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It’s easy to plot a cycling route with many free apps and GPS computers available, here’s how to get started

While you can still navigate the roads and lanes using paper maps, the advent of affordable GPS (Global Positioning System) cycling computers and smartphones with mapping apps makes it very simple and easy to both plan and follow a route without having to turn a page.

Read more: 19 of the best smartphone cycling apps for iPhone and Android

GPS receivers simply show your location, with basic GPS cycling computers offer nothing more than basic metrics (how fast you’re going, distance etc). The more expensive computers, with bigger screens, provide mapping and navigational facilities. They can function much like a car sat nav, or you can create your own routes to follow.

Garmin Edge 1000

Garmin Edge 1000

Some devices simply let you put in the postcode or address and will calculate a route, but better for cyclists is to manually plot a route to suit your distance and time requirements.That’s ideal if you’re new to an area, going on holiday and aren’t sure where to cycle, or just want to remove the guesswork from where to cycle.

Read more: Best cheap GPS cycling computers

Planning a route using mapping software or an app has its advantages. You can scout out interesting looking roads and hills, and devise a route that you cycling requirements precisely, where it's packing in as many hills as you can find, or avoiding them completely.

For time-crunched cyclists, planning a route lets you decide the exact distance and many apps will provide an estimated time of completion based on an average speed. Following a predetermined route on a handlebar-mounted computer or smartphone also means less stopping at junctions to unfold a paper map, so more time pedalling and less time wondering which is the right way.

If planning your own route is too much effort, some devices will offer a choice of routes based on a distance, and you can simply choose which one you would like to follow. 

Review: Garmin Edge 1030 performance bundle

Many sportive and event organisers now provide a downloadable route so you can have a backup navigation option to the usual arrow signs that mark key junctions. Even a sport as traditional as Audax has joined the modern age with many organisers providing GPS routes. Weekend club rides now offer downloadable routes.

Plotting a route

There is a host of free mapping websites and apps that make it easy to plot your own route. Strava does mapping, there’s CycleMaps, my favourite is the simple BikeHike and more advanced options like MapMyRide andRideWithGPS and many more. You might have your favourite, there are too many to list them all here. 

A plotted route on plotaroute.com

A plotted route on plotaroute.com

With the proliferation of smartphones, most of which offer GPS functionality, and a plethora of free apps now available, you can easily make use of your phone to lot and follow routes. 

Strava’s mapping tool is quite clever because it taps into the vast database of shared activities and segments to show you the most popularly ridden roads in an area, which can be useful if you’re riding in a new location for the first time and aren’t sure where to ride. Other advantages to plotting a route are that you can see exactly how much climbing you're in for. You can also make sure to avoid busy or horrible roads.

If planning your own route is too much effort, or you’re interested to see what routes other cyclists might be riding, there are websites that allow you to search for routes. Bikely lets you enter an area and choose a distance, and it’ll show you a list of routes that you can easily download. 

The website opencyclemap.org highlights roads and paths suitable for cycling, which can be handy if cycling in a large city and you want to avoid heavily congested main roads. It can’t be used to plan routes, but CycleStreets.net can. It lets you pick a start location and final destination, and it’ll offer a choice of three routes, using the National Cycle Network where possible.

While plotting a route on a smartphone is probably the quickest way to get a route ready, for more detailed route planning there’s no beating the advantage of using a bigger computer screen. I can spend ages looking at online maps and researching new roads and putting together different routes.

Many of the more popular mapping services offer both an app and website, and you can often save and store a route, making it easy to get onto your phone.

Here are just a few of the popular mapping services:

Download to a GPS device or smartphone

Once you've created your route, you need to get it onto your GPS device or smartphone.

Using a smartphone for the whole process is the easiest option as you don’t need a computer. Simply choose a compatible app, create a route, then hit GO to follow it. Many apps, like  Strava, will also record the activity and provide speed and distance data at the same time.

If you’re using a GPS device like a Garmin Edge say, then you need to connect it to your computer, using a USB cable (or Bluetooth if it’s supported) and then download the route to the device. How you actually get the route from the computer onto the device can vary from brand to brand, so make sure to follow the instructions. The easiest way is to use a website or software that lets you export the route directly to a connected GPS device. 

