With the absolutely glorious weather we’ve had of late, I’m seeing a rise in the number of cyclists I see out and about, most of whom have a general look of being lost and unsure. Many of them seem completely unaware of how to use the fantastic network of cycle routes and paths available, but thinking back to when I first started using these routes, they can be pretty confusing to get your head around. Kate and I thought a wee blog post to help explain where to find information on local cycle routes, how to plan your day out and what the rules and expectations are for when you use them might be a useful thing to put out.
Planning your cycle ride
There is a network of fantastic routes made up of traffic-free paths and quieter roads that can let you cycle all over the UK. They are called National Cycle Routes (NCR) and are all given numbers to identify them so you can easily navigate your way around.
National Cycle Network Route 1 (NCR1) is a thing which has become both dreaded and a source of fun and amusement in our lives. Back when I first started doing the longer cycles trips (feel free to delve into the very beginnings of this blog and read about them), NCR1 became synonymous with all things arduous and dreaded, it was the part of my journey where I was exhausted and the hills kicked in. Now we live in a house on this very route and smile at the big blue sign we see from our back garden fondly. We were even married under it! But how do we know about this network? Well, cause back then I had to do a bit of work to investigate just how I was going to cycle to Edinburgh and this introduced me to the most amazing network of routes and paths which until then, I hadn’t even known existed.
The paths and routes throughout the UK are managed by a group called Sustrans, a group formed to promote active travel. Their website is a really useful tool for finding out about routes near you. They also produce great maps showing the routes and over the years I have gathered quite a selection of these. One thing to be aware of though, they are broken up into areas, so you might need more than one map for your route as you pass from one region into another. You can get these at your local bike shop or from the Sustrans website.
Before Kate and I go on any new cycle, we check out these maps just so we are aware of what to expect, where the route will take us and importantly, nearby train stations (just in case).
Another great source is Google Maps, which has been updated over the last couple of years to include all of these cycle routes. You can search for directions and then specify cycling to see the NCRs available. The other fantastic benefit to Google Maps is that you can also use their street view options to actually virtually travel the route in advance to help you learn what landmarks to watch out for and if there are any weird twists or turns in the route.
What to look out for
One of the main lessons I learned from using these routes is that the signage isn’t always brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is fantastic, especially if it’s on a dedicated “cycle” path, but if the route uses roads as well, the signage can be difficult to spot.
On the dedicated paths, which are shared use paths for cycling, walking, mobility vehicles etc, signage tends to be quite good.
You’ll see these blue arrows which will tell you the direction to go in for a specific route, the distance to the destination and even a small red box with a number in it. This tells you what NCR this is. On the photo of one of our local signs, you can see that the route is NCR1 and that QMU (Queen Margaret University) is one way and Musselburgh is the other.
Very occasionally the signs take on a bit of an artistic/sculptural theme like the one at our local train station.
Another thing you might see if the big blue circular sign which shows a bike and pedestrians. This lets you know that this is a shared path, so be aware of walkers, dogs (off the lead or on extending leads), people wearing headphones or even just older people who don’t hear so well and may not be quite so aware of their surroundings, so be aware and be safe.
Once you are on a route which involves using quieter roads, however, you will not see nice, easy to spot big signs like this. Now you have to be really aware and watch out for a different type of sign. Still blue, always blue, but now it is more likely to be a small sticker on a lamppost. So you really have to be looking out for these, as they are really easy to miss. One thing to note is that they usually appear when the route is about to change direction or when there is likely to be confusion about which direction to take, if there is a directional change, look out for arrows on these stickers.
Another thing to be aware of is the surface, although a lot of the routes through towns and cities are proper cement surfaces, the lesser used routes can sometimes be grit or gravel surfaces which can be more difficult for bikes which don’t have fat, mountain bike style tyres. Just be prepared and if it becomes too slippy, get off and push until the surface improves.
The very last thing I will mention is about these paths and routes being shared. I’m sure we all have a story or two about other people not being very considerate, but trust me, getting annoyed or angry about this is going to take all the fun out of your cycle, and I’m saying trust me because I spent a long time angry before I realised I needed to just chill and remember to be the example. The routes are shared but not everyone will have the awareness of how they should think about others around them, so to make sure you get the very most out of your cycling adventure, and of course for your own safety as well as others… pay attention, be prepared to slow down or stop and make sure you ring your bell well in advance to give people time to process and react. Most of all, just have fun!
Want to see what it’s like to cycle on these routes? Here is my daily commute.