A Dabble in Route Planning
The past year has been a great eye-opener for me as far as finding new places to ride in an area I thought I'd exhausted. In particular, I've been impressed by local randonneuse Pamela Blalock's ability to design routes entirely along back roads, with minimal motorised traffic. This style of route involves more climbing than typical, and, at times, some intense navigation. But having gotten used to both, I've come to appreciate the opportunities routes like this provide: to travel on my bike largely undisturbed by cars, and to truly get to know an area, with all its hidden scenery and useful shortcuts. I also appreciate that Pamela's routes are not a matter of luck or psychic powers, but of dedicated research and strategic exploring.
Until recently I did not feel sufficiently confident in my navigation skills to try this myself, but now that is changing. I am planning a ride heading North, and getting out of Boston straight up the coast is a thoroughly unpleasant business. There is no good way to do it; for the first 10 miles it is all dangerous roads and lots of congestion. So I wanted to plan a route that would swing out west and come around from there, connecting to the northern route at a point where it calms down. This adds about 30 extra miles to the start of the trip, but I will take 40 pleasant miles over 10 unpleasant ones any time.
In planning the westward route extension, my goal was to try and do it along lightly traveled back roads, possibly with some unpaved stretches. I started by studying similar routes that go through the area, combining and modifying them based on personal experience, maps, and educated guesswork, until I'd strung something together that went where I needed it to go. I loaded the route onto GPS, printed out a cue sheet, and got on my bike to test out my handiwork.
For my first time trying something like this, it wasn't bad. There were lots of turns that would drive some people nuts and a few awkward climbs - the kind where a climb starts right after a sharp turn, catching you by surprise, so that you're downshifting madly from a high gear. This I didn't mind, particularly since I was the only vehicle on the road much of the time. But there was also a couple of mistakes/ surprises - not necessarily bad, but educational.
My route included a few unpaved trails, all except one of which I was already familiar with. The one I was not familiar with turned out to be more technical than I'd expected.
A shortcut through the woods, the narrow bumpy trail wound its way downhill between trees rather tightly. I was able to ride it, but made a note to avoid it on skinny tires, in wet weather and in the dark. Looking at the map, I saw there was a way to circumvent the woods on the road, so I then went back and tested that stretch to make sure it was a sufficiently traffic-free alternative.
While not ideal for all bikes and all occasions, this trail proved to be incredibly scenic this time of year. For much of it, I cycled under a canopy of budding magnolia blossoms. The sun brought out their colours against the blue sky, and the warm weather brought out their scent.
Riding here, I felt as if I'd been gifted a rare glimpse into something special and rare. Only for 2 weeks of the year do these flowers blossom. And all it takes is one windy, rainy day, for all this tentative pinkness to be stripped off its branches before the flowers even fully open up.
Spring is such a delicate time of the year. The greens are pale, the tangled trees are transparent like lace. In the summer this will all become fuller, heavier, thicker - a dense fabric.
Even moss is paler and softer. I love coming back to the woods season after season and seeing it all change.
Further along, I found myself on a stretch of road that was much busier than expected. So I changed course in hopes of finding a better alternative. On the map I saw a tangle of side streets that it looked like I could ride through to get to my next point, skipping the busy road. So I did just that, and found myself in a cul-de-sac neighbourhood situated on a substantial hill. Looking for the best route, I ended up going over this hill several times from different directions, until I found the sequence I was happiest with.
On one of the streets I passed a group of small boys with their kids' bikes. The poor things could only ride them up and down short stretches in front of their house before the road became too steep. Seeing me continue all the way up the hill, the boys stopped what they were doing, stood still and stared, saying "Whoa, I want to do that!" and "That's a nice bike, lady!" They had not reached that age yet where youthful mockery becomes hard to detect; it was clear their delight was genuine.
Later, I encountered a woman walking a llama, as casually as if she were walking a dog. Normally I am not good at making quick u-turns, but this time it was no problem (llama!).
Heading home along a quiet trail, I realised that in the course of the past 50 miles there had only been a few stretches with noticeable car traffic. And now that I had a better understanding of the neighbourhoods around those stretches, I could make changes to improve those parts as well. It wasn't perfect, but I am pretty happy with my first serious attempt at backroad route planning. Even the parts that did not go as expected allowed me to explore and discover interesting pockets I would have otherwise missed.
Having a network of new, "secret" as some locals refer to them, routes through familiar areas is extremely exciting and a great way to travel. I am looking forward to doing more of this!