The road unknown. Photo via Szymonbike

Route Finding

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I have memories of my life before Cycling, but as the years wear slowly on my mind their edges become less pronounced, like water wearing away at a sharp stone. My memories of Cycling, which start at the age of eight, remain somehow vivid.

As Pedalwan learner to my father, one of the many arts I was taught was that of route finding. My first exposure to this was in the Alps near Vizille, France – just outside Grenoble and near the base of the legendary l’Alpe d’Huez. Here I learned firstly that the well-known routes are filled both with bicycles and automobiles. Secondly, I learned that if one is to discover the less-travelled jewels hidden within the countryside, that one is to procure a map of sufficient detail to provide the information one seeks. At first, we had only the major auto maps at our disposal,  but even on these crude things he showed me how to judge a road’s approximate interest (a word he has always used to describe the gradient), based on how squiggly it looked on the map.

I was quickly introduced into the realm of detailed maps; maps which showed topographical lines to indicate elevation, roads of varying degrees of maintenance, and where roads had squiggles on them that looked like beats on a cardiogram: one beat for manageable “interest”, two beats was “interesting”, and three beats had you breathing out of your ears to get up it. Other roads were dashed which meant they were smaller and possibly gravel, and red dashes meant you had to be prepared to go back in case the road wasn’t passable.

Most importantly, I learned to use the map as a guidebook, but never to rely on it entirely. Maps can be wrong, and when you are looking for the roads that aren’t well travelled, they often are. The most rewarding aspect of route finding is to explore by sight; to follow your instincts once you are on the bike and explore opportunities that might not even have shown up on the map.

To this day, I love route finding; I can’t turn it off. Give me a map, and I’m immediately in search of cardiograms and squiggly roads. On a plane, I peer out the window and imagine what it might be like to find my way across the landscape on two wheels; whether the roads below are even passable on a bike. When I’m in a car, my mind instinctively inspects every side road for signs of “interest”. On the bike, it does the same. When I’m in form – or something approaching it – I stick to my routes but when I’m in search of form, I like to go exploring; I like to use the opportunity of ambiguity in my fitness to find new routes.

Those are the days I live for; riding down fresh lanes, with the road unknown to me. On such days, I thank Merckx I’m out of form.

Vive la Vie Velominatus.

// La Vie Velominatus // The Rides

  1. the older i get, the less appetite i have for “adventure”. my life has been “adventurous” enough already, is my usual train of thought. nevertheless, i am always thrilled when i get an opportunity to go ride somewhere else. twice a year, i get the hell out of town for a weekend to go do something new on my bike, or at least do something i don’t do often. gotta freshen the well somehow.




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  2. Reading this as an avid MTBiker it has a completely different taste. Though Velominati is rather road cycling realm cycling opens another universes once you are willing to leave paved roads and to go for uncharted paths in the woods. And yes, finding the way on the map and then making the hypothesis reality is certainly one of the great pleasures in cycling.




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  3. I don’t take many journeys by bike, car or train without craning my neck at a glimpse of unknown tarmac, wondering ‘where does that road go…?’.

    I’m also completely obsessed with maps – spend a lot of time on Bing maps with the Ordnance Survey maps turned on, looking for those squiggles.




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  4. Being a former avid boyscout, I still enjoy scrutinizing maps.

    Yet, as Switzerland is still not my homecountry, and me not always having a fair idea where I am (with almost every village -even the one where I live- ending with ****-ikon , like Buttikon, confusing!) I tend to be less adventurous (ok, the risk of meeting sudden unanticipated and steep hills just around the corner, stuck in the big ring, plays a wee role as well). But, when back in the Netherlands, where I have no fixed routes, and more familiar with the topography, I ride as far as I want anywhere and then turn back. Going there as from Saturday this week!




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  5. This article perfectly captures my feelings of maps and roads.

    I spend a lot of time looking for climbs on here: http://en-ca.topographic-map.com/




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  6. @KogaLover

    Being a former avid boyscout, I still enjoy scrutinizing maps.

