Planning a route that best suits you and your bike will pay dividends every day. Here's how to go about it.
Updated May 2019
When we're heading to work in the morning, most of us go with the flow – the traffic flow. That's okay in a car, where the biggest roads into and through towns and cities are usually the best option.
On a bike, you generally want the opposite: the small roads, backstreets, and cycle tracks that motor vehicles can't or don't use. Such routes are quieter and less stressful. They have cleaner air. They can also be just as quick, even when they're longer, as they avoid congestion and traffic lights.
The problem is that cycle-friendly routes aren't always signposted, and the exact route from your house to your work never is. This means you'll need to research the best safe bike route yourself. It's worth doing even if you're an experienced cycle commuter; you might discover shortcuts or alternatives you never knew existed.
Your Ideal Bike Commute
Everyone wants a commute that's relatively comfortable and doesn't take too long, but different cyclists have different criteria.
What's most important to you?
And what bike will you be riding?
A born-again cyclist might want to avoid a busy road that doesn't greatly bother the experienced roadie. A heavy cyclist on a 3-speed roadster may skirt the hills the e-bike rider scoffs at. For a mountain biker or cyclocrosser, a section of bridleway might be brilliant fun - but it could be impassable on a compact folder.
Keep your ideal commuting conditions in mind. Don't fall into the trap of automatically picking the shortest route between home and work. It might have gradients, high traffic volumes, or riding surfaces you'd rather avoid.
Planning Your Cycling Commute
Routes are easiest to research digitally, but let's start with the old school option: a paper map. Forget road atlases and A-to-Zs; they're designed for drivers. For rural commutes, 1:25,000-scale Ordnance Survey Explorer maps are more useful. As well as showing smaller roads in detail, they display other cycling rights of way such as bridleways and traffic-free cycle tracks, along with topography.
For urban commutes, larger-scale city maps (e.g. 1:10,000) are more practical. There's an increasing number aimed at city cyclists, displaying cycle tracks, roads with cycle lanes, quieter roads, and so on. The Sustrans map shop is your best bet for these.
Once you've got your paper map, simply draw over promising-looking routes with a highlighter pen. Online route planners do this job for you: you just type in your journey's start and end points. The CycleStreets Journey Planner is particularly good as you can choose between 'fastest', 'quietest' and 'balanced' cycling options.
While its routes are often less cycle-friendly, Google Maps is handy too - just click the cyclist icon. You'll usually get two or three options.
Both of these online route planners provide turn-by-turn instructions you can print out. Better yet, download a smartphone app to get sat-nav instructions on your handlebar. (Google Maps does this. For CycleStreets, you'll want the Bike Hub Journey Planner – see Essential Apps.)
Be sure to plot your route from work to home as well as from home to work, as this may be different due to one-way streets, difficult junctions, or hills.
British Cycling has created the ‘Commute Smart’ series; a collection of short videos that tackle common commuter questions and provide handy advice for staying safe on two wheels.
British Cycling gives 5 practical points to consider when planning your commute route. Our favourite is number 3, ‘ask a cyclist’. The cyclists in your office have a wealth of knowledge and are your best source of advice. They know the routes to take (and avoid!), where the best bike parking is, and can help you find a cycle route that works for you. Checkout the video and find out all 5 tips for planning your commute route.
Is your commute to long to cycle the whole way?
Why not consider completing part of the journey by train, or making use of your city's park and ride facilities?
Time to get on your commuter bike and test-ride the routes. It's much, much easier to follow your route options if you can fix your map/instructions/smartphone to your bike's handlebar or stem.
For a map or printed instructions, you'll want a 'map trap' or a handlebar bag with a transparent map pocket on top; your local bike shop should be able to order either. For a smartphone, there are lots of bike mounts to choose from; Quad Lock is a good one.
Alternatively, apps like Google Maps will read turn-by-turn instructions to you via headphones, saving you the need to constantly look at a map. This is a great way to learn a route; just try and notice any distinct features and landmarks to help you remember the route faster.
If you can't see your map/instructions/phone on the go, be prepared to stop often to check. That shouldn't be a problem as it's best to reconnoitre your routes when you're not on the clock – at the weekend, for example (even though that won't give you the best picture of peak-time traffic flows).
Take notes as necessary, writing directly onto your map/instructions or recording comments on your smartphone. That way you won't forget if a certain stretch of the route has dangerous potholes, or would be too muddy when wet, or lacks streetlights, or so on.
After you've explored your options, pick your favourite and then look for opportunities to finesse it. You might be able to avoid a section of busy road by pushing your bike for a few yards, for example, or by taking a different backstreet.
The Dry Run
Now that you've picked out a good route to work, do a practice run .
No diversions, no research, no stops to take notes. Just ride from home to work and back again, with all your commuting clobber with you on the bike.
Time each journey with your watch/cycle computer/smartphone. Don't race - ride at an easy pace. This gives you a benchmark time within which you know you can comfortably do the journey. If you're ever running late, you can step on it and still get to work on time.
