Route Planning for Ultra-Distance Events

For an event like the Transcontinental Race, route planning is an often overlooked yet crucial factor in how successful a participant’s ride is. When racing, a bad route can turn an adventure sour or even leave you in danger. Here we look at best practice for route planning for adventure riding and racing using online tools.

19/07/2019
Planning a Route for the Transcontinental Race

 

We will focus on three online route planning services. There are plenty more available, but these offer the most complete service and are the most commonly used. If you are unfamiliar with online route planners and mapping, there is a glossary at the end of this article to help you with some of the terms used.

 

RIDE WITH GPS
Best for:

  • Choice of base maps
  • Google Street View integration
  • On-road route planning

KOMOOT
Best for:

  • Analysing route surfaces
  • Exploring and sharing highlights
  • Off-road route planning

STRAVA
Best for:

  • Strava Heatmap integration
  • Route sharing
  • Finding the flattest route

 

So, you’ve received the Transcontinental Race parcours or race/event checkpoints – how do you start planning your route?

The easiest option to get a feel for the general length and shape of your potential route is to enter the mandatory parcours or places you need to visit into Google Maps. Google Maps can quickly render a route that is thousands of kilometres long, whereas most cycling route planners will struggle and you’ll need to focus on shorter segments of the route. Remember to select the option to avoid highways in the drop-down options menu. You can also use the ‘Terrain’ map option in the menu to make it easier to identify mountain ranges along the route and get a feel for how much climbing you’re likely to encounter.

Now that you have an approximate idea of how the various points you need to visit are connected, you can begin to segment the route and focus on optimising it for your style of riding. At this point, you need to start thinking about the type of roads you want to use. If you’re racing, then larger roads will inevitably be faster (and likely have better surfaces) but will also have heavier traffic. If you’re touring, you’re likely to want to take a less direct route on smaller roads.

We spoke to Transcontinental Race veterans Nelson Trees and Melissa Pritchard about some of the considerations that went into their routing choices for ultra-distance events like the Transcontinental Race, here.

An event like the Transcontinental Race will generally provide guidance on banned roads and roads that riders might wish to avoid because they’ve been flagged as busy and/or potentially dangerous, but risk assessment is always the job of the individual. Remember, this is your ride and your “holiday” – if you don’t want to ride along hard shoulders while heavy goods vehicles thunder past, you don’t have to. A flatter, more direct route will generally be busier and faster, but you can still be competitive while avoiding less enjoyable riding conditions.

Some roads are simply illegal to ride on and won’t necessarily be called out by event organisers. You should certainly avoid highways, but also need to keep an eye out for “no cycling” signs, particularly around tunnels. This will be a circular sign with a red circle around a bike and (sometimes) a diagonal line across it. Triangular signs showing bicycles are simply a warning to road users to expect bicycles on the road ahead.

Signs highlighting the presence of cycling infrastructure also depict a bicycle within a circle – but blue this time. Confusingly, the end of a cycling lane might sometimes be marked with a bicycle in a blue circle with a line through it – this simply marks the end of the cycle lane and does not mark any restriction on cycling.

Wikipedia has a useful comparison of European road signs, here.

Creating a rough draft

Using Ride With GPS (RWGPS), Komoot, or Strava, enter the starting point and your first waypoint to see what the automatically generated route looks like. For RWGPS and Komoot, you’ll need to specify the type of route you want to create. For RWGPS, “cycling” routes avoid main roads and favour cycling paths – but aren’t available in all countries. “Driving” routes are generally more direct (but keep the “avoid highways” box ticked!). In Komoot, you can select “bike touring” (with “gravel” as a subset), “mountain biking” or “road cycling”.

Ride With GPS is the strongest platform to use as your base for building a route for road cycling. The inbuilt ability to check Google Street View is a real time saver and the choice of base maps gives a great deal of detail for planning. It’s also very easy to export a RWGPS route into Komoot to check the road surfaces once you’ve refined the route. For off-road riding, Komoot will do a better job of automatically creating an off-road route (and Street View generally isn’t available for trails anyway!).

To transfer a route file from RWGPS to Komoot, use the “Export GPX File” option on the route overview, then upload this file to Komoot using the “Import a GPS File” option under the “+” menu.

