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I am starting to plan my next cycling vacation, with finger crossed that it can really take place. My intention is to cycle in Yorkshire and Scotland.

When using Google Map, cycling option, how much can I trust the suggested routes for those areas?

Later I will purchase a proper map, but for the moment I want to make a first draft of the various legs. I would like to avoid being recommended paths which go for example along an highway or on some expert hiking path in the middle of nowhere, with no alternative routes.

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    I used to cycle a lot in Yorkshire, back in the paper map days. It's mainly road. Once you get off-road, you're in walking territory. There's not a lot of investment in cycle routes out there. One to note - don't do Mastiles Lane unless you expect to walk across the tops, carrying the bike. The road up is a leg killer, but technically cycleable. The tops were not, last time I was there. [Apparently it is now permanently closed to traffic, so it may be recovering, but it's a dirt/rock track.]
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 9 at 18:41
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    Google Maps is really terrible for anything outdoors really. Even the appearance is just awful for this purpose. They are really tailored for car navigation. It does not really show enough detail for outdoor activities.
    – Vladimir F
    Jan 9 at 21:44
  • Note: these days, touring on road, paper maps are optional. And old audaxers' trick was to cut the relevant pages out of a decent scale motoring atlas but I prefer a larger scale. And if you're going to Scotland, the Highlands have some lovely touring. I was up there last summer (wild) camping.
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 11:57
  • @VladimirF give them their due - Google Maps is fine for walking round town looking for a cafe (or even cycling round town looking for a cafe), also as an additional tool in trip planning. But it's almost complete rubbish for bike touring or anything else that's neither motorised nor urban - overall you're right
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 11:59
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    Not an answer, but the cyclechat.net forum is great for things like this - people will have done all the routes you're looking to do already and have great tips on where to go and what roads to avoid. There is a dedicated Touring forum in it that is probably the best place to post.
    – Wilskt
    Jan 15 at 12:26

12 Answers 12

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As I commented, Google Maps is really awful for outdoor activities. The maps are not detailed enough and the visual presentation is just bad for this purpose.

I tend to use mapy.cz for all countries because of the excellent visual presentation of the outdoor maps. The data is just OpenStreetmap but that is the same with many other services you will find (Komoot etc.). The route planer is also pretty decent even though I miss some middle ground between road and MTB (when road would be preferred but short off-road segments allowed).

Official bicycle routes are well visually represented by the purple colour.

enter image description here

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  • cycling.waymarkedtrails.org is also a good option based on the same data. A little less detailed but has clear markings. Jan 9 at 23:20
  • IIUC it's not just the data of openstreetmaps that mapy.cz uses, but also the engine that computes (cycling) paths; is that right?
    – Sam
    Jan 10 at 14:09
  • @Sam correct, it also computes routes for you. Specifically for England, I am not sure how accurate are the restrictions for private roads in the data used though. It is not a big problem in our country, but it can be an issue in England.
    – Vladimir F
    Jan 10 at 14:28
  • I've just tested it locally (Bristol, SW England). Private roads aren't an issue round here because the few that exist don't join up. On road mode it's decent: the default option is a bit of a long way round using good bike path while the shortest is almost exactly what I'd ride.
    – Chris H
    Jan 11 at 9:41
  • Routing in an urban area on MTB mode is dreadful. It does everything it can to avoid all but the smallest roads and even with many control points refuses to take anything approximating a direct route. For pure road touring it looks like a good option, but it wouldn't suit my willingness to include some off-road - if I try to manually include a stretch of dirt path (OK on road tyres in summer) road mode doesn't want to join up along it.
    – Chris H
    Jan 11 at 9:45
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In the planning stages I will always use multiple options, online map sites, like Google, for the general distances but not for cycling information. Cycling specific information sites for route suggestions and to see if there is (enough) off road routes. One of them is Sustrans. See comment on Sustrans, but I keep to the point that a cycling dedicated site will be better than a maps service which is not good for cycling.

There are sites that collect information on long distance routes, I usually use a Netherlands based one, as that is where I live and what I am used to. But again, there are more options.

In the Netherlands we often complain that Google maps does not know cycle routes, they always try to get you on car routes, which is not the most efficient here. But it might be the best wherever you are or want to go, just check alternatives.

I am not connected to any of the sites I linked to, other that occasional user.

