Friday, February 20, 2015

Cycling Routes and Cycling Abilities

Family Cycling, Glenveagh Castle
On a visit to a nearby nature reserve last weekend, I noticed a man out cycling with his 3 small children. The elder boy and girl, who looked no older than 6 and 5, pedaled along on their own tiny bikes, while the youngest - a toddler - sat in a child's seat at the back of the father's hybrid. I spotted them at the end of the road leading up to the Castle, which meant they were in for a 5 mile round trip overall. Impressed with the kids' good behaviour and stamina, I tried to recall the last time I'd seen children so young out cycling. It had been a while. In the rural area where I now live it's uncommon to see children on bikes beyond the confines of their immediate neighbourhoods. This is not so much due to a lack of infrastructure, as to the nature of the local topography. The area is hilly, and most routes involve climbs and descents that may prove beyond a child's ability. Heck, even adults who are not "cyclists" in the athletic sense of the word, can find themselves overwhelmed.

I was reminded of this fact by an acquaintance, who recently came to Ireland on business and wanted to pay me a visit. His plan was to take the train as far as the nearby town of Coleraine, then cover the remaining 12 miles to my place in Magilligan by bicycle. I offered directions for those 12 miles, but he assured me he knew the way - he had a map! When he finally arrived - an hour later than expected, soaking in sweat, and looking utterly miserable - the first words out of his mouth were "How can you ride a bike here at all?!"

Right away I knew what had transpired. The poor, innocent dear had followed the Sustrans National Cycling Network map: namely, that sadistic portion of Route 93 which drags unsuspecting cyclists over the steepest, twistiest roads of Binevenagh Mountain - despite the availability of a much flatter coastal route (with traffic-separated infrastructure along a good part of it at that!).

Once I had managed to revive my stunned visitor with calories and humor, I explained about the existence of tamer, alternative routes. We then had a discussion about why the so-called "national cycle network" was designed around such challenging terrain. The name made the network sound inclusive, but in fact who was it for? If a fit, experienced roadie found the route it suggested "unreasonable," then how could a less athletic cyclist - let alone an elderly person or a family with kids - manage the same trek? Obviously they cannot. Which is why, after giving the National Cycling Network a go, casual cyclists around these parts - and other places like it - are likely to drive their bicycles to a park rather than take to the open roads. One might almost be tempted to suspect that this outcome is what the authors of the Sustrans routes are aiming for. Certainly local cyclists joke about that possibility.

Whenever I am tasked with planning a cycling route, the first thing I do is consider my audience. I want the person using my route to enjoy themselves. At the end of the ride I want them to be more in love with cycling than ever - not frightened of it or put off by it. To be sure, on occasion I misjudge... Like the time I took a friend up a climb that proved too steep for him, resulting in some colourful language being flung my way. But on the whole, I have gotten pretty good at planning routes based on ability. Oftentimes I'll discover a new road, and think "This would be perfect for so-and-so next time we ride together." It's a fun form of match-making.

There are cyclists who crave challenges. There are cyclists who need to build up their confidence. There are cyclists with physical limitations and disabilities. And there are cyclists who simply want a safe, pleasant pedaling experience. Perhaps some day there will be maps with cycling routes for us all.

23 comments:

  1. The Sustrans routes do tend to err on the side of quiet and away from traffic rather that flatter and easier and routes, and can get quite rough in places (for a 25mm or less road tyre anyway).
    Where they shine however is in planning longer routes between cities where they allow you to stop putting any effort into navigation, at least you know the roads they set you on will be scenic.
    I find they are best reviewed on the cycle map setting on OpenStreetMap.org which also displays contours nicely allowing one to avoid accidental mountains.

    Thorough cycle mapping would be amazing- you could colour code roads for being steep or rough or traffic heavy and say which bridleways are passable.

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  2. The local mountain bike trails here are mapped as easy, intermediate or difficult using the same technique as downhill ski runs, green circle, blue square and black diamond. Perhaps other types of bike routes could use a similar process!

