Don’t follow road atlases, TomTom instructions, the mental map of your local area you built up behind the wheel of a car, or most road signs: cycling geography is different from driving geography. On a bike, you want the roads with the lowest speed limits and the least traffic, along with rights of way that drivers can’t use at all, such as cycle tracks.
Sometimes the best routes for bikes have their own blue signs, guiding you to the town centre or the train station or wherever. A route between your home and your workplace may intersect them, and it’s worth trying them out if it does. More often you’ll have to plan the whole route yourself.
Digital research – given that you’re online now – costs nothing. Google Maps works for cyclists, so long as you click the bike icon when you type in your starting point and destination. Google’s recommended routes are getting better, but will still sometimes pitch you onto a busy road. A more reliable option – although it’s worth trying both – is CycleStreets. Since it’s created by and continually added to by cyclists, it reflects the journeys that cyclists actually make. The routes it generates thus tend to more cycle-friendly, especially if you select the ‘quietest’ or ‘balanced’ options rather than the ‘fastest’ one.
Websites are fine for research, but for on-the-bike navigation a smartphone app trumps a pocketed printout. For Google Maps, the relevant app is (you guessed it) Google Maps; it might be on your phone already. It provides sat-nav style, turn-by-turn navigation. For CycleStreets, the best option is not the CycleStreets app but the Bike Hub app, which uses CycleStreets data.
Like Google Maps, the Bike Hub app gives sat-nav instructions as you ride along. There are lots of ways to attach a phone to the handlebar of your bike – Quad Lock is good. With the phone visible and, with the volume turned to maximum, audible, you can set off for work on a Monday morning with no further ado. You’ll even get an estimated journey time.
Yet it makes sense to do a dry-run when you’re not against the clock – at the weekend, for example, or on the way home. This way you’ll find out exactly how long the journey takes. You’ll also discover whether it suits you and your bike. That towpath or bridleway might make a great route on a fat-tyred mountain bike, hybrid, or cyclocross bike but be difficult on a small-wheeled folder or a road bike.
Since both Google Maps and CycleStreets generate more than one route option, try them all to see which works best for you. If you’re curious about which routes are popular among other cyclists, meanwhile, check out Strava’s heat maps. You’ll need to create a free account to zoom in to street level.
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