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Saturday, November 19: Three Sisters and Wetlands Park, 36 miles

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Building a better route sheet


Again this year, I was honored to be asked by the Seismic Challenge staff to create the route sheets for this year's ride, a 206-mile, two-day route from San Francisco to Livermore to Yountville on Oct. 2-3.

The Seismic Challenge route changes somewhat every year. This time around, part of the route was on streets and highways that I'd never seen, let alone cycled. So although I got a detailed turn-by-turn list from the ride organizers, I realized that I couldn't do a truly effective job of creating a useful route sheet unless I saw the route myself. With that in mind, I packed up the car and headed up to American Canyon for a 40-mile ride to and through Napa and back.

Before leaving, I made a first draft of the route sheet and brought it with me. I carried a red pen in my jersey pocket, and as you can see, I made frequent use of it during the ride. (It's darned near impossible to write neatly with a gloved hand while stopped by the side of the road and using a flimsy map holder as support!) Many of the cautions that we teach in ride leader school were on display:

-- Street signs often are missing, or they don't agree with Google Maps. In Napa, I was particularly surprised at how many street signs were missing within the city limits, as opposed to out in rural nowheresville. Because the Seismic route is marked with route arrows, unsigned streets aren't overly problematic, but if you're making a route sheet for an unmarked route, you need to provide enough visual cues to direct riders through unsigned turns (for example: "first stop sign").

-- Turns that appear to be hard rights or lefts on maps can sometimes be gentle bends, or the other way around. When a cyclist approaches a Y-style intersection, a route sheet says to go "right" is more confusing than one that says to "bear right."

-- Cue sheets automatically generated by some mapping tools, most notably Map My Ride, are notorious for inserting phantom turns that allegedly travel a very short distance before continuing in the desired direction. Other mapping anomalies that can pop up include weird loop-de-loop routings that try to deposit you on the wrong side of a divided highway.

-- Driving a route sometimes yields less satisfactory results than actually riding it. At one entrance to a bike path, there was no curb cut to allow cyclists to ride directly onto the path, forcing a dismount after an especially tricky left turn from a high-speed divided highway. This is the type of thing that cyclists should know about in advance.

-- Another thing that test drivers might not notice as much as test riders is the road condition, especially potholes, bumps, ruts and other obstructions that might affect the side of the road more than the main vehicle lanes. Particularly on descents and other technical parts of a route, it's helpful to warn riders of substandard road conditions.

Many other route sheet designers, particularly in the randonneuring world, include incremental distances on each step of the route sheet. (For example, "At mile 29.0, turn right on Main; continue for 1.5 miles," phrased in a tabular format, of course.) Seismic and ALC don't do this, and that's why you don't see that style here. Incremental distances can be helpful for cyclists whose cycle computers or GPS units don't synchronize exactly with the printed distances, or who detour from the official route and later rejoin it.

One small problem about test-riding a one-way route such as Seismic: Unless you coordinate multiple vehicles and multiple riders, there's often no easy way to get back to your starting point. I solved this by only riding 24 miles of the route in Napa; I was able to chop my return down to only 16 miles by taking a more direct (and stressful) route that certainly wouldn't be appropriate for a large group ride. So, unfortunately, I didn't get to see the very end of the route in Yountville, but a combination of the helpful, detailed instructions from the organizers and careful reading of Google Maps and Street View, and I hope that I've covered all of the main points.

The test will come in early October when this year's intrepid group of Seismic riders sets out on their journey to raise much-needed funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Here's to all of them; one of these years (2011?), I might join you officially.