Tour Bikers Guide for Filthy Casuals: Route Planning and Improvization

One of the biggest questions we got throughout the trip and after was how we chose which roads to go on.  The easy answer is that we had a lot of help and we got pretty lucky.  But we did make some bad choices in this regard, especially in California at the beginning of the trip.  I want to provide you with resources to use while you are out there on the road, things to look for, things to avoid, and how to ride roads you probably shouldn’t be on without being flattened.

Before I begin I want to preface this with some disclosure about how we approached this trip.  We wanted to go our own way.  There are plenty of bike routes through this great country of ours and many maps to show you the step by step way on these routes (see the resources section below) but there are times when you want to strike out on your own course.  Whether you want to be off the beaten path for your whole trip, you’re out on a shorter ride and are no where near the planned routes, or you are trying to plan a side trip off an established route to see some sick hot springs/cliffs/cities/friends these tips will help you pick a road you want to be on and avoid ones that you don’t.  Also if you are a filthy casual like me, you will probably make a wrong turn somewhere along the way and these are the things I kept in mind to keep myself safe until we got back.  So lets dive in!

Deciding on Average Mileage

One of the biggest favors you can do yourself in the trip planning process is to be realistic about how far and fast you want to travel on any given day.  Our trip this past summer came out to being around ~45 miles per day and we were in the saddle an average of 4 hours a day.  This is leisurely!  When Joey rode across the country with Overland in 2008 they averaged ~80 miles a day and were in the saddle as long as it took to get the miles.  Of course you can change this at any time if you discover you over or under estimated your strength but here are some other factors to consider when trying to plan out how long your trip will take:

  1. TERRAIN: We didn’t spare ourselves any mountains on this trip.  We even did some bonus ones (LOL SAWTOOTH WHY) on the way.  You will go slower on uphill days.  Passes are so rewarding, not just for the views but the sense of accomplishment after flinging your body and all your posessions over a mountain on your own power.  BUUUUUTTTTT….on a 6% grade, we averaged about 3.5 mph.  Yup you heard that right.  Going down a grade like that you can get up to 35-40 mph but keep in mind how long the uphill mileage will take.
  2. WEIGHT: We were rolling heavy.  I didn’t weigh our gear because frankly i didn’t want to know but I was easily carrying over 100 lbs on my bike when I had all my water full.  If you are planning an ultra light trip you will cover more ground than if you wing it like us.  On average we went about 12 mph over the course of the trip.
  3. YOU AND THE GANG: Your physical fitness plays a huge role, not so much in how fast you can go but how long you can ride.  You will of course build up strength over the course of the trip (“finding your legs” they call it) but be sure to take training rides with your whole group to assess cadence and break frequency.  If you and your group like to take long siesta style lunches, be prepared to bike into the evening.  I personally am useless and cranky after 4 pm or 5 hours of riding whichever comes first.  Knowing these things about yourself helps plan more realistically.

Resources for route planning:

