Route planning for cycle touring beginners

Route planning is one of the first steps you do when you decide you go cycle touring. Without knowing where you’re going, what’s the infrastructure, climate etc, you can’t pack well can you?

We will start with some tips which routes or countries we find the most suitable for somebody who has never sat on bicycle for longer period of time. Of course we will suggest only places we do have personal experience with so if you think there are other fantastic places, please comment below to let others know.

What are the ideal characteristics of a beginner cycle touring route?

  1. safety (and we mean road safety, not what you have seen in the news)
  2. appropriate for cyclist’s endurance level
  3. beautiful landscapes/points of interest
  4. easy for camping or staying in the paid accommodation
  5. availability of public transport short cuts if needed
  6. bike shops on the way
  7. easy to get water and food frequently

Recommended places and routes where to lose your cycle touring virginity

Europe

We will always promote Europe as a great place to start with cycle touring. We lost our virginity on the Danube route (more precisely, from Prague to Linz and we joined the Danube all the way to Bratislava). Most of the European cycle routes are on the very small roads or separated from the traffic! How awesome is that for a beginner. Also the drivers respect cyclists from our experience and give them space. There are campgrounds available, lots of warmshowers hosts, water is easily available and you can drink from the tap. Europe has got great rail network. You can choose from super flat river routes (Danube), river routes through the mountains that are bit more challenging (Inn, Enns in Austria) or mountain passes in Swiss Alps and Dolomiti. Plus the great signposting. If you follow a certain route, most of the time you don’t need a map!

Some sources to choose from:

EUROVELO – is a network in development. Once finished it will be over 70 000 kms of cycling routes. When you go on the website and click on the number of the route, you will see on the map, how much of the actual route is completed and which part is still under development. You can easily combine between them.

Austrian cycle routes – if you want super special experience, without hassle, great infrastructure, amazing landscapes, go for Austria. This website will help you choose your first cycle touring route. Austrians know how to do this stuff. I remember until today, our first crossing of the border to Austria in 2010. We entered Oberosterreich, land of rolling hills and opened garages (no locking at all), magical place. So many cycle paths, beautiful Alps and you are following one of the many Austrian rivers. We cycled through Austria almost on every journey in the next years, always on different routes.

Sustrans – because we lived in the UK for three years before our journey, we tried some of the Sustrans routes as well. New Forest, Isle of Wight, Cotswolds,  Snowdonia, Cairngorms. It’s not such chilled cycling on cycle paths like in Austria but it offers pretty landscapes and good infrastructure too. Beware the steep roads! After we cycled 2500 metres mountain passes, we thought we could handle UK. Oh boy, how we suffered on some of those short and steep hills.

North America

When we saw a cycle route sign on three lane highway between Nanaimo and Victoria on Vancouver Island, we couldn’t believe it :). But you can find better experiences in this part of the world too.

Icefields Parkway – it’s not a cycle path but the road has got a good shoulder and if you don’t do it in the high season with thousands of campervans, it’s even suitable for a beginner. There are two major mountain passes but the incline is doable. We’d recommend doing it off season also because of campground availability. If you’re doing just that and know few months in advance your dates, book the campgrounds. Otherwise you may end up being dependent of people willing to share their spot with you.

Adventure Cycling Association offers maps of 47 283 miles of cycle routes in the US. Though not the ones we expected. Following one of the routes (Lewis Clark) we ended up on a really busy road without a shoulder, while the other option was to cross Columbia river to get on the Interstate. That’s not something we’d recommend to a beginner. Obviously there’s Great Mountain Bike Divide where you can be without the cars, only with bears 😉 but let’s stick to pavement at this moment. In all honesty we have to tell you this, as much as we loved the variable landscapes of the States. USA as we experienced it (you can check the route in our map), is not for beginners. The drivers are not overly excited to see cyclists on the road which is the main dealbreaker for us to recommend it to beginners. We’re sure there are some shorter local routes that will take you on some side roads/ cycle paths but you have to actively search for it on the map or ask locals. There are some nice but very short surprises on the way like cycle path around western part of Lake Tahoe or just after Cascade Locks to Portland there’s a short strech of cycle path that will please you with 2 flights of stairs pushing your loaded bike up :))). When you have some experience and aren’t afraid of hills, we can recommend Loneliest Road in America that has got nice shoulder and little traffic. But more than ten mountain passes and it requires carrying a lot of water on some stretches so please don’t ride through the desert in summer.

Mexico doesn’t offer much for the beginners either. For the people who have some experience already, we would say Baja California. Some will argue that the condition of the main highway through it is terrible which is definitely true in some places and there’s a lot of traffic. We cycled it in November/December which is already high season and we can’t complain about traffic at all. Yes, there are trucks but they will wait until the road is clear and then overtake you going completely into the opposite lane. As most of the normal cars will do. After the USA it was such a surprise. We recommend you not to start in Tijuana but Mexicali because Highway 5 has been recently renovated with beautiful wide shoulder and minimal traffic (apart from last 40 kms before joining the hwy 1 which is dirt, rideable on the touring bike).

Ok, so you picked a country/countries and what now? What we normally do is that we roughly plot the route into the google maps just to give us very rough estimate of kilometres and we can plan how many days it would take us on average. The rest is on the road planning and talking to locals.

In case you are on a short tour, paper maps are perfectly suitable and sometimes you can get them from tourist offices for free. If you are on a longer tour and don’t want to carry tons of paper maps, these are the apps that work for us or our friend Chris from Switzerland who’s cycling from Alaska to Patagonia.

Apps for “on the road” route planning

UPDATED 2019

Mapy.cz

PROS: Our favourite one in Central America. Shows elevation profile even for a car route. Shows contour lines. Easy to navigate.

CONS: the offline database of services is limited compared to google maps as is the search

Google maps

PROS: When online, gives you info about cycling routes, elevation profile, all the usual google stuff you may need (restaurants, accommodation, bomberos, Cruz Roja, addresses of course). Street view is a nice feature when you want to check how the actual road looks like – traffic, shoulder, quality.

CONS: Limited features offline (you can download maps in advance) – no cycling option in planning a route, limited search points.

Maps.me

PROS: Does a great job offline, showing you the elevation profile and gives you route suggestion (here the cons come as well)

CONS: When it suggests a route, it’s quite hard to force it to give you the info for the route you prefer. It avoids highways so much that it’s willing to send you on a 150km loop instead of 20km stretch of a highway. Limited amount of route points. Doesn’t give you elevation profile for the car option (which is the way how you could potentially avoid crazy bike route suggestions).

Orux maps

PROS: Contour lines, elevation profile even for the car route, works offline.

CONS: It’s definitely not an app for non-technical person. You need few evenings in the tent to work out how it works :).

We hope you’re now again more confident and will put our tips into practice. Until the next time then! And what we’re going to talk about? Who knows but for sure something useful from the cycle touring world 🙂

cycle touring in Mexico. turtle next to a cyclist's foot on the road.

Follow Luba Lapsanska:

Older woman, 33 years old, experienced. She stopped being a doctor and started being a traveller. She likes animals more than people because they don't lie. She also likes looking at the the world through the viewfinder of her camera.

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