Cycle Touring Part 1 – Route Planning

, July 4, 2011

In this series of blogs on cycle touring, I will be sharing some basic route planning heuristics, kit list recommendations, nutrition strategies and experiences. Following a recent 5 day trip round Northern Scotland, I felt there were several lessons learnt from my first cycle touring trip which could be of interest to others. Cycle touring is inexpensive, hugely rewarding, simple and a great way to see different terrain. Having tasted the experience, I am already planning a much longer trip through Europe later this summer.

Cycling Touring Guide
A road altas is fine, but it doesn't offer much information on relief.

When planning a route the most important calculations involve distances to be covered and the time allowed in which to cover a said distance. Allowing for food stops, campsites and points of interest, it’s important to make sure that you have enough time to complete a stage. Here are some important areas worth paying attention too.

Mapping

To map with a reasonable degree of accuracy, a good relief map is needed. I naively used a standard road atlas to plan my route, which led to some nasty surprises in the furious form of relentlessly hill terrain. With the wide availability of Google Maps, its easy to scan routes and predict how fast or slow going the terrain will be. After taking into account hills, descents and flats a better plan can be gauged.

Distance

I worked on 90 miles per day, which resulted in me typically riding for around 7 hours. That included plenty of photo/ Soreen stops. I found this to be pretty comfortable but ultimately the distance you can cover will be dependent on your fitness level. The point to remember is that cycle touring isn’t a race and as long as you keep plodding along, the miles will rack up.

Load

The other factor to consider when route planning is the weight being carried which shall always impact upon your average speed, and especially so when you’re riding tired. I was entirely self-sufficient during my trip, carrying camping and cooking equipment that accounted for 11kg kit in the panniers. In my next blog I will run through a kit list of what I took on my tour across northern Scotland.

Road Choice

There isn’t much fun in zipping along a fast smooth A-road if it means battling a constant stream of large lorries buzzing past. I opted, as far as possible, to stay on back roads and cycle paths. Although not the most direct option, back roads offer safer riding and you the best viewpoints to digest the local countryside. An added benefit is that quieter roads allow for a safe meander when you’re tired and need to recover without the risk of a car clipping your panniers as it overtakes at 80mph.

Cycling Touring Guide
The road atlas didn't warn me about the undulations which slow progress

Accommodation

I opted to stay at campsites some nights, and rough camped for others. I was travelling solo on my trip so campsites provide some welcome company, and I found lots of people were interested in my journey and keen to come and chat. After 7 hours in the saddle, I enjoyed this contact. There are other obvious advantages such as hot showers and access to electricity. Rough camping is great so long as the weather is OK and the tranquil simplicity of this option is amazing. On balance I think alternating is the best option as it keeps expenses a bit lower and makes for a good blend of sanity and wild peace.

Pin-pointing

The route I took round Scotland, will be detailed in a later blog, but for now a quick comment on my general points of interest and focuses of my trip planning. My route was based around scenic coastal roads, and quiet, car-free strips of tarmac. I anticipate future trips involving more points of interest outside of the terrain, towns, museums historic sites which will add further complexity to route planning.  By investing time in planning before departing, some really interesting routes can be joined up to make often very efficient travel itineraries. I would encourage others to plan well before setting off and to identify stimulating targets to aim for as you ride.