Finding a Bike Ride

  • The Road goes ever on and on,
  • down from the door where it began.
  • Now far ahead the Road has gone,
  • And I must follow, if I can… (Tolkien)

Now, bring me that horizon. (Capt. Jack Sparrow)

A skill any adventurous cyclist needs is the ability to find the good road when they’re out of town.  The world is an endless warren of roads, varying from great to unrideable, and they all look like little black lines on the map. How do you find which ones are the best rides?

What Doesn’t Work

Internet ride-posting sites. If you google “bicycle rides Padukah” or wherever you want to ride, you’re led to huge route sites, like Mapmyride or Stava, which show us every ride every cyclist has ever done in the area, without discrimination. Swell—if I want to do 200 rides of unknown quality in the area, I’m set.

Internet road atlases, like Googlemaps. They won’t help you choose a route because they give you so much information you can’t make intelligent choices. Since they print all roads down to the smallest goat track, distinguishing only between large and small, you can’t tell the difference between the small and the tiny, the paved and the dirt, the main road and the side road. Many’s the time I’ve done a ride along an obvious route without visible forks or options, then tried to retrace the route on Googlemaps, only to discover that what was an obvious route on the planet was presented by Googlemaps as an incomprehensible warren of indistinguishable tracks.

Googlemaps has a “bicycle” setting which, in theory, will identify good bike routes. It works two ways. 1) To find the best cycling route from point A to point B, click on the “directions” icon (an arrow in a diamond), then select the bicycle icon from the top menu and enter points A and B in the route finder. This seems to work pretty well. 2) To see the recommended cycling routes in an area, go to the area, select the “menu” icon (a stack of three horizontal lines), and select the bike icon from the menu. The recommended routes will be highlighted. As far as I can tell, the reliability of this second method is random. I file Googlemaps Bicycle setting info in the Better Than Nothing file.

Best Rides lists—“The Ten Best Rides in Oregon,” etc. These are better—at least some screening is going on—but I’m rarely pleased by Best Of lists, because the criteria typically are Most Popular and Toughest. The most popular ride in any area is simply the most accessible and thus the most frequently ridden one—remember, Best Hamburger contests are always won by McDonald’s. The consensus “best ride” in my home town is a tedious slog along dead straight, dead flat roads, popular because it makes pacelining easy. And the toughest ride is typically a boring slog up an endless steep pitch.

Similarly, tips on where to ride in national cycling magazines rarely find the best rides in the area. Journalists don’t take the time to learn the area well, so they just ask the local sport representatives, who recommend the generic McDonald’s routes that everyone does. And magazines are seriously into macho over-achievement, so their recommendations are usually determined by pure hardness. A recent article in such a magazine chose the one “best ride” in each of the 50 states. Should be a pretty wonderful ride, no? Yet almost every ride was the longest, hardest climb they could find in the state. California’s “best ride” was a brutal climb amidst a sterile landscape, about 300th on my list of California rides and not among the 125 rides in Bestrides.org.

Guidebooks—“50 Road Rides in Idaho” and the like. This should be perfect—the author is knowledgeable and passionate about riding, and lots of judicious weighing and measuring has gone into the project. Yet, for reasons I can’t explain, most regional guidebooks are terrible. The great rides are simply not there. Instead are big loop routes full of shoulder riding on roads that are too big and too heavily trafficked.

Race routes and tour routes. If you’re going to do some riding in Oregon, you might think to look at the ride routes for previous iterations of Cycle Oregon, the week-long supported tour, or if you’re going to ride in California you might look at the old Tour of California, which went from the north end to the south end of the state. This doesn’t work well either. Organizers of such events have to deal with lots of issues you don’t, like, where will 3000 cyclists spend the night, which roads can accommodate 3000 bikes, and where can I get the most media exposure?  And most tour routes strive to be continuous, so by the nature of things the route ends up connecting stretches of great riding with stretches of just-OK riding. The result is that big cycling events spend a lot of time on roads that are mediocre, and you’ll rarely see the little, untraveled back roads away from everything that are the jewels of our sport.  

