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Old 06-06-08, 01:26 PM   #1
roseyscot
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Long Tour - Explore side roads or stick to the main roads?

I'm touring across the US this summer (west - east) along a modified version of the northern tier route. In planning my route I'm finding that many times I can avoid numbered "Rt" roads (i.e. Rt 84, Rt 191) by taking side roads. This also cuts down on my total distance and since I am somewhat pressed for time, I like the idea of saving 20-30 miles in certain locations. The biggest concern (aside from getting totally lost) is that the smaller roads tend to avoid towns and would miss possible supply stations. If I plan right, I imagine this won't be a problem but I've never done a tour of this magnitude so I welcome other people's opinion.

Here is a link to an example in Montana http://www.google.com/maps?f=d&hl=en...,1.315613&z=10

For those who have toured long distances, do you recommend sticking to the larger roads or have you found the lesser, more direct roads to be suitable? I know there are a lot of factors to consider but try to only speak to the idea of larger roads (less direct) vs smaller roads (more direct) and the issue of supplies.

Last edited by roseyscot; 06-06-08 at 01:35 PM.
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Old 06-06-08, 01:54 PM   #2
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Well, not knowing the area, I'd suggest following established routes, like the Adventure Cycling Northern Tier. The maps route you over roads suitible for bikes. Plus, give you valuable information about what to find in towns along the way.

But, perhaps you want to be more adventurous, and discover the good and the bad on your own.
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Old 06-06-08, 02:03 PM   #3
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I think there is not any one answer to this. Wing it.

If you find yourself on a (numbered or otherwise) road and it has too much traffic and not enough shoulder, get out your map and pick a different road - ask local folks about it too. But take their descriptions of distances and hills with a grain of salt - be prepared for them to be mistaken.

You also may find that the local roads have issues that you can't see on a map - it's the one road between the bar and the coal mine, for example. So there's just no general principle to be applied.

Have fun, as long as you keep a positive attitude towards the unexpected, you can't go wrong!
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Old 06-06-08, 04:24 PM   #4
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Here's an answer -

The problem with Google Maps and other programs is that they almost always fail to distinguish between paved roads and mud tracks. The example you list shows roads that don't even qualify as decent dirt roads. (Also, they are on private land) I know - because I live in Wyoming and have biked Montana for twenty years.

It really tweaks me that so many people are just drawing out a Bikely map and saying, "Yeah!" Almost all states have state highway maps on line. Many have county maps as well. These show paved and unpaved roads. Then there's TerraServer for topos. (Topozone is now fee-based.) Also forest service maps.

Unless you are willing to invest the time to adequately research back road options in the West (which is a far cry from Boston) - I would really, really suggest you stay on US and state highways. There are traffic volume maps on state DOT websites that allow you to find highways with the least traffic.

Best - J
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Old 06-06-08, 04:40 PM   #5
jamawani 
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PS

Here is the appropriate county map for Madison Co., Montana (Rev. 2001)
That shows all public roads (Excluding National Forest routes)
Note that the roads Google Maps shows are not on this map.
Some private road owners may allow public access - however,
the trend has definitely been in the other direction for the past decade.

http://www.mdt.mt.gov/other/county_maps/MADI02.PDF
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Old 06-07-08, 01:28 AM   #6
iain.dalton
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Consult Robert Frost ;-) Seriously, I don't know; it depends on your situation. I can argue both sides.
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Old 06-07-08, 06:26 AM   #7
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Nice.
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Old 06-07-08, 09:02 AM   #8
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I agree with valygrl's advice to wing it. I find my mindset while on tour is markedly different from what it was while planning the thing. My mood can swing far more than at home. Sometimes I stick with my plans; sometimes I throw them out entirely on a whim. I suggest you get as prepared as you can with maps, and maybe guidebooks if they exist for your route (although I don't carry the whole book due to weight issues. I photocopy the pages I'll need and get rid of them as I go.) Then take it as it comes. Talk to locals. One time I got a great tip from two waitresses at Denny's. Another time a guy pulled up beside me on a folding bike and rode with me for about 5 miles. Not only did it take my mind off my tiredness to have someone to talk to, but he had some excellent information about a closed state park and an alternate county park.

Larger roads often have larger shoulders, and small, bucolic roads often have none. Traffic volume is another factor. Sometimes I've opted for a smaller road that parallels the main drag, and other times I've stayed on the main thoroughfare.

Services are a big issue. If you need something - food, water, fuel, groceries, a post office, etc. - you may be better off on the main road. If you've got what you need and want an aesthetically pleasing ride, the smaller routes may be better.

