Tips to explore new bike trails

In April 2016 my friend Vital created a GPS route which lead us through the north-western slopes of Nanos, Slovenia and the nearby Trnovski forest. A large portion of the route included the trails neither of us has ridden before. The route was 78km long and should have (according to the online app) taken us 3 hours. Due to the cold weather, we decided to start a ride at 11 AM. Technical terrain made our progress far slower than expected. 7 hours later (at 6 PM) in complete dark due to the clouds, we reached the highest point of the route (1.313 m.a.s.l.). Cold and without lamps, a long downhill was still separating us from our car. Luckily, we met some hikers, who were staying overnight in the cottage nearby and they gave (yes, gave!) us their headlights so that we could make the downhill to our car “safely”. The moral of the story? Exploration of new bike trails can be very time consuming without proper preparation and tools. This is the reason that even though I really enjoyed and benefited from exploring new bike trails, I used to do it far less often than I wanted. I simply could not afford the events such as the above on a regular basis. I wanted to spend time with my girlfriend and also rest before another strenuous week at a law firm. And even if I had the time and as memorable as the above events are, they are certainly neither pleasurable at the time being nor safe. I have since then perfected my methods to explore new bike trails without risking my safety and lowering the probability of unwanted delays to the minimum. I hope the below tips will help you explore new bike trails more often.

Join a group ride or ride with friends

When I began cycling this was the first method I employed to discover new trails (besides simply hoping on the bike and trying luck). One of the greatest advantages of joining others it that it is a mix of exploration of new trails, socializing and often improving performance. Because the groups usually don’t explore new trails and usually ride on roads, known to group members, you don’t risk getting lost, being late home for lunch/dinner or wandering on an unpaved road (if you’re a road biker). Unfortunatelly, for the same reason participating in group rides quickly looses it’s excitement from exploration perspective. Also, you are stuck with the determined start time, duration and the groups’ effort intensity.

Participate in a race on a new terrain

A great way to explore new terrain is to take part in long (marathon, granfondo) races and especially stage races. Even if you don’t like racing, I encourage you to participate for some good reasons. First, organizers prepare a route for you and you simply follow the physical directions or provided GPS route. Second, the organizers take care for food and drinks along the ride. And third, specific to stage races, the organizers take care for accommodation and transport your luggage between the stages. Actually, participating in some of the stage races is also the cheapest way to explore new terrain in a foreign country, because the organizers often offer accommodation under very low prices, which you cannot match outside the race. I can vouch firsthand this is the case in Transalp and Transpyr MTB stage races. Also, the organizers remove the costs and the hassle of complicated logistics of transporting your luggage between stages, which should have been otherwise done by your friend or a family member. And don’t be afraid to look weird as the only “competitor” who is using the race infrastructure to explore new trails and not care for the overall standings. I’ve met plenty of individuals, who participated in a race for this reason only. If you ask me, participating in a stage race is the most underused way to explore new terrain and I hope that this article encourages you to finally register for Transalp, Transpyr, Breck Epic, Singletrack 6, Haute Route or any of the other great stage races.

Plan your ride in advance

I have been joining group rides for years and I am surprised that usually nobody plans a route in advance. I noticed it is not much different with my cycling buddies, who usually start deciding on the route once they hit the road. Because most of us have many obligations, we can’t afford to spend a whole day in the saddle. And the lack of prior planing forces us to grind the same old routes, because we simply know the surface type and duration of the ride. The safest way to explore new bike trails without unplanned delays (due to unwanted surface type or blind alleys) is to plan the routes ahead and export them to your GPS computer. While you might keep the details of a shorter route in your head, your memory is probably going to fail you on longer routes and especially in the forest. A GPS computer is going to guide you on an unknown terrain and improve the ride flow by eliminating the need to stop and check your map/phone to establish your location and next turns. That being said, you should invest in a cycling GPS computer with navigation capability (the ability to import a .gpx or a .tcx route and follow it) and find an online app, which lets you create routes. No matter the app you intend to use, if you intend to use it to create and export routes you should definitely pay attention to the (lack of) following functionalities:
  • map with information on surface type (paved/unpaved),
  • the ability to create and export bike routes (if you’re a mountain biker, make sure you can create routes on unpaved roads),
  • accurate ride duration estimate,
  • a personal heatmap,
In my opinion, the above functionalities not only materially simplify exploration of a new terrain, but also decrease the possibility of unplanned delays. An information on surface type allows you to create a route for preferred bike type (MTB or road bike). A personal heatmap shows all the trails you’ve already ridden on the same map that you use to create a route. This makes exploring user friendly and faster. An accurate ride duration estimate lets you explore new terrain without the fear of missing a family lunch. And finally, the ability to create and export a route enables you to export the route on your GPS computer to guide you on the terrain. Our solution to advance route planning is Canopy. It makes it simple to incorporate new bike trails and create remarkable adventures.  

New trails are a sureway to fulfillment. I prefer unpaved (green).

Canopys’ navigation-centered functionality is intended for those of us, who are eager to explore new trails and who are always in search for that perfect view. If you prefer competing with others or your performance metrics, I suggest you try STRAVA or one of the myriad services that put a greater emphasis on that aspect. I would also recommend you to check for possible roadworks and plan your route accordingly. Usually, you can get away with it, but I’ve also experience some long stretches of unpaved road (with a road bike), which I could have otherwise easily avoided. Usually, states establish a comprehensive map of all current roadworks. For Slovenia, you can find it here.

Move the starting/end point of your ride

Even if you are doing all of the above and faithfully plan the rides in advance, you slowly start to run out of new trails in your area, if you always start and end your ride at the same location. To avoid grinding the same trails you should move the starting/end point of your rides (and still plan the rides ahead). The simplest ways are:
  • pack the bike in the car and drive to the starting point that is outside your “known trails radius”,
  • hop on a bus or train with your bike to take you to a new starting point. This way, you can either make a loop at the end destination and take a bus/train back home, or bike home from end destination. There are some useful tips: (1) Make sure that the bus/train allows you to take a bike with you. (2) In the summer, take an early train to avoid riding in the midday heat. (3) If you can afford, don’t take buses and trains during the weekends and especially not to/from the most crowded destinations.
  • make use of websites/FB groups, where people offer to take passengers with them (e.g. blablacar.de, prevozi.org etc.). Make sure to tell people that you need to transport a bike as well. From my experience, people are quite hesitant to transport bikes. It helps if you write them a text message, briefly explaining that you plan to do a training and you really appreciate their help. Additionally, attach a (clean!) picture of your bike.
Oh, and when you’re travelling alone, the time on the bus or train does not need to be “lost”. I used to perceive the time on a bus/train lost, but not since I am listening to the podcasts during a ride. There are hundreds of different podcasts and I am sure you can find one for your taste. I especially enjoy the business podcasts and my favourite are:
  • the MFCEO project
  • the Tim Ferriss Show
The great thing about listening to podcasts is that we are all carrying a smartphone with us. So the only added weight are the headphones and I am sure that the added 20g won’t impair our performance or comfort. After all, even the professionals use them during the races. If you have some obligations over the weekend you can use them to your advantage. This is how I do it:
  • ride to your vacation, relatives’ birthdays etc. with your bike and arrange your spouse/friend to drive you and your bike back home;
  • take a bike with you, when you have a meeting outside your hometown and plan a bike route after the meeting, before returning home.
And of course, don’t forget to take your bike on vacation 🙂 I hope I’ve given you some new ideas to explore new terrain. If you found value in this blog post and if you think that it might help any of your friends, please share it with them.

Written by marko