Considering that the UK is filled with minor roads, bridle paths and cycle ways (okay, nothing like our neighbours to the east, but still), planning a bike ride can be surprisingly challenging.
Will the roads be busy? Is there a stubborn hill? Are there good places to take a pause? Is a loop possible or will it be out-and-back? Can you be bothered?
I don’t find it too difficult to plan a bike ride, but I do find it difficult to have faith in my planning skills. I’m terrible for underestimating the steepness and length of hills – last Sunday I spent 20 minutes of a 3 hour ride going up one, incredibly long, steep hill – and I’m equally awful at remembering to let my stomach have a say in the preparation.
Every time I go out for a jaunt and forget something, I think, ‘the moment I get home I will write a damn checklist!’
So here is my sort of checklist/tips for planning an enjoyable bike ride.
1# Getting the Route Right
Planning a cycle route is the first hurdle but you can narrow it down quite quickly by asking these questions:
- Do I want to start from home or drive somewhere?
- Do I need to take children into account?
- Is it windy, rainy, hot or cold?
- How much time do I have?
I use either OS Maps or komoot to plan my bike rides. They both have excellent apps, turn by turn directions and work with your phone’s GPS. But before you’ve even set off, they both allow you to plot a route, showing you the bike paths/trails, elevation gain, terrain types and estimated time.
In short, they’re incredibly useful.
Here’s an example of a recent ride that I first plotted, and then rode, using the komoot app (if it doesn’t display properly, click it and it’ll take you to the webpage version):
You can see in the elevation profile that there was a massive hill which took about 40 minutes to climb and, later, an absolutely phenomenal descent. Using komoot is free for the basic plan and gives you this data before you even set off. The OS route planner is similar and also provides this elevation profile.
Where do you want to go?
The first step is working out where you want to go. Having an objective in mind, even a small one, helps give you a point on the map to get to and back from. For the above ride, I wanted to glimpse the estuary and see the autumn leaves at Haldon. I was also prepared for hills, but not too many.
Choose an objective and plan everything else around that. If it’s only three miles away but you want a longer ride, for instance, plot a large loop that passes by your objective on your way home.
How long do you have?
A whole day? Three hours? One hour? Once you know this in conjunction with where you want to go, it all starts falling into place. If you’re a frequent rider, you’ll know how fast you go but if you’re not, or you’re riding in unfamiliar territory, using a route planner is ideal, because it takes into account hills when telling you long a route will take.
If you’re riding for more than a couple of hours, remember to include time for stops. Cycling, particularly in hilly terrain, in hungry work. It can also be very hot and very cold, all in the same ride. Factor in a good amount of stopping time for rests, refuelling, photo ops and punctures.
Fact: If you factor in puncture time and take you repair kit, you won’t get one.
How fit are you (really)?
When I’m warm and cosy at home I think that I can do anything. Sure, it’s a hard ride, but I’ll just grit my teeth and it’ll be great. Umm. Yuh. Sure.
Cycling, especially if you don’t do it much, is very energy intensive. While a solid physical challenge is great, if you overestimate your fitness by a lot, you could end up hating your ride, dangerously low on energy or stranded.
A good way to play it safe is to have a short cut in mind and/or some good rest stops. A short cut gives you an out if you really need one, without having to stare blearily at your map and feel overwhelmed. A good rest stop (normally a cafe), allows you to warm up/cool down, relax, eat and perk up and let frustration ebb away.
2# Dress Appropriately
Cycling warms you up very quickly if you’re keeping up a good pace or going up even a small hill. In warm weather, being overdressed will drench you in sweat and even spell the end of your ride if you don’t have a pannier to ditch your excess clothes in.
Equally, what goes up must come down. Building up a sweat on an ascent quickly turns to a deep, tension-building chill on the descent. These extreme temperature changes can really mess with you on a bike ride and make you feel pretty rubbish later on as your muscles struggle to relax (my mother’s answer to this when we were kids: Radox bubble bath).
These are my recommendations. I’m sure there are plenty of fancy, technical options, but I don’t own many:
- A sweat-wicking top with ventilation in the back
- A windproof, lightweight jacket
- A thin fleece for stops/particularly cold weather
- A neck gaitor/buff
- Weather-dependent-length, chamois-padded bottoms
- Merino socks or at least warm socks in cold weather
- A beanie for stops in cold weather
The key is really layers. There is no one outfit for cycling, even on one single ride. Your temperature will likely change a lot, unless you’re riding gently on a flat route. Therefore, your clothing will need to change too.
If I had to pick one thing above all, it’s a windproof jacket. Wind wicks heat away like nothing else and can chill you to the bone, even on an otherwise warm day.
3# Never Forego Snacks
Cycling can burn a silly amount of energy and almost always more than I think it will. You might’ve just had a big breakfast and be starting out on a two hour ride, but if it involves significant effort, you’ll be starving before the end.
Always take high energy food with you on a bike ride. If nothing else, it’ll boost morale should the clouds decide that today’s a perfect time to pour rain.
Getting to the top of a long hill and feeling faint, dizzy and shakey from lack of fuel is not a fun feeling. Nor a particularly safe one.
Good bike fuel:
- Peanuts (specifically, Sainsbury’s Bird’s Eye Chilli Peanuts, you’re welcome)
- Chocolate raisins
- Pasta salad
#4 Water, Water Everywhere
In summer, water is an obvious companion to any bike ride but don’t forget it in the colder months. The more effort you put in, the more water you expel in your breath, leading to dehydration frightening quickly.
In addition, dehydration robs you of your energy and can lead to cramp and exhaustion. As a society, we seem to be abysmal at staying hydrated. For short rides, take a full bike bottle. For longer rides or summer rides, take two if you’ve got the bottle cages for it or get a bigger bottle.
#5 The Right Equipment
If you don’t take a pump and a puncture repair kit, your will get a puncture. If you do lug them along, you won’t. Look, don’t blame the messenger.
Always take a hand pump and a puncture repair kit (no, not one from 20 years ago that has degraded). This will both ensure you won’t get a puncture and enable you to stop and help out some unfortunate soul who left theirs at home. Cycling is a friendly community.
#6 Take Tissues
I’m not even gonna list the innumerable ways in which a tissue will come in handy. Always take tissues and a sandwich bag.
What have I forgotten for planning a bike ride?
Tell me below!