How do I plan my route?

Even before I started my trip, a lot of people were asking me the same question: what roads are you going to take? At the time, I wasn’t sure. There are a lot of possible ways to plan your route on a bike trip. I have found a method that works for me, but I am sure there are better ways out there.

If someone is considering a long tour for the first time, Adventure Cycling Routes are probably the way to go. This is THE organization for long-distance cycling tourists. They publish excellent maps with routes cross-country and along both coasts. These detail bike shops, hotels, police stations, hospitals, and camping grounds. They give cue sheets and brief snippets on local nature and culture. They are amazing.

But I don’t use them. Adventure Cycling is great if your goal is to go on a long tour. They are not great if your plan is to see friends in random cities dispersed through out the East Coast and couchsurf between them. Most of my trip has not been along the roads featured in the maps available. I have had to rely on other methods.

The first thing I do is fire up Google Maps and look at the bicycle route between my two major destinations. For this trip, my major cities were Boston, New York, Philly, DC, Raleigh, Charleston, and Savannah. These are the places that I had friends at, so I knew I needed to go through. And yes, Google Maps has a bicycle function. This function is useful, but it has its problems, which I will cover later. So I bring up Google Maps and I find a possible route between New York and Philly. I then look at the total amount of miles. Anything over 70 miles needs to be broken up. For the most part, I am looking for 50 to 70 mile segments. So I look at the map and find towns that would be between 50 and 70 miles. Then I fire up and search in those areas. So far, this has worked almost every time. I pick my first stop, email a few hosts, then look back at the maps. I then find another town about 50 to 70 miles away. I repeat this until I get to the major destination city.

At this point, I have a rough route sketched out. Then I fire up Google Maps again and look at the bicycle route they suggest between the city I’m in and the next one I’m going to. I usually do this about about 11PM the day before I depart. I go along the route and see how I can make it shorter. Google is always trying to get cyclists off the main roads. To do this, it will have them turn into neighborhoods, ride for half a mile, then get back on the highway again, then repeat this process ten times during a 40 mile ride. This is confusing and causes me to get lost. I’d rather stay on the highway. So I look at the route and try to simplify it down. Then I make myself a cue sheet. I write down the directions line-by-line. L on Greenbriar, R on 44. L on 56. In Pepperville, R on Grant. SL on Belmurphy. Things like that. Sometimes I will write the mileage on the streets if I am not too tired. However, usually, but the time I am mapping my routes, I am just ready to pass out from exhaustion. I should probably route plan earlier in the day.

Once I am on the road, I often change my directions. Sometimes a person will tell me a better way. Sometimes, I miss my turn and I just pull out my paper maps and pick the simplest highway route. Sometimes, I just don’t understand what I wrote down from the night before. Generally, I have enough time in the day to get lost for a few miles and still make it to my next city in time.

The roads I ride on vary a lot. I would say I am more traffiic-tolerant than a lot of cyclists, but I think this might be normal for touring cyclists. When you are only in your hometown, of course you aren’t going to get on the highway, but when you are traveling between cities, sometimes it is really the most obvious option. I LOVE wide shoulders. Those are the best. It is probably dangerous, but even if the road it busy, if the shoulder is wide and clean, then I feel safe. Often near cities though, the shoulder is filled with glass and debris. Then shoulders are not good. Between cities though, shoulders seem like bike lanes without the markings. Two lane roads are okay if they are not busy, but I almost always prefer four lanes. I want the cars to be able to get over to pass me with plenty of space. At times, my route will seem to dangerous. I have encountered heavily trafficked roads with no shoulders. So far, I’ve always been able to find another route by asking people. Usually, the road conditions have improved a few miles down the road.

Trails are good because they have no traffic, but they are confusing because they are not marked as well. The quality of the trail can also vary a lot. For my bike, they are fine, but if someone had a dedicated road bike with skinny tires, some trails would be bad ideas. I like trails because they are usually scenic and end some of the monotony of highway riding, but I go on them expecting to get confused and possibly lost.

