Monday, 31 January 2011

Route planning by bike.

Navigation for your car is normally a pretty simple affair.  Grab a road atlas, find the start point and destination then join up with the biggest roads possible.  However, relying on car-based navigation rules will leave you with a pretty hair raising route. In my experience, any road that starts with an 'A' is like visiting Everest's death zone - if you go there, get out quick because you cannot survive there.  On a bike, journey time becomes less important than other factors such as - safety, quietness, distance, hills. 

So, on a bike there are routes you can't go on, some you won't want to go on, but there are other routes you can take that a car cannot.  Route planning for bikes can be quite tricky.  Luckily, technology is catching up.

In recent years, people have come together to create the brilliant OpenStreetMap - open map data which people can use to create any type of map. People agree on what data to enter, such as where are all the National Cycle Network routes and then you can create a fabulous map such as the OpenCycleMap .

OpenStreetMap data is now being used in route planning software both online, and in handheld devices.  Below, I show you CycleStreets which is getting a lot of publicity, and also the lesser known OpenRouteService .

Demo Route:  Cottenham to Cambridge (UK)

Cottenham is 7 miles north of Cambridge.  If you look on a map, the obvious route to the centre of Cambridge is directly south on the B1049 and then into the car-restricted central zone.


CycleStreets shows three different routes.  Fastest (red), Balanced (orange) and Quietest (green).

The balanced-orange route is the route most people take, including myself.  The fastest-red in this particular example is slightly slower in reality.   The quiet-green route is a completely bonkers route in this case.

CycleStreets algorithm does let you do some walking on footpaths which I think would work very well in a city but in the countryside near Cottenham it doesn't.  It has routed via a really bumpy, muddy field, then onto a byway which is actually quite pleasant and one I take on the mountain bike.  The estimated 40mins for this route is way off.   I got similar results on another route.

Overall, however, CycleStreets has a really slick interface and some fab features.  I especially like seeing the different routes on the same map.


OpenRouteService's bike routing options are Shortest Track; Mountain Bike; Racer; Safest Track; and Preferred Cycle Way.

Shortest track is spot on (as was Cycle Streets).  Racer is similar on this route, but on others it really does make a difference - if you have thin wheels, this will keep you more road based, avoiding gravel and footpaths.

Safest and Mountain bike have come up with a really interesting route (pictured).  It is 18km long compared to the 11km direct but it is definitely a safer route that I would consider for recreational cycling.  Much of the journey is along the guided bus cycle way with a 500m section on gravel to join it.  The road choice in Cambridge is pretty good too, taking you via quieter roads rather than the main through roads.  A missed opportunity is the even quieter car free section along the river from Chesterton to the city centre, probably only 500m longer.


In my experiments, I found the OpenRouteService came up with better routes and would use that first, but I would always be trying out CycleStreets for cities because it does seem to come up with some really interesting options because it considers walking.

On the road

When out on the bike I use a Garmin Dakota GPS.  This will accept a GPX file for a planned route. My favourite road cycling map for the Garmin is VeloMap - this is a free and routeable customised OpenStreet-Map for Garmin GPS devices.  Built in is automatic routing for bikes which is really intelligent.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Lightweight Cycle Camping


In 2009, I decided I would like to try cycle camping and arranged a three night test cycle camping trip with two mates around Suffolk. Being my first trip I didn't want to invest too much money and decided to work within the limits of my existing bike, panniers and rack.

My MTB ready for touring.
Slicks tyres, seatpost rack, panniers and tent.

The limits I had to work within were:
  • A weight limit around 12kg due to my seat post panner rack.
  • A volume limit of 32 Litres using my two 16L Altura Arran panniers.

I've seen plenty of forum posts from people trying to go lightweight or trim down so they can use their road or audax bike for cycle touring and camping. I'd taken photographs of my kit to remind me of what I took for the three night trip so I thought it would be useful to publish these to give an idea of what 14kg of cycle camping kit means. 

Lightweight Philosophy. How light can you go ?

You will no doubt be starting from the position of wanting to take the lightest weight kit for the smallest amount of money and you quickly find that all the best kit costs a lot of money. This is where you start the compromise. You may have a physical weight limit like me or perhaps are trying to keep as light as possible so you can tour on your road bike. Beyond that, you need an approach to kit selection.

I found that many walking magazines cover reviews of ultralight tents and cooking equipment and it was in Trail August 2008 issue that I found an article "Think Light" by Simon Ingram. This is an inspiring article that sums up what I was trying to achieve beyond the weight limit - maximum enjoyment.
Lighter means you can go further with less pain but if you can't sleep at night because you took the 1cm roll matt to save 200 grams you are going to have a bad holiday. Maybe you need the 20cm inflatable bed to sleep at night. You'll be cursing at the extra weight whilst ascending Hardknott Pass. Of course, you can travel less distance and take your time or you could come to the Fens to avoid hills entirely.

You need to choose what you are prepared to compromise on and what is going to give you a great holiday.

I'll show you what I took and to give you an idea of what 12kg means.
Before you become a total weight weenie... it is very easy to spend more money to save grams here and there. What ever you do, when you are looking to spend money to save grams, consider that filling your water bottle will cost you 750g. Keep the total weight in mind and the end game - maximum enjoyment. You could spend that £100 on saving 300g or a new seat or a lot of beer, a luxury hotel midway through your trip.

