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. But 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 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. So you'll need to research the best 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 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, traffic volumes, or riding surfaces you'd rather avoid.
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, etc. 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, click the cyclist icon. You'll usually get a 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.
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.
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 whatever. You might write off some route options entirely.
After you've explored your options, pick your favourite and then look for opportunities to finesse it. You might be able to avoid a bit 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 got a good route to work, do a dry 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 easy pace. This gives you a benchmark time within which you know you can comfortably do the journey. If you're ever running late in future, 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.
You'll 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.
Bike Hub Journey Planner
Met Office Weather
Turn you smartphone into a cycle computer and log everything from speed and distance to calories expended and height gained.
Free (Elite version £7.99). iPhone
Fill That Hole
Rain showers are inevitable in the UK. Here’s a selection of tips to keep you safe and dry throughout the year.
Changing your bike’s handlebar position can take only a few minutes yet transform your cycling comfort. Here’s how to do it.
Give your back a rest! With the right equipment you can fit panniers to a bike that isn’t designed to take them.