How to use Strava Route Builder to plan a cycling holiday

If you are keen to get out on the bike and explore a new area there are a few ways to do it.

  1. Just ride and hope for the best.

  2. Try to find a local bunch to tag along with.

  3. Go onto Google maps and have a look at the roads in the area.

  4. Use the wealth of data accumulated by Strava to find the best places to ride.

Over the last 10 years Strava has become quite a big hit with many cyclists all over the world. Recording your own GPS rides allows you to compare times against yourself and others and also see what other people are doing.

One very useful piece of data in particular came to my attention a few years back. Heat maps. If you use Strava a lot you can generate a heat map of all of your rides. Why is this interesting? Well you might imagine that your ‘hot spots’ tend to be your favourite rides or ‘best route’.

Well how about taking this heat data and mapping every Strava user! What you find is ‘popular rides’ in almost any City or large town around the world.

A few years ago Strava introduced a ‘Route Builder’ functionality into its desktop edition for premium users which is very similar to using Google maps to calculate the best way to get from A to B. However Strava has the added ability to design your route based on ‘popular routes’.

Why is this good? Well imagine you are in a new place and have no idea where to ride. Well…. pick a point outside town and Strava will show you which way ‘most’ riders take to get there. Local riders know the area, are the most frequent users, and in almost all circumstances would take the most suitable and enjoyable (think scenery or climbs) route.

This is how we have been designing our rides for all of our recent cycling tours. It is really easy, basically pick a start point and an end point and Strava does the rest. You can then edit or change the route by clicking and dragging if you want to . After you are done Strava will tell you how long the ride is, create a profile and also how much climbing is involved. Then you can download the route as a gpx or tcx file to load onto your own GPS device or print the map and cue sheet to take with you.

Why it works well. Take our ride from Roussillon to Sisteron in France. If you simply ask Google maps to plot a course they give you 3 options. Refer to the below image. Blue is their recommended course, most likely based on time, which also implies the flattest route. This might be good if you are commuting for work, but on a cycling holiday it often is not your best choice.

This is the same search in Strava Route Builder and you can see it takes you on a completely different route to all 3 options from Google.

And the result was a stunning day through Provence and into the Alps via epic views of Mt Ventoux and a joyous 60km downhill section to finish (except for the last couple of kilometres which were a nasty 10% - Laura can be blamed for that as she booked our accommodation up a hill as usual).

Now a few tips and cautionary tales.

If you want the best ride then make sure you take some time to think about what Strava has created for you. The most popular routes are not always what you want! Why?

1. Do you want hills? Most local riders once or twice a week hit the local hill for training.

This 65km ride takes you over the famous Col de Madeleine, a HC climb which means it is such a tough climb it is ‘unclassifiable’. You need to be prepared for this type of climb.

However there is another option which is the down the valley floor. 1km longer but 1100m less climbing! Two very different options for a point to point ride.

2. Fast road bike bunches often take busy roads, but very early in the morning. There is often a quieter option.

A popular ride in Sydney is from Centennial Park to Sutherland. However when you look closer using the popularity mode feature Strava takes you on a 6 lane freeway because of the number of ‘fast bunch rides’ that ride in and around Sydney.

Turning off ‘popularity’ gives you a ride through the back suburbs and some really good bike lanes. A much better option for solo or a pair of riders unfamiliar with Sydney.

3. An area that is also big on Mountain Biking or more remote may lead you onto unsealed roads.

For example, Hobart to Orford in Tasmania. It looks great but after double checking by creating the same route in Google a little checking revealed a lot of dirt roads south of Orford.

It could be fun. But will be a lot slower and more remote. Depends what you want.

Google takes you a different way. Even though the road through Rheban is yellow it is dirt.

4. You are going from small country town A to another small country town B about 100km from each other. However because of the location of a large city at C then Strava takes you towards the city because the population is large it also have ‘the most popular’ routes in the area.

See this example where you ride from Annecy to Evian. Strava pulls you very close to Geneva. Probably not the best ride you could have unless you really like riding in cities!

Add an extra ‘way point’ and you totally avoid Geneva.

Overall Strava route builder used alongside Google maps and spending a little time looking at what you have created will put you on your way to an epic cycling adventure.

Read more about strava route builder here.

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