A Route to Adventure in the City
Getting lost in the intricacies of route planning shouldn’t be reserved just for long rides or bikepacking trips in the wilderness. In fact, taking the long-distance route planning mindset and applying it to city riding can give shorter, local rides a new sense of purpose and adventure.
There are an infinite number of things that motivate us to ride bikes. Keeping fit, training for an event, seeing new places or to feel a sense of adventure. When we’re riding for pleasure, we’re able to pick the route, wait for good weather and ride with our friends. There’s simply nothing better. But beyond the weekend rides, the early morning and late evening training sessions are a whole host of rides we rarely think about anywhere near as much.
Riding to actually get to places during the week, commuting on bad roads, enduring bad weather and slowly weaving through static traffic is part of the background noise of cycling. It’s something you just ‘get through’ and motivation can wear a little thin outside of those rare summer commutes when the weather is just right and traffic is suspiciously light. After a week of tough commutes, too many busy roads, too much stress, it’s easy to find your legs too tired and mind so exhausted that the lure of a big ride at the weekend lessens.
When utility riding is how you spend the majority of your time on the bike it can start to feel boring, particularly when you have to do it no matter what.
And so it was in the summer of 2020, being urged to stay close to home and also suffering from a running injury, I found my motivation lacking. I had been doing this same short ride after work and variations of it for months and quite simply, I was bored. My “adventure” rides had become my utility rides and I found myself in the unusual paradox of actually missing my commute. The drudgery of being forced to do it every day was often exhausting, but boy did I miss that routine.
I had taken for granted the mental space it had given me at the top and tail end of every day, and only now it had been taken away from me was I able to appreciate it.
But it was in this state that I rediscovered a secret motivational weapon: route planning. So often associated with longer rides, it was the perfect way to make the local ones more interesting and rediscover the city around me.
For long rides I love finding the best, most interesting roads, planning rest stops in just the right places, so perfectly timed along the route that you can’t help feel smug about it. A task my riding buddies often groan at, I relish this added cognitive dimension to cycling. On particularly hard rides it’s sometimes motivation enough to get home knowing that there is a supermarket at mile 73 out of 100.
I dotwatched with envy those races that were going ahead in warmer climates, studying the route between checkpoints so thoroughly I was close to memorising them. I missed researching bivvy spots for nights away, dividing up the miles between the days. Knowing that every morning of packing up meant making it safely to the next night’s sleep spot. And while it seemed like this joy had been taken away from me, I realised it didn’t matter at all that I couldn’t go far. Why should route planning only be reserved for long rides?
The value of putting in just a tiny bit of conscious thought into my everyday rides was infinite and opened up a whole new world to explore right on my doorstep.
As I wondered one lunchtime about the best way to get to the post office via the chemist and then to a friend’s house to drop off supplies, I realised I didn’t need a long day out or a new part of the country as an excuse to plan a route. With infinite possible “checkpoints” to choose from in my home city of London, I just needed to plan where I was going.
Once I was back in the office, I knew my commute was never going to be the same.
Route planning quickly became my quirky hobby. I would constantly think of themes and then plan a route between different relevant points of interest. What some saw as an overengineered trip to buy groceries was my way of finding new city green spaces, or combining as many tasks as possible that I needed to do on my bike into the best route between “checkpoints”.
Just like any racer in the TCR would plan the most efficient way through a continent, I would plan the most efficient way through my local area. I knew to skip the big hill on the way home in favour of the main road if it was quiet, even if it added an extra mile to my total distance. The time I would make up spinning along the clear road would get me home quicker than grinding up the hill.
The route planning skills I would normally use for a race or a long weekend away could so easily be condensed into shorter, more local rides. And it was just as satisfying. Plus, it was great practice for when I was able to do something bigger.
Following this realisation, I had loads of new routes under my belt ready to deploy. One warm evening I cycled a route between South East London hilltops, passing through 7 checkpoints and documenting them as I went. Despite knowing where all these checkpoints were individually, I had never cycled between them and had no idea how they were connected or how to get between them. I got a totally new perspective on places I thought I knew and found myself riding with a sense of purpose for the first time in ages. One checkpoint even had me hike-a-bike up a steep gravel section, despite still being in central London and only 3 miles from home.
Another route found me joining up South London cemeteries (there are more than you might imagine), a particular challenge in finding ways to avoid busy A roads and joining up paths where cycling was allowed in and around these public spaces. After 30 miles I had learnt more about the history of these places than I had the entire time I lived here. I was adding so many new roads to my mental map of London – particularly handy for finding routes on the fly.
So the next time you’re looking for an adventure close to home, or a way to spice up your commute, you don’t need to look far. Make it your mission to find the local hidden treasures you’ve been riding past all this time. Take that interesting-looking road you’ve been wondering about for ages even if you don’t know where it goes. Every ride, no matter where or how long it is, starts and ends somewhere on the map. Its up to you to find the adventure in-between.