Another great asset is the East Coast Greenway. This is a marked route from Maine to Florida. They actually have signs posted in most places that people can follow. However, like Google Maps, I found that there were too many turns. I did find myself riding on it by chance many times when I was in the Northern States. I haven’t seen it in a while, so I imagine it went East to the Coast. It would be another good option for people who are less traffic-tolerant and more directions-capable.

Finally, I had a choice before my trip on whether or not I should carry a GPS with me. I wish that I had. For some trips, they would not be necessary. If you were not trying to get somewhere by a specific day and you were not couchsurfing, then getting lost could be fun. You would have just changed your route. However, for me, getting lost just puts more pressure on my day. I don’t know that I would recommend buying one for a trip, but if you had an extra one you could take and you had deadlines, it would be a useful tool. I guess for many people, their smart phones would take care of this problem as well.

So in summary, how do I plan my routes? I still don’t know. I have my method, but it certainly isn’t set in stone, and it definitely doesn’t seem efficient. However, it’s gotten me 850 miles so far.


Baltimore to Washington: Roads to the unknown

Unfortunately for me (and all cyclists really), there is no “easy” route from Baltimore to DC. Or at least that’s what I read online. There are a couple numbered roads that lead there between the cities, but they are too busy to be cycled on. There was, however, a 40-step cue sheet available from a DC cycling web site. 40 steps is a lot for me, especially when I don’t have a printer to print them out on. And when I’m exhausted at 11PM. My tendency in writing something incorrectly greatly increases with my exhaustion and the number of turns. 40 seems liked a lot.

I mapped it out on google and finally came up with something that had 30 steps. Pretty good. And only one trail that I could manage to get lost on.

I left Baltimore at about 8:30 and found my way out of the city very easily. On the outskirts, I did stop at a 7-11 and ate some disgusting fried cheese stick and cheap donuts. On a bike trip, you can really eat anything. A few miles later I got lost trying to navigate the BWI trail around the airport. Fortunately, I was able to find a bus map and get back on the right path. The trip wasn’t that difficult despite the rather lengthy directions. It was strange to have a lack of understanding for where I was going. See, I don’t write down mileage indicators usually. On a numbered road, this is okay. There will be signs with “Washington DC 20 miles.” But when you are cutting through neighborhoods, this is not

BWI Airport

I biked around a little bit, relaxed on the National Mall, and then checked out the new MLK monument. Finally, I went over to Arlington to meet up with my hosts, Brian and his girlfriend Erica. Overall, it was a nice relaxing day on the bike.

Philly to Baltimore: Snowtober and the Conowingo

My evening in Philly was much more pleasant than my ride. I had dinner with my friend Phillip and his roommates before we went to their weekly “family night” with some of their other friends. There we watched the finale of Project Runway and 10 innings of the World Series (I was too tired to stay until the end). The next day I woke up, changed my tire more quickly and calmly, and left for my journey. I was only going to Elkton, Maryland, which was less than fifty miles. It figured to be a pleasant day of low-stress riding.

Leaving Philly was surprisingly easy. I only got lost once, and even then, I quickly found out where I was with the map of Pennsylvania that I had. After a while, I crossed into Delaware. About halfway through the ride, I noticed that my tire seemed to be going flat again. However, it was a very slow leak. I pumped it up some and kept going, stopping about every six miles to put some more air into it.

I got into Newark, Delaware, which was the major city near to where I was going early enough that I stopped at the local library. Libraries are great places for free wifi access (as are college campuses!). I found out where a local bike shop was and re-confirmed the directions I had to my host’s house. Then I ran by the bike shop (which was only two blocks away) to get some new tire levers. I had busted my previous ones when I was changing the flat in the gas station parking lot. The guy at the bike shop sold them to me for half off when he heard about my tour and helped me fill up my tires. Those presta valves were giving me trouble again. As I was leaving, he asked if I had heard about the snow storm yet.

