A fellow cyclist recently posed a query regarding the creation of my long-distance cycling journey routes. As I stand on the cusp of a 7,500 km adventure spanning from North Cape, Norway, to Tarifa, Spain — an adventure geared towards raising funds for World Bicycle Relief — it seemed a pertinent moment to shed light on the process. This is for those intrigued by the planning or looking to incorporate some of my best practices into their own trips.
It is crucial to remember that a route is the amalgamation of one’s riding aspirations tethered to the realm of the real.
Allow me to clarify. The construction of my route is contingent upon the kind of rides that pique my interest whilst simultaneously acknowledging the influence of external factors beyond my purview.
In the context of my European tour, my ambition was to trace the longest possible route from the northernmost point to the southernmost tip, traversing EVERY single country on the continent. However, the constraints of time, specifically a 90-day limit owing to the conditions of my Schengen visa as a Canadian citizen, curb this ambition.
Thus, my desire to traverse Europe from its extreme points is tempered by the essence of time.
This necessitates the creation of a route that is as swift as possible whilst trying to incorporate destinations that hold particular appeal to me. These could be due to their physical beauty or the allure of visiting friends residing in those locations.
It’s also essential to note that my travel itinerary considers my solitary travel nature and my preference for hotel accommodation. This means my route cannot deviate too extensively from civilisation unlike other cyclists who prefer to distance themselves as far as possible from populated areas.
Touching upon the Schengen tourist visa, the United Kingdom (not part of the zone) offers a unique advantage. As a Canadian citizen, I can “loiter” there for up to six months thus offering a strategic location for a well-earned respite without squandering precious visa days.
Whilst I have traversed the UK before and did not need to include it in my route, the strategic advantage it offers makes its inclusion sensible.
With these factors at play, the stage is set to commence the route creation utilising modern tools.
We are in the year 2023 and I have no need for traditional paper maps. Despite possessing the skills to decipher them, online maps offer superior efficiency.
The array of choices can be bewildering so I stick to two familiar and tested tools, namely Komoot and Google Maps. I have successfully relied on them to cycle across Canada for the second time, around the USA, and on various smaller trips in several countries.
Why does familiarity or experience matter in route creation tools?
Each platform operates in distinct ways however once accustomed to a particular tool through real-life reliance, you become intimately acquainted with its strengths and weaknesses.
Google Maps, for example, is proficient at city navigation but seems to falter in less urbanised areas. It also seems to overlook that in some areas, cyclists are permitted on motorways.
Komoot, on the other hand, provides three different route versions – ‘road’, for those keen on asphalt surfaces and undeterred by traffic; ‘touring’, typically following established, scenic roads with fewer steep inclines, catering to those with heavily laden bikes; and ‘gravel’, for those inclined to tread on unpaved roads. In my case, I’m comfortable with all options, even the latter as my extra-wide slick tyres can handle off-road terrain, barring muddy conditions.
So, how do I use both platforms?
I experiment with all three options on Komoot and then decide based on the distance first, and steep segments thereafter. For instance, if there’s a significant climb but I save 5 kilometres, I’ll opt for that route as it will save more time overall, particularly if a descent follows. If there’s a major climb but the alternative only adds an additional kilometre then I’ll go with the latter to conserve energy – a valuable strategy in long-distance cycling.
Safety is paramount, and if a shorter route, as indicated by Google Maps, falls on a bustling road without a shoulder, then I’ll use the “bike touring” mode to avoid potential hazards.
I often adjust the route to circumvent a hill to shorten the distance or force the route through an unpaved section if it seems logical to me. Google Maps serves to offer their route recommendations, provide a street view and timely updates on detours due to road works.
One cannot assume that the route creation will yield the best path as only locals truly know the ins and outs. Since I can’t personally reach out to them in every area for their insights, I turn to Strava Global Heatmap. It overlays everyone’s recorded rides and the darker a certain segment, the more frequently it’s used.
Once my routes are laid out, I cross-check them against Strava Global Heatmap to ensure I am following popular roads. This is particularly useful for roads frequented by commuters as they are typically safer and have fewer steep ascents.
Sidenote: When cycling across Canada, the need for route creating apps was redundant as there are only one or two highways that allow for the crossing of this expansive country. Essentially, if the sun wasn’t at my back in the morning and in my face by the evening, it implied that I was heading in the wrong direction, regardless of being on the right highway. Once the road ended and a body of water was in view, I knew I had reached the Arctic Ocean, signalling the conclusion of my trip!
The next step is transferring these routes onto my Wahoo ROAM, a cycling computer device that assists with tracking distance, heart rate, power, weather, elevation, gradient percentage, and, of course, navigation.
My Wahoo Roam is synced with my Komoot account, allowing me to access my routes easily. I can select the route for the day, press “Start”, and I’m on my way! It’s really that straightforward.
The device also offers the added advantage of automatic redirection. If I deviate from the planned route for any reason, like a supermarket stop or detour due to construction, the device will guide me back to the original route.
One may wonder why I don’t use a phone for navigation, especially since the Quad Lock retention system enables comfortable positioning on the stem. I prefer to conserve my phone’s battery as it can prove invaluable in emergency situations. My Wahoo Roam can provide directions for up to 15 hours, while my phone wouldn’t last for more than three hours!
I should also mention that I first create an overall route then break it down into various stages. A stage means one ride. That is what I input to my Wahoo ROAM not the entire route as it would not make sense and also it would probably crash the device.
I believe I’ve touched on all the essential aspects of route creation. Having been immersed in this process since 2015, I may inadvertently overlook some steps that are now second nature to me, but might not be as apparent to a novice. I recommend checking out tutorials on YouTube where individuals with a knack for teaching can offer comprehensive explanations.
One final point to note: I make a conscious effort to memorise the map or at least familiarise myself with the key buildings, landmarks or parks I should encounter. This acts as a safety net in case my Wahoo Roam and phone run out of battery or get confused – life is indeed full of surprises. Having an idea of what to expect allows me to rely on memory for navigation rather than electronic devices.
While I could carry paper maps, I find there’s always some available in tourist spots or petrol stations. If I need one, I’ll grab it then and there, reducing the weight and volume of my luggage because, believe it or not, every gram is accounted for.
In conclusion, route creation is a craft that requires patience, research and a fair bit of creativity. Every route I create carries my personal touch and adheres to my safety standards and comfort level while also ensuring an element of fun and exploration. The process is definitely worth the time and effort as the reward is a safe and exciting journey on the open road.
This is a post by JaBig, a Canadian DJ who is (as of this writing) about to cycle across Europe from North Cape, Norway to Tarifa to raise funds for World Bicycle Relief, in addition to embarking on a dream adventure of a lifetime.