Do I turn right or left? How to read a route sheet.

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Bob McDiarmid being a TRL (in a dress).
Before every ride, you kind of have to know where you’re going. If you don’t, its easy to get lost. Sometimes, getting lost can be a fun adventure; sometimes, getting lost can be a grueling ordeal. If you’ve got the time, water, and nutrition, you’re probably good. If you don’t, frustration and dehydration will take their toll. So, unless the route is familiar, its a good idea to know where you’re going.
On AIDS/LifeCycle training rides (and on group training rides generally), there are resources to help you know where you’re going. The two primary resources are route sheets and training ride leaders (TRL). On rides, new riders tend to rely heavily on TRLs to guide them. That’s what TRLs are for. But for various reasons, you might become separated from the TRLs. So its then you need to know how to figure out where you are and where you’re going.
Here is a list of steps to help decipher a route sheet. Not all of them apply to every ride, but its a good idea to go through the mental check list before every ride. Below is a route sheet for the ride I led on Saturday. You’ll notice several things:
  1. A mileage column. Useful for knowing if you’re on track.
  2. A turn direction column. Key information!
  3. The name of the road (or bike path) to turn on. Also key.
  4. Some notes about the turns. These can help you keep safe, hydrated, and fed.
  5. Contact information. In case of emergency call 911; otherwise, call a ride leader.
Each bit of information is crucial to a successful ride and crucial to staying with the group. But, you say, you’ve never been to the “Nimbus Fish Hatchery” or Auburn, CA, so none of this means anything to you! Fear not, there are strategies to help you understand.
Typical route sheet.
First, the night before the ride, try to get a map and a copy of the route sheet and review them together. This will help you know your orientation so you’ll know how to begin the ride. It will also help you understand the twist and turns and how they work together. It can alert you to where the hills are, and it can help you to know how much food to bring and when you’ll need to eat it. Generally, reviewing the map before the ride will give you a sense of confidence.
Before each ride, the ride leader will describe the ride to you in detail. As the TRL is going through each turn, it may sound a lot like Greek, but chances are you will absorb some key information which your brain will pluck out at an opportune moment of indecision. For instance, the ride leader might say something like:
  • “The first turn is not for 20 miles.” — So you know not to stress out when you’ve not turned for what seems like forever.
  • “Make sure you fill your water bottles at mile 18; there’s no water stops for 25 miles after that.”
  • “If you go through a tunnel, you’ve gone too far.” — Important to know before you get to the tunnel.
  • “There is heavy traffic on Sierra College; be careful with the left hand turn onto English Colony.”
  • “There’s a big climb is right after lunch. So make sure you stop and eat.”
At the time, the TRL’s instructions may mean nothing. But your brain works harder than you do — you’ll be surprised by how much you retain just by letting it sink in.

The route sheet usually has an elapsed mileage counter before every turn or major intersection. This is there to let you know if you’re on track and to help you get back on track, if you get lost. Every so often, make sure your mileage matches up with the mileage on the sheet. For instance, on the sample route sheet, the ride begins on a bike trail. Its almost impossible to know where the turn off onto Folsom Blvd. is unless you check the mileage!
To do this, you’ll need a cycling computer. Plus you’ll need to know how to use it. Finally, you’ll have to remember to reset it before each ride. These things start out at $60, but can cost in the hundreds of dollars. You will generally not need a GPS device (though if you cycle enough, you’ll find one invaluable), but you do need one that will let you track your miles per ride.
Additionally, there are many apps for cyclists which you may find useful: Strava, Ride with GPS, and MapMyRide, to name three. Though these are helpful, you’ll likely find that they are no replacement for a cycling computer.
For various reasons, your exact mileage may not match the mileage on the route sheet. When you’re at a point where you know where you are, note the difference and consider it when deciding later if you’re lost!
Before you make a turn, especially one which contains a hill, make sure you’re going the right way: Check the route sheet. Wait for a TRL, if there’s one close behind you. And ask other riders in your group, if you’re unsure. Sometimes a wrong turn can mean slogging back up a hill, but it almost always means adding miles!
Also note that TRLs are human. Sometimes the route sheet can be vague or can say R when it means L (not that my route sheets ever have that problem (sorry Michael)). So use your brain — if a turn seems wrong, check a map on your phone or wait for assistance.
If a portion of the ride seems particularly long, then you might have made a wrong turn. Don’t freak out. Pull over to the side of the road and try to check the route sheet and your maps. If you can’t figure out where you are, call or text a TRL (whose names and numbers are usually printed on the route sheet). He or she is probably riding, so leave a message or a text. But don’t just idly wait for them to get back to you. Find a convenience store or a helpful local to get you directions. If you get back on track, leave a second message for the TRL.
ALC training rides are “swept.” This means that a TRL will stay in the back of the pack and will make sure that everyone stays on course and (to the best of their ability) finishes. Not all rides are swept, so if you’re on a “no sweep” ride, usually, the ride leader will wait at major turns or intersections to make sure everyone gets through.

Its way more fun to ride with someone than alone. Find a person in the group who seems to be riding at your level and be friendly. You’ll find it fun to ride with them, and they’ll probably enjoy the support. You may not stick with the same person on the entire, ride and that’s a good thing! The more you ride, the more people you know, the more you’ll find yourself comparing experiences and enjoying yourself!
Plus there’s the added bonus of bitching about the horrible and confusing route sheet!

The notes will help you know where hills are, which turns require extra care, and most importantly, where and when to get food and water. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, missing a rest stop can be the difference between a fun ride and a failed ride.
I’m sure there is a lot I’m missing, but this is long enough! Please feel free to ask questions.
Your Bear

3 thoughts on “Do I turn right or left? How to read a route sheet.

    […] Know your terrain. Review the route sheet the night before, if possible, and identify problem areas. Climbing, descending, navigating lots of curves, or extended flats can all be difficult for some. Listen to the ride leader when he or she explains the route. […]

    […] your entire ride. So keep the TRLs phone numbers handy in case you run into trouble. Also, keep the route sheet and your phone’s map feature handy in case you get […]

    […] of route sheets, please see Bear’s prior post on how to read route sheets, “Do I turn right or left? How to read a route sheet.” which is also an important skill to […]

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