  1. GOOD OLD GOOGLE MAPS:  We used google maps most of the time for navigation.  There are some upsides and some downsides, mainly flexibility and real time data on the up and network unreliability and data charges on the down.  We had a solar panel to charge our phones on the road (it was a Goal Zero set up loaned to us by Alex and Zari, thanx guys!) so I wouldn’t recommend going that way unless you have a power source.  But it is a wonderful tool.  Satellite view can zoom in far enough to show you the shoulder width, although its a dangerous game to play as it could be loose sand or gravel when you get there.  If you turn on the bike maps portion (in the left hand menu like the traffic and terrain settings) it will show you a variety of bikeable roads:
    1. Bright solid green: designated bike lane
    2. Dark solid green: bike path
    3. Bright dotted green: “bike-friendly” road (this varies in quality between communities)
    4. Dark solid brown: Unpaved bike path or trail (these can be single track mountain bike trails watch out)
  2. ADVENTURE CYCLING ASSOCIATION MAPS: The ACA is a wonderful organization, based in Missoula, MT and dedicated to the promotion and expansion of bike tourism in the US.  They make maps, pioneer new routes, sell gear and organize group trips.  They have routes that you can finish in a couple weeks or take any of their 3 major cross country routes for a season long extravaganza.  They sell all their maps in hard copy on their website and have digitals available for some routes, they are working on getting it all digitized but honestly the physical map is nice to have.  They are waterproof, tear-proof, and pretty detailed.  The only downside here is that its very zoomed in, not a lot of context if you want to break route.  But the ACA also has forums on all bike related topics you can think of so I would recommend poking around their website anyway.
  3. USBRS ROUTES: So to be completely honest, Joey and I only happened upon these routes by chance.  But since returning from the trip, I have learned that there is a lot going on with the US Bicycle Route System.  The ACA has an interactive map on their website with an aggregation of the municipal and interstate bike routes on US public roads.  Check it out here.
  4. ROAD STOP HIGHWAY MAPS: We learned about these in Montana, but I have been told they exist in all states.  If you go to a state sponsored visitor center and wade through that entire wall of brochures they all have, somewhere in there you will find a FREE AND DETAILED physical highway maps.  Many of these maps have bike guidelines and traffic numbers on them so you can gage the business of your route.  These are great, highly recommend.

Now that you know where to go to get all the preplanned route tools you could ever need, let’s talk about what happens when you go off route and are looking for a work around.

Things to look for:

  1. BIKE LANES/PATHS: This sounds rudimentary but there was many a time when we were struggling up a busy hill on a state road only to crest and see a perfectly empty bike path snaking along through some scenic marsh and avoiding the hill all together.  More and more cities and counties, especially out West are putting in bike infrastructure because of new laws enacted on the federal level.  I noticed the bike paths on the road, but I heard about the laws on NPR.  God Bless you public radio. You can read more about the new federal suggestions here and about the federal laws here.  These options will increase in the future and are always the best bet for safe, un-congested travel. Like so:img_1435img_1683     img_1793
  2. DESIGNATED BIKE ROUTES: There are many roads that, while not providing really any infrastructure changes, these signs alert cars that they should expect bicyclists on this road.  It is actually amazing the difference in reception a tour biker can get on a road with a bike route or share the road sign versus an identical road without.  When people know they should be looking, most of them actually do.  Some bike routes are numbered, some are not, here are some examples of signs you might see:

    I should be clear that these routes are determined by the municipality that puts them up and may not align exactly with a route/map planned by a private organization like the ACA.  Be careful to stay on the route you want.

  3. STATE/COUNTY ROADS WITH LARGE SHOULDER:  While shoulder width can vary from place to place even on the same road, a large shoulder (about 4 feet wide usually) is a great place for a bike to be.  You can keep a couple feet between you and the white line and give yourself some peace of mind.  Bonus points if there is a rumble strip between you and car traffic.  That makes you feel better because if someone gets too close before you can see them, at least you can hear them.  Also this only applies to state and county roads.  The smaller the better.  Interstate roads, and even state roads that cross borders (and turn into other states’ state roads) can have A LOT of traffic and might lead to white knuckling and cathartic screaming. Like this:
  4. BACK ROADS WITH NO TRAFFIC: It doesn’t matter if you have a good shoulder if you have the road alllllllll to yourself.  Whenever possible we tried to take bypasses around towns and roads paralleling a large interstate.  These roads, while rarely having shoulders like I described above, have so little traffic you can ride down the middle of the lane.  Look for roads that are on the other side of the river (or other natural boundary/body of water) from a large numbered road and that is probably your best way to get to the next town.  Also in rural America a road between Johnstown and Albany will probs be called the Johnstown Albany Road.  Handy.  Do watch out for farm equipment on these types of roads, but its way easier to pull over for a reaper than be on the highway and meet the real one. ALSO don’t be afraid of dirt/gravel roads.  If you’re touring rig is set up right with some hefty tires (look forward to the gear post for more on that) it is much better to go half as fast on a gravel road and enjoy yourself than to make better time but get passed by 1 billion semis at 10-inches.  But it is true that you will go A LOT slower on gravel, also beware of dust.