Garmin Edge 1000 - routes

Garmin Edge 1000 - routes

Sometimes you might have to export the route (TCX and GPX are the two most common file formats) and manually save it to the right folder on the GPS device. The best thing is to follow the instructions for your particular device to ensure you get the route loaded onto the device.

Following a route on the bike

With your route created and downloaded to your GPS computer or smartphone, it’s simply a case of following the route. There are two key choices when following a route.

You can either use turn-by-turn directions, and the app will flag up which way to go at key junctions. This is a the simplest choice because you can get on with enjoying the ride and the scenery, and not worry about which turn to take.

The other option simply displays your location on the map, with a coloured line indicating the route you need to follow. This option means you have to pay more attention to the route but does offer a bit more freedom if you want to divert off the route for any reason, such as spotting an interesting looking road. Some devices will provide prompts for upcoming junctions as well.

Smartphone or GPS device?

Both have their pros and cons. More people probably have smartphones than a dedicated GPS cycle computer, and if you’ve already got a smartphone, why spend yet more money on a cycle computer to do what your smartphone can already do?

Zefal Z Console Lite iPhone 6 - phone mounted 2

Zefal Z Console Lite iPhone 6 - phone mounted 2

Smartphones have large colour screens that make following a route nice and easy. Battery life can be a problem with smartphones, though, all that GPS and data (consider using one of the many offline mapping apps) eat the battery. Having the screen on the entire time can also rapidly drain the battery. Consider having the screen turned off and only switching on for turn-by-turn directions.

Smartphones aren’t as rugged or waterproof as dedicated cycle computers, so you want to make sure it’s protected from the elements. If you’re planning to use your smartphone, here are a host of handlebar smartphone apps these days so you can pop your phone on the handlebars and follow the route you’ve created.

A dedicated GPS cycling computer is designed for cycling, so it’s rugged and weatherproof. You can typically expect a much longer battery life as well. The display uses a transflective screen which is easier to view without needing a backlight, the biggest drain on the smartphone’s reflective display.

For extending battery life on a GPS device, you can often buy an external battery pack. Some non-cycling GPS devices (like Garmin’s eTrex) use replaceable AA batteries and might be a more suitable option for longer tours and adventures into the wilderness.

David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.

16 comments

Avatar
Colin Peyresourde [1839 posts] 2 years ago
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Anyone else struggling with Bike Route Toaster of late? I don't seem to be able to plot new routes anymore. It sort of freezes. 

Avatar
pruaga [173 posts] 2 years ago
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Colin Peyresourde wrote:

Anyone else struggling with Bike Route Toaster of late? I don't seem to be able to plot new routes anymore. It sort of freezes. 

The route plotting had been broken for a while. I find it's still useful if you draw the route elsewhere then upload it into bikeroutetoaster, then you can add as many waypoints as you need before exporting it again to put on Garmin.

It's a bit steppy, but I've not found a simpler way to add waypoints for summits, food stops etc.

Avatar
BikeJon [210 posts] 2 years ago
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pruaga wrote:
Colin Peyresourde wrote:

Anyone else struggling with Bike Route Toaster of late? I don't seem to be able to plot new routes anymore. It sort of freezes. 

The route plotting had been broken for a while. I find it's still useful if you draw the route elsewhere then upload it into bikeroutetoaster, then you can add as many waypoints as you need before exporting it again to put on Garmin. It's a bit steppy, but I've not found a simpler way to add waypoints for summits, food stops etc.

I find ridewithgps more stable. You can add custom entries to the cue sheet. 

App-wise, I've found a little gem called 'Bike Tracker' (Android only) that provides voice navigation that follows the RWGPS cue sheet perfectly. So once you're sure the cue sheet is accurate and to your liking then it's pretty fun to navigate with bone conducting phones. The app also gives good prompts if you do miss a turn. 

Avatar
jimbo2112 [94 posts] 2 years ago
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Does anyone know of a route planner that allows you to properly avoid paths that are not suitable for road bikes? I like the Strava router, but it puts me in woods and canal towpaths far too often!

