Route Planning

 Navigation and route planning for long distance self-supported rides

On a trip like the Cambridge Warsaw trip, navigation and route planning becomes the centre of your existence.  It's basically all you do all day...apart from turn your legs over and over again.

Firstly you have to embrace the chaos and uncertainty.  The only times I felt real pressure on the ride was when I had a very fixed goal for the following day (for example meeting my friend Gideon in Arnhem in the evening).  That was the one leg of the route where it had been planned well in advance of leaving but on the day, I felt a lot of pressure to get there in time and pushed pretty hard when I maybe didn't feel like it.

If I were advising anybody on doing a trip like this then the following points are important.

  • Work out what you can do in a day.  100km is too short and you'll have lots of time in the mornings and evenings when you're kicking about doing nothing.  200km is probably too long.  With stops included, it's hard to average much over 20km/h and 10 hours on the bike is a long time.  I chose 130-180km for my "standard distance".
  • One test ride. Once you've worked that out and before you leave for the trip, pack all the stuff you're going to take with you onto the bike you're going to ride and pick somewhere (say) 150k away from your home that's got a train station and do a day on the bike with all the stuff.  This lets you know what it is going to feel like
  • Go with the navigation suggestions. I had a very rigid routine when I finished for the day.  Shower, wash kit.  Then I would look at the map on the Garmin Connect app (combined with the hopeless EuroVelo2 map) and pick a town (say) 150km away.  I'd check on booking.com to make sure there was a hotel with a free room and then ask Garmin to automatically design a route from where I was to that town.  I'd then book the hotel and transfer the route to the Garmin head unit.  You just don't have the time or the energy to micromanage the routing each day.  Occasionally this would throw me onto the wrong type of roads but almost always the Garmin route was sensible, relatively straight and on good cycling roads.
  • Understand your head unit for navigation. I use a Garmin 830 head unit but pretty much all the head units are the same.  However, as a typical MAPIL, I mostly use my Garmin head unit as a fitness device, not a navigation device.  I'm normally concentrating on heart rate, cadence, power, speed because I know where I'm going.  On a long trip like this one, you're looking at the map all the time and so it's important that you understand how the navigation on the head unit works.  I'm sure each unit has its quirks but on the Garmin, the two irritating things are how it handles losing GPS coverage going through a tunnel ("hey, I've lost GPS so you're probably back at the entrance of the tunnel going the wrong way, make a U turn immediately") and when you go off course and then find the course again ("Hey, I know you're on the course but do a U turn and go back to where you joined the course....oh wait, now you really are on the course").  Both these are irritating but once you know that they're going to happen it's a little less disturbing.
  • Bite-sized chunks.  To make the whole day less daunting, I had a strategy to break the day down.  There's obviously the "pre-half-way" and "post-half-way" sections for example.  I always tried to get 35-40km under my belt before stopping for a coffee or some water.  I always got off the bike for a stretch and a drink either when I'd done 100km in the day or I had 50km to go.  I also stopped at 20km to go because I knew the last bit was always going to be mentally challenging getting into town.
Navigation is everything on these trips because if you get it wrong and you've gone 30k in the wrong direction, that's just 30k of extra cycling which you really really don't want to do.


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