Snow storm? What snow storm?

Yeah, he said. There’s a freak snow storm coming through tomorrow. They are predicting up to a foot for some areas. It could affect DC even. We looked it up on the stores internet and sure enough, a crazy noreaster

I had not heard about the snow storm. I don’t really check the weather. If it’s raining, I’ll put on my rain jacket. If it’s cold, I’ll put on my hat, long underwear, or fleece. If it snows, well, I didn’t have a plan. I decided I’d buy some better gloves. My fingerless ones are great for added biking comfort, but I knew a cold wind would just kill my hands. On the way to my hosts house, I stopped by and got some gloves at Rite-Aid. Thus, I had prepared for the next day’s snow storm.

Of course, I was considering not riding in the snow storm. Safety is my primary concern. I had to ask myself,  would it be safe to ride the 70 miles to Baltimore? The snow wasn’t predicted until evening. If I left at 7am, I could get there by approximately 3PM. The snow shouldn’t be there yet. But that would be a day of riding in rain, slush, and mid-30s temperatures. The weather forecast for Sunday: sunny, clear, and in the mid-40s. For most people, this would probably be an easy decision. However, staying an extra day would eliminate a DC day from my trip. It would also be macho to ride through freezing rains. I checked with both of my CS hosts: the Delaware one was okay with me staying an extra day and the Baltimore one was okay with me arriving a day late. It was my call.

I woke up at 6am to assess the weather. Then I realized that the sun did not rise until about 7:15am. It looked cold outside. I’d be staying an extra day in Delaware. Baltimore would have to wait. 45 and sunny won out over 35 and sleeting. I think I made the right call.

With my extra day in Delaware (so I was right on the border with Delaware and Maryland, but we were closer to Newark, Delaware), my CS host and I had a lot of fun. Despite the weather, we ventured out with his friend to a farmer’s market. Then they put on a private concert for me at the church he plays organ at (he and his friend are a vocal/piano duo). Finally, we just vegged out all day watching NetFlix. It felt good to just sit around (not on a bike) all day and relax.

The next day I woke up and set off at about 8am. 70 miles was going to be a big day for me. Everything looked easy except for crossing the Susquehana. There were three possible crossings: Route 40, I-95, and Route 1. Bicycles were only allowed on Route 1. However, Route 1 was over the Conowingo Dam, a one-mile two lane road that looked treacherous from Internet pictures. It was the only option though. I didn’t quite know how I would cross it. I figured I would just do it or if it was too bad, try and hitchhike across it in a passing pick-up truck. I had been riding for a couple hours when I knew the dam should be nearby. I was still planning on stopping at the edge to re-assess the situation. However, then there was a giant hill, then a curve, then the dam was at the end of the curvy hill. There was no time or place to stop, and the hill shot me off across the dam at about 20 miles an hour. It felt surprisingly safe. Although it was two lanes, the lanes were wider than they appeared. And traffic was sparse enough that passing cars could do so with no problem. After a few minutes, I was across the bridge. Only Baltimore awaited.

The rest of the ride was pleasant and rather unmemorable. It was a beautiful day, but I’ve had so many of those by now that they mostly blur together. Baltimore itself seemed like a rather nice city. The Ravens decorations were very noticeable and appreciated; I like a city that supports its teams. The downtown area was rather hilly but very scenic. It seemed like it wouldn’t be a bad place to live.

They were losing to the Cardinals but had a great comeback

I found my host’s place with no problem, and we parked my bike in the backyard. She and her hilarious French roommate prepared a fantastic dinner, and afterwards, we talked about aid and development for a long time. My host was also interested in international development, so I thought it was great that I had a chance to meet her. Before going to bed, I tried planning my route to DC. It didn’t look good for me.

Pork Roll, Trails, and Flat Tires

The ride to Philly was going to be rough. Somerset to Philly was over 60 miles, so I knew it would be a long day. The forecast also predicted rain the whole way. It was going to be wet. Obviously, my primary goal was to make it to Philly. However, I also wanted to try Pork Roll before I made it out of Jersey. More on Pork Roll later.

