Planning a bicycle tour can be both daunting and exciting.
There’s nothing we like better than to stare at a world map, imagining the adventures and landscapes that lie ahead. But as much fun as it is to dream, marking out a route can also be hard work. How do you choose where to go when faced with a plethora of roads? And what if that track to the right is nicer than the one to the left?
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to planning a route but we can offer a few suggestions to get you started:
1. Get the best maps you can: In developed spots like Europe and North America, this means maps at a 1:200,000-1:400,000 scale. These more detailed maps will let you get a very good idea of terrain and backroads. The downside is that they can be expensive but look for atlases that will cover a whole region in good detail (Michelin maps are excellent for Europe) and also check with your local Automobile Association. They often give wonderful maps out free to members. For more remote countries, there are correspondingly fewer roads and fewer maps to choose from. Often maps around the 1:1 000 000 mark are all you can get and they are usually adequate.
2. Outline ahead of time: Armed with a highlighter, start to mark out the route you think you’d like to take. Research the route on the internet and make a note on the map or in a notebook of key attractions along the way as well as things like nice campgrounds and any visas you might need to cross borders.
3. Smaller is better: In general, smaller roads will be far more enjoyable than main routes. You might have a few more potholes to contend with but they are mostly manageable as long as you’re away from the bulk of traffic. You’ll find more wild camping hideaways and peaceful picnic spots on the smaller roads as well.
4. Become an expert map reader: While you’re tracing out a potential route, take a good look at the map and learn to read the more subtle symbols on it for clues to the landscape, especially elevation. How can you do this? Look to see if the altitude of mountains is marked. Different colours can indicate topography as can water sources. Streams flow out of mountains so if you’re following a river to its source you’re probably going uphill. For wild campers, routes near forests and with thinly spread population are good, while vineyards tend to indicate heavily cultivated land and steep slopes.
5. Expect the unexpected: Don’t set out to cycle such vast distances that you feel pressured to pedal from dawn to dusk because something will always happen to delay you. It could be bad weather, a new friend or a great restaurant but the reasons to stop along the way are frequent and many. When figuring out time needed to cover long distances, use a slightly low daily average. That works in space for rest days or lazy days and lets you go with the flow. If the road is blocked, if someone invites you to stay a night or if you’re just standing at a junction thinking that road to the left does look nicer, you can revel in the serendipity of bicycle touring. (Read more about planning daily distances for a bike tour)
6. Ask the audience: It’s nearly impossible to find a route or area that no other cyclist has passed through. Go onto bike chat forums and ask away. Contact local bike touring clubs. Email people based in the area you’re going who are part of cyclist-friendly groups like WarmShowers. You should get at least one expert opinion, if not dozens. You can also ask the locals when you’re on the road about what’s coming up but this is less reliable. Motorists are notorious for misjudging terrain and distance and they love to redirect you to main roads because the quieter ones are less direct or, in their opinion, too tough or dangerous for someone on a bicycle. There could be be language difficulties and you should take note that locals in many countries cannot read maps! Often they just like to stare at them.
7. Read the guidebooks: Whether or not you carry a guidebook on tour is a matter of some debate (they are heavy and often don’t cover areas cyclists go through) but pre-tour they can give a good overview to an area’s culture, landscape and attractions. Don’t stick just to traditional guides. Look online for other accounts of cycling through your destination. Some trip journals are practical, others are works of literary art. All are useful for sparking your travel juices.