Planning an unfamiliar route

I recently had a coworker ask me how to find the best route from her house to work.  Previously, I wrote about how to find a route to work, but it can be challenging when you are not familiar with the area and don’t have anyone to ask. When planning a route for you or someone else in an unfamiliar area, the internet can be of great help.

With the bike commuter challenge about to start, she wanted to commute using bike paths.  For someone new to bike commuting, finding a safe route is probably the most important consideration when commuting to work.  I was totally unfamiliar with the area near where she lived, but luckily I knew that Google Maps and Strava are useful in figuring out the best bike route. Using the informational overlays on both of these websites, I was able to find a suitable route for her, making the most of trails and quiet streets.  These online tools are great for someone new to commuting, or for someone wanting to bike in a city they’ve never been in before.  For experienced riders who already have their favorite route(s), it’s also interesting to see where other cyclists go.   The following is how I go about figuring out a new route in an unfamiliar location.


Planning using Strava

Strava’s heatmap is a great tool for initially planning a route around roads that other cyclists actually take.

Strava’s heatmap compiles all the data cyclists have logged on their smartphones and is a good indicator of which roads are bike friendly and well traveled by other bicyclists.  I use this as a guide when searching for or optimizing a route.  I wish this type of thing was available back in 2011 when I started bike commuting.  Recently, I didn’t realize I had other options on my route until I looked at Strava and found that a lot of people take a shortcut on one side street on my regular commute.  Even with all of these years being familiar with the area, I had never explored or seen anyone take that street before, but the heatmap showed me that it was an option.  Now I try to track my rides on my commutes as much as possible since I know my data will be used to help others when planning their route.

Chicago roads frequently traveled by bicyclists.  You can determine your best route by looking at heatmaps.   Screenshot from Strava.


Google Maps for route planning

Google Maps‘ Bicycling function does a fair job of indicating roads which may be good for cycling.  Just type in your start and end points and see the routes it suggests.  Be careful though, since Google suggests the shortest routes that  do not always make sense and may put you on busy roads when a longer route is safer.  You can change and drag the route around, but I find combining Google Maps’ suggestions and Strava’s real world use is best.

I also switch to street view to visually gauge how the streets are laid out.  Then you can virtually test your route. Rotate the map at intersections to see where trouble spots might be.

Going southbound on Damen at the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection.  My least favorite intersection to ride through.  Screenshot from Google Maps.


Final considerations

Once you’ve found a good route, then I suggest you try it out on your bike, ideally at approximately the same time of day you’ll be commuting.  On a bike you are much more aware of traffic patterns and the actual road conditions (potholes, hills).  If the road seems too narrow or dangerous, find another alternative.   Bring your directions on your bike if you need it by using your smartphone or writing it on a piece of paper or a piece of tape.   If you want to drive the route, the advantage is that is that you will see how much space you have when you share the road and also what drivers see from their perspective.

Above all, just relax and ride and trust your good judgement.   Pedal out of your comfort zone and just enjoy the commute.  With all of the knowledge you’ve acquired you’ll be much more confident while on your new route.

Dealing with a flat tire when you don’t know how

Springtime means more riding, rain and flat tire season for me.  After a long winter, the roads are not in the best shape and the rain seems to stir up all the debris on the road.

I was a few minutes into my ride home the other day when there was a strong headwind and I thought I was spending too much energy trying to pedal.  I soon realized that I had a flat and had nothing to repair it with.  I didn’t have my portable air pump, spare tube, and patch supplies as I had forgotten to pack these into my commuter bag.

How do you deal with a flat when you don’t have the proper supplies or don’t know how?

There are several options, but the first thing you’ll want to do is get off your bike so you don’t damage the wheel.  At this point you may be angry at yourself for not being prepared, or frustrated that you’re even in this situation (that’s me), but once you’ve calmed down, you’ll have to improvise a bit to get yourself home.

1) Pump up your tire at a gas station

This is my default response.  Usually my slow leaks are fixed by simply getting to the nearest gas station and inflating with the air pump.  I keep a Schraeder/presta adapter handy if I ever need it for my road bike.  In my situation, I was close to a gas station and didn’t feel like going back to work where I keep extra tubes and a bike pump.  I simply paid 75 cents for the air.  I did short bursts of inflating until the tire felt hard.   Since the tire didn’t immediately deflate, and I heard no leakage of air, I had a slow leak. I was able to ride the rest of the way home but could have taken public transit instead.

If you have a total blowout, pumping up your damaged tire will not help, but you can ….

2)  Give up

The easiest option – call someone for a ride or take public transit home.  This works and requires the least effort.

3) Ask for help

Back when I didn’t know how to change a tire, I asked coworkers for help.  Usually someone will know how to fix a flat, and people like to help.

Alternatively, there are on-call bicycle professionals who will come out and help fix your bike, but for a fee.

4) Find the nearest bike shop

I once took the wrong Metra train expressing downtown with a flat tire and was dropped off deeper in the city than I anticipated.  A quick search on my smartphone revealed the nearest bike shop and they were able to fix my flat on the spot.  Bike shops are great when you are a bike commuter and they realize that you need your bike fixed fast in order to get home.  They are usually accommodating and willing to help you right away.  You’ll get great service and conversation while they fix your bike.


I’ve used all of these methods to get home when I’ve been stuck without the option of repairing my flat immediately.  Surprisingly, I had no idea how to fix a flat tire for my first two years of biking.  If I had a flat, I’d do one of these things and eventually made it home.

Reducing the chance of flats

Avoiding flats altogether is not realistic, unless you want to buy tubeless tires, and don’t mind the added weight on your ride.  I have puncture-resistant tires and average about one flat a year, which is not bad considering how much I ride. I think I am lucky, but I also take care to maintain my tires at the correct pressure and avoid riding near the edge of the street where all the debris accumulates.  I slow down when I go over speed bumps and avoid potholes when I can.  I once plowed into a really sharp speed bump a few blocks from home and my tire immediately deflated, so I’m cautious near them.

Looking at my tires now, I realize that after 4 years of riding and thousands of miles, it’s about time I change the original stock tires on my main commuter bike.  The treads are worn down and there are some slits in the casing, and I’m surprised they have lasted so long.   I will definitely find some other puncture-resistant tires to use.

How do you change a flat?

There is plenty of information out there on how to change a flat.  I thought it was a difficult and frustrating thing to do until I was taught by my local bike shop.  You need decent hand strength to get the tires off the wheel rims, but tire levers really help.  I prefer to install a new tube rather than patching the old tube out of convenience.  Changing flats is a relatively inexpensive and easy fix which will save you time when you know how to do it yourself.  Ask someone you know or ask the local bike shop – they’ll be happy to teach you.

Sometimes you just need to fix the flat yourself.
Sometimes you just need to fix the flat yourself.


There you have it.  Dealing with a flat tire when you don’t have the proper supplies is an inconvenience, but one that is easily solved through various options.   Unless you are riding through potholes and broken glass everyday on your commute, worrying about getting a flat is counterproductive.   Just enjoy the ride and know that a flat can be dealt with, even if you aren’t prepared.