I think there's really no way to know which is the best route. You gather whatever information you can, pick a road, and go for it. To me that's part of the appeal of bicycling. I've gotten lost a few times, but eventually I found my way. I very seldom have had to backtrack, but when I do I just chalk it up to experience. After all, I'm still bicycling, which is fun in itself, right?

P. S. I love the response about Robert Frost. By choosing bicycle touring, aren't we all on the road less traveled?
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Old 06-07-08, 02:57 PM   #9
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Personally, I prefer to stay off of the state and federal highways. One of my reasons to tour is to enjoy some solitude, observe the scenery and wildlife, and absorb the local culture. You definitely need to do some research if you plan on using back roads. You also need to be prepared to improvise. I probably overplan to some degree, buying several different maps of the area I plan on travelling through if available. I have no desire to spend day after day riding on a state highway watching the cars go by. I also have no deisre to pedal most of the established routes designed by others. Their idea of interesting places may be vastly different than my own. Make sure you are not on private roads, be prepared for the possibility of going a day or two without the ability to re-supply on some of the items you may want, and know that you may be peddaling on some roads that aren't bike friendly. (Dirt, rocks, mud, etc.) Most of all, ride the type of route that appeals to you, and have fun!
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Old 06-07-08, 03:52 PM   #10
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The only mapped route that I have ever taken is the Divide Ride. All of the other tour routes were created enroute after starting with only an end point generally in mind. [I have had the luxury of large chunks of time to indulge my whimsical route finding.]

For example: Exiting the Amtrak train at Whitefish, Montana in 1987 I planned to ride to Jasper NP in Alberta. In Glacier NP instead of riding Going to the Sun Road I went offroad past Polebridge through the Trail Creek crossing into Canada along the Flathead River.

At Fernie locals recommended against the Elk Lakes Pass from Sparwood into Kananaskis Park. So I went that way. A great choice leading to Banff and then the Icefield Parkway and then Jasper NP.

I have met too many bike tourists who in their wish for security and certainty, slavishly followed their pre-planned route to the exclusion of off route opportunities and options. The risks are worth the unexpected and unpredictable benefits.
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Old 06-07-08, 11:00 PM   #11
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I use forest roads all the time. The back roads are the best. I am in a frickin forest right now. Dixie National by I 15

Get a good map or don't go off the main road.
Map where you can re supply and then wing it.


Plan to walk your bike when needed. Keeps me and my bike safe.
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Old 06-08-08, 01:14 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by jamawani View Post
The problem with Google Maps and other programs is that they almost always fail to distinguish between paved roads and mud tracks.
+1!!
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Old 06-08-08, 01:18 AM   #13
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Originally Posted by roseyscot View Post
For those who have toured long distances, do you recommend sticking to the larger roads or have you found the lesser, more direct roads to be suitable? I know there are a lot of factors to consider but try to only speak to the idea of larger roads (less direct) vs smaller roads (more direct) and the issue of supplies.
Why not do both ... but I'd recommend getting paper maps from tourist centres along the way if you're going to explore side roads. You can often find fairly detailed maps for specific counties, or sight-seeing areas, etc. at tourist centres.
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Old 06-08-08, 12:33 PM   #14
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I biked mostly on state roads this past trip, but I saw a sign with a bicycle pointing right. I decided to explore since it pointed to the general direction I was heading for that day. It turned out to be some nice country roads. I kinda followed the power lines (when the road ended or ran into a dirt road) to find a place to stop and eat. Got chased by a couple dogs as well...

Rather hard to say which is best...
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Old 06-09-08, 01:18 PM   #15
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Route selection for long range touring is a big part of the experience for sure. If we only knew the traffic densities, and which roads had paved shoulders, it would all be easier. Many of the state web sites have a lot of information for bicyclists. Some will even send you a cycling map which gives you some indication of the traffic densities vs. shoulder widths.

My priorities for route selection are:
1. A paved shoulder where I am out of the traffic pattern
2. If there is no paved shoulder and I am traveling in the traffic pattern, I want a straight road, with clear view for oncoming traffic to see me.
The most uncomfortable circumstance is to be riding in the traffic along a winding road with trees, foliage right along the roadway. I can't see cars coming and they can't see me as they approach.

If I have no knowledge of the area, my preference is to plan on using a US highway which seems to be a long way from major cities. My experience seems to indicate that those roads usually have some kind of paved shoulder even though they may also have a bit higher traffic density.

When I look at a map and see a small local highway winding around in the mountains/hills I try to avoid it since my experience says that it probably won't have any shoulder, and the visibility for oncoming cars will be limited.

I know of no perfect rule for route planning. Many times I began my day and realize that the route I planned for is not suitable and I have to figure out how to modify it from there. And I often do change my routing in the middle of the day. It is all part of the experience.
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