Refining your route

Look at your route as a whole and mark down the total distance and elevation. Now you can start exploring alternative roads to those automatically selected. Drag the route onto a road that looks faster or more appealing and see how it affects the distance and elevation. You can also change the base maps to help you find a flatter route and identify cycle paths, gravel tracks and minor routes not marked on the standard base map. Ride With GPS has the greatest choice of base maps and between the standard base map, OSM Cycle map and topographical options, you should be able to glean a great deal of detail about your route. Satellite views can also be very helpful for analysing how suitable a road is.

Changing base maps can tell you more about a road, helping identify which routing option matches your riding preferences

Changing base maps can tell you more about a road, helping identify which routing option matches your riding preferences

Komoot will show you what surfaces your route covers and you can highlight any sections of unwanted gravel and singletrack. Clicking the undesired surface type will highlight it on the map so that you can zoom in and find an alternative route, better suited to your bike and riding style.

Komoot allows you to highlight unpaved sectors of your route so you can re-route to avoid them

Komoot allows you to highlight unpaved sectors of your route so you can re-route to avoid them

Continue to experiment with different roads and keep an eye on the distance and elevation to work out the fastest way to the destination that you’re comfortable with. Once you feel like it’s as long/short and flat/hilly as you’d like, zoom in and start analysing the route in more detail.

The elevation map on RWGPS will show you gradients if you roll your mouse over the various climbs and mountains, but Komoot goes a step further to show colour grading on the elevation map. You can zoom in on both planners to get a closer view of the climbs and route around anything too steep. Both planners will also provide a summary of overall climbing and the steepest grade encountered on the route.

RWGPS shows elevation details when you hover your mouse over the elevation profile

RWGPS shows elevation details when you hover your mouse over the elevation profile

Komoot uses colour coding to show the gradient of climbs

Komoot uses colour coding to show the gradient of climbs

It’s often a good idea to check elevation using both Google Maps and OSM as the base layer. In some regions, one may be more accurate than the other. In China, for example, the government is sensitive to mapping and Google Maps is offset by varying amounts. As a result, if you were to plan a 2,000km ride from Chengdu to Lhasa you’d be presented with 100,000m climbing (which would be an intimidating amount for even the strongest legs!) However, if you switch to OSM you’d be given the accurate amount which is less than half that.

Highlights and POIs

At this point, you should start thinking about things like where you can find supplies or sleep and avoiding busy/dangerous roads. Keep moving the route to pass near/through the things you want and avoid the things you don’t.

Komoot has user-generated “highlights” prominently displayed in the route planner that can also give good insight on particularly nice roads or trails to ride and places to visit. For racing, these are probably less helpful, but for touring can give inspiration for tweaking your route.

Where your route passes through big cities, Strava can offer a valuable insight into how the locals navigate. Although “Activity Search” is no longer available, you can still explore segments in the city to view rides where segment times were set. By looking at a selection of rides, you can get a feel for how locals navigate the city streets. The Strava heatmap will also give you a feel for how popular certain roads are. However, it is worth noting that heatmaps do not tell you if a road is legal to cycle on or whether it’s popular with commuters in one direction, but not the other.

Strava Segment Explore is a helpful way to see how locals cycle around their city

Strava Segment Explore is a helpful way to see how locals cycle around their city

Finally, compare your route very carefully with the race manual and make sure you’ve routed away from any banned roads/tunnels and have carefully considered routing away from any roads with a warning.

The finishing touches

Once you’re happy with your route, you can start thinking about more sophisticated things like where you might choose to sleep, need to leave the course for supplies or want to detour onto a faster road if you reach it at a quiet time. Following the same technique as above, create small routes with obvious names that cover all eventualities. Examples of the type of contingency routes you might want available include:

  • Busier roads you want to avoid during the day, but would be happy to ride at night
  • Town centres you’ve avoided for speed, but might need for resupply
  • Hotels near the route that you might want to make use of
  • Resupply points near the route
  • Bike paths you are unsure about
  • Alternative options where you cannot be certain about the quality of roads (particularly where there is no Street View)

Make sure you have a note of your alternative routes close to hand and that the files are named in such a way that you can quickly find the right route when you need it.

GPS-ready files

The distance between waypoints or parcours can be significant and up until now, you have likely been editing a route of several hundred kilometres. Depending on the device you intend to use, you now need to begin breaking the route down into usable chunks.

The easiest way to split a ride with RWGPS is to duplicate the route using the “Copy to My Routes” option under the “More” menu on the route overview page. You can then remove waypoints from the route until it is a more manageable length and re-save it as a new, shorter segment of your route.