What Works

The local bike shop.  If you’re in a new town, walk into the local bike shop and ask an employee or a customer where the best ride is.  Don’t be shy—any cyclist who doesn’t love to talk about local rides isn’t a cyclist.  It’s like asking someone to show you their baby pictures.  Anyway, anyone working in a bike shop who isn’t wrenching on a bike at this moment has little to do (sometimes I think bike shops are actually shrines—they’re that quiet), and should be happy to chat with you about local routes. Always ask why the ride is good—not everyone’s taste is like yours.  If what you like is wooded and winding, say so. A mechanic is a better source than a salesperson, but the best source is that guy who’s standing around chatting with the mechanic because they just love hanging out in a bike shop.

Discriminating websites.  Most websites are data dumps, but many are done by one person or a small group, as a labor of love, with passion and discrimination. Typically such sites cover a small geographical area but cover it well. Obviously my favorite is Bestrides.org, which covers California, Oregon, and Washington. Another is toughascent.com, which covers great climbing in the southern 2/3 of California. Pjamm Cycling is a superbly-done site devoted exclusively to hard climbs world-wide.

Some of the best sites belong to local cycling clubs, which often do a good job being selective and descriptive about their route choices.  You can just google “City X cycling club” and see what pops up.   The website for the Siskiyou Velo, which lists rides in Southern Oregon and northern Northern California, is a good example. Still, most clubs just don’t take the time to describe or rate—they just say, “Here are the forty rides we do in this area.”

Also surprisingly helpful are motorcyclists’ sites, because motorcyclists love exploring new territory, great scenery, and road curviness.  Some motorcycle sites even list roads by type, so you can look only at “winding,” for instance. Just google “motorcycle routes Nevada” or wherever. The only drawback here is that motorcyclists like roads that are a bit longer, wider, and straighter than we do.

The rare good guidebook.  Most guidebooks let you down, but the ones that do their job well are precious.  All Mountaineers guide books are without flaw, and I’ve built several trips around their advice.

Paper maps.  A map and some savvy will show you where the good rides are. Think about what you like in a ride and how those features would be represented on paper. It’s a good sign if

  • The road is a thin and wiggly line.  
  • It follows a creek.
  • It’s an obvious alternative to a bigger road that parallels it or goes to the same place.
  • It has the word “Old,” “Creek,” “Ridge,” or “Mountain” in its name. If the road is called Old Creek Ridge Mountain Road, so much the better.
  • It deadends. If it deadends at the summit of a mountain, even better.
  • It runs perpendicular to a valley. It’s probably climbing up and away from traffic, which is a good thing.
  • It has a county road number, or the road number has three digits or a letter.

I did a month-long bike trip through Colorado once guided by these principles. Since the paved roads in Colorado that link towns are almost all main highways—big, busy, and straight—I looked for the wiggly line leaving town and turning to dirt after 15 miles or the “old highway” that has been superseded by the big new multi-lane.

There are some things the map can’t tell you: if the road is paved, if the surface is ridable, and if there any 20% pitches.  So it’s best to check out the road with a local or use the internet tools below before heading down it. I remember I was once at an intersection staring at a beautiful back road which looked inviting on my map and was about to take it when a pick-up came by on the primary road.  I flagged it down, asked if the secondary road was paved, was told it turned to dirt in a mile or so, and saved myself some grief. 

You need a map with a lot of detail (that is, covers a small area). A state map usually isn’t detailed enough. California is blessed with a series of AAA maps of regions, each about a tenth of the state, which are ideal. Oregon has maps of the individual counties—perfect. The Benchmark state atlases, which divide a state into about 60 large rectangles on a grid, are good but hard to read. If you’re going to ride in Europe, you’ll want a Michelin map or something similar, discussed in the Vacations chapter.