    Yet, as Switzerland is still not my homecountry, and me not always having a fair idea where I am (with almost every village -even the one where I live- ending with ****-ikon , like Buttikon, confusing!) I tend to be less adventurous (ok, the risk of meeting sudden unanticipated and steep hills just around the corner, stuck in the big ring, plays a wee role as well). But, when back in the Netherlands, where I have no fixed routes, and more familiar with the topography, I ride as far as I want anywhere and then turn back. Going there as from Saturday this week!

    this is always fun i like doing things this way. i’m not a huge fan of maps, really, as i looked at enough of them in the Marine Corps to last well into my next life.




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  7. When I’m out and about locally, I like to follow the mantra of “I don’t know where I am, but I’m not lost.” The beauty of the States is that most roads (well, here in WI at any rate), are usually on a grid pattern so getting totally lost is kinda impossible so long as you have a decent sense of awareness and direction.




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  8. Great article! I love maps and still use them, considering I don’t have a gps device on my bike and still use a basic cell phone.

    Oh man, the only way I can stand the frequent trips to eastern NC to visit the in-laws is by looking at all the country lanes running along the new highways, wishing I was on a bicycle and not in a car. With all the crazy motorists, I find myself riding more and more on the quietest routes and at really off-peak hours. Besides, nothing beats starting a weekend morning with a nice two-hour loop, back before the VMH is even out of bed.




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  9. mapped 58mi allroad route December 2015 because I had sent my frame to Toronto – no riding, may as well map a route – perfected this *essential route* thru 2016 – motivated to collaborate, sponsor and support it as The Saluda Roubaix race April 2017 – overheard race director David Hall with his team, “have no idea how he found some of these roads.” P.S. can someone figure out how to define *essential route* for the Lexicon here




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  10. fotos via UNPULL




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  11. @Pali65

    Reading this as an avid MTBiker it has a completely different taste. Though Velominati is rather road cycling realm cycling opens another universes once you are willing to leave paved roads and to go for uncharted paths in the woods. And yes, finding the way on the map and then making the hypothesis reality is certainly one of the great pleasures in cycling.

    I once crashed while on a wanderlust of sorts on my mountain bike and for a brief moment thought I might have to call my wife for help. I had more panic from the idea that I would have to describe where I was as “I’m right here” than from any injuries.

    I found the spot on the Maprika app and since it wasn’t called “nearly broke my hip rock” I could point out the trails to her “just in case.”




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  12. Ha, I have this weird issue where if I try to think about a route I haven’t ridden in awhile, I find myself getting confused. But once I jump on the bike, I find myself just going, not thinking, and getting it right. Relatedly, when someone asks me for driving directions I either a) can’t tell them how to go because I don’t know road names, as I’m watching drivers and trying not to get run over, not looking at signs b) can tell them how to go, but halfway through I realize my route isn’t all passable via car c) can’t tell them how to go since I live my life in a little bubble, going the same places daily/weekly. I’m a big time creature of habit.




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  13. @Ccos

    @Pali65

    Reading this as an avid MTBiker it has a completely different taste. Though Velominati is rather road cycling realm cycling opens another universes once you are willing to leave paved roads and to go for uncharted paths in the woods. And yes, finding the way on the map and then making the hypothesis reality is certainly one of the great pleasures in cycling.

    I once crashed while on a wanderlust of sorts on my mountain bike and for a brief moment thought I might have to call my wife for help. I had more panic from the idea that I would have to describe where I was as “I’m right here” than from any injuries.

    I found the spot on the Maprika app and since it wasn’t called “nearly broke my hip rock” I could point out the trails to her “just in case.”




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    Only time I had to call the VMH for a ride was when I made my all-time worst shift and ripped off my RD. That sucked. And, I still live with the memory, as I had to have the rear wheel rebuilt and the dopey mechanic just used black nipples, as he didn’t have silver on hand. Thanks a lot!

    I’ve been riding off-road more and more these days. If I can carve out some riding time, I often don’t want to spend ANY of it dealing with reckless drivers.




