Route planning

Here are some beginner’s route route-planning tips for family bike rides.

Waiting for the train at Settle station

Settle station, Yorkshire Dales.

The first thing to consider when planning a bike ride isn’t so much where to go but how to get there. If you have a car then the world’s your oyster. Although you can, of course, park pretty much anywhere I usually try to select a car park (marked with a ‘P’ on Ordnance Survey maps) as there’s no chance of upsetting local residents and plenty of space to load and unload the bike and get set up for the ride.

If you don’t have a car then you will probably be limited to rides that start and end at a railway station. A distinct advantage of using trains is that you can always end your ride at a different station to where you alighted giving the option for linear as well as circular routes. As a rule of thumb, trains carry bikes out of commuting hours and don’t charge for them. Sometimes you put your bike in the guard’s van but on local trains you usually lift it into the carriage itself. Long distance services have extra restrictions. Check ahead with the relevant train operator – and make sure you know whether the guard’s van will be at the front or back of the train when it pulls in to the platform! Don’t just turn up on the day. You may be disappointed.

The second governing factor of a ride is how far you want to pedal. You will probably have a good idea yourself from your level of fitness and experience. Most healthy adults can manage 10 miles without much trouble and 20 miles as long as the pace is gentle and there are plenty of rests with a meal in the middle. I usually plan on no more than 40 miles for a full day’s ride which still allows time to stop off at places of interest. My nine-year-old can manage up to about 15 miles. Generally speaking you won’t travel much faster than 10mph on average and, off-road, a better speed from which to calculate cycling times is 8mph or lower still if it’s hilly.


The descent from Buttertubs Pass near Hawes, Yorkshire Dales.

Hills. Now that’s something that strikes fear into the heart of the novice cyclist. As every schoolboy knows, the closer the contours the greater the gradient. On OS maps, hills of a 20 per cent gradient (1 in 5) or steeper are indicated by double arrows while hills from 14-20 per cent carry a single arrow. It’s easy to underestimate or discount gradients but you shouldn’t. They have a major bearing on your rate on your energy levels, rate of progress and length and frequency of rests. On a cycle tour of the Cornish coastline I barely used my pedals. Most of the time I was either freewheeling downhill into a cove or pushing up hill out of one.

A handy way to plan out hills is to seek cycle routes that follow canal towpaths or disused railway lines. Barges and trains needed flatness then just like you need it now. These routes have the added bonus of usually being waymarked and traffic-free. Don’t forget that beaches also provide flat cycling too – but only incorporate them in the route if you know the sand is firm, the tide is out and there’s plenty of space. Routes around lakes also tend to have few hills. Cycling around a natural feature like a lake gives a ride a good theme, means it’s easy to monitor progress and provides a great sense of achievement at the end.


Rutland Water, Rutland.

You can devise your own traffic-free route anywhere in the UK with some simple interpretation of public rights of way of Ordnance Survey maps. The golden rule is that, legally, you are allowed to cycle down bridleways but not footpaths. (The legend on the map tells you which is which). Bridleways come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, of course. Some are suitable for bikes, some not. The secret to telling which is which is to check the map to see where the bridleway leads. If it goes to a farm or other dwelling then the residents will need to get their cars down the bridleway and it will be easy for you to negotiate too. If not then it’s probably suitable only for walkers, horses and mountain bikers who don’t mind having to carry their bikes if necessary. Another tip is to see if the bridleway is walled or fenced. Walls and fences are marked by a continuous black line. Again, if the bridleway is enclosed then, by and large, it’s likely to be better surfaced. Uncoloured – in other words, white – roads on maps are sometimes public and sometimes private, leading to someone’s house for instance. You will only find out when you get there so make sure you have an alternative route just in case. Finally, the minor, yellow roads on Ordnance Survey maps do, of course, carry traffic but not much of it. Look out in particular for the narrow yellow roads or those with dashes on either side of them (indicating they’re not fenced or walled) as these tend to be the quietest.

Canal at Bank Newton 1

Leeds & Liverpool Canal, Bank Newton, Lancashire.

Some really keen cyclists I’ve come across think nothing of blasting their way round a circuit of 80 miles or more in a day. Personally, I can’t see the attraction. The joy of cycling for me are the pauses between the pedalling – be they tourist attractions, nature reserves, quirky little features of the countryside like follies, or something as pleasing and pastoral as a village cricket match. Scrutinise your map and select some places that interest you and then see if you can link them together, ideally with a circular route that doesn’t require you to repeat any sections. Having places to see is a good way of breaking up the journey into legs too, one to each landmark.

One inevitable place of interest will be the pub for lunch. Try to choose a hostelry or sandwich stop which is over half way along your journey. Then at least you can take time and enjoy your meal without a long distance hanging over you. Always allow for a good lunch. Food is fuel and you will use lots on a bike ride. Likewise, if there’s a place on the route where you anticipate spending a long time then select your start point and direction of travel so that you reach it towards journey’s end.

Enjoy the ride!


There are few greater joys for a cyclist than planning out the spring and summer’s adventures. Here is some recommended reading:

Cutting on Tissington Trail nr Heathcote

Old railway cutting on Tissington Trail near Heathcote, Peak District.
This should be your first port of call when planning a bike ride. The maps section of this website is indispensable as it specifies every bike route in the UK. You can also buy a wide range of specialist cycling maps too.

National Byway
The National Byway calls itself “Britain’s heritage cycling route”. You can’t view maps online but you can buy them from the website. On the face of it, the National Byway has many similarities with the National Cycle Network but the Byways follow existing minor roads rather than purpose-built routes.

Ordnance Survey
I find that the 1:50,000 Explorer maps are best for general route-planning and use on the road. The smaller scale 1:25,000 maps carry more detail but often you don’t need it and the drawback is that you have to get out and re-fold the map more regularly as you move around the route.

Golden Eye
These are simply maps with circular cycle routes marked on them. They don’t carry much information about the places you pass through but are a good way of spotting routes. The scale of two miles to the inch is ideal as it provides sufficient detail for cycling but also enables each map to cover a large area.

Canal & Rivers Trust
The above site includes an excellent searchable database on cycle rides based on the canal network.

Forestry Commission
This site is along the same lines as Waterscape – but with suggested routes in forests rather than along canals.

Tourist Information Centres
They are a great source of (usually free and illustrated) guides to local cycle routes. Just about every centre seems to have guides, even those in less obviously attractive urban areas. Always ask as often not all guides are on display.

Red Trail 4 (shadow)

Dalby Forest, North York Moors.


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