Cycle Touring Guide: Route Planning

A map is an empty canvas for your to explore your options. The route chosen serves as a guide not a detailed plan. First steps to choosing a route starts with picking a start and a finish location (sometimes the same). I believe having a start and finish gives a goal and an achievement to both work for and look forward to either through excitement or just as a sigh of relief.

I don’t like the idea of aimlessly cycling around unless you have a list of places you want see. That’s my opinion, but I prefer seeing a transition of change between regions or countries.

There is always a difficulty choosing which way round to go if one is abroad and one resides in your home country. Taking into account you would fly abroad, Both have pros and cons:

Starting abroad:

Pros:

  • All gear is prepared and bike is packed reducing stress travelling towards home reduces pressure not having to arrive on schedule at destination
  • Excitement and thrill of starting abroad
  • Ability to pick out of season flights

Cons:

  • Assembly of the bike and equipment at the airport can be daunting and stressful.
  • Equipment and or bike can become damaged or worst lost or delayed. (Happened to me)
  • Difficult to suddenly acclimatise with country: roads, language, and definitely weather – temperature
  • Problems with equipment will be difficult to resolve
  • Have to locate cooking gas / methanol

Obviously starting at home seems to make sense, but for me I do not have any preference. It’s something you have to justify but the main things to consider:

  • Prevailing wind direction – use windfinder.com
  • Changes in climate (is it better to start where it’s warm and work towards where it would be later warmer at the end of trip)
  • Overall change in altitude – going down hill for most of the trip is easier, so make most of starting high up.
  • Factoring in seasonal or festival events (e.g. monsoon, ramadan etc.)
  • Cost of flights (checkout skyscanner.com)

Designing your route

Pick your way

Pick your waypoints – places you want to pass through or visit. This could be tourist sites, landmarks or cities. The amount you pick comes down to preference, but choosing too many can become stressful especially with large cycle un-friendly cities. It also increases costs – hostels, site entrances. In some cases it can be more stressful getting around a city by bike than public transport.

Less is more!

Also consider if it would be better to come back to fully explore a place if your are restricted for time. There are many places that I have had only a few hours in but I’d definitely visit and in some cases avoid again, just as a standalone trip. 

Most cycle tourers I have met prefer to keep to the countryside, I like a bit of both.

Plotting the route:

Most people resort to using google maps, which now features cycle directions. This has improved significantly over the past two years, but there are better alternatives which use Open Street Map data.

Bikemap I find is a much better alternative to googlemaps. It features multiple map layers, so you can use google maps or open street maps to draw routes. In addition it has elevation data which for a bike is more important than just the shortest route!

Bikemap.net - Planning a route

Bikemap.net – Offers far more features for conveniently planning a bike route – multiple map layers and elevation data

Even better some countries have dedicated cycle route maps. When I arrived at Oslo’s Gardermoen‎ Airport, I met a fellow cycle tourist who had finished his trip. He kindly gave me an excellent cycling map covering the popular cycling routes with tunnels. These sometimes can be bought online, or found when you are arrive in a country - although too late in this stage.

Eurovelo Routes:

Especially throughout Europe, the major and local cycle routes are ‘clearly’ shown. Most of my routes I will attempt to follow national routes or in some cases trans-country routes – throughout Europe are called the Eurovelo routes, and there is a trans-American one too.

Eurovelo routes

Eurovelo routes cover the majority of Europe with some based on historic pilgrimages – e.g. camino de Santiago de compostela: Eurovelo Route 3

These should be taken with a pinch of salt and should be researched individually – some are better than others.

National cycle routes:

These tend to follow geographic features: coast lines, rivers, historic routes such as pilgrimages or mountain passes. In general these tend to have the best infrastructure – provide dedicated cycle paths often more convenient than roads, clear and visible signs, offer good services for tourists and tend to have resources such as maps available.

Luke Parry on the Romantische Strasse

On my journey from London to Istanbul, I kept to National Routes – Romantische Strasse – D9, Germany is very well signposted and has good support materials

Romantische Strasse Map of Route

Romantische Strasse is a very well known route in Bavaria and is well catered for cycle tourists having maps, guides and the needs of cyclists well covered.

Most routes tend to provide easier accessible cycling. Plot your route to follow these where possible. If these aren’t available obviously go for following the easiest geographic features, unless you are up for challenge. In general just work with straight lines, to calculate the rough distance and later you can plot the route with detail.

Finalising the route:

It will take a few attempts to get the desired route that’s feasible. It can take a lot of patience; you may find you have to start from scratch. I stress, the route is just a plan. Plans never stick, it just helps give an overview, and you can plan in advance.Nothing goes as planned:I have found this on many occasions and like always you need extra time to mitigate any problems – mainly bike problems. It also gives a chance to stay longer in a place – such as an invitation to stay. The amount of time generally depends on how fast your traveling each day and if you are planning on meeting certain dates, such as catching a ‘weekly’ ferry. If you are prone to having injury, or sickness it will be longer.

A rough guide I follow is at least one day every 10 days. 

So for a months trip I have around 4 days spare, spread throughout this period. Sometimes there’s not much you can do and if you became really ill, you would have to consider public transport or postponement. However, prevention can reduce chances of this happening.

Changing the route on the move (in practice):

Routes or directions will adapt on the go. That is what makes cycle touring much more fun than driving, but in some cases very stressful. Always listen to local advice, but always cross check this with your own map or with two or three other people if they are not confident. Locals do know best especially if they are cyclists, but sometimes the may not be able to express or correctly explain it, so always check or consider your gut instinct, providing you have a sense of direction.

You will spot cycle routes along the way. Check with signs (some have distance) and decide if you have enough time take it. I have followed cycle routes and in deep frustration found some to be too in-direct and veered off back onto the main road.

Local Cycle Sign Board near Rotterdam, Holland

Especially in cycle friendly countries like Holland, routes are well sign posted or in some cases have maps.

Tourist Information:

Tourist Info centres are invaluable source of help.They are ubiquitous and can be found in even the smallest towns. Nearly all speak English and most of the time they will have resources for cyclists. Sometimes maps are free but if not you can cheekily ask for a photocopy. If they cannot provide these, some will offer local advice of the best / safest route to follow or even photocopy a local map with a small scale to guarantee not getting lost.

Bear Sweden

Even a small town in Sweden had a Tourist Info Centre. However, I wasn’t expecting to meet a bear.