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    As per the comments from myself and chris on the answer from Renaud, unfortunately Sustrans isn't really reliable enough for planning trips around. They know this themselves and have cut support for part of their network, but it'll take some time before everything is of a standard that you could rely on.
    – Andy P
    Jan 10 at 12:09
  • Apparently Sustrans doesn't ship to countries in the EU... bummer
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 15 at 14:34
  • I have used Sustrans for several trips in the UK and never wanted to buy from them. There are still (a few) good map shops in the Netherlands but they are getting harder to find. (Blame Brexit, for Sustrans no longer shipping to the EU.)
    – Willeke
    Jan 15 at 15:18
  • @Willeke, do you by any chance remember/know the name of the map shop in Amsterdam, close to the Vondelpark? I went there in 2017 but now I have forgotten it.
    – L.Dutch
    Jan 20 at 18:37
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    Pied à Terre, used to be on Overtoom, but now it gave a Rokin address. (I know it is no longer where it used to be.)
    – Willeke
    Jan 20 at 18:52
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If your goal is to make a multi day route, online routing tools are actually the last resource I would use. There are local associations and tourism offices that maintain cycling routes, that would be the starting point for me.

The advantages of starting by looking for existing routes are:

  • someone else has already made the prep work for you
  • they are often made by locals, who know which paths are the most interesting from a landscape point of view (or feasible from a technical point of view)
  • they avoid paths that exist on maps but are part of private properties

If taking official routes

  • you can follow the signs and enjoy the landscape instead focusing on navigation
  • if a section is not usable, alternative may be proposed (more often local marking before being updated online)
  • once you've settled for one, you can also often buy guides that provides you with some background info about the things you'll see or accomodation (and printed guides do not require batteries)
  • maybe not applicable for Scotland, but in some countries long distance routes are protected by law, so they are more maintained than other routes. It also means that there can be a budget linked to their maintenance.

If the goal is to do "classical touring":

  • EuroVelo is a good starting point: https://en.eurovelo.com/
  • National Cycling Network: https://www.sustrans.org.uk/national-cycle-network/ (See @AndyP's comment - link)
  • Komoot Premium also has a dedicated map for cycle touring (but doesn't have much more than EuroVelo and NCN) — note: it is probably based on OSM data with maybe some additions, so other mapping services can display the same info, the important is to choose one that highlight cycling routes).

If the goal is more on the "bikepacking", dedicated websites also propose routes. As an example, here are two routes from bikepacking.com

Another resource is:

And there are many more on the web.

My main point is that searching for routes instead of tools give results that are more usable. Then you can eventually use the tools to fine tune your selection, or making links between existing routes.

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    In my experience sustrans/ncn is not particularly reliable. They even know this themselves having recently stopped supporting a large part of the network as it was not up to standard. Unfortunately they didn't go round and take down the signs. The end result is that we have 'cycle paths' that are best ridden on a mountain bike and in the peak of summer can be so overgrown that even on a mtb would not be fun to ride.
    – Andy P
    Jan 10 at 10:16
  • @AndyP Thanks for the feedback (answer updated)
    – Renaud
    Jan 10 at 10:18
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    Komoot is definitely based on OSM. It does a better job than many rivals of making use of the surface and track type data that OSM supports (if you're not purely on road). It's what I use for both day rides and longer trips, though Google Maps is useful in the very early planning stages to see the relationship between key points (it's by far the quickest to give a route, just not one you'd want to ride)
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 10:29
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    @AndyP I take my tourer on some pretty rough stuff, but some of the towpath NCN going into London needed MTB skills (steep bends on gravel near bridges) and if I was going to ride the route from Ironbridge to Bridgnorth again at any decent speed I'd want an upgrade to titanium sit-bones - really not nice when I'd already done a century that day and still had another one to go. Scenic though. And then the signs just give up while Sustrans' map follows a footpath across a school playing field
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 12:04
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Both Strava and Ride with GPS have heatmaps that show you where people actually ride. (With Strava, at least, you need to be logged in to see finer details). Also, RwGPS is a good website for searching out routes--it will let you slice and dice their data in a lot of ways.

Google Street View is a useful tool when scouting new routes. I don't use it as much as I should.

