One of the great things about road cycling is being able to just grab your bike and helmet and hit the road, making up your route depending on how you feel.
But while sometimes you’ll end up zipping along a lovely quiet country lane, other times you’ll find yourself stuck in a snarl-up at the traffic lights and wishing you’d done a bit more planning.
Presuming you don’t know the roads around you like the back of your hand, here are some tips on how to plan a cycling route.
1. Avoid A-roads
Bicycles might be allowed on most of the roads in the UK apart from motorways, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to head out and mix it with the lorries and speeding sales reps on your local dual carriageway.
Even single carriageway A roads can be unpleasant places to cycle, with higher speed limits and better visibility meaning that vehicles are whizzing past your elbow at 60mph-plus.
Instead try to restrict your routes to the quieter B roads – which usually have lower speed limits or a road layout that keeps speeds down. The best roads for cycling are often the quiet back lanes that have been made redundant for most cars by quicker roads, meaning they’re gloriously free of traffic.
2. Steer clear of traffic lights
Traffic lights can be a headache, especially when you find yourself stop-starting at a sequence of them
When we’re driving we don’t have particularly strong feelings one way or the other about traffic lights, but once we’re on a bike they can be a real headache – especially when you find yourself stop-starting at a sequence of them.
So instead of plotting a route through the town centre or the suburbs, where you are likely to find yourself stopping every few minutes – try to skirt around the edge of town instead – even if it means adding a little extra distance to your journey.
3. Avoid schools at leaving time
Rush hour is obviously the worst time of day to head out for a bike ride, but the period from 2.45 to 3.30pm isn’t far behind when it comes to congestion.
If you’re lucky enough to get out for a weekday spin, try to avoid riding past schools – because they’re likely to be swarmed by flustered parents and inattentive kids, increasing the danger of a mishap as well as a traffic jam.
4. Scope it out on Google Maps
Google Maps is an invaluable tool when you’re putting a route together, allowing you to identify promising-looking roads and steer clear of busy routes and towns.
Be warned – not all the “roads” that appear on the screen are paved
It’s particularly good for finding quiet back lanes – which often only pop up when you zoom right in on the area you’re travelling through.
But be warned – not all the “roads” that appear on the screen are paved, with some having surfaces more fitting for a rockery than the Queen’s highway.
Flick the view onto “satellite” and zoom in for telltale signs such as a green strip down the centre of the road or a pile of rocks in place of tarmac.
How do we know this? Our fancy carbon-soled riding shoes still bear the scars from the time we had to climb half a mile up a stoney bridleway.
5. Keep an eye on the route profile
Many route-building tools, such as Google Maps, allow you to keep track of the distance you’re planning to cover – and it can be all too easy to underestimate how far you’ll be going along those winding country lanes.
It’s the hills that will really hurt you if you’re not prepared for them
It’s also just as important to keep an eye on the ascent included in your route – because it’s the hills that will really hurt you if you’re not prepared for them.
If the first third of your ride looks like a Toblerone bar in profile, you might want to consider switching direction so that you’re not shattered for the remaining two thirds.
6. Stay off exposed roads when it’s windy
Rain can be unpleasant, but with the right clothing and some decent mudguards a perverse satisfaction can be gained from riding in the wet.
Roads lined with trees can offer valuable shelter, but be wary of gaps, which can suddenly expose you to fierce crosswinds
However, we’ve never met a cyclist who is anything but terrified by riding in high winds, especially when the conditions are gusty.
If you need to ride when it’s windy, we’d recommend staying off exposed roads – especially when they’re also likely to be busy with traffic.
Roads lined with hedges and trees can offer valuable shelter, but be wary of gaps in fences or walls, which can suddenly expose you to fierce crosswinds.
7. Be aware of wind direction
The wind isn’t all bad of course. It feels amazing when you get to ride a nice fast bit of road with a tailwind – and you just know that a lot of those King of the Mountain times on cycle tracking app Strava were set with a helping hand from Mother Nature.
Don’t get too carried away, remember you’re going to have to pedal back into a headwind later
But if you start your ride and find yourself effortlessly zipping along with a stiff tailwind, don’t get too carried away – and remember that you’re going to have to pedal back into a headwind later.
Many cyclists prefer to get the hard work out of the way at the start of the ride and then enjoy an easy ride home, so consider switching the direction of your route and setting off into the headwind.