Cycle Touring: Five steps to planning your route

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People often ask me how I figure out where to go when I go on a cycling tour.

Most the bikecations I’ve done have been unsupported, largely because I’ve yet to find a supported tour that fits my schedule and budget.  Luckily, I love crafting trip itineraries, and will often dweeb out quite a bit while figuring out all the possible combinations of sights and activities to jam into my limited vacation time frame.

So here is the process I go through to figure out where to go, and how to bike there.

Step 1:  Figure out your general tour location

When figuring out the “where” for a cycling tour, I start by taking a look on a couple different sites:

Bicycling.com has several lists of rides that are great fodder for ideas, while Cycling Touring Company sites like Adventure Cycling Association, Backroads, and Experience Plus offer routes literally all over the world.

If you’ve got the money and your schedule fits, a supported tour hosted by one of the touring companies will do most of the leg work for you.  But if I don’t find a hosted tour that fits my schedule and budget, I’ll use their route maps as the basis for my plans.

From there, I’ll search and read blogs from intrepid cyclists that have completed the same routes to learn a little more about what to expect on an unsupported version of the tour.  The touring cyclist blogosphere is a fascinating place, to say the least.

Once I’ve taken stock of the various cities and routes that are available, I turn my focus to the daily mileage I want to ride.

Step 2:  Make note of elevation

Even the best laid plans can’t avoid inclines entirely, and steep terrain can quickly double the amount of time it takes to cycle a route.

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Activity tracking apps Map My Ride and Strava provide elevation gains and grades for mapped routes, which helps assess whether or not the daily mileage goal is realistic. Strava’s Global Heat Map shows popular cycling paths across several cities internationally, letting you see where area cyclists tend to ride.  It also offers the option to minimize a route’s distance (i.e. as straight a path as possible), or elevation (which can potentially add significant mileage, depending on the terrain).

Step 3:  Figure out your daily mileage goals

Daily mileage sets both the distance and level of athleticism of your trip.  If you’re in tip top shape, you’ll be able to go further in less time, and likely have more energy to still see the sights off-bike.  If you haven’t been training for a while, you should probably pepper in a few more stops along the way.

If I were good at math, I’d have some sort of nifty formula that would define all of this in one image, and you could be on your way.  But since I’m not that great at math, you’ll have to deal with bullets:

  • Distance you want to travel
  • Speed at which you generally ride
  • Days you have to travel this distance

Versus

  • Overall elevation of the route you’re going ride
  • Number of hours you actually want to ride each day
  • Days you’d like to spend NOT riding.

Ultimately, you need to balance of your ideal distance per day for the trip against the level of physical effort that will allow you to still have a good time off-bike.

Step 4: Pick your off-bike activities   

Whether you’re doing a traditional cycling touring trip or taking a road trip with cycling-enhanced stops, setting the tone for off-bike activities and picking rest stops for the route will provide peeks into local life in the region.

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I often lean on my bucket list –written while recovering from my first knee surgery at 19 – when trying to figure out specific sites I want to see, and the activities to pursue off-bike.  For example, I took the trip to Florida entirely to fulfill my long-standing goal of swimming with manatees.  But each of the other stops we had offered amazing experiences of their own.

If you don’t already have a bucketlist, I recommend Bucketlist.org for ideas and to remind you that there’s more to life than binge watching Supernatural yet again. It will come in handy!

Another standby for off-bike activities is good old Trip Advisor.  In addition to rankings of most popular sights in an area, some more popular destinations even have area guides curated by other visitors.  It’s a great tool for seeing the options you have available in a new city.

Step 5: Map your route

Now that you’ve figured out your general location, your daily mileage goals and off-bike activities, it’s time to map your specific route. I use My Maps from Google maps, which can take a spreadsheet of cities and/or landmarks and plot them out on a map. This visual layout is very helpful in showing which points of interest are closest to each other, as well as revealing any that would require some significant doubling back.  It can also create a “directions” layer over your selected landmarks, providing point-to-point cycling directions, which you can then export into a KML file for your GPS.

A note on road safety

Remember, folks: Mapping, googling, strava-routing and other route research will never replace being alert and aware of the environment around you.  Do not blindly follow your GPS.  If a road or route does not feel safe, stop riding it, and figure out a plan B.

Some other things to consider:

One-way routes

The logistics of doing a one-way trip get quite a bit trickier, as you’ll have to either find one way car/bike rental or plan shipping logistics for your gear.  But it can open up some interesting options, as it essentially doubles the amount of time you have to see new sights, versus doubling back to your origin.

Travel Companions

While some intrepid souls need only the open road and their bike for company, I find that companionship generally make for a more enjoyable, memorable experience.  I’ve learned that people nutty enough to consider four-to-six hours on a bike a good use of vacation time are few and far between.  But I’ve found that designing tours to suit friends and family who are less road-weathered are just as enjoyable as those I’ve done with my fellow cycling nutters.

And there you have it.  The basics of planning your very own cycling tour.  If you do it right, you’ll find yourself up at all hours of the night, growing more and more excited about the awesome adventure you’re making for yourself.  I know it’s what I do.

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