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    Remember to check the date on Streetview images. Its possible to be 10+ years out of date especially on old roads. If a road's alignment has changed, it is possible to fall into a "pocket" of old images.
    – Criggie
    Jan 10 at 2:20
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    A couple of issues with Strava: (i) their route planner is now paid, and it was never all that great anyway; (ii) the heatmap counts journeys, and in urban areas it end up highlighting commuting routes. The sort of road a local might dash along to work is rather different to what you might pick when touring, so use it but with care.
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 12:01
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As a supplement to other answers, here are a few tools to allow you to replan away from (much) tech (in the UK, though most of these will work anywhere):

  • OS paper maps. The 1:50000 are good for cycling and readily available in local shops (newsagents/convenience stores/petrol stations) in touristy area.
  • Inkatlas Allows you to print (via PDF) OpenStreetMap with or without your own route(s) overlaid. I sometimes take these printouts as my backup navigation.
  • Many phone apps support offline mapping. The one I use is IPbike with MapsForge, but others use OSMAnd, for example.
  • I carry a compass. It doesn't have to be a very good one, but can help when working with paper maps in some areas

When I had to reroute through Inverness, I used a combination of Google Maps running picture-in-picture to keep me heading roughly the right way, and OpenStreetMap displayed in IPbike to give me an actually useful map.

Also, when planning at home (in Komoot) I tend to have open:

  • OpenStreetMap
  • Google Maps and/or StreetView to check odd-looking junctions,
  • CafeNetwork, an overlay of cycling-friendly cafes on Google Maps (info via Facebook).

I also keep a ride-planning spreadsheet on Google Sheets (should be copyable) to calculate timings and keep notes of stops with opening hours etc. but this is once my route is nearly finalised.

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I use cycle.travel since it incorporates vehicle traffic data, and the main danger on roads to cyclists is motor vehicles. In my experience it's much better suited for my needs (touring, gentle speeds) than most other sport-oriented route planners.

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    Very nice discovery, thanks. I did some comparative tests in my area (Komoot, Outdoor Active and mapy.cz) and the suggested routes are actually the closest to what I would have done considering local knowledge, and has an integration to Garmin Connect for Garmin users. It is clearly optimized for touring though (the only modes are gravel allowed/asphalt only)
    – Renaud
    Jan 12 at 7:17
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I’d start with https://brouter.de/brouter-web/

It uses OpenStreetMap data which should be quite good in the UK. You can customize the routing parameters to a great degree. I use brouter in the webbrowser on my desktop computer to plan a route. Then export the GPX file to my smartphone and use Osmand for the navigation¹. I’ve tried a lot of other routing software and other apps but haven’t found anything which comes even close.

Of course the problem with any routing software which is purely based on road- and elevation data is that it can’t really take other factors into account: How is the weather when riding in that direction at that point in time? How is the scenery? How is the traffic? Following heatmaps and dedicated cycling routes can help somewhat with those problems.

¹: You can also install brouter on the smartphone and use it in Osmand. Which can be quite nice because brouter is extremely fast which makes creating >100km routes on the smartphone feasible.

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Bikehike is an excellent resource for planning in the UK. It can't tell you the conditions of each road/path, but it does have free access to Ordnance Survey maps which are the best you will find.

Bear in mind when planning that you will need to stick to bridleways in England as footpaths are not legal for biking, however once in Scotland this no longer applies.

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  • Ignore the comment in the popup box from the owner/developer of bikehike. I'm sure 'something' is broken, but i've never found whatever it is.
    – Andy P
    Jan 10 at 9:29
  • The bikehike developer is clearly actively working on it. I reported an odd bug last year (elevation was broken if you passed south of 50°N - and I was visiting the Lizard) and I can no longer replicate it
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 12:06
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I use trailforks.com to plan my riding routes. Granted, it is primarily a mountain biking app, but there are gravel roads and other casual routes on it. Trails are added via a combination of user input and GPS data I believe. By setting the trail difficulty filters, you can probably find some side roads or whatever that may be of interest for you.

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    Specifically in the UK, we don't have very many gravel roads for general use at all (though some of our rural tarmac is bad enough that gravel would be easier). Trailforks here is very much for pure off-roading, so in the touring context only really of interest to bikepackers with gravel bikes or MTBs. But It looks so underused here - some popular MTB stuff I know about is missing - that you couldn't use it for planning a route except to pin down some highlights. Nothing joins up or even comes close. I checked a Sustrans forest track section on my tour last year - that's missing
    – Chris H
    Jan 11 at 9:54
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    To the best of my knowledge trailforks in the UK is really only used by riders looking for technical trails. If there's a root infested black grade run made by local trailbuilders there's a good chance its on there - for anything else not so much
    – Andy P
    Jan 12 at 16:02
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You said that you have a slight preference for paper maps; this wording somehow implies that electronic maps could be useful for you, too.

Therefore I'd like to bring https://www.velomap.org/ to your attention. The guy who runs that site is an expert when it comes to converting / compiling OSM (openstreetmap.org) data for various applications. Besides velomap.org, he also runs https://www.openmtbmap.org, which is my only source for maps since several years.

