By Pico Triano
Photos: Pico Triano
In those carefree days of youth one thing I loved to do was just get on my bike and follow my nose. As long as my chores were done, the only thing I had to be concerned about was getting home before supper. I still like to go exploring but rarely have time. Now when I ride I have specific objectives and schedule. Most of the time now I need to know where I'm going, how I'm going to get there and how much time I have to do it. That doesn't have to take the fun out of it.
There are three major sources on information to draw on, when planning or even during a tour. Your own experience is easily the most reliable. The experience and knowledge of people you come into contact with and last but not least maps. None of them are foolproof.
I learn a great deal about potential cycling routes while I'm driving the family van. Knowing the lay of the land can make a big difference. Things do change though and sometimes quickly. The road you loved to ride on a decade ago might have been changed. My favourite example of a change occurred on my first one week tour. I had personally scouted out parts of the route the summer before. In my absence someone built a road on top of my planned first night campsite and there weren't any good nearby alternatives. That first night on the road wasn't one I'll forget.
Talking to the locals while on tour has gifted me with some of the most incredible shortcuts imaginable. Once my map told me I had to loop all the way around a certain area and I was behind schedule. I stopped at a church bazaar and asked the ladies if there was a better way. There was and it meant arriving at my destination before supper instead of after dark. On a more major tour, the locals helped me through a complicated back road route that I would have never managed without their help.
Unfortunately the information you get is only as good as the person you talk to. If you have the choice between asking a young person or asking an old timer, you're better off talking to the old timer. It's amazing how many people don't know anything beyond the main road or the freeway. The pitfall with the old timer though is that your directions might include landmarks that no longer exist the way they remember them. Old highway 66 for example might not be labelled that anymore and you might not recognize Foothill Boulevard as being the same thing.
Maps are a lot like talking to the locals, but you first need to learn how to read a map. Lessons on how to read a map are beyond the scope of this article but here is a quick tip. Usually north is at the top of the map. If it isn't, find north and hold your map so that it is. If you are turning your map left then right twisting it this way and that, you're going to get lost or you already are lost.
Take your map with you on longer trips. That way you are prepared to deal with unexpected changes to your route. Make sure you get a quality map, with sufficient detail from a trusted source. Like asking people for directions, you directions are only as good as the source.
Maps are not foolproof either. I don't know why some map makers arbitrarily connect roads that don't. I spent most of a day on an alternate route hoping to cut some significant mileage in Southern California on a major tour. Standing atop an overpass peering at the road I wanted to ride on in the distance with a mile of impassable cornfield between me and there is a moment that still sticks with me. I ended up backtracking a little and then hooking back up with the original more scenic route, losing everything I thought I'd gained. I doubt, if I'm the only long distance bicycle tourist that finds that kind of thing disheartening. This has happened to me on several occasions.
In North America I have found state and provincial maps to be my best sources especially the ones offered by auto clubs. Google can give you a lot of detail but I don't trust their directions entirely. I live in a rather remote location and the recommended routes Google gives me through this neck of the woods are often impassable. Bike routes that it gives me are often down roads or snowmobile trails that you wouldn't want to take a good road bike down.