of the road. I won’t see potholes, and some gravel surfaces look a lot like asphalt from above, but that’s a risk I can take.

Even with all this information available, there’s one obstacle I’m unable to foresee: road works. You’d be surprised how often I encounter these—Poland is doing a lot of road construction lately—and there’s really no information about them available anywhere online, simply because these are such rarely used roads. Waze won’t help. And the works are often finished within week or two.

That’s as far as I can plan ahead, for the time being. From here, I clip in and start the ride, dealing with whatever unexpected comes up along the way.

Header photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash.