Planning A Cycle Tour
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There are many different schools of cycle touring. Some people like the Zen idea of just setting off and working it out as they ride along, cycling as far as they can, then finding somewhere to sleep., taking the world as they find it. Some people book all their accommodation in advance (even organised cycle tours) along the way, so there is always a booked hotel/hostel/B&B at the end of each day’s ride. Some people travel very light, “plastic card touring”, buying everything on route relying on a shops, cafes and hotels to sustain them. Some people travel with immense pannier bags, and even extra stuff on trailers, maybe including table and chairs and a kitchen sink !!!
You need to find a way of cycle touring that suits you.
Our route planning method follows this model….
- We prefer to ride on cycle paths, in Europe, this means the Eurovelo routes or the Sustrans National Cycle Network in the UK.
- When riding on roads, we choose quiet back roads, avoiding major roads with lots of traffic, particularly with big lorries and coaches.
- We like riding along river valleys as they are reasonable flat (as Alysun often says, “flat it good”), although we have recently become happy to cycle over mountain passes.
- We look at prevailing seasonal wind directions and try to choose routes and/or seasons with a tail, rather than head wind. We would rather climb mountain passes than cycle into a strong headwind.
- Wherever possible we like to camp & cook for ourselves.
- If wild camping, we try to stay in a hotel or apartment every third night to have showers and recharge gadget batteries.
- When cycling in India, where camping is not possible, we stay in hotels and guesthouses. We are happy to eat in restaurants as we love Indian food, particularly as we can always find good, affordable vegetarian food.
- Often, we just turn up at a campsite or hotel, without booking. This usually works fine. Sometimes we book ahead using Booking.com.
- We can usually cycle 50 miles (80km) per day. Some days we can cycle more, if the route is flat and easy, so we pre-plan our route around covering 50 to 60 miles each day (less if we have to climb over mountain passes).
- We try to plan a rest day every fifth day. Great for clothes washing and relaxing.
- We also have “sight-seeing days” when we are somewhere with a must see place. This happens frequently in Iran & India.
- We use all of the above to map out the route in the initial planning stages, so that we know how long we will be away for and what dates we can book flights and/or train tickets to get to the start point and home from the end point. Because we have animals at home that need looking after, we usually try to limit our cycle tour trips to one month maximum.
Maps and Route Finding
How we map a route depends on where we are cycling. In Europe, we used brilliant German maps, because they exist.
But outside of Europe, such maps do not exist, so when route planning our rides through the Caucasus Mountains, through Iran and in Rajasthan (India), we used Google maps, together with information from cycle touring blog websites, see where other cyclists have ridden and what they found and what they advise. We hope to add to that body of knowledge with our website.
Using Maps and Guidebooks
The first three stages of our journey were pretty easy, as we were following Eurovelo 6 route, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea. There are excellent German “Bikeline Radtourenbuch” maps to use for almost the entire route. These “Bikeline” maps show most of the Eurovelo routes (on cycle paths or roads, paved or rough surfaces), campsites, bicycle shops, food shops etc. They also show the all the distances along the route, so by simple addition we can simply add up the kilometres between night stops in campsites. The maps also show sections of the route on busy roads, with possible detours to avoid these. Then there is the “guidebook” content, describing the sites and history of the lands that we passed through.
When we are on the road, we have the maps with us, so if we feel like having a lazy day (less kilometres) or feel like cycling further, we can use the maps to decide which campsite we want to ride to that day. In this way, by deciding to ride longer days, we actually arrived a week early in Budapest when we rode the Stage Two of our cycle ride to India.
We did discover that when we did not have a map to follow, such as the ride from Basle to Konstanz (Stage One), we were completely reliant on Eurovelo signposting and doing internet research to find campsites to head for.
Here are the cover photographs of all the guide book maps that we have used.
