How do you build a bike route?

by Cody Stewart

I've been asked more than once how I've put together some of the routes on the site. So this write-up is an attempt to explain my process. Key phrase, "my process", there's always more than one way to skin a cat. The routes Lovin Lula and Country Cents were probably built a completely different way. This isn't a science. It's what's worked for me, so dabble around yourself and figure out what's best for you. At the end of the day, pedaling your bike anywhere is rewarding, so if all you have time for is what's out your front door, just get out there.

It usually takes me a few hours to produce a route, a route being a GPX file you can load up on a device like a garmin, wahoo, or your cell phone. I personally use my phone, with an app like Ride with GPS. GPX stands for GPS Exchange Format, it's a file with location data, elvation, time, and other bits. I don't nerd out over this part at all. Ride with GPS produces the file and I follow it.

The key ingredients I use to make a route are Ride with GPS, Google Maps, and a search engine.

  • Ride with GPS - I use their route building tool to plot a route, which then exports a GPX file. This write-up is not a comprehensive guide about how to use the Ride with GPS route building tool, for that head over to their website and give it a whirl. They have extensive documentation on how to use the tool if you need it.
  • Google Maps - Being able to see the earth from a bird's eye view is key. I typically stay within the Ride with GPS interface and toggle the satellite overlay, but not always.
  • A Search Engine - While browsing around the maps, you'll spot bike paths / trails / roads / park names that warrant some investigating to make sure there's no restrictions. IE: "no bike allowed", "closed during hunting season", "requires a land pass".

I started crafting gravel sentric routes because I never felt safe on the road with cars. The biggest problem here is dirt and gravel roads have been out of style for car transportation for a while now and it's difficult to find them. So to get started, open up the route planner and move the map somewhere you have in mind that's rural. This is probably obvious, but move away from large highways, these are the yellow lines on the map.

Another starting point I use sometimes is to grab the little street view dude and drag him onto the map, but don't drop him. You'll notice the blue transparent lines overlay on roads indicating that Google has a street view for an area. Typically stay away from places where street views are available. Sometimes dirt roads do have street view, so this trick doesn't always work.

Search for areas that don't "appear" to have a lot of roads, typically these are greener areas. When you spot them, you'll notice if you zoom in just a little more, roads will come into view. A great spot to look for these areas are to search for national and state parks.

I typically try to find a place that has some sort of parking. As an example if I'm wanting to do a route in the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge area, I'd start by searching in one of the surrounding small towns.

You'll want to zoom in on each one and inspect the area for a suitable parking area. As you zoom in structures, businesses, etc start to come into view. In the first image below you'll notice Round Oak has several structures, surely some of those are businesses lining a street with parking; however, turning on satelite view reveals a different story. This town is tiny and those structures are houses.

Running the same pattern for Juliette strikes gold. There's definitely more things to dig into. What stands out to me is the green tree map marker, Juliette Park On Ocmulgee River. Clicking it will open up a tooltip with a "View on Google Maps" link. These Google Map entries have reviews and pictures which typically tell a story and give me a good idea if parking in this area will be a good idea or not. I'll do a Google search for a spot I want to park and then see what else is up. For instance, it'd suck if the place has hours or other restrictions.

Once you find an area and a starting point, it's time to start searching for the first dirt road. Using the same tricks used to find the area, you'll rinse and repeat to find dirt roads. Google street view cars don't like dirt, so use the street view, dude. Once you find a barren looking spot on the map, toggle satelite view and zoom in to see if you can tell what the road's surface looks like. Scentific, I know.

Ahh that was easy... eh, not really. I guess it's becasue I've inspected this area more times than I can remember. This is very time consuming. You'll lose hope, you'll gain hope, and lose it again. Turn on some jams and just keep tinkering. You can save your current work and come back if the kids are distracting you. Anyways, as you find the dirt, follow it and plot points on the map.

A lot of times you won't be able to tell if a road is paved or not by inspecting a single point due to trees. Don't give up so easily when this happens, follow the road and often times empty space will open up revealing the fun stuff.

Typically one road will lead to another, but often you'll be riding a few miles on pavement to get to the next. For connecting roads, use satelite view, zoom in, and look for cars. You can also use the street view tool and see if the road's got a escape options if traffic turns out to be more than you bargained for.

It's not always going to work. Sometimes it'll look like a flat connecting dirt path, but turn out to be a hike a bike. You can't really determine the type of dirt or gravel either, sometimes its chunky and sometimes is freshly graded and smooth as butter. Which is to say, if you can sucker a friend or two into going with you for the recon ride, I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading this far, if there's something you'd like me to ramble on about, drop a comment down below. If you put together something you'd like to share, reach out and lets get it on the website. All it takes is a route, passable photos and some dumb words to describe it. Be safe and have fun out there!