Things to Avoid:

  1. ROADS WITH MORE THAN 4 LANES: Any road with more than 2 lanes in either direction is bad news in my experience.  There is too much going on, too many cars going too fast, and too little visibility of you when there’s the road is this big.  Also I have found that the more lanes there are, the less likely people are to move over to give you space.  There are more often cars boxing them in on big roads and people can’t get over to avoid you.  We only did one ill-fated, 6 lane stretch of 101 in California on our way to Laytonville and I get flashbacks to this day.  All the lanes were full and semis were buzzing by us at 60 mph about 6 inches away.  These roads also often have narrow bridges where what little shoulder they give up disappears.  Just stay away.
  2. HEAVY TRAFFIC 2 LANE ROADS (w/o a good shoulder):  These are bad for mostly the same reason.  People can’t get over to give you room, traffic can build up behind you, people get frustrated and then they get reckless.  To avoid getting flipped off, yelled at, and smoked out in addition to the danger of the road, try to avoid these.  It can be hard to tell on a map whether a road will fall into this category, or category 4 above.  A good way to check is to look at the bigger picture.  If the road you are looking to take connects an entire region or 2 small/mid-sized cities it is likely to have a lot of traffic.  If it is an indirect route or doesn’t go to any town with more than 5,000 people it will most likely be quiet.  Especially out west where things are so spread out, be sure to look at the map from the perspective of a car for this decision making process.
  3. INTERSTATES: These will usually have big rowdy “NO BICYCLISTS OR PEDESTRIAN” signs at the on ramp to warn you.  Actually the better warning is that you are using a goddamn on ramp.  If there are exit ramps, its probs too big.  This isn’t even really a safety concern, its more to not get arrested.  If a cop or trooper sees you somewhere you shouldn’t be, even if you have a great shoulder and aren’t bothering anyone, they will come after you.  You cannot outrun a cop on a fully loaded bike, don’t break laws.

Alright!  So now you have a navigation tool, and you know what to look for when you go off the book but……what happens if you really screwed the pooch and you’re balls deep in semis on a 2 lane road with heavy traffic and no shoulder in the middle of rush hour?

How to not die when you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be

  1. BAIL: If you find yourself on a road you are not comfortable with, the first and best option is to try to get off that road and find an alternative.  This is not always possible but should be your first option if you get somewhere you don’t want to be.
  2. BE VISIBLE: If you can’t leave the road, make sure people can see you from a mile away.  This will be covered more in the gear post but with the advent of fluorescent athlesiure this shouldn’t be an issue.  I had a neon green wind breaker to help with crowded roads and foggy days.  It was Pearl Izumi and the sleeves zipped off so you could have a safety vest any time you want.  I also had 2 actual safety vests!  A staple of commuter riding, the elastic, neon, reflective safety vests are so key.  I didn’t have a safety triangle do-dad for the back of my bike so I wrapped one around my bundle like an armless, fat child and buckled it in.  Get any one you want from the millions of cheap-o’s on Amazon, just make sure it is both neon and reflective.
  3. BE PREDICTABLE: This is probably the most important thing I can say.  If you just keep going in a straight line, people can avoid you more easily.  If you need to change your position on the road or cross to the left, the safest bet is to pull over to the right shoulder in a place where you can see in both directions (aka not just below the crest of a hill, etc.), point your bike where you want to go and wait for a break in the traffic.  This can be hard on steep uphill sections when all you want to do is zig zag but do your best to stay the course and you will be so much better off.

We planned about 4 different trips before we decided on the route we meant to take when we left, and then we changed it dramatically 3 more times while we were on the road.  Don’t be afraid to branch out if things aren’t working and change the route to alleviate stress, go a cooler place, or make it easier.  You do you, my friends.

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