On the first stages of our ride, we carried all of our map guide books for the rides, adding around 1kg to our luggage. Alysun had the map in front of her in the see-through plastic map pocket on top of her handlebar bag. This worked fine, except for the weight. On the second and third stages of our ride, we had our Garmin to help route find, but we still wanted the helpful detail of the Bikeline maps, so instead of carrying the hard copy with us, we scanned them to pdf and put them on our iPad. This saved the weight, but was not quite as convenient as having an actual physical map at hand.
Using Google Maps And Internet Research
Google Maps, in all its forms (Simple Maps, Terrain Maps & Satellite Maps) is an essential tool when leaving the European world of excellent German cycle tour mapping. By looking at cycle touring blog website and reading how other cyclists rode across a landscape (for example, Georgia & Armenia), we are able to get some ideas about how we would do it. It is always great when the cycle touring bloggers post maps, photos and are honest about any cycling horror stories, such as dog attacks, being pushed off the road by huge lorries or lack of places to sleep. We also look at cycle tour travel agency sites to get some inspiration for ride routes. although often their routes include long stretches where the bikes are carried in a vehicle.
Using Google Maps, we can plot a route in 50 mile sections, looking for a night stay place within a rideable distance from the previous night. The night stay place might be a hotel (or apartment) in a town or a campsite or a reasonable place where we might find a good wild camping spot.
The “Simple Map” helps with identifying good roads to ride (i.e. not motorways) and searching for accommodation. The “Simple Maps” are the easiest to use when plotting a route. Just let Google do the route plotting using the “Directions” button and it will give you the exact number of kilometres. We usually use the “walking” or “cycling” (if available) mode of transport to find directions, as the “car” mode will route you along busy roads. But the “car” mode will avoid unpassable dirt tracks. Routes can then be “dragged” to fit our preferences for quiet roads. All of this route planning is crucial in countries like Armenia, Georgia, India & Iran.
The “Terrain Map” helps with identifying valleys to follow and easier mountain passes. By showing the mountains and rivers in relief, one can get an overview of the landscape, helping to find the easiest route to cross a country, even if this means cycling some extra kilometres (days) to avoid a particularly big range of mountains, by looping around them.
The “Satellite Map”, by zooming into the maximum magnification, helps with seeing how much traffic (particularly big lorries) is on a road and hopefully what the road surface is like, for instance, is it tarmac or a dirt track ? It can be difficult to differentiate between tarmac and dirt roads, even when zoomed to the maximum magnification. Difficulties arise with poor definition on Google satellite images or when roads pass through wooded areas or are tree lined, one just cannot see the surface. Then one looks to see if there are any vehicles on the road at all… a totally empty road, mile after mile, is not a good sign !!! This is really important, as one could cycle tens of kilometres down a road that appears to link Place A with Place B, only to find that the tarmac road suddenly ends and turns into a deserted, rough dirt track in the middle of nowhere with no one on it, and possibly in a dry hot desert or a jungle area with roaming leopards and Indian hunting dogs.
For extra help, the “Street View” photos that people have posted on Google Maps can give some additional information about the quality of the roads, although the exact GPS co-ordinates of a posted photo is not always accurate and often you will find pictures of someone home or their shop or garden. Where the full “Google Street View” is available, mainly in Europe, it is very easy to see the road quality and how much traffic there is.
We save our found routes to “Google My Maps”. PLEASE NOTE….you need a GMail account to use the “Google My Maps” tool or to view a shared map on “Google Maps”. From here we can access them on a mobile phone or an iPad, with an internet connection. We can share them with other cyclists who we ride with, such as when we cycled around Iran. And most importantly export the map as a “KML” or “KMZ” file from Google My Maps to Garmin BaseCamp, so that they can be loaded onto our Garmin device. We always map out each day ride, so that we end up with a set of daily ride GPS tracks on the Garmin, rather than one huge GPS track for the whole route. The Garmin GPS, like us, can easily deal with one day at a time, rather than processing the whole 21 days of rides in one processing bite.