Cook, Eat, Sleep. Pannier 1 of 2.

The biggest items you are going to be carrying are likely to be for sleeping and cooking. That's what separates you from the credit card tourer who can travel with an under seat pouch. A tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and cooker are going to be big on weight and - easily forgotten until you pack - big on volume.

  • Panniers Altura Arran 16L x2 - 1430g
  • Tent: Vaude Taurus UL 1 - 2000g
  • Sleeping Bag - Vango Venom 225. - 22x14cm packed - 740g
  • Sleeping Mat - Thermarest Prolite4 regular - 28x10cm packed - 460g
  • Stove - Trangia 27 UL1 - 19x10cm packed. (fuel not incl) - 720g
  • Fuel - Meths / Denatured Alcohol - (5 days) 500g
  • Cutlery. Sharp knifes, fork, spoon, spatula, pen knife; lighter - 600g
  • Toiletries - Toothbrush, paste and floss; razor, shave soap; shower gel - 250g
  • Travel towel - 200g
  • Misc other - washing line and pegs; mug; sun glasses in a hard case, Plastic container with raw cooking ingredients - 600g
Volume Check: What is most surprising is that these items took up 80% of one 16 litre pannier. I can easily fill one of those with a change of clothes and shoes on a commute to work. In the end, volume became more of an issue than weight.

Items stored inside the Trangia

Clothing. Pannier 2 of 2
Clothing is definitely the area I compromised on most of all. If I got it wrong I could survive short term with what I had and go on a shopping spree. My trip was only three nights but for a longer trip I would definitely take more.

My clothing consisted of a spare set of cycling clothes; clothes to sleep in, with the merino top doubling as an evening top; one set of civilian underwear; a pair of zip off trousers; and waterproofs.

To me, getting wet is so uncomfortable and with so few clothes I made sure I had a full set of waterproofs just in case. The shoes I cycled in were my only pair of shoes and not waterproof so I took overshoes too. Late in the season, we had very little drying time off the bikes so you may want to choose fast drying clothes in case of a downpour.

Contents of second 16L pannier. Warm, dry, clothes.

  • Warm Layer Wollen hat; Zipped fleece; (gloves) ~650g
  • Waterproof Layer PVC Waterproof coat; Waterproof trousers; Overshoes; 776g 
  • Coat is not light but is 100% waterproof.
  • Nightime Silk liner; Pillow case; Merino top; Long Johns; Warm socks; 787g 
  • Pillowcase stuffed with clothes to make a pillow.
  • Puncture repair and tools Inner tube; Puncture repair kit; (tools carried by others) 300g
  • More cycle clothes Running shorts; Long tracksters; (fleece jumper) 622g Not even a spare cycle top.
  • Evening clothes Zip-off walking trousers; underwear; 517g Using same top for sleeping.

Do not under-estimate the amount of calories you will consume.

On day two of our test trip we had a breakfast, fish and chips for lunch and a three course meal in a pub for dinner. Eating out could get very expensive. If on a tight budget you will soon be searching out the most calories per £££ such as doughnuts and fig rolls - 700 calories for 34p - but at some point your body will start to crave real nutrients.

What would I do different next time ?

Definitely more clothes ! 

Spare spokes - after seeing how easily they can snap with all that weight an how difficult it can be to get the right length from a bike shop.

More storage for food.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Warning: cycling is addictive

Happy New Year! 2011 is here and there are going to be a fair number of people who make a resolution to get fit and lose weight.  Good luck to you, its a hard slog, will take you a long time and as they say, No Pain, No Gain.  If you are going to keep up your new regime my recommendation is to build it into your lifestyle and the perfect way to do that is to walk, run, or cycle to work.

10 years ago I was an overweight chubby, car commuter queuing my way to work. On a good day it was a two cigarette commute, on a rainy day the queues into Cambridge make it four smokes.  Then I moved to Cottenham, seven miles north of Cambridge, UK.  Since then, I have undergone a personal transformation.  I am physically fit, and I enjoy my commutes on my two wheeled transport.  It's never mundane - most of the time it is there is great pleasure, sometimes hardship and oohhhhh the weather. But, you do feel like you are living rather than existing.  I wholly recommend it.

Cottenham is 7 miles out and everybody living here owns a car, including our family.  It definitely feels separate from Cambridge in a way that Histon does not, and I think it is the exposed flat fields surrounding our village - it can feel remote and exposed, merely clinging on to Cambridge. That image is reinforced by the "Fen Edge News" dropping through the letter box.

It is then no surprise when you talk about cycle commuting to Cambridge, that it is an impossibility to some even though there are the visible few that cross the void by bike from Cottenham to Histon.  In winter they are hard to spot, but come summer, the cyclist tap opens and they drip drip drip their way over the void.  It is possible. You just need to try.  And once you try the addiction starts, then the craving.  But for most, there will always be the excuses ... no time ... nowhere to change ... sweaty ... helmet hair ... weather ... the school run ... the danger.

If you ever think your journey is impossible read a little about Ranulph Fiennes and you will realise what a human can be capable of.  A little closer to home there is probably one of those cycle commuters living near you, silently wheeling out the bike every day. There is your inspiration, in your street.

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