I suppose there are some cyclists for whom cycling is just exercise for the sake of exercising. I have never met one though. Even in the depths of winter, the dedicated will get off their turbo and head outside to build up their base mileage. And when they do they are confronted with that question unique to outdoor sports. Where shall I go?
For a cyclist, much lies behind that question. What is the weather like; where is the wind blowing from; how long have I got; how am I feeling; do I want to hurl myself at the meanest hill on my patch; am I going hard to hurt or banking some steady mileage; ride socially or solo? You may have a route planned, but if not you’ll still be planning ahead, drawing on miles of local knowledge, unconsciously plotting a path ahead. True, you may change your mind as you ride, but if you say your route is completely spontaneous, even on new, unknown roads, I won’t believe it. There is always a part of us conscious of the weather, the time, our legs and the most expedient way home.
I’ve always loved pouring over maps. Whether it’s a richly contoured OS sheet, interactive, satellite imaged Google Earth or one of my Dad’s antique county prints there is a lot of pleasure in translating their symbolic representations into real places to explore. Add my bike into the equation and suddenly a map opens up a host of new possibilities and questions. What will that road be like to ride; how do I get to that hill? So I’ll happily spend hours, with some music on, studying pencil thin lines for a satisfying route.
Every route has a shape. I use online mapping tools to plot a course and from the moment I position the first way point I’m on a journey tracing a spidery red line (red always seems to be the default) across the screen. With the line on the screen my route immediately becomes something tangible that I can manipulate. I can easily scrub out rubbish passages and back track across the miles to explore alternative avenues. Incrementally a route is laid down as a haphazard loop or figure of eight. However, I think the shape is important. It needs to have visual appeal. Combined with a map it should have a considered and crafted look. A rider should be able to view a route and understand what it’s designer was trying to achieve.
I have rules for routes. I don’t get a lot of pleasure riding on busy roads. This is more to do with why I ride than considerations of personal safety. For me a big reason for cycling, is to break from the daily grind. I want to feel a sense of solitude where my thoughts can drift freely or to journey over roads with like minded riders. The bunch is a surprisingly open place. This is easier to do on a narrow, single track road that few have a reason to travel than a broad A-road with the world rushing past.
For much the same reason I avoid towns. There are a few pretty ones and if they have a decent cafe stop I might plan to visit, but I don’t want to go through congested streets, my rhythm broken by a succession of traffic lights. I want to ride through trees and by fields not boarded town centres and identikit housing estates.
So, my route planning is predicated by obstacles. Does this limit the routes I can take? Is the pub full of kids drinking WKD an option for a chat and a good beer with your cycling buddies? The course is planned for enjoyment, nothing else. I create a mental blindspot to any feature getting in the way of that pursuit. I don’t need a beeline just ingenuity to find a way round.
I’m not fussed about trying to make mostly left hand turns. I’m looking for quiet roads, so wasting ride time sat waiting for a gap in traffic is rare. I won’t repeat sections of road, absolutely not. I’ll allow myself one cross-over on a circuit. A figure of eight is acceptable, a second crossing on a century just, but a knot just looks ugly! Arbitrary, yes, but they are my boundaries.
Some roads are just better than others. Either the landscape is more charming or the terrain more challenging. If I’m planning on local roads, I’ll know which ones to choose, but if the roads are new to me, the OS map will always come out. For me there is still no tool better than their dirty orange contour lines. Only the closeness of their packing can reliably tell me if I’m facing a leg-sapping drag or a lung busting kick just before a summit. With online satellite imagery I can augment my image of the route to try to get a better impression of the roads character.
Eventually I’ll have a route ready to ride and alone or with the club it will be ridden. The ride will add to my steady accretion of local knowledge ready to inform the next parcours.