Adventures on the Horizon: A Guide to Better Route Planning with Ben Davies

During this period of worldwide uncertainty, staying motivated can be a huge challenge. While getting out on the bike pales into insignificance compared to the much bigger issues we’re all facing, it is still okay to recognise these smaller personal frustrations and to have something to look forward to. Currently, I am riding locally and working from home in Bristol, UK: a far cry from what I should have been doing. Right now, I should be battling my way through the Sudanese Sahara desert, a few days into an attempt to set a new fastest record cycling from Cairo to Cape Town. Beyond that, I had a full calendar of ultra-endurance events planned. The Africa record attempt is postponed and all my planned races have been canceled.

I’m sure many of us are in a similar situation, training and being excited for a particular event or ride. It is all too easy for the current lack of certainty to get us down. Personally I am trying to look at this situation as positively as possible: researching potential replacement races later in the year, building on my training and adding in small measurable goals to make it fun and measure progress, or delving into the bucket list and route planning local and further afield bike rides. I’m a big fan of route planning to while away the hours: here’s my step-by-step guide for planning the perfect route. 

Step One: Set a goal for the ride

Before starting out on a route it’s really important to set a goal for the ride. For my Cairo to Cape Town route, one of the goals was speed, which had a huge influence on the type of route I chose. A direct route, the quality of the road surface and border crossings became important determining factors, whereas for a more classic bikepacking or touring ride, these factors may be less significant. 

If you’re just setting out for a weekend ride into the countryside, your goal will be different to this of course, but you may have certain landmarks you wish to see or that famous hill climb you’ve always dreamt of. With speed not a definitive factor to your ride, goal setting by location is a great way to structure your route.

Step Two: Start with the bigger picture and break it down

Whether it’s a 40km or 24,000km route, once the goal is determined, I always plan the route by setting out a high-level overview and gradually honing in the accuracy as I go. For longer routes I’ll break it into manageable chunks to work with – for example, I approached Cairo to Cape Town by breaking it down into border crossing to border crossing. Approaching the full 11,000km in one hit would have been way too daunting a task!

The bird’s eye view of Ben’s total route

Step Three: Choose a route-planning tool

Working out to use a route planning tool can take time, so it’s best to choose one carefully, with a view to sticking with it. RideWithGPS has been my go-to for years and I use it to plan everything from racing, long-distance adventures through to training and even commuting. 

To start planning your route, input a start and finish location and then move onto understanding the terrain between those two points or via a loop. Most routing platforms will allow you to switch between different map types to get a feeling for the type of terrain and environment you’ll encounter and it’s also useful to drag and drop the generated route to see how the amount of climbing and distances changes and give the topography some more context. Knowing this in combination with your route goal is a really good way of generating some structure for your route. 

Step Four: Drill-Down For Greater Accuracy

One of the key factors to determine when looking at the route with a greater level of accuracy, one is safety. When picking out the specific types of roads and trails that your route traverses, try and think about how you will feel cycling there (Google Maps’ street view functionality is great for getting a feel for what the road is like). 

If you are planning a Transcontinental Race type route, often the most direct, faster roads are the best choice from a race perspective – however keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable when it comes to being on that road, your speed will be slower to compensate. If there are ever roads that are questionable, it’s always a good idea to plan backups. At the opposite end of the scale, it’s always fun to pick out the roads less travelled and see where they take you!

Step Five: Account For Stops

If you want to take your route planning to the next level of detail you can start adding Points of Interest, food and sleep stops (or even the bar, winery or café stop you need to rehydrate at?!) to your routes, and structure your multi-day rides around particular sleep spots and places to refuel (this is another reason why I love RideWithGPS). Generally, I’m a big fan of being reactive on the road and eating and sleeping when my body needs it but conversely, and particularly in very remote areas, it’s incredibly useful to be aware of what is up the road. 

For example, for my route through the Sahara, the distances are vast between opportunities to pick up food and water, so having the visibility of what is coming up the road limits the dangers and influences the supplies I had planned to carry on the bike. 

Ben’s stops in place for a snippet of his route

My Cairo to Cape Town route is all set up and ready to go for when the time is right and I’m also bound to have built up a healthy library over the next few weeks of rides, and I am going to be super motivated to get out there and explore post-lockdown!

Check out Ben’s successful route from last year’s Transcontinental – arguably the toughest self-supported ultra-distance event in the calendar. He was the 2nd place rider overall, traveling from Burgas, Bulgaria to Brest, Brittany. A casual sum of over 4000km in just 10 days, 13 hours, and 10 minutes – amazing effort Ben. 

See Ben’s TCR route here.

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Riding Style

Ben uses the AeroPack Carbon S when he rides cross-continent, to find out more about it check these articles out:

Do aerodynamics matter in bikepacking?

Race-proven – How the Tailfin AeroPack measures up when it matters