I set off on time at around 8:00 and headed out of my host’s neighborhood. The google directions had me picking up the D and R canal trail about 10 miles down the road. I was a little weary of this after my previous trail experiences in Connecticut. I found the trail with no problem because it was very well marked. It ran along a canal and was mostly hard-packed earth. The ride was pretty smooth, with some bumps. It was a fun ride, but after five miles or so, I decided to find a road route. Having rained all night, this path was muddy and a little slower. I knew I had a long day ahead and I didn’t want to fall behind.

I ended up taking the road next to the trail called Canal Road for a few miles before ending up back on Route 1. Route 1 seems to be everywhere. Fortunately, by getting back on Route 1, I also got back near cafes and businesses. And that meant that I saw a deli that served breakfast. I knew my chance had come.

Ken Balla was one of my good friends in the Peace Corps, and he is a Jersey boy. He’s not quite like the people on the Jersey Shore, but he is from Seaside. All during our two years of service, he raved about some type of deli meat called Pork Roll. I must have heard about it over fifty times. Of course, my interest was piqued. I couldn’t leave New Jersey without hunting it down and trying it. So I parked my bike, walked into this deli, and awkwardly asked if they had Pork Roll. I didn’t see it on the menu, and they were mostly serving Boar’s Head meat. I doubted that Boar’s Head made Pork Roll. The woman stared at me like I was an idiot. I was in a New Jersey deli. Of course they had Pork Roll. She fried me up some with an egg and cheese and served me a good ol’ New Jersey Breakfast. It was delicious and satisfying. Then I got back on the road.

I passed through Princeton a little later. It seems like a lot of Ivy Leagues like the castle decor.

Statue in a park in Princeton

Then I reached Trenton. Trenton seemed a little scary because I realized I had to cross the Delaware. The most obvious bridge was gigantic and horribly busy. Fortunately, there was an easy, friendlier bridge about a mile away. Maryland, take note of this for the Susquehana. After crossing the bridge, I followed my directions and was feeling good. Then the directions took me to a road marked: “Private road. No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.” Hmmm…. Thanks, Google. The other road nearby was having road work done, so there was a detour onto a major highway. My options were backtrack four miles and try to find another route, get on the major highway, or ride this private road for four miles. I went for the private road, hoping they would look kindly on passing touring cyclists.

The road turned out to be right along the Delaware river. It was an amazing spot. All along the river were people’s private docks. They had trailers and boats stored away. It looked a lot like it was owned by Southern frat boys with Nascar posters, stolen street signs, and other things littering the yards. It seemed abandoned for the season, but I still pedaled as fast as I could. I crossed without incident and got back on a major road. The weather, still hadn’t improved. It was drizzling, cold, and rainy.

I followed my directions and got back on another trail. This one was amazing. It was flat. It was smooth. It was easy to follow. I stayed on it for about two miles before my directions told me to get back on a major highway. However, the trail still continued. I wondered why I was getting back on the highway and if I could stay on the path. I stopped to look at my map and try to figure it out when another biker rode up near me to offer help. I should have known from the absence of a helmet on his head that he was not one to be listened to. “Where ya goin’?” he asked. “Philly. I’m trying to figure out if I should get on the highway or take this trail a little ways further.” “Hmmm… well that highway is awfully busy. And up ahead there’s not shoulder. So it’s not a good option. But this trail gets real rocky up ahead, so you probably don’t want to take it either. Your best bet is to probably take the highway but RIDE GET ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROAD AND RIDE AGAINST THE TRAFFIC. (My emphasis added.” Note for non-bikers. This is NEVER what you do. Ever. Do not ride towards traffic. However, at the time, I did not want to debate this with him. He said it with such confidence, I don’t think he would have just listened. “Okay, thanks,” I said. “No problem, good luck!” And he was off. And I still had no way to progress.

