Last time we talked about the different types of bicycle touring routes, which you can mix and match to your heart’s content to create a general structure for your trip. This time, we’re going to talk about more practical matters that I think you should factor into your route planning once you’ve figured out where you want to go and how you want to get there. Some of these are relatively minor (like being on the outer side of the road when cycling along the coast), while others can be huge (THE WIND).
You can catch up on the previous post here.
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Alright, in no particular order, let’s jump into the practical considerations you should keep in mind as you flesh out your bicycle touring route plan.
If you’re on a lengthy bicycle tour, the unfortunate reality is that at some point you are going to have to share the road with the noisy and polluting death cages we call “cars.” However, there are a few ways to minimise your interactions with them, as it’s almost always best to take the road with the least possible traffic — there’s less noise and more room on the road. Less cars equals more pleasurable cycling.
If you scrutinise your map, you’ll usually be able to find a smaller country road or minor highway that will get you where you want to go without having to resort to the eardrum-shattering, soul-destroying (and sometimes illegal) experience that is cycling on the freeway.
However, a road that looks small on a map isn’t necessarily light on traffic. Local people — especially fellow cyclists — are your best resource if you’re not sure. Otherwise, look out for roads that link two large towns, as they can often be popular with cars and trucks. High-traffic roads can be tolerable so long as there is some kind of shoulder to ride in. If it exists in the area you’re in (and you have internet access), a quick look on Google Street View can give you a small snapshot of road conditions ahead — especially on the existence of a shoulder.
That said, cycling on busy shoulderless roads isn’t necessarily the end of the world, even if it can be unpleasant. In a future post, we’ll discuss how to negotiate them.
Not pictured: cobblestones streets, which are hell for a loaded touring bike.
Be Wary Of Cities
Spending time in a large city can be a fun way to break up a lengthy bike trip. A dose of big city cosmopolitanism can be refreshing after the provincial culture of the countryside, and gives you an excellent excuse to rest up and explore on foot.
However, those thriving central neighbourhoods are often ringed with enormous urban sprawl, turning bike journeys in and out of a major city into a major headache. If a designated bicycle route to the centre from one of the outer suburbs doesn’t exist, it might be best to ride as far as the outermost tentacle of the public transit system and then take a train or bus the rest of the way. If this isn’t possible (sometimes bikes aren’t allowed on the metro, for example), make sure you have a digital map handy (online or offline) to guide you in, and try to time your arrival or departure outside of the traditional traffic “peak” hours.
Note the altitude profile at bottom-left.
Google Maps’ Altitude Profile Is Handy — Use It!
In many countries, Google Maps’ bicycle routing tool now offers an elevation profile to give you a general idea of the climbing you’ll have to do. This can be incredibly helpful when plotting out long-distance rides ahead of time, so you know when to expect flatter riding and when to expect real mountains.
However, be advised that living and dying by the elevation profile is a one-way ticket to disappointment. Those flat sections in that squiggly altitude line almost certainly hide plenty of little rises and dips — expect the climbs and be surprised by the dreamy downhills. I have a friend who once spent three months cycling alone in Patagonia. One of her many nuggets of wisdom: “What goes up doesn’t necessarily come down.”
Respect The Wind And Go With The Flow
Most newcomers to bicycle touring initially think of hills and mountains as the biggest challenge they will face on their trip. But with a little perseverance, even the biggest climbs can be vanquished over time. No amount of pedalling, however, will ever conquer the wind.
Think of wind like water currents in the ocean, and of yourself as a swimmer in that ocean. At times, a mountain pass or a valley will channel the wind in a certain direction. On wide-open flatlands, it can gather speed and become a torrent. And if you’re pedalling against it, it will tug on every loose fold of clothing, every bulge in your pannier, every shoelace. It is easy to become obsessed with wind.
The good news is that in many places around the world, the wind tends to blow in one direction for seasons at a time, so you can make like Marlin and Dory and simply ride the EAC. Patagonia is so infamous for its winds, which tend to blow from north-to-south, that most transcontinental cyclists in South America orient their entire route the same way so as to minimise the amount of time they spend fighting those vicious headwinds — and instead coast on the back of a lovely tailwind.
A H sighting!
Be On The Coastward Side Of The Road
This one seems minor, but can be a major factor at certain times during your ride: if you’re going to be spending a lot of time riding on a scenic piece of coastline, for example, orient your journey so that you’ll be riding on the outer edge of the road rather than on the landward side. This (and the prevailing north-south winds) is why the vast majority of cyclists on the U.S. Pacific Coast route ride from north to south, giving them a better view out over the ocean on the coastward right-hand side of the road.
Here comes the rain…
Cycle tourists spend a lot of time outside and if you can help it, you want to minimise the amount of that time that you are a) cold, and b) wet. It’s relatively easy to look up prevailing temperatures, humidity and rainfall in any given region around the world — use it to get a general sense of the conditions throughout the year and then, if possible, plan your trip to coincide with the drier, more temperate weather.
If you spend long enough on the road, however, the weather is eventually going to change on you. For long distance routes that run the north-south axis, you generally want to be heading toward the equator during the autumn and away from it during the spring. Of course, the four-season cycle tends to break down as you get close to the equator, where your main concern then becomes avoiding the monsoon and aiming for slightly cooler, less-humid dry seasons.
Don’t Try To See Everything On Limited Time
Unlike tourists who use motorised transport, a cyclist cannot zip all over an entire country or continent on a whim. But what we lose in speed and mobility, we make up for in depth of experience. Cycling through a region is to live in it, to take a sensory bath in it, and part of that comes from the relative slowness of your motion. If you’re on limited time, narrow the scope of your route to a smaller geographic area and realise that you will truly get to know this place — you’ll feel its texture through your legs, carry its scent in your nostrils and use its landscapes as your dining room, kitchen, lounge and bedroom.
Those trucks look mean, but the shoulder is a haven on roads like these.
There’s only so much you can find out about your planned route from home. (Google Maps’ bicycle directions often don’t make sense when you’re actually on the ground, for example.) Understand that most of the details of your route cannot be set in stone. Interactions with locals, other cyclists or even the conditions on the ground might have you changing the whole direction of your trip on a whim.
That said, it can be helpful to have your first few days planned out while you find your feet. Plan to ride between 40-60 kilometres per day — more if you’re already fit, less if you’re in the mountains) and reserve a spot at a hotel, campground, Warmshowers or Couchsurfing host.
There’s an old saying often attributed to a 19th century Prussian general that’s generally paraphrased as “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Obviously, planning a cycle touring route is absolutely nothing like planning a battle — for one thing, travel is about making contact with people, not murdering them en masse — but the message rings true. I know there are a lot of planners out there who are happiest when calculating their exact average cycling speed in any given set of conditions and then figuring out exactly when they must leave in the morning to then arrive at a predetermined destination at a predetermined time where they expect to order a specific meal at a specific restaurant before laying their head down on a specific type of pillow in a predetermined hotel.
But the minute-by-minute essence of cycle touring — random invitations for lunch, a conversation with a farmer, a flat tyre, a particularly striking view — are best enjoyed with a kind of loose, flexible overarching plan, rather than a daily schedule. This, I think, is the key to successful route planning for a bicycle tour. Think of your route as the bones of your trip. It’s the overall structure. Don’t bother with too much detail — if you’ve got an open mind and a loose schedule, they’ll fill themselves in once you get your wheels on the road.