Using Garmin Edge Touring GPS
We bought a Garmin Edge Touring GPS computer as a joint Christmas present in December 2015. This is a basic and simple Garmin GPS cycle computer, with a great colour touch screen, a day long battery life and a pre-loaded Europe cycling map. It is a “simple” Garmin device, but only in terms of not having any cycle fitness widgets such as bluetooth/wireless connections, measuring heart rate, pedal cadence or sporting performance; we do not need this, just a good navigation device. This model has now been superseded with a slightly flashier model that connects to your mobile phone, but sacrificing some battery life.
The real beauty of the Garmin is that you can load opensource “Open Street Maps” onto it for anywhere in the world. These opensource maps are usually free, with a voluntary donation to the Open Street Map project, if you want to support it. There are some sites that sell maps, for a small fee, where someone has developed the original opensource maps, adding extra features such as detailed contours or better quality cartography. The “Open Street Maps” that cover Europe have cycling route layers on them, showing the local, national and Eurovelo cycle routes.
I (Tim) use a MacBook laptop with the Garmin BaseCamp software. Using this set-up, I can download the “Open Street Maps” into BaseCamp for any country that we visit and then install the maps onto our Garmin. Once the base map is installed, I import the KMZ routes files from Google My Maps into BaseCamp. Here the routes are converted into GPX files, so that they can be transferred on to the Garmin. Once the Garmin is loaded, we have a GPX file to follow for each day of our ride, labelled as DAY01, DAY02, DAY03 etc.
So, out on the road, every morning we switch on the Garmin and follow the route all day. 95% of the time this works incredibly well. The first time we used the Garmin was in Rajasthan (2016), where the little GPS guided us from Kota Junction Railway Station, across the city and through the narrow bazaar streets and alley ways to our hotel.
When the Garmin navigation fails it is because of choosing a route from Google Maps that is an unrideable dirt track or a horrible busy road filled with trucks or where a road has been closed or completely dug up for re-building (this happens in India). Then it is back to drawing board, asking local advice, looking at Google Maps again and out trusty Map Out App (see below).
Here are some useful links to websites where you can find “Open Street Maps”…
Map Out App on Apple IOS
So we have the Garmin, with the planned GPX tracks to follow; we can access Google Maps with the internet, so why do we need yet more maps ? Because having an offline, good quality map on an iPhone, with our GPS location displayed is the ultimate reassurance. When the route planning on Google Maps, researched in the virtual world of our Somerset home, comes undone somewhere in the middle of nowhere because the Google Map route has followed some rutted track that only tractors use, we need a map at hand to plan an alternative route. In remote areas there is no mobile internet connection (or outside of EU free data roaming), so Google Maps is useless. This is when having an accurate offline map on a smart phone is a must have tool.
The must have mapping tool on an iPhone is the Map Out….
The maps are simply beautiful with contours and a 3D view. You can show overlays of cycle routes (including mountain bike trails), hiking trails, public transport and even winter sports. You can import GPX tracks, so I (Tim) send all the Garmin GPX files to my iPhone Map Out account, so that we can follow the planned route on both the Garmin and the iPhone. The beauty of Map Out is that I can download (with internet access) unlimited free map tiles (anywhere in the world) for the area we will be cycling through. Then, without internet, we have a map to navigate and/or reroute our path with.
All of the above would be great, but there is much more…
- We can use the app on the iPad for much bigger map display
- The app will display the profile of the route, so that we can see the climbs and descents
- We can see when we are at the top of a mountain pass
- We can see how much further we are due to ride to a town or the night stay
- We can use the maps to find a “short cut” or detour from our planned route, if the day’s ride is getting difficult
- You can draw a new route on the iPhone with your finger, see the distances and elevations, and then save it to use later
- The cycle route overlay in Europe is great for planning adhoc day rides or changes to our plans. We used this when we extended our ride from Budapest to Lake Balaton
The Map Out app costs £4.99. A true bargain.
If you are using Android, try using Locus App, as this is the best Android offline app that I have seen….
Having a reliable, good quality offline map is an absolute must have navigation tool.