Using Google Maps To Recon A Bike Ride

Internet technology has come a long way in the last five years. One area in particular that I use a lot is online mapping. Specifically Google Maps. I use it to look up directions, find restaurants/stores close to my home, and to look at potential bike routes. When combining some of the tools available within Google Maps it can also be used to recon a potential bike ride you may be planning to do. This is especially helpful if you’ve never ridden the route before.

This SundaySaturday is an organized bicycle ride in Lancaster, Tx called the Lancaster Country Ride Presented by the Greater Dallas Bicyclists. Since I had never done an organized ride before, I was available this weekend, and Lancaster wasn’t that far away, I thought I might try it. I didn’t know anything about the route so I took a look at the 23-mile route on the website and then headed to Google Maps. (Click any pic below to enlarge)

Plot The Route

Google Maps doesn’t have a route planning function like Map My Ride but you can still achieve a similar result by using directions. Since the route started in downtown Lancaster I found two businesses near the start/finish and told Google to give me some directions. The route it gave me was only 362 feet, by bicycle, which was to be expected. If you move your mouse over the route you can drag the route Google gave you to follow a route you want. I did this and stretched the route from 362 feet to 23 miles by following the 23-mile cue sheet found on the rides website. 23 miles=23 miles which is good.

23 Mile Route Lancaster Country Ride

23 Mile Route Lancaster Country Ride

With our route plotted as directions, we can now do some recon on the route by using the tools in Google Maps.

Begin Reconnaissance

The first thing I like to do is click on ‘Satellite’ in the upper right corner. This converts the view from a street map view to a satellite view with real pictures taken from outer space. How cool is that? This view will give you a good idea of the area you’ll be riding in – city, rural, boondocks, 40th and Plum, etc.

23 Mile Lancaster Country Ride Satellite View

23 Mile Lancaster Country Ride Satellite View

After that I switch over to ‘Terrain’ view because I want to know what the ups and downs (hills) are going to be like. This view isn’t super powerful but it will show you elevation contour lines and changes in elevation are shaded on the map. Where the route crosses those shaded areas is where I like to concentrate my recon because I stink at hills. At some point I’ll no longer stink at hills but in the present I do.

23 Mile Lancaster Country Ride Terrain View

23 Mile Lancaster Country Ride Terrain View

Once you find those shaded areas it gets fun. In the upper left hand corner of the map, at the top of the zoom bar, you’ll see a little orange man (the orange man on the bottom lets you change the view to 3D). Dragging this orange man over to the map lets you access street view. Google will only allow you to place the man where they’ve mapped. If they’ve mapped an area the streets will become outlined in a bluish color. Dropping the man onto the street changes the view to Street View. Within street view you can rotate your view by simply clicking and dragging with your mouse. The streets are labeled with a line running down them and you can simply click on the arrows to move down the street. If you move your mouse over the route line further up the road a white oval will appear with the words “Double-Click To Go”. When you double-click you’ll warp to that location along the street. Pretty cool uh? I bet most of you have used street view like this before so that’s probably nothing new.

Google Maps Initial Street View

Google Maps Initial Street View

To make Street View and Terrain work in tandem you have to adjust the window you’re looking at. When you initially changed to Street View, the Terrain map was minimized to a small square in the lower right corner (see pic above). If you click on the upper left hand corner of the terrain map (just look for the double arrows <<) this will place the terrain map on the bottom half of the screen with the street view on the top half (see pic below). Now you can compare your route, terrain, and street view all at the same time.

Street and Terrain Split View

Street and Terrain Split View

With this split view there is now a zoom option for each view. This is handy because you can now zoom out on the terrain map to reposition your little orange man to another area of the map to look at the street view in that area.

What Does Street View Do For You?

I’ve already hinted at Street View helping you see what the hills are like. You can get a feel for how long, steep, or murderous they are. You can also use the street view things like:

  • Locating potential hazards.
  • Seeing what the road conditions are like. Does it look rough or smooth? Is there a shoulder? How many lanes are there?
  • Traffic congestion.

What Does This All Do For You?