Not a rocky trail

Near the highway I saw a WaWa and an Amish Market. The Amish Market had a flashing sign that said Free WiFi. Yes, the Amish Market had both a flashing sign and free wifi. I don’t think it was very authentic. I went inside, had a kosher pickle, and pulled up google maps on my computer. There was a neighborhood I could use to avoid the highway for about two miles and I could get back on the trail as well. I did a combination of both (since I lost the trail after I lost the trail after about an hour). Finally, I got back on the highway, but the shoulder had appeared again.

I was probably about fifteen miles from Philly at this point. I had been making decent time, but I had lost a lot in stops. There was the breakfast, the map reading, the wifi, the contemplation of taking the private road. There had been some slower roads as well. So even though I had set off early, I was now feeling pressed for time. I was biking along biking along biking along with about eight miles left when I hear a small whoosh. Hmmm… I wonder what a flat tire would sound like. Maybe like that. I look back, and sure enough, I have flat number one.
Flats are inevitable. They happen anytime and anywhere on bikes. I was lucky to have gone so far without one. I knew it was coming. I just wished they never would. Fortunately, the drizzle had slowed down to nothing. I saw a gas station about 200 yards ahead, so I pedaled there and positioned myself under it’s awning. Time to change the tire. Now I’ve changed about three bicycle tires before in my life. The latest was about a month earlier on my road bike. In theory, I know what I’m doing. In practice, there was much to be desired. I was able to get the tire off the bike with ease. But then, I couldn’t use the tire levers correctly. These remove the outside rubber part from the metal rim. I had forgotten to deflate the inside rubber tube all the way to make this easier. I finally managed somehow to get the tube out. I got a new tube ready to put in by pumping it with some air. But the air would not go in. See, before I had Schrader valves which are like car tires. On my new bike, I had Presta tires, which are “fancy” valves in my mind. They apparently are good for some reason, but I’m not really aware of why. Did I have the wrong pump attachment on? No. What’s the problem? Then I noticed that there was a screw at the top of the valve. Oh! You have to unscrew it. Man, was I stupid. I unscrew it and the tire pumps up fine. Tube in, rubber tire back on the rim. Wheel now onto bike, and I forget how to put it back on. It’s just not fitting. After minutes of effort I get the wheel back on the bike. It seems aligned. I screw it back in, set the bike up again, and look at my clock. 40 minutes. 40 minutes to change a flat tire.

At this point, the sun is low in the sky. I probably have about 40 minutes left of sun and an hour of riding. I set off again. I can maybe still make it to my friend’s house just as the sun is going down. Then the rain comes back at a steady drizzle. Then Google directions have me make a u-turn onto nothing. Then the tire starts to go flat again. I put on my headlamp, put on my tail light, and decide to just power on to my friend’s house. I am not stopping in some neighborhood in Philly that I don’t know in the dark. Finally, I find my friend’s house. My tire is flat again. I and my bike are covered in mud and grease. I clean it off a little and bring it inside. I had never been so thankful my ride was over.

New Photos

Photos are a lot easier to upload than stories, so for now, there will be photos. Stories will come soon. Until then, DC to Halifax, VA.

Quick Updates

I keep meaning to write a blog for each day, but I really haven’t had the time. I still plan to do it though. I just wanted to write that I am finally in the South! I passed through DC with no problems. Virginia is amazing, but there are lots of hills. They make the landscape awesome, but they are annoying to climb up. In as Ashley told me in DC, there are mountains in Virginia. I think I went up one today.

I should be in Raleigh in a couple days with a lot time to get this updated. The trip is almost halfway over so I need to get back to updating. Really, every day is exhausting, and every night has been fun with new friends. I can hardly find the time to write.

New Photos: NYC To DC

New photos on Facebook from the latest leg of the journey. Highlights includes the world’s best deli meat, fantastic foliage (finally!), and winterized me ready for a cold ride.