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.

ChicagoHeatmap
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.

DamenFullerton
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.

Logistics of bike commuting 20 miles

Bike commuting is a part time job and planning is key.

I found that it was more difficult figuring out the logistics of bike commuting than dealing with the physical stamina to bike 20+ miles each day.  There is definitely a period of adjustment, but I eventually figured out what worked for me.  Some women have concerns about their safety and appearance, but if guys didn’t seem to worry about it, then I never thought that I should too.  I’ve talked to many male and female bike commuters, and we share similar issues and experiences.

I prefer arriving to work as early as possible, because traffic on the road is much lighter and also because then I have time to change and recover before starting my work day.

 

Here is breakdown of a typical bike commute day:

4:15-5am Wake up, coffee already brewing

5:40-5:45am Leave to catch the train out of the city

6:20 am Bike 8 miles to work from train stop

7:00 am Arrive at work

7:30am: Ready to work

4pm-5pm catch train into city or bike all the way home

5:30-6:30pm Arrive back at home

This may seem like a long day, but I have time to read on the train, get in my exercise and contribute to my well-being.  I am also saving a lot of money by not driving and reducing car maintenance costs.

 

To significantly cut down on items I need to bring to work, and to make things easier,

I keep a few things in my desk drawer:

Hairdryer

Shampoo/Conditioner

Comb

Brushes

Cosmetics

Hair products

Deodorant

Baby wipes

Work shoes so I can avoid carrying their heavy weight.

 

The night before

Preparation the night before makes the morning less stressful.  My bag is packed with clothes I have prepared for the next day.  I make sure I have my lunch prepped and ready to go in the refrigerator so I can grab it in the morning before I leave.  Coffee is preground and programmed to brew before I wake up.

 

What I wear while commuting

I commute in athletic clothing because I feel it is more comfortable and it is available in bright colors so that I am more visible to drivers on the road.   I prefer to do a full clothing change when I get to work.

Because I bike a long distance, I don’t bother putting on any makeup before going to work.  What’s the use when I’m going to be sweating for awhile and who am I really going to be seeing before the workday?  Everyone is half awake on the train and people aren’t really interested in talking to you that early in the morning anyway.

 

Transporting supplies

I have a bike (hybrid) with a rear rack so that I can bungee cord my backpack to it.  I also have a road bike which has no rack, so I must carry the items I’m bringing to work in my messenger bag.   My backpack and messenger bag are sufficient to fit my clothes, purse, and lunches.  I’ve never used panniers and don’t feel the need for them since I board the train or bus and need to carry my belongings on me.

Morning loads are always heavier due to the weight of the lunch and snacks I have packed for the day.  I use a thermal bag to keep my food cool because my commutes to work can be as long as 2 hours.

Clothes- I like to roll up my clothes so that they do not come out wrinkled.  I keep a couple of spare clothing items at work in case I forget.  In the summer I usually like to pack a set of clothes and bring them to work a day before I need them, otherwise they feel hot from the morning commute in.  That way, when I change into my clothes they are refreshingly cool.

 

Appearance and hygiene

I feel that other women are really concerned about their appearance and fuss over this area the most.   It really doesn’t have to be an ordeal if you allow yourself enough time to get ready.

My company’s dress code is business casual and my workplace does not have a shower.  Because I arrive early enough, I guarantee that I can cool off  and then stop sweating while reading e-mail and drinking some whey protein.  Then I can have one of the bathrooms to myself and change.   Because I have showered before bike commuting, all I have to do is use baby wipes to clean off.  I wash my hair in the sink to complete my preparation for the day.  All of this takes no more than 20 minutes.

 

Hair

Taming my hair after biking became an ordeal. When I first started commuting I had longer shoulder length hair so it was easier to fold it over and tuck into my helmet and it would survive the commute.  With my shorter hair now, I seem to get a helmet line circulating my head.  Humid days are the worst.   I eventually decided to just wash my hair at work since I never like the feeling of a sweaty head.  If your hairstyle can survive the commute, then that’s great, it never did for me.

I’ve used several texturizing creams to combat the effects of helmet head.  They were all sufficient to make me look presentable.

One product that I did like that re-fluffed my hair was a hair potion.

I could sprinkle it on my head and my hair would regain its volume where my hair had been matted by the helmet.

 

“Cheating”

On days when I do not bike commute I try to bring as much stuff for the next few days. This includes snacks, clothes and any toiletries that are running low.

Now that I am more optimized and confident in my commuting, I prefer to haul as much as I can on Mondays and Tuesdays so that I have less to carry at the end of the week when I am worn down and more likely to forget things.  I’ll use my heavier hybrid bike for this, as I can strap more stuff to my rear rack.

 

Bike maintenance

I clean and re-lube my chain on the weekends if I’ve bike commuted all week.

I re-inflate my tires 2x a week.

I maintain a good relationship with my local bike shop in case of repairs or questions.  When I only had one bike, I was in there about every month asking questions about every little thing.  With time, you get to know your bike more and can do repairs by yourself.  Now I no longer need to go to the bike shop when I have a flat and understand more of where the squeaks and cracks are coming from.

Making sure your bike is in good working condition will enable you to get the most out of your ride everytime.

So that’s how I go about bike commuting.  It may be harder or easier based on your needs, but once you have your routine set, biking to work becomes easy.