Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bike America: Choosing and Mapping a Route

Hello and welcome to the second installment of Bike America! Thanks for joining me on this adventure. Today we're going to talk about choosing and mapping a route.

America is large. And there are probably a million different ways to cross it, in an automobile, on foot, or on a bicycle. So knowing where to start and what path to take can be confusing. Luckily, we have my mom in our group, who is the ultimate planner. Planning the route and the logistics of a trip like this is where she thrives. And so we put her to work!

The first step was to choose where to start and finish. Several things made this part pretty easy:
  • We planned to meet up with Ragbrai in the middle of the trip
  • My mom DID NOT want to ride through the heart of the Rocky Mountains
  • We live in Washington, DC and we wanted to end at home
It was clear early on that we should ride from Washington state to Washington, DC. We'd see a large chunk of the country that few of us had explored, it would be the coolest option, we'd ride mountains but they'd be much more manageable than the ones in Colorado, and we'd be en route to the west side of Iowa. So that was that.

Figuring out which towns to stay in, and which roads to turn down, was the much more complicated part and my mom took the lead on it. Neither she or I claim to be any sort of expert on this but I will let you in on a few of her secrets:
  • Trust the experts.
    • A large part of our course was planned based on the maps we bought from adventure cycling. I guaruntee you they are far more well-informed on the subject than we will ever be.
  • Read stories of people who have done this before you and use their experiences as a guide.
    • My mom (and I) read many blogs of people who had ridden their bikes across the Northern Tier of America. They provide good commentary on what to expect where. On everything from the roads and the terrain to the people and the weather.
  • Don't be afraid to change it up.
    • After months of planning to ride through Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota to get to Ragbrai, my mom found a blog written by people who rode a similar route but decided to cut North Dakota off their itinerary. The more she read, the more apparent it was how dominated the state's roads were by oil trucks and how seedy some of the overnight towns could be. It isn't the best environment for cyclists anymore. So she cut North Dakota off our itinerary as well. We would turn South early, from Montana into Wyoming, instead and we'd get to see Mount Rushmore and the black hills that way. Win win!
  • Google maps bicycling directions are your friend.
    • Since we are not following any of the adventure cycling routes to a T and, instead, are using a combination of various portions of several, there were some gaps in our course. These gaps were small, and we usually knew what towns to stay overnight in but needed an expert to tell us exactly how to bike between them. We turned to Google as our expert.
After very much research and planning, my diligent mother has bound up a thick binder with two full page printouts of each day's map and turn-by-turn directions. Also included are several printouts of the spreadsheet listing our overnight towns and the distance between each. Since you probably haven't heard of 3/4 of the towns, I'll spare you a list. It will be much more fun to read about the towns as we ride into them than it will be to see them listed below. But, if you're interested enough in our general course to open a new tab and go to google maps, then I'll give you a simple way of knowing about where we'll be. Our approximate route, according to the interstates of America, is as follows:
  • I-90 from Seattle, WA to Sioux Falls, SD
  • Sioux Falls, SD to Davenport, IA along Ragbrai route
  • I-74 from Davenport, IA to Indianapolis, IN
  • I-70 from Indianapolis, IN to Pittsburgh, PA
  • C&O Canal train from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC
Of course we won't actually be on the interstate at all but this is the easiest way of understanding our general progression. Stay tuned from June 14 to August 17 to learn exactly where our bikes will take us!


  1. What an amazing job your mom did! I think giving up North Dakota for Montana and Wyoming is a great decision. Both states are amazing!!!! :)

  2. Really informative. When are we getting a post on do's and don'ts for packing for a long bike trip (or RAGBRAI)?

  3. I'm just now learning about your trip. Awesome website. Two summers ago I did all 50 states by car, covering 200,000 miles and almost never never using a highway -two lane blacktop or bust. I'd love to give you some suggestions but aren't quite sure of your priorities. All I can say is turn south early, and take your time is western WA/OR, sawtooth area of Idaho, and Teton area of Wyoming. You rock for doing this. Most people are afraid to be so bold. Enjoy the trip. Live large.