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5 Tips for Planning a Bike Route

Where are you going next? How are you getting there? With two wheels at your disposal, the answer to the second question can be just as varied as the first. Between bike paths, trails, bike lanes, and autoroads, the options for travelling from Point A to Point B on a bicycle are nearly endless. The choices you make, however, can have a big impact on the quality of your ride, so picking the right route is absolutely essential to a great time! Here are our best tips for planning your own bike routes:

1. Know your speed

What kind of ride are you going on? Is it slow or fast? Casual or athletic? The speed and intensity of your ride should play heavily into the selection of your route. If you’re putting on spandex and forming a paceline (in other words going fast) your best bet is sticking to the road. Depending on the time of day, bike paths and similar paved or gravel trails will usually be congested with pedestrians and other cyclists. Any attempt at a fitness-style ride in such a setting would surely end in disaster or, at best, dissatisfaction.

If you plan on a more leisurely ride, however, bike paths are your best friend. There really is nowhere better to breeze along casually at your own pace than on a bike path. Casual riders can also sometimes get away with riding on the sidewalk, depending on your location. It is best to consult your local authorities to figure out the regulations in your area before planning a route that uses the sidewalk.

Another important aspect of knowing your speed is planning an appropriately long route. For those just looking for a casual jaunt, keep the distance under 10 kilometers (about six miles). Someone who doesn’t bike or exercise often, but is in decent shape and looking for an exercise-oriented ride that lasts a bit over an hour should plan more in the vicinity of 20-25 kilometers (12-15 miles). Past these distances, cyclists should generally have a sense of how far and long they can ride. Also remember to check the weather, a hot day might mean shortening your distance to stay within time or ability constraints.

2. Search for shoulders

Plenty of shoulder
Very little shoulder!

It may not seem apparent to those planning their first ride, but the width of a road’s “shoulder” can play a very large part in the safety of bike riding. The best shoulders are wider than three feet, though any similar width will usually do. If you have local knowledge of the area where you’re planning, avoid higher-traffic roads that have small shoulders at any cost. Nothing ruins a ride like having cars within inches of you ever couple seconds. If you don’t know an area well, Google Maps street view can often provide an accurate picture of how wide a road’s shoulder is.

3. Find your way around hills (if you want)

Hills can turn short, leisurely rides into hellish slogs, just as easily as they can spice up a boring training loop. For the cyclists looking to avoid serious exertion, steering clear of steep gradients is absolutely essential, while those same slopes may be the key ingredient to a local racer’s successful training. Google Maps and many other mapping programs feature a valuable “terrain map” which uses elevation lines to illustrate an area’s hills. The closer together the elevation lines are on a climb, the steeper it is! Those seeking a tough ascent should find the roads that head as straight up hills as possible, while those who wish to take things more gradually should find roads that travel as close to parallel with the map’s elevation lines as possible. Better yet, leisure cyclists can easily use a terrain map to plan a route that avoids hills (almost) all together!

4. Loop around the starting point

Although the the adventure of riding as far from home as possible before looping back is often an exciting option, it may not always be the most practical. If your bike has mechanical problems at the halfway point of the trip, it can be quite the ordeal to get all the way back home. Sometimes you may even decide halfway through your trip that you’ve overestimated your abilities and wish to cut the ride short. If you’re doing an “out and back,” that’s definitely not an option. As you plan your first couple bike routes, it is therefore often desirable to plan routes that make a circle around your starting point or home base, instead of venturing as far from it as possible. You can go on a 50+ kilometer ride while never straying further than 10 kilometers from your starting point, a much more manageable distance to cover if a disaster occurs. As you become more comfortable with planning bike routes and with your own cycling abilities, you may wish to begin ignoring this tip, but when starting out you can’t go wrong staying close to home.

5. Find spots to stop

Long rides are long, and even the most devoted cycling zealot can get bored slogging away at the same open road for a long distance. Planned pit stops along the way not only provide easy opportunities for re-fuelling and taking a break but can also serve as easy short-term targets to reduce the mental load while out on a longer ride. It’s usually much easier to think of “10 kilometers until my stop at the country store” than “45 kilometers until the ride is over.” Fun places to stop don’t always have to involve spending money (ie a country store)’ they can be as simple as a scenic overlook or a park with a water fountain to refill your bottles.

Planning your own bike route is easy and can make your ride more accessible, difficult, or just plain more enjoyable! Be sure to mess around with going up vs. going down the same hill, cycling that scenic route that you’ve only ever driven, or exploring a local bike trail. Mix it up, keep it interesting, and have fun!

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