There is no American atlas or map that reliably distinguishes pavement from dirt (unlike European road maps, which do). The Benchmark state atlases do a better job with this than most. Streetview, a Googlemaps app (see below), will help, in theory, in that it covers only the well-traveled roads and thus, in theory, will cover the roads that are paved and won’t cover the roads that aren’t. But Streetview’s coverage is spotty, so for instance two of the greatest road rides I know, Oregon’s McKenzie Highway and Aufderheide Hwy, aren’t covered by Streetview, so you’d think they were dirt or otherwise unridable. So, in short, if Streetview doesn’t cover a road, don’t assume anything about it except that you don’t know anything about it.

The Internet tools that help. Once you have tentatively chosen a route by other means, there are many software tools you can bring to bear to further evaluate your choice. The afore-mentioned Streetview will let you virtually ride the road, so you can evaluate scenery, road surface, and size of road shoulder from the comfort of your chair. Mapmyride and Strava, while unable to help you choose routes, will calculate the total elevation gain of any route you choose, and will generate an elevation profile, which then allows you to calculate the elevation gain and distance between any two points on the course, see where the climbs are, and compute their pitches. I once spotted a back road in the California Coast Range that looked perfect on the map. When I mapped it in Mapmyride, I saw that it started with 5 miles of 18-20% climbing. No thanks.

The local cycling map.  Cities, counties, and bike meccas often print their own cycling-specific maps. Sometimes these are too indiscriminate, or too weighted toward urban riding and commuting, but sometimes you hit the jackpot.  Bike shops in Marin and Sonoma Counties in California carry beautiful maps of bike routes in their areas, made by cyclists for cyclists.  Krebs’s cycling maps are excellent—currently they cover the North Coast of California and the area from the Wine Country to Monterey. Often these labors of love indicate traffic levels, where the steep pitches are, which routes are popular with riders, and distances on all route legs. The local bike shop will know if their area has such a thing.

Oregon is particularly rich in regional bike maps. The jewel used to be the Lane Country Bicycle Map, which covered Oakridge, Eugene, and from Eugene west to the coast, but inexplicably it went out of print. If you can find an old copy, grab it.

The bike explorer. Somewhere in your new cycling area is a cyclist who loves adventure, who is constantly seeking out the next great backroads ride, who pours over maps in search of the thin black line with a name no one’s ever heard of, who is always planning their next week-long bike odyssey, who knows every road without a center line within 300 miles of their house. Why reinvent the wheel? Find That Guy and talk with them about where the good riding is. You may gain a source for good rides that will last the rest of your cycling life. And they’ll love it—passing along their expertise is a delicious form of self-fulfillment to people like them.

How do you find them? Often they write a blog or a ride directory website. Find the site, find the email link, and start a relationship. Read the posts by the blog’s readers, and approach a reader who seems to be That Guy. Ask around—many cyclists just see the sport as exercise, so they ride the local roads day after day and rarely leave town, but everybody knows the few who aren’t like that, the ones who would rather go check out that promising new road they saw on the map than go do the local Sunday club ride with the gang.

Anyone who rides. Despite all the electronic data-sharing wonders of our linked-in world, the way I’ve discovered most of my best rides is by talking to a real, live person. Any century or organized ride that brings people in from out of town is a treasure trove of such opportunities. Say something like this: “Hi! Nice bike/jersey! Where are you from? Oh, I’ve always wanted to do some riding there. What are the good rides?”

A good way to flush out these people is to wear your kit. Once I was about to go riding in the California Gold Country. Kitted out, I dropped into the local ice cream shop for a snack before hitting the road. The store owner said, “You looking for a good ride? Do you like to climb?” He laid out a route for me, and I went and did it straight away. Now it’s in Bestrides.org, it’s still one of my favorite rides, and I’ve never seen it mentioned in any other source.

Ride the best part of the route. Most ride sources, for some reason, love long rides. I’d say 70 miles is about the norm. Great, if that’s what you want to do. But on a bike vacation many of us want to ride every day and can’t do 70 miles a day. So ride only the choicest part of the route. There are a number of ways to find out where it is: Ask someone; look at the profile, and ride the section that does what you like to do; ride the part beside the creek, along the ridge, or through the canyon; ride the climb and descent; ride the most winding section; use Streetview.

How Hard Is the Ride?

