This discussion has been undated and expanded in the “Finding a Ride” chapter of Bicycle School (click above).
Part of the art of bicycle traveling is finding the good road in a new area. Here’s how:
1. Ask the local bike shop or rider. By far the most successful technique I’ve found for finding the best local ride is to walk into the local bike shop and ask an employee or a customer. I don’t know why this is better than consulting websites or guide books, but it is. Don’t be shy—any cyclist who doesn’t love to talk about his favorite local rides isn’t a cyclist. It’s like asking someone to show you her baby pictures. Always ask why the ride is good—not everyone’s taste is like yours. A mechanic is a better source than a salesman, but the best source is that guy who’s standing around chatting with the mechanic because he just loves hanging out in a bike shop.
2. Consult discriminating websites. Most sites are fairly useless for our purposes, for reasons discussed on the Home page and the Links page. An example of the sort of thing you’re looking for is toughascent.com, a site that’s been one of my inspirations—a site done by one person, with passion. Several of the rides in our list I found thanks to him.
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. The website for the Siskiyou Velo, which lists rides in Southern Oregon and northern Northern California, is a good example. Another is the site for the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, which maps 10 good rides in the Santa Rosa area.
Note a website’s criteria—a lot of sites equate “enormous elevation gain” with “good,” for instance.
Also surprisingly helpful are motorcyclists’ sites, because motorcyclists are much more interested in a) exploring new territory, b) scenery, and c) road profiles (curviness, etc.) than cyclists are. The only drawback here is that motorcyclists like roads that are a bit longer, wider, and straighter than we do.
3. Use guide books with caution. You can get some good ideas from a book, but for some reason books are addicted to long loops on major roads. It’s as if they just won’t do the homework necessary to dig out the cool back-country roads. An exception to the rule are the Mountaineers guide books, which are without flaw.
4. Look at a conventional road map. If you see a road that’s secondary and wiggly, it might be good. I did a bike trip through Colorado once almost entirely guided by this principle, because all the famous Colorado rides are on major highways. It’s always good to check out your hunch first with a local, and make sure the road is paved, the surface is ridable, and you aren’t looking at any 22% pitches. I remember I was once at an intersection staring at a beautiful back road which looked inviting on my map and was about to head down 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. Get an atlas with good detail but one that distinguishes pavement from dirt. I love the Benchmark state atlases, which do a good job with this, and I’ve used them as a reference throughout this site, but no map or atlas is perfect in this regard, so always try to get a confirmation of pavement from a local. Internet mapping sites won’t let you do this, because they don’t do a good job of distinguishing between big roads, small roads, and dirt roads.
5. See if there’s a local cycling map. Sometimes these are worked up by local governments, like the Solano Traffic Authority’s list of 10 bike rides in Solano County. But these are often too indiscriminate, too urban, and too commuter-oriented for our uses. Better are bike maps made by cycling organizations. Bike shops in Marin and Sonoma Counties 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.
Oregon is particularly rich in regional bike maps. The jewel is the Lane County Bicycle Map, which covers Oakridge, Eugene, and from Eugene west to the coast. But the state has many other good ones, most of them downloadable.
6. Beware the “best ride” denomination in a cycling magazine. This title is usually a popularity contest, and remember that all hamburger popularity contests are won by McDonald’s. The “best ride” is usually some long, big-road, difficult, over-ridden, trafficky dinosaur near a large metropolitan area. You’re looking for the nifty back road only the adventuresome riders know about.
This is especially true when it comes to climbs. A “best” climb turns out to be the longest climb with the most elevation gain around, and such climbs are usually boring slogs through barren, sterile landscapes. For instance, I just saw an article on “the 10 best climbs in America,” and that’s one climb for every 5 states, so you’d think they’d be pretty good, but, no, almost all of them were tedious slogs inferior to every ride in our Best Climbs list (see the Best of the Best chapter).
7. Don’t assume that race routes (like the Tour of California stages) or routes from multi-day organized rides like Cycle Oregon are good rides. Organizers of such events have to deal with lots of issues you don’t, like, where will 3000 cyclists spend the night, or, where can I get the most media exposure? The result is that big cycling events spend a lot of time on roads that are mediocre. Attend such events for the camaraderie and the spectacle, not for the riding.
8. Some states have Scenic Bikeways or other designated bike routes. As usual, Oregon is the classic example. You’d expect such things to be ideal rides, but they aren’t unless you’re touring. Such routes tend to be long, mellow cruises on moderately large roads and/or through highly developed areas. They’re almost never the small, off-the-beaten-path back roads I crave. Oregon has 14 Scenic Bikeways, and only two of them are good enough to get into Bestrides.org (McKenzie Pass and Dead Indian).
Further thoughts on finding good roads can be found on the Links page, where you’ll also find links to specific helpful websites.