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    1. That is what I was thinking; plus the traffic markers Matt C mentions above.

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  3. This is why it's always best to ask the "locals" for good routes. That being said, what's a "hill" to some, can be a "mountain" to others. I've done this, and have had it done to me. We have a local map given out showing roads to all the wineries where many of the tourists want a "safe, pleasant pedaling experience" as they go wine tasting. But the map also shows other roads around the wineries. The map indicates notable hills using chevrons pointing the direction of the incline. More chevrons = steeper incline. Unfortunately the map doesn't show very well is that most of those roads are small, narrow, and often times windy country roads. It's a good map and I often recommend it to visitors.

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  4. Case in point: at the other end of the north coast, NCN 93 take in the Torr Road as the best route for cyclists between Cushendun and Ballycastle. The person responsible for making that decision is a masochist. That road is a complete leg breaker.

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    1. Ah yes, I forgot it takes you over Torr Road further down! I have yet to muster up courage to tackle that stretch.

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    2. If you can deal with the road from Limavady to Binevenagh then you'll probably be ok on Torr, particularly if you head in the direction out of Ballycastle. The really steep bits are relatively short so if you have overgeared and have to bail and push you'll not have long to go. It's well worth trying though, the scenery is astonishing. Plus, when you get back to B'castle there is a great fish and chip shop there to reward yourself.

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  5. I've been dealing with this very issue for an upcoming "slow" bike ride. My solution was to include a couple of choices and "bail-outs" early in the ride so that I could gauge the general demeanor and skill level of the group. About a third of the way through the ride, i should know enough to choose between my primary planned route and a shorter, less adventurous alternative loop back to the original meet point.

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    1. That sounds like a good idea. When I first visited the area where I now live, I took part in a vintage bicycle ride with the Veteran Cycling Club of Northern Ireland. There were people of all ages involved, including children, all on heavy 1-3 speed upright bikes, and we did a very manageable 12 miles. I remember being impressed that the ride organiser managed to plan such a tame and inclusive route in this generally hilly area. I now know it's in fact possible to expand that into a 30 mile route of similar difficulty level - and to throw in some tame unpaved stuff for good measure. It's just a matter of playing it by ear and seeing what the group can handle.

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  6. Your friend was lucky they were even able to cycle the 12 miles of the Sustrans route. They have a reputation for being poorly designed and maintained and I would never bother taking one in winter as you are likely to encounter an impassable quagmire.

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    1. Oh I know. Local cyclists joke that when you see a Sustrans route marker, it means "avoid cycling in that direction." One hypothesis is that the people who designed the route - especially the North Coast stretch of 93 - have never actually been to the area.

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    2. That sounds a lot like the street grid for the city of San Francisco; laid out in an office in Manhattan in the 1860s by people who utilized no topographical information in their plans.

      Nothing new under the sun, it seems!

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  7. The Sustrans National Cycling Network, brought to you by the Northern Ireland Automobile Society.

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  8. About children: kids have so much energy and stamina, if anyone can climb a hill a kid can. however most kids bikes are impractical things. Also, many kids are being coddled beyond belief. Being pulled in trailers, trailer bikes, tandems and so on so that they are not on their own little bikes early enough. I have found this can result in poor skills and handling later on because they aren't just put on a bicycle early enough. I was on my own on a bike by the time I was four and riding all over the neighbourhood, not sure if my mom had a clue....anyway, certainly young kids might find steep mountains a bit much, but if they grew up with the proper bikes, the could be doing it soon enough.
    Your friend's error was in assuming the bike route would be sufficient, he likely googled it thought it would be fine and did not listen to your offer of guidance. Bike routes are not always the best, not at all, so it is valuable to know the local topography, local roads, detours and the like. Definitely asking locals helps, or friends who have cycled the area might offer suggestions and tales of horror. I've gone on bike trips, looked at maps looking for alternatives to the main road or highway only to discover my detour is going to take forever because of a major climb or two.
    More and more I yearn to bike in Ireland!