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  14. @universo

    mapped 58mi allroad route December 2015 because I had sent my frame to Toronto – no riding, may as well map a route – perfected this *essential route* thru 2016 – motivated to collaborate, sponsor and support it as The Saluda Roubaix race April 2017 – overheard race director David Hall with his team, “have no idea how he found some of these roads.” P.S. can someone figure out how to define *essential route* for the Lexicon here

    this looks gorgeous and fun. i did my first gravel ride in May, and it was awesome. hitting trails like this on a road bike at 40kph was pretty outrageous.




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  15. This one was a few years ago. I love it when the pavement runs out.




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  16. @Cary

    @universo

    mapped 58mi allroad route December 2015 because I had sent my frame to Toronto – no riding, may as well map a route – perfected this *essential route* thru 2016 – motivated to collaborate, sponsor and support it as The Saluda Roubaix race April 2017 – overheard race director David Hall with his team, “have no idea how he found some of these roads.” P.S. can someone figure out how to define *essential route* for the Lexicon here

    this looks gorgeous and fun. i did my first gravel ride in May, and it was awesome. hitting trails like this on a road bike at 40kph was pretty outrageous.

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    Yup. Gravel is fun. I did the Bear 100 in northern WI this spring. 180 kms – 90%+ on gravel. For the last 30 kms the man with the hammer was sitting on my stem laughing at me and slapping me in the face while laughing hysterically. I’ll miss the Hibernator 100 in October, but I’ll be back for the Bear next year. It puts all other century rides into some serious perspective . . .




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  17. @wiscot

    @Cary

    @universo

    mapped 58mi allroad route December 2015 because I had sent my frame to Toronto – no riding, may as well map a route – perfected this *essential route* thru 2016 – motivated to collaborate, sponsor and support it as The Saluda Roubaix race April 2017 – overheard race director David Hall with his team, “have no idea how he found some of these roads.” P.S. can someone figure out how to define *essential route* for the Lexicon here

    this looks gorgeous and fun. i did my first gravel ride in May, and it was awesome. hitting trails like this on a road bike at 40kph was pretty outrageous.

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    Yup. Gravel is fun. I did the Bear 100 in northern WI this spring. 180 kms – 90%+ on gravel. For the last 30 kms the man with the hammer was sitting on my stem laughing at me and slapping me in the face while laughing hysterically. I’ll miss the Hibernator 100 in October, but I’ll be back for the Bear next year. It puts all other century rides into some serious perspective . . .

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    i don’t think i could do 180k on gravel. my ride in may was a hilly 105k and i was completely bonked for the last 12k.




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  18. @Cary

    I hear ya! The Bear is pretty undulating with some pretty soft gravel most of the way. Many climbs have to be done seated otherwise your rear wheel spins out. The ride is unsupported. Four water stops (including one gas station) and that’s it. The forecast this year was between 80-100% chance of rain. Half the registrants (70 of 140) didn’t show,which is a big deal as it’s a pay-on-the-day gig. It started out chilly (mid 30s) and stayed dry until about a minute after we finished! Had it rained during the last two hours I’d have crawled into the woods to die and be eaten by whatever fancied my carcass. Good times!




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  19. I love finding a route by “instinct” and then looking it up on the map afterwards. Of course being on a small island (relatively speaking) which lacks any dangerous wildlife helps with this. Probably not a good idea in other countries! I also use this island mentality to navigate – pre-define boundaries such as major roads, towns and rivers and then ride within the “island” created by them. A couple of us were out doing one of these rides a few weeks back when we crashed going through a ford, neither bike was rideable, so we had to make that fateful call not really knowing where we were, so resorted to describing the route as we remembered it. Scars have nearly healed and the #1 bike looks better than ever due to the new bits I “needed” to get it working again.




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  20. I like this topic. When the sign says Closed, I go there. Five by Five.




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  21. As a former Moto tourer and aspiring bike tourer I am with you on the route planning. I used to be known as the navigator in my motorcycle riding group cause I knew all the best back roads, using you’re squiggly line theory :D




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