Avatar
pruaga [173 posts] 2 years ago
0 likes
jimbo2112 wrote:

Does anyone know of a route planner that allows you to properly avoid paths that are not suitable for road bikes? I like the Strava router, but it puts me in woods and canal towpaths far too often!

 

bikehike.co.uk lets you see ordnance survey maps in their route planner, which can be useful for planning routes off road, so you might find that useful to judge what type of road/trail a route uses.

Avatar
jimbo2112 [94 posts] 2 years ago
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pruaga wrote:
jimbo2112 wrote:

Does anyone know of a route planner that allows you to properly avoid paths that are not suitable for road bikes? I like the Strava router, but it puts me in woods and canal towpaths far too often!

 

bikehike.co.uk lets you see ordnance survey maps in their route planner, which can be useful for planning routes off road, so you might find that useful to judge what type of road/trail a route uses.

 

OK, thanks, but I am looking to stay on road! Does it help with that as well?

 

Appreciate the reponse!

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LaVieEnVelo [33 posts] 2 years ago
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Anyone know of a route builder that uses the French IGN base mapping? Would be really good for planning our routes. At the mo we plan them in ridewithgps but then produce separate paper maps based on exporting images of maps in a desk-top publishing package. It's all a bit cumbersome.

www.lavieenvelo.com

Avatar
Cyclist-1056 [1 post] 2 years ago
1 like

Okay, iv'e cracked.  I've seen this article tweeted too many times now and got a bit frustrated that is doesn't really give you a solution for navigating a route using your phone.  The problem with navigating by phone is the battery won't last with the screen on and who wants to keep stopping?  Fortunately there is a really good app called osmand.  It's a free app that lets you navigate a gpx, and here is the genius bit, it turns the screen on for 15 seconds before the turn, tells you which way to turn by voice as well if you want and then turns  off again.  Solves the battery issue.  Another genius function is that it will navigate you back to the route if you go off route and miss a turn.  Interface is not that intuative but worth figuring out.  Nothing comes close to this that I have tried.  Simply plot the route using strava, export the gpx, load into OSMAnd and away you go, turn by turn navigation on your phone for free.

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lardychap [5 posts] 1 year ago
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I use this for my Garmin

 

Plot your route in Google Maps.

 

Drop the URL here http://www.gpsvisualizer.com/convert_input?convert_format=gpx and save the GPX file

 

Convert the GPX file to TCS using http://www.gpsies.com/ You can add turn notifications in the advanced section

 

Then copy the tcx into the Garmin

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benbrangwyn [7 posts] 1 year ago
1 like

I've used most of the route planners, and my favourite by far is http://www.gpxeditor.co.uk/. 

I have all my routes in the cloud now, and can download to any device at will (usually either Garmin 800 or 200). It's a real pleasure to use, probably because it's the brainchild of a real cyclist who develops software in his day job.  The map is totally full screen with a few unintrusive icons - very classy.

Last year I thought of an enhancement that would be really useful for me and emailed the developer. Within a week it was a standard feature. 

Definitely worth checking out.

 

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ConcordeCX [816 posts] 1 year ago
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LaVieEnVelo wrote:

Anyone know of a route builder that uses the French IGN base mapping? Would be really good for planning our routes. At the mo we plan them in ridewithgps but then produce separate paper maps based on exporting images of maps in a desk-top publishing package. It's all a bit cumbersome.

www.lavieenvelo.com

I use ViewRanger, and have an annual subscription to France IGN Géoportail, which I think is £20/year. This provides full coverage of metropolitan France as well as the DOM/TOMs at 1:25k scale and upwards, with several different styles of mapping. It is unbelievably good value for money. I wish the OS did it, rather than having to buy panels one at a time, or spend something like £250 for the whole (much smaller!) country at 25k.

if you need to zoom in below 1:25k ViewRanger drops you into OpenStreetMap. That doesn't have contour lines of course.

the user interface is rather idiosyncratic and took me a while to figure out, but it's easy to plot routes on one device and you can either follow them on your phone or export them and import them onto a Garmin or suchlike. I've never followed them on my phone, I use a Garmin eTrex 30.