I'm in MTB, not road biking, but nevertheless I have looked into velomap.org as well and found that the techniques and data formats he uses there are the same as for his MTB site. The maps are of high quality and are free in nearly all cases (you only have to become a member of the site if you want something special, e.g. whole Europe in one file or contour lines for Asia or something like that).

The thing which makes the difference is that you can use his maps (from both sites mentioned) with Garmin devices and software. The rough outline how I use them:

  • Download a map (which is an .exe file).
  • Run the .exe file (this will install the map). At this point, you can already use the map in Garmin BaseCamp, Garmin MapSource or other compatible software.
  • Now the best thing: The installation procedure not only installs the map, but also drops some utilities into the installation directory. You can use them to re-compile the map into an .img file which you can copy to your Garmin device (of course, you alternatively still can copy parts of the map from within e.g. Basecamp to your device as usual).

At that point, you have a high quality map on your Garmin device, tailored to your needs (road biking or MTB) and your device (during installation / re-compiling, you can choose between various styles).

Even if you don't own a Garmin device, those maps are still extremely useful, since you can use them with BaseCamp or compatible software.

Please note that I don't have any clue how this all works out for MacOS or Linux / Unix, but to stress it again, I have made the best experience with those maps in Windows and with Garmin devices.

Disclaimer: I am in no way related to the sites mentioned above or their owner, except that I am a normal customer (I have signed up with openmtbmap.org a while ago because I want whole Europe with contour lines as one map (as opposed to single countries with one map per country, which you can have for free) on my Garmin devices; for me, that's worth the 20 EUR per year). Likewise, I am in no way related to Garmin, except being a normal customer (and having spent a frightening amount of money for a frightening number of their devices, and having spent a frightening amount of nerves for their bugs and annoyances).

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google map cycle routes in the UK cannot be trusted as

  1. It highlights roads with "cycle lanes" as places to cycle
  2. Being implemented by local councils who are generally awful at such things, many of these are utterly unsafe.

as an example: look up the A34 and west of newbury you will see a cycle lane marked. Now bring up street view and consider "who in their right minds would cycle along a dual carriageway with 70 mph the normal speed". Nobody local ever does, as they want to live...visitors could be endangered if they trust them.

  • bing maps in ordnance survey mode can be good, especially if you are looking at off road routes
  • the CycleStreets app is very good for route planning; it combines national cycle network data with open street map info
  • then there's google streetview/google earth in planning.
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  • Quite right. In my experience, the speed of the traffic is less important than the width of the shoulder. I have a choice of two urban roads on my commute, one is 70 km/h and the other is 50. I take the former because there's a wider area to ride, and limited car parking. The slower street is narrower. Same goes on 100 km/h roads, a 2~3 metre sealed shoulder is great, a 5cm wide white line then gravel is not so good.
    – Criggie
    Jan 9 at 22:51
  • There exists some cynicism about cycle lanes altogether; even a rumble strip does not ultimately provide much protection from a motor vehicle that leaves the road, whether deliberately or otherwise.
    – Mathieu K.
    Jan 10 at 6:38
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    @user7761803 there's one on the A40 near Monmouth, and one on either the A11 or A14 in Cambridgeshire or nearby. I've done bits of the A40 one on an audax. Downhill into a flat isn't too bad. Harder was up the A9 approaching Inverness. Luckily good lines of sight meant I could sprint from one lay-by to the next then catch my breath, and traffic was light (it saved a lot of distance)
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 11:46
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    @Criggie on UK dual carriageways it's best to assume there isn't a shoulder. There's often a narrow bit outside the white line, but your shoulder will be over the line and your wheels in debris. Then even that runs out without warning - because it's not a bike lane there's "no need" to signpost the end. So you end up in Lane 1 in many cases. The A34 and A11/A14 have some exceptions. They're not easy to spot except at junctions where there are markings for cyclists to cross the entry slip and rejoin the road, rather than continuing in/parallel to the traffic lane
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 11:49
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    BTW (@user7761803 presumably knows this) even slow TTers will be doing 20mph+ which gives traffic far longer to see you than touring at half that speed. Even I on a tourer can average over 21mph on a 10-miler and probably 20mph over 25 miles on a proper course. Not laden though. There will also be warning signs when there's a TT running.
    – Chris H
    Jan 10 at 16:37
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Another source of information is to use Strava's heatmap.

Example: https://www.strava.com/heatmap#14.06/172.73124/-43.69024/hot/ride

There's a triangle in the middle of that which is the highest peak in my local hills, at 906 metres. It clearly shows the three routes people ride to get there and back.

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