Wahoo

Before the race, clear the ride history on your device by plugging it into a computer and emptying the “Exports” folder. Beyond that, you can safely rely on long route files (a file of several hundred KM should not cause any issues or lag while navigating) and you should mostly concern yourself with splitting the route into segments that make sense to you.

Garmin

Depending on which specific Garmin device you use, you may need to significantly decrease the length of your route file(s). For safety, using 200km segments is usually the sweet spot between length and the likelihood of your device being able to safely load the file. For older devices, you should also tick the “Reduce to 500 points” option if using RWGPS to export files.

For Etrex devices, it’s worth noting that you can move maps to an SD card to free up space on the device for routes – see this link for details.

Now it’s simply a case of repeating the process for every leg of your journey. It’s a time-intensive job, but putting the effort in now will save you time and angst in the long run. Make sure your route files are named clearly so that you can identify them on the road. You should also make sure you have backups – save the GPX files direct to your phone and make sure you have a live subscription for one of the mapping programmes that allows you to use your phone to navigate offline. Maps.me is a good example of an offline mapping programme that will allow you to flag POIs along your route.

Advanced tools and tricks

Routecheck is a powerful tool for overlaying Strava’s heatmap on your route. It will also automatically generate POIs, based on an uploaded route. If you built your route in RWGPS, simply sign in, select the route and then zoom in to check how well travelled the roads and trails you are using are. There is a useful thread here on how best to use this tool.

Where Street View isn’t available, simply Googling the name of the road you’re looking for will often turn up valuable insights (blogs can be particularly helpful). You can also search Flickr, to see if anyone has uploaded any pictures tagged with the area you are interested in. Finally, YouTube is a great resource for scouting potential routes. Plenty of drivers, cyclists and runners upload videos that can help you identify the quality of the road surface or how busy the route is.

Commenting on Strava is another way to get insight where information is scarce. Find a ride that took in the road you are interested in and leave a comment asking the local rider if they can share any information. You won’t get a response, let alone a useful response, much of the time, but when it pays off, it really pays off! Looking at a selection of rides covering the segment you’re interested in can also result in finding photos attached to rides or clues in comments and ride descriptions.

If you’re struggling to find the flattest way through a mountainous region, try using Strava’s route planner and selecting the “Min Elevation” option. This works best with relatively short segments of your route as long distances take a while to process and can crash.

Strava can help you find the flattest route if you are struggling

Strava can help you find the flattest route if you are struggling

Look at past races on Trackleaders to see which roads the race leaders used and identify any areas where riders had to turn back. There is often overlap with the roads used and this is a good way to be confident that a road you have chosen is suitable.

Pay particular attention to borders. Some border crossings are for locals or simply no longer in use. A combination of Street View, satellite maps, Strava Heatmap and past editions on Trackleaders will usually help you identify the best border crossings to use. If you’re worried about managing visas, check our journal post on How to Manage Visas for Bike Tours.

Trackleaders shows how past racers have routed

Trackleaders shows how past racers have routed

Don’t panic

It is very rare that someone plans their route, then is able to follow it in its entirety with no issues and no deviations. You don’t need to (and cannot) plan for every possible eventuality. Be prepared to adapt and embrace the adventure fully. Even losing your entire route isn’t a total disaster if you have the confidence to stay calm and work out a sensible course of action. Spend as much time during the route planning stage familiarising yourself with the countries, terrain and roads you will be travelling as you do hunting down the ‘perfect’ route.

Glossary

If you haven’t had much experience with online mapping tools previously, some of the terms in this article may be new to you. If you’re already familiar with these terms, skip ahead to the article below.

 

Base map: the mapping data the route planning website is pulling information from. This affects how the map looks and the amount of information available.
Elevation: height relative to sea level. Most online route planners also track elevation gained and lost over the plotted route.
Grade/Gradient: the steepness of a climb or descent, usually expressed as a percentage.
Heatmap: an overlay of activity density that shows how often a road is used.
Highway: main roads connecting towns and cities that are illegal to cycle on.
GPS: “global positioning system” satellites that allow bicycles computers to navigate.
GPX: a file system that allows GPS devices to follow routes.
OSM: “Open Street Map” – an open-source base map that is more detailed than Google’s base map.
Parcours: mandatory sections of route provided by race organisers that must be followed exactly.
POI: “Point of Interest”.
Topographical map: a base map that shows elevation and can be used to identify how mountainous an area is.
Waypoint: a mid-ride destination.

Share This