The Beginner’s Guide to Designing a Cycle Route

Tired of cycling the same old routes, and ready to broaden your horizons? Then this post if for you! This is a long and detailed guide, so set some time aside to read all of it.

What makes a good cycle route?

Ask 100 cyclists that, and you’ll get 100 different answers. However, there will be a huge amount of common ground, and that starts simply with this: a route that mixes with cars as little as possible. I’ve cycled in heavy traffic, in a number of different cities and would prefer a traffic-free route pretty much every time!

The reason is easy to understand. Mixing with traffic can turn cycling into a survival exercise, when it can (and should be!) so much more. On the other hand, cycling a traffic-free route can be pure bliss, or (like the Camel Trail on a warm and sunny day during the school holidays) it can be so choked with people that cycling becomes almost impossible.

The secret lies in finding a balance.

Much depends on you

If you do mountain biking, you’d describe the recently-renovated downhill tracks at Fort William as very good. However, if you were into road cycling, you might describe that as awful and terrifying.

Obviously, you need to have an idea beforehand what kind of cycling you want to do. As WillCycle is heavily focused on cycle touring, this guide is aimed at creating a good cycle touring route, but the same principles can be applied to other types of riding.

Limiters

You will have various limiters in your life that will impact on what type of cycle routes you can tackle. We’ll look at all these below.

Time

You can get another bike, you can get more money, but you have a set and absolutely limited amount of time available. As a result, time becomes your first, and most important limiter.

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That could be because of limited annual leave, limits due to family (or other) responsibilities. The cause doesn’t matter, but the limit matters a great deal. In most basic terms, none of us really can go cycle touring for longer time than we have available. Time becomes your currency, and you need to spend it wisely!

Money

There’s no question about it – money is a limiter. Even if you wild camp all the way (like I prefer to do) you still need to eat! That’s in addition to the cost of the bike (if you don’t already own it) as well as any camping gear.

If you wanted to go cycle around the world, you will either need thousands of Pounds available to finance your adventure, or you need to have a way to earn money during the trip.

Health

I use health quite loosely here, and for our purposes, it includes your physical fitness. Of course, many people suffer from various other health problems, too. All of these can and will impact on the sort of route you design.

Deciding on the route

For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll look at designing a route between Skipton and Kirkby Stephen, crossing much of the Yorkshire Dales. That’s a ride of less than 70 miles, but being in the Dales, it’s a tad lumpy. If you’re not used to cycling up hills, it would feel a lot further than just 70 miles!

Here are the reasons why I chose that route:
For starters, I’ve never visited the Yorkshire Dales, but everyone tells me how beautiful an area it is. Secondly, the start and end are on the same train line, making it easy to turn the route into a train-assisted loop. Remember, we want to make it as easy as possible to get to the start, and get back home afterwards, and I’m a huge fan of combining cycling with trains.

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The benefit of trains

When you pick a possible route, try and create a circular route, as that makes logistics so much easier. As an alternative, look at using trains to turn a linear route into a loop.

Despite being a fan of combining trains with cycling trips, I’m quite aware of the challenges of doing so. Not all train operators are equal, and some are simply very anti-cycling. Because of that, I compiled a useful and detailed guide about taking your bicycle on the train in the UK, and I strongly suggest you go read that first.

Variation

A good route offers variation. That might mean changing from urban to rural scenery, or it could mean changing from tar to gravel. Ideally, you also want a mix between flat and hilly, and between wooded and open landscapes.

For bonus points, throw interesting places to visit along the way into the mix. These could vary from scenic view points, to castles, or simply a spectacular tree.

Now we know our start and end points…

Once you know your start and end points, it’s time to visit the map. For me, that always means RideWithGPS! There are many valid reasons why all the mapping on WillCycle is done on RideWithGPS.

RideWithGPS has many superb features. This isn’t a how-to, aimed at teaching you how to use the site, but I will point out some features. For starters, you can change the map displayed, while building the route. You can switch between various maps, including Google satellite view, and even drop directly into Streetview (where available)!

The routing engine used by RideWithGPS is really good, and designing a route can be as simple as clicking on the start, selecting cycling (walking or driving are options, too), selecting follow roads and clicking the end point. In fact, I suggest you do that, and have a look at what RideWithGPS mapped for you.

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The add-ons

With longer routes, I like to look at the wider area, to see if there are specific places or landmarks that I may want to visit, then I’ll modify the route accordingly. RideWithGPS offers a global heatmap option, allowing you to see roads that are popular with other cyclists. While that’s useful, more important is avoiding roads that are not popular with other cyclists! Such roads tend to be nasty for cycling, and we want as pleasant a route as possible.

When switching the map to Open Cycle Map, you’ll see National Cycle Network routes marked on the map (if your route is in the UK) and often your route can be improved by following these. However, don’t blindly trust NCN routes, as some of them are superb, while others are simply awful.

Don’t forget about cafés or pubs along the route – it’s often worth diverting for a good place to eat.

Here’s the route!

I said above I’ll look at designing a route between Skipton and Kirkby Stephen, and I’ve done so. If you go and ride this route, please let me know what you think of it, and how it can be improved?
Here’s the interactive map of the route, from which you can also download the GPX of the route.

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