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    1. I agree with your comments re small children - I also commenced bike riding while quite young and remember following my dad on his bike - I do think that perhaps it is not so safe these days to allow small children on the roads in town but surely in the country nothing is better. Riding the local river trails here I often pass family groups where small children are riding while mum and dad stroll along - the look of happiness on the faces of the children says it all - they love the freedom and independence - just as we do.

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    2. I have almost no experience cycling with small children, but I do have experience walking with them... and I have noticed that the switch between "please, oh pretty-please let's keep going - I can walk forever!!!" to "I'm tired and I want to go home nooooooow" can be sudden and instantaneous! :(((

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  9. Love this one. I live in a mountainous area. One has to be cycling-fit to be able to ride around here. In the lowlands, if one can walk, one can a ride a bike. Not up here. You have to train for it.

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  10. It's great to see kids cycling (this one in Arlington).

    I agree completely, it's always about the hills, the traffic, etc that may affect everyone in their own way. And it affects me as well. I see the steep hills and know what I can do these days, in my not quite good shape.

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  11. No one mentioned one of my least favorite features of Sustrans routes: the gates that required us to dismount (and occasionally unload panniers) every few hundred meters. But I shouldn't complain. Thanks to Sustrans routes, I know now that stinging nettles aren't just a feature in English novels, they are real plants that really do sting. As I write this, my traveling companion is saying, "Are you going to mention the terrible signs leaving the international ferry port in Hull (that turned an easy 45 mile introduction to cycling in the UK into a 60 mile slog)? Or the sheep pasture on the Northumberland Coast (where you could tell the path only by the slight depression in the grass over the foot-deep ruts -- the only place I have ever walked my bike on the level)?

    But in all seriousness, what is the touring cyclist, with neither local knowledge nor local connection, and with spotty internet access, to do? Yes, some Sustrans routes were sublime -- but they were the exception, and there was little way to tell ahead of time which you were choosing.

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  12. Ha! I often wonder who lays out these supposed "cycling routes" and have they ever ridden a bike? I live on the west side of Denver, which is a bit of a topographical nightmare if you want to travel in the north/south direction, because every few miles another creek or gulch comes in from the mountains to the west cutting a deep gully that you have to traverse down one side and up the other. There are ways around the worst hills, but not if you follow the posted routes. When I first took up cycling I naively attempted to ride one of said routes on my 35 pound chromoly hybrid. The thing took me up what must have been a 10-15% grade that lasted for about a mile and a half. Seriously, I got passed by a small child pulling a wagon! I'm in much better shape these days (plus I now ride a 17 pound road bike) but it's still a heart-pounding-out-of-chest experience.

    But the worst is all the new "bike infrastructure" which largely consists of very narrow bike lanes placed right in the door zone on 40mph streets with all sorts of turning traffic & business entrances (where the view is obscured by the parked cars.) It sorta boggles my mind because I have a hard time imagining a less safe place to ride a bike! There are also multi-use trails that cross major thoroughfares mid-block with no signal. In my darker moments, I think these things are really conspiratorial attempts to kill off as many cyclists as possible while paying lip service to the idea of creating a "bike-friendly city!"

    Anyhow, I like the idea of posting the difficulty like ski runs - and I would take it a step further by putting the symbols on the posted route road signs (not just on printed maps) with alternate routes posted right there on the signs. I also think that any city planner who puts a narrow bike lane in the door zone of a busy street should be required to ride said route on a daily basis through rush hour! There are just soooo many better options. At the very least, they should post prominent door-zone warning signs for both drivers and riders who might not be aware of the danger.

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  13. The ADFC here in Germany has a pretty extensive network or routes, which while getting you from point A to point B, aren't necessarily what I would recommend for ease or scenery. More often than not, I suspect the routes are to get you off of the roads that are not bike-friendly, but I suppose it could be argued that those are the same roads that cars do not want to encounter cyclists. Either way, glad they're there, but I'll always try to find a better route.

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  14. If the route choices in Edinburgh are anything to go by, the people making it never looked at topography - if there are choices the official route will always be the steepest one.

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