How to Plan a Road Biking Route

Published on 05/13/2023 · 5 min readWant to make sure your next road biking adventure goes as planned? Cycling Expert Nat Smucker outlines how to plan your next route for a smooth experience!
Nat Smucker, Cycling Expert
By Cycling Expert Nat Smucker

Photo by Oscar Aguilar Elias

Did you just purchase your first road bike? Or are you new in town and looking to kill a couple of hours? Maybe you’ve ridden the same 20-mile loop every day for the past two years and are itching for fresh scenery. Whichever category best describes you, planning a road bike ride can be a daunting prospect.

The good news is, the days of spreading out a map on your dining room table and randomly drawing a route are long gone. Now there are many tools to help you plan an itinerary that is safe, fun, and suitable for whatever kind of ride you want. Read on to find out how to make your next ride your best ride!

Determine Your Ride Type

Photo by Nat Smucker

Before planning your ride, a few decisions need to be made:

1. Surface

These days, a “road” takes a lot of different forms. Are you sticking to the pavement? Perhaps you want to include a couple of gravel, singletrack, or cobbled sections? Do you live near mountain bike trails that serve as a shortcut on the way back? Today’s “all-road” bikes (and even some pure road ones) are more than capable of handling a bit of dirt and gravel. Depending on what kind of bike you have, there are many options.

2. Distance

A 15-mile spin around the neighborhood is very different to plan than a 200-mile epic adventure. Your choice determines how long the ride will take, the amount of water and food you need to bring, and if it fits with any work, personal or family obligations on the program.

3. Stops

A mid-ride cafe stop is a century-old tradition thanks to our European cycling friends. It is a chance to refuel, rest, and rehydrate for the rest of your ride. But it does not have to be the only stop. Do you want a mid-ride dip at the swimming hole, a donut from your favorite bakery, or your last stop to be that new micro-brewery? Then these destinations are key points along your ride. Add them from the start.

4. Destination

And finally, where does your ride end? Normally, your start and finish point is the same, whether it’s your house or a nearby park/trailhead. But a one-way route is a great way to take in fresh scenery! Get a friend to drop you off a couple of towns over, or have your spouse or partner meet you an hour away for dinner at a restaurant you want to try.

Map Your Route

Screenshot from Strava. Courtesy of Nat Smucker

With these things in mind, it’s time to map out your route! It can be tough to keep track of distance, surface type, or how safe a road is (is there heavy traffic, a bike lane, or large shoulder?). Today’s web-based mapping tools make this task much easier. Apps with route builders like Strava, Komoot, Garmin Connect, Ride with GPS, and more do this work for you.

They suggest roads to use, track distance and elevation, and even highlight popular segments, cafes, or parks to visit! Strava’s route builder lets you type in your desired distance, elevation profile, and surface type. The result is three suggested routes from your current location based on millions of previous user activity.

These mapping tools allow you to click and drag the route to add shortcuts or detours so you do not miss any desired pit stops. Create a dream route that checks all your boxes. Whichever app you use, test it a few times to perfect it.

Practice planning a variety of routes and become a route-building pro in no time. Each one you create is automatically stored in your personal ride library. You can even add detailed information to the notes. This means no more sitting around before your next ride, trying to decide which route to take.

Crowdsource a Route

Photo by Nat Smucker

Does the previous section sound like a lot of work? The web tools listed above make it virtually effortless to share and copy routes from friends and other riders. If you heard someone bragging about a killer ride they went on, ask them for the GPX file!

Maybe your Strava-segment-nemesis recently did a unique route you’re dying to try? Or if you missed last month’s charity ride or Gran Fondo, it’s almost certainly published on the web. Just download the GPX file and go for it!

If your family vacation is coming up and you want to get away and ride for a few hours, it is the perfect opportunity to scope out a new route! My favorite method is to find Facebook cycling groups or riders from where I am going and ask for route recommendations.

Cyclists are friendly and usually more than happy to share a Garmin Connect route map or the favorite local loop with you. They may even offer to ride with you when you are in town! Nothing beats a tried-and-tested ride, and this is the perfect way to find one.

Following Your Route

The last ride I ever used handwritten directions taped to my bike - good riddance! Photo by Nat Smucker

Now that you have planned the perfect ride, it is time to hit the road! All that careful plotting may go to waste if you do not have a good way to stick to your route and avoid getting lost.

You could go old-school and tape directions to your top tube or handlebar. But what happens if you lose your directions or wet weather ruins the text? There is always your phone, but do you want to drain your battery and risk not having enough life left to snap a perfect picture for social media at the end of a long ride?

GPS units are more affordable than ever, so there is no excuse for getting lost on a ride! My preferred choice is the Garmin Edge 530. It has a slim profile, color screen, and integrates easily with my other Garmin gear.

However, any GPS-enabled unit will do to keep you on your route and display data like speed, cadence, and maybe even your power output. Mapped route files are simple to transfer between computers and phones to your GPS head unit. Just press start as you head out the door!

Whatever ride you are going on and however you planned it, quality gear makes every ride better, safer, and more fun!

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