It works really well for me. I use it to plot my summer rides from the Channel to the Med. I've also imported a couple of lists of waypoints - the BCN/BPFs from the FFCT, and les Plus Beaux Villages de France, so I can incorporate then into the routes.

You always need a paper map too though, in case electricity stops working one day. I buy the IGN Top100 maps for the whole route. I have nearly the whole country now. Expensive.

 

Avatar
ConcordeCX [816 posts] 1 year ago
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LaVieEnVelo wrote:

Anyone know of a route builder that uses the French IGN base mapping? Would be really good for planning our routes. At the mo we plan them in ridewithgps but then produce separate paper maps based on exporting images of maps in a desk-top publishing package. It's all a bit cumbersome.

www.lavieenvelo.com

p.s. I've just had a look at your website. "La vie, c’est comme un bicyclette" - should be une bicyclette (feminine).

Avatar
LaVieEnVelo [33 posts] 1 year ago
0 likes

Anyone know of a route builder that uses the French IGN base mapping? Would be really good for planning our routes. At the mo we plan them in ridewithgps but then produce separate paper maps based on exporting images of maps in a desk-top publishing package. It's all a bit cumbersome.

www.lavieenvelo.com

 

Many thanks for your advice about the geoportail. I  always use the freeby version for route-planning all over France although I actually plot routes still on ridewithgps because I find their editing tools better and the whole system more reliable. I also have all of the routes on ridewithgps so they are free to access for our guests who then download them all to their devices either before they go on their trips or once we are there in the hotel. Often on the morning of a ride I can plan or amend an existing route for guests according to their preference for that particular day and upload it to their device very easily, ridewithgps is great for that, but I always toggle between it and geoportail for reference to the IGN mapping which is more relaible for giving you which route is actually passable.

Oh, and thanks for the grammatical correction. I'll go and edit it. I once produced 500 promotional post cards with a howler on the front that a French friend pointed out and when I reordered I managed to reorder the same ones again, so had 1000 embarrassments to remind me.

Merci beaucoup for the advice.

Avatar
LaVieEnVelo [33 posts] 1 year ago
1 like
ConcordeCX wrote:
LaVieEnVelo wrote:

Anyone know of a route builder that uses the French IGN base mapping? Would be really good for planning our routes. At the mo we plan them in ridewithgps but then produce separate paper maps based on exporting images of maps in a desk-top publishing package. It's all a bit cumbersome.

www.lavieenvelo.com

p.s. I've just had a look at your website. "La vie, c’est comme un bicyclette" - should be une bicyclette (feminine).

Gender reorientation complete.

Avatar
HoarseMann [56 posts] 6 months ago
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I find pocket earth really good for route planning on iOS. Just doesn’t do elevation unfortunately. I've ordered a Lexar lightening to microSD card reader for £20 to see if I can get .tcx files off my phone and onto my non-Bluetooth Garmin tour. Hopefully will also work for taking recorded rides off the Garmin for upload to Strava when I don’t have access to the laptop. 

On the pc, I use ride with gps in tandem with Strava heatmaps/routing. 

Avatar
risoto [72 posts] 2 months ago
0 likes
Cyclist-1056 wrote:

Okay, iv'e cracked.  I've seen this article tweeted too many times now and got a bit frustrated that is doesn't really give you a solution for navigating a route using your phone.  The problem with navigating by phone is the battery won't last with the screen on and who wants to keep stopping?  Fortunately there is a really good app called osmand.  It's a free app that lets you navigate a gpx, and here is the genius bit, it turns the screen on for 15 seconds before the turn, tells you which way to turn by voice as well if you want and then turns  off again.  Solves the battery issue.  Another genius function is that it will navigate you back to the route if you go off route and miss a turn.  Interface is not that intuative but worth figuring out.  Nothing comes close to this that I have tried.  Simply plot the route using strava, export the gpx, load into OSMAnd and away you go, turn by turn navigation on your phone for free.

 

Exactly, fantastic program. Menus are very detailed and be a bit confusing - just play around with it. You can also add useful stats in the upper right corner - time, km's ridden, time, elevation, grade and so forth.

I often use it just to see where I am! I normally use a Lezyne Super GPS for routing. It works every time with just arrows and street names popping up in good time before the next turn. It works surprising well.