You don't have to restrict yourself to one commuting route. Maybe you'll exploit those lighter evenings by switching to a longer route home in summer. A secluded cycle track might be ideal in daylight but feel unsafe at night. Or perhaps you'll use that bridleway only when it's dry.
If you're not confident in traffic or want to pedal to work in peace, an off-road route is an obvious solution.
Cyclists aren't restricted to congested commuter roads like car drivers. You can also use cycle tracks, towpaths, and bridleways – although not footpaths or pavements, unless you get off and push.
The quality of these off-road routes varies widely: some are impractical, others fantastic. Most are shared with pedestrians. Don't behave towards them like some drivers do towards cyclists. No one likes to be surprised by a fast moving vehicle that passes with inches to spare.
Incorporating cycle tracks, bridleways and towpaths into your journey helps make a safe bike route. Here are some tips on how to use these responsibly and effectively.
Slow down & ring your bell
You're obliged to give way to pedestrians and horse-riders on bridleways and to pedestrians on towpaths. Sustrans recommends giving way to pedestrians on shared-use cycle tracks, too.
In practice, if you announce your presence by ringing your bell - or calling out 'excuse me' or 'cyclist behind' – most pedestrians that hear you will move to one side. Give them plenty of room, don't race by, and thank them.
There's no default maximum speed on shared-use paths but you always need to be ready to slow down or stop, which will mean moderating your speed. Fast commuters may be happier on road.
Roadside cycle tracks
Roadside cycle tracks are often pavements that have been divided with a white line. Stick to the cycling side but be aware that pedestrians may step onto your side without warning.
Roadside cycle tracks have lots of junctions with side roads. Instead of having priority, like the road the track runs alongside, you'll face repeated give way lines. This slows your journey and can increase risk, because junctions are where the majority of cycling accidents occur.
Having two junctions close together – main road/side road and side road/cycle track – doesn't improve matters. Be vigilant!
Roadside cycle tracks also have dropped kerbs where they meet roads. This is okay if you hit the lip square on. Where an on-road cycle lane diverts off-road, you may hit the lip at an acute angle… and crash. Cross it at a more perpendicular angle or pull up on the handlebar to lift the front wheel over the lip.
The surface of roadside cycle tracks is seldom as good as the road nearby. Debris doesn't get 'swept' to the side by the wash of car tyres like it does on road, so you may end up riding over anything. It's unlikely to be gritted either.
Some roadside cycle tracks have street furniture awkwardly embedded, such as signposts, streetlights, bollards, or bus shelters. Take care! Search online for 'crap cycle lanes' to find some stunningly bad examples.
Other cycle tracks
Cycle tracks away from roads often follow the course of old railway lines that were ripped up in the 1960s. Rail's loss is cycling's gain. These tracks, which are always shared-use, have gentle gradients and, crucially for commuting cyclists, take direct routes into cities and towns.
Surface quality varies. Some are tarmac, some crushed stone, others hard-packed earth. The rougher the surface, the more you'll benefit from fatter tyres and bigger wheels; think cyclo-cross bikes, touring bikes, or more rugged hybrids.
Many cycle tracks are unlit, so you might be uncomfortable using them at night. If you do use them, you'll need good lights front and rear; not only so you can see but so that pedestrians and other cyclists can see you.
Cycling along bridleways and towpaths
Towpaths have the same advantage as old rail routes: they're designed to link towns and cities so don't take you miles out of your way. Have a look at the Canal and River Trust website to see the extent of the network, and for advice on using them.
Bridleways are intended for horse riders, as the name implies. If they're heavily used by horses, the surface can be awful for cycling – particularly after heavy rain. If it's been wet, be prepared to walk sections and make sure you have a change of clothes for work.
Cycling past animals
You will encounter dog walkers on shared-use paths. Most owners are responsible and will call their dog to heel. Sometimes the dog will be badly trained and may wander in front of you, or it may be on a long, retractable lead that stretches all the way across the path…
If the dog is aggressive, you can either attempt to outpace it (risky – dogs are chase predators) or face it down. Shout 'sit', 'stay' or 'down'. If the dog attacks you, dissuade it however aggressively you deem fit; the law is on your side.
One less confrontational option is to dismount, place your bike between you and the dog, and wait for the owner. If the dog does bite you, report the incident to the police.
Horses, meanwhile, are prey animals and are very easily startled. Announce your presence to the rider early and pass wide and slow. Do not go anywhere near the horse: you don't know its temperament or the rider's ability, and a kick from a horse can put you in hospital – or worse.
Most of the time, of course, travel on off-road routes is stress free, simply because everyone can talk to each other. You meet people, not traffic.
Whatever route you decide to cycle to work, remember that you’re going to spend hours and hours riding to and from work over the course of a year, so it's worth investing a little time now to make this as pleasant as it can be. Most commuters endure their journeys; on a bike, you can enjoy them.