There is another universe out there. You can access it more or less wherever you are in the world. It is quite different from this one. No, you are not entering a scene from the movie Everything, Everywhere, All at Once nor another timeline from Doctor Who. This is off road riding. Mountain bikers know how to get there, audax riders dip into it and the recent gravel phenomenon has opened up this zone to more of us cyclists. But how to get there? I’m going to demonstrate my method, which does not include spells, time machines, selling your soul to the devil or doing something unusual, a la Everything, Everywhere All at Once.
Let me explain first how I ended up hanging out in this other plane. The first lockdown hit us and I got absolutely sick to the back teeth of cyclists drafting me or riding near when we were doing our allowed daily exercise, unvaccinated and living under strict restrictions. I cracked and got myself a second-hand gravel bike, in my case from a club mate, and got off the grid. I wasn’t a complete newbie to riding off road, I had a mountain bike in the Eighties and have done and enjoyed Rapha’s A Day in Hell/Hell of the North events with its long gravé sectors, but at no stage developed any rad, as they say, skills.
I described this existence as off the grid because it’s somewhat quieter there. The traffic consists of occasional horses or dog walkers and there are no shops, close passes or crowds. It’s a land of chuck, chunder, babyheads and peanut butter mud and it can get gnarly. I dipped in the Stateside vernacular a bit there in how Americans describe their “trails.” Blighty puts its best foot – or pedal – forward on a land that consists of Byways, Bridleways and Unrestricted Byways. Farm tracks and livestock abound and it’s all very agricultural.
OK, let’s go to this brave new world. In many ways, it’s actually an old world, ancient even. Some of the best off-road riding you can find is on bygone roadways such as the Icknield Way (110 miles), which claims to be the oldest road in Britain, a 47-mile part of the Pilgrim’s Way, or the Ridgeway (85 miles). In fact, the Ridgeway forms a large part of one of Cycling UK’s series of multi-day off-road routes, The King Alfred’s Way, which loops from Winchester. This sits alongside the mighty 800-mile Great North Trail, the West Kernow Way in Cornwall, Cantii Way in Kent and their latest one in Norfolk, The Rebellion Way.
There are number of organisations that run gravel event rides, too. One of them, Hidden Tracks, are getting in on the longer distance off-road act with a forthcoming London Orbital route. Glorious Gravel and Trail Break are two more gravel event organisers.
Another approach is to search for others riders routes on RideWithGPS (RWGPS), for example, or you could make your own route. YouTuber Simon Willis has a great explanation of how he uses Komoot to create gravel routes on his Always Another Adventure channel:
Or you could use any of the other myriad mapping platforms out there. My way of planning off-road rides is a fairly old school one, in a digital kind of way. I find most online mapping tools are somewhat inadequate and I can struggle with hard copy Ordinance Survey maps, not because of inaccuracy, but because the way things are marked is not distinct enough for me.
I aim to avoid using footpaths where cyclists are legally not permitted. If you do use them, they can be really hit and miss. Many are overgrown and you will hit gates and other anti-cyclist defences. Byways and bridleways for me and the Footpathmap website (FPM) I use is really clear at identifying them. Bright pink for bridleways, blue for byways and green for unrestricted byways. Footpaths are red. This works for me on a psychological level, too, knowing I should avoid the red ones.
I like to draw my routes on RWGPS and have another tab open with FPM for reference. The colours of FPM really pop and it becomes a simple question of joining the blues, greens and pinks to make a loop. Some area have multiple options and this is a good enough reason for me not to simple click two points and ask Komoot or some such app to work it out. The reason I like using RWGPS to buid routes is the Draw Lines function. Most mapping apps have an automatic drawing function to follow the roads between the points you click, but none recognise every navicable byway or brideway. Some you simply don’t get used on auto, so the solution is to switch from follow roads to draw line mode and manually draw that section. Then switch back to follow roads.
Here’s a couple of routes I created using this method.
An alternative, and I’m not joking, is to just get lost. If you don’t slow down enough to explore and enjoy the scenery andwonder “where does that other path go?” then you are missing a lot of the joy universe offers.
How do you go about creating your routes?
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"You will always be in our hearts and on our roads." - @Giro d'Italia on Michele Scarponi