Once you find a good-looking route, get a sense of what you’re in for before heading out. The one factor that everyone uses to judge a ride—distance—doesn’t tell you much. If you’re in shape, you can ride on the flats forever. So you want to consider other factors:

Road surface: riding on rough pavement can be twice as hard as riding on smooth surface. Riding in loose gravel can be four times as hard. Maps won’t tell you about road surface. You’ll have to talk to someone who’s done the ride or use Streetview to pre-ride the route.

On a climb, road surface matters even more than on flats, because you have no momentum, so you must overcome every lump and pothole with leg power. If the road is rough enough, you in effect have to start climbing from scratch every couple of feet.

Wind: Most areas have prevailing winds. Catch a strong one in your face and your cruising speed can drop from 16 mph to 9—suddenly getting back to your car will take you twice and long and cost you four times the energy. The only way to know about prevailing winds is to have an informant—a good guidebook, someone with local knowledge, or a website or app that maps wind direction (there are dozens).

Elevation gain: Given a smooth road and good weather, all the work of a ride is in the vert (vertical gain, or just “gain”). Gain is so central to riding that almost any source that describes a ride will give you the total elevation gain. Knowing that and the distance, you can calculate an average elevation gain for the ride, which roughly translates into difficulty level.

It’s easy to do a rough elevation-gain-to-percent conversion in your head. 528 ft of gain in a mile is 10% (528/5280 x 100), so round off to 500 ft and use that as a benchmark for Hard Climbing. If your ride climbs 3000 ft in 6 miles, that’s 3000/6 = 500 ft/mile = 10%. If it climbs 1500 ft in 6 miles, that’s 500 ft every 2 miles, therefore half of 10%, or 5%. Now all you need is enough climbing experience to know how hard that is for you. I know I can climb 4% forever, 6% for an hour, and 10% for about a mile (with much complaining). If guesstimations aren’t your thing, the precise calculation for pitch in % is: (feet of elevation gained x 100)/(miles ridden x 5280).

(Aside for the mathematically inclined: this method of calculating gain is noticeably inaccurate. To see why, draw a right triangle with the two short sides one inch long and one short side horizontal. Imagine you are riding up the hypotenuse. Clearly the gain is 100%—one inch of run produces one inch of rise—but your bike computer will record the distance traveled on the hypotenuse, which is considerably longer than the flat run, and thus your elevation gain will be underestimated.)

Average gain doesn’t tell you everything. There are at least 3 ways the average can mislead you:

1. If you’re riding a loop, the average elevation gain on the climbs is twice what the math gives you for the total ride, because roughly half the route is descending. So a loop of 100 miles with a total gain of 10,000 ft looks like 2% gain, which is nothing, but it’s really 4%, because you have to do the 10,000 ft in 50 miles.

2. As the ride distance increases, the amount of gain per mile you can handle decreases. For many riders, the rule of thumb is, 100 ft of gain per mile means you’re working. But that rule overestimates the workload on short rides and underestimates it on long ones. 1000 ft of gain in 10 miles is easy, but 10,000 ft in a century is brutal.

3. Contour has as much effect on the workload as the elevation gain total. Steeper is harder. 1000 ft gained at 5% is much easier than 1000 ft gained at 10%, even though the distance traveled is longer. And climbing all at once is harder than climbing that’s spread out over short stretches alternating with flats or descents. Party Pardee, a metric century I like, totals 4500 ft of gain in 63 miles, a respectable amount of climbing, but it feels easy because it’s rarely steeper than about 6% and it never climbs for more than about half a mile without a break. If I did 4500 ft of climbing in 9 uninterrupted miles of 10%, I’d need an ambulance. So you need to see the elevation profile.

The elevation totals generated by machines are dependent on how those machines are designed. Computers use algorithms, and their estimates differ greatly depending on how those algorithms work. Garmins made by Garmin have built in two different ways to measure total elevation gain, one bouncing signals off satellites and the other mapping your route onto a relief map, and they always give different numbers. Basic bike computers usually calculate elevation by changes in barometric pressure, so they’re wildly affected by weather changes. So take any elevation total as an approximation only.