The Joy of Route Finding

Back in 2014 when we were still living in suburban Indianapolis, the guy who owned the shop where I bought my Kona Rove told me of how he had once cycled from his home in Lafayette to Indianapolis International Airport to catch a flight.  I remember having trouble getting my head around that at the time. Lafayette is 60 miles from IND and some of the roads in between are not very bicycle friendly.

A few years later we were living in Utah and as I pedaled past SLC on the way home to Ogden I realized I was kind of doing the same thing.  Even the distance was about the same.  That’s when I started thinking about cycling from place to place a little differently.  The final nail in my “can’t ride from here to there” coffin came just last month as I headed into Portland from Seattle.  I’d just completed a trip across the better part of two states and so it was now official.  The bike was something more than just a local transit vehicle.

I spend more than a little time looking at maps and as I do, it has occurred to me that there are a number of places I’d like to cycle to from our home in Jefferson.  I’ve started to develop routes to these places. I just finished the first of these…a 130 miler to Omaha Nebraska.   I am also working on routes to Lake Superior and the Black Hills.   When those are done, I’ll figure out where to go next.

Developing these routes is great fun for me…almost as much fun as cycling itself. There’s a huge cache of resources available online including state and county DOT maps that can be used to gather data about traffic counts, road configuration and other information.  With the help of these tools, I develop and then plot the route in Google MyMaps and RidewithGPS.com.  I’m certainly not an expert, but I want to share what I’ve learned so far in case you might be interested in doing this.

First and foremost, I’ve learned not to delegate route finding to someone else.   What they choose might not work for you.  Even the pros sometimes leave me scratching my head.  When I was in Portland last month, I picked up an Adventure Cycling Association route book at Powell’s.  The ACA is the gold standard when it comes to this sort of thing and yet some of their route choices puzzled me.  I know that there are better ways to get through that territory than what they suggest.

I’d also be very careful before letting some tool choose your route for you.   I tried this in RidewithGPS and discovered that when I changed the base map from Google to the Open Cycling Map, I got two dramatically different route recommendations.  In theory, OCM should be better as it is a compilation of routes chosen by cyclists for cyclists, but I actually ended up using more of the Google route.  Go figure.

Experience helps.  I try see as many of these roads as possible with my own two eyes.  It’s best if you can see them on a bicycle but that’s not always possible.  If not, seeing them through the windshield can still be valuable.  Whenever I take a trip by car now, I’m scouting cycling routes along the way.   If I have to, I pull over and take notes before proceeding.

If I can’t do that, I rely on Google Streetview.  Before Seattle to Portland, I used Streetview to become familiar with the course.  The route information provided by the Cascade Bicycle Club was really helpful.    They provided a list of all the potential trouble spots and I pulled all of them up on Streetview and internalized them before heading west.   During the ride, I was able to recognize all of these places as I came upon them.  It was like I had been there before.

The official Iowa bicycle map. Road color communicates average traffic volume.  Purple roads like E63 east of Coon Rapids have the lowest counts.
This is  a snapshot of that stretch of E63.  This is why I love cycling in Iowa.
Even downtown, traffic is pretty much non-existent in Iowa’s small towns.

So I built my route to Omaha using all of these inputs.  It includes sections of two regional rail trails, long stretches of mostly empty, paved two lane county roads, city trails, and about 30 miles of gravel.  I’ve already cycled close to a third of the total route.  Here’s a fully functional embed of the route from RidewithGPS.  You can click on the link to view a full version of the map.  Check out that elevation profile!

Crossing the Missouri River into Omaha in the fog via the spectacular Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
The fog began to lift as I roll into downtown Omaha.

Even if you never plan to go on a long ride like this, I think the ability to identify and map routes can be valuable.  I’ve discovered by trial and error that a lot of urban bike routes are placed on streets I find less than desirable,  so when I visit a new place I go through much the same process (in abbreviated form)  before heading out to ride.   I think it increases my enjoyment. I suspect it probably could do the same for you.

So now you know a little about my route planning and finding methodology.  Let me know what you think.  If you have ideas that might help me with this, I’m all ears.