Potential Loose Dog on Route

Potential Loose Dog on Route

Well, it may seem like a lot of work but it’s actually pretty easy to do everything above. Using Google Maps to recon a potential ride or route can let you plan out your route better by knowing where to conserve energy for hills later, you can use the info you gather to add your own notes to a ride cue sheet, or identify some pesky dogs you may encounter (see pic above). The pesky dog is a stretch because it was just pure luck the Google van caught it while mapping the streets. I will add though that you’re virtually guaranteed to encounter some dogs on a rural route like this.

Previous Route Markers Painted On Pavement

Previous Route Markers Painted On Pavement

Anybody out there besides me use Google Maps to look at potential routes?

Author: Bryan

I'm developing a healthy lifestyle through cycling and invite you to join me in my journey. Comments are always welcome so feel free to share yours below.

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12 Comments

  1. I've never used Google maps for routes. I prefer to use either bikely, mapmyride or ridewithGPS. RidewithGPS produced quite detailed elevation profiles, whereas mapmyride smooths them out. Bikely is good, but there you have to register before using, whereas the other two allow you to map without entering your details.

    If you are mapping for others, and want to add route markers and notes – bikely is the way to go. The process is simplest here.

    Usage-wise they are all much the same, but I find RidewithGPS a little easier. The other two have a bigger community and they have massive selections of rides to look through.

    My personal favourite – mapmyride for routes. But if I want to examine my hills – it's ridewithGPS all the way.

    Post a Reply
    • I've never heard of either Bikely or ridewithGPS. I'll have to check them out. Thanks.

      Post a Reply
  2. So….after all that research, did you do the ride? How did you make it?

    Post a Reply
    • No, I didn't do the ride. I don't have a bike rack right now so I had no way to carry my bike to the ride. That's kind of a lame excuse but the best I can come up with.

      Post a Reply
  3. It still freaks me out that I can go on Google maps and get a nice clear view of my house from any angle I like. I haven't used the maps for my rides around here, but I have used them when spending time in other cities. It definitely is a great way to check things out when you don't know what the roads are going to be like.

    Darryl

    Post a Reply
    • It's cool isn't it? I use it for all kinds of stuff but when I moved it a new place about six months ago I relied on it heavily to map out a route to my normal cycling route down at White Rock Lake. It's great for finding routes off the beaten path like cutting through neighborhoods to avoid major roads.

      Post a Reply
  4. Great post. I just planned a mini-cycling camp in San Marcos, TX and Google Maps was a huge part of my planning. I really like Ride with GPS because it incorporates a reliable elevation and gradient map with google maps. So I began by using Ride with GPS to get an idea of hitting the elevations I wanted, and then used Google Maps street view to be sure the routes had ample shoulders and minimal traffic. The routes turned out great. However, one thing I will caution is be prepared for the unexpected and have a flexible plan. I had to double back on one route rather than complete my desired loop because of signs like “Fresh Oil” and “Loose Rocks” from a construction crew repaving a section of road without a detour. But a simple double back yielded plenty of climbing and a great ride! Awesome topic!

    Post a Reply
    • I do the same stuff with Google Maps. It's actually a pretty powerful tool in my opinion. In fact, before moving here to Dallas I used the street view mode quite a bit to look at neighborhoods/areas where I was considering renting.

      You're right about the unexpected. The tool isn't perfect and isn't real-time enough to account for construction related events (unless they're huge multi-year projects).

      Post a Reply
  5. I've never heard of either Bikely or ridewithGPS. I'll have to check them out. Thanks.

    Post a Reply
  6. No, I didn't do the ride. I don't have a bike rack right now so I had no way to carry my bike to the ride. That's kind of a lame excuse but the best I can come up with.

    Post a Reply
  7. I do the same stuff with Google Maps. It's actually a pretty powerful tool in my opinion. In fact, before moving here to Dallas I used the street view mode quite a bit to look at neighborhoods/areas where I was considering renting.

    You're right about the unexpected. The tool isn't perfect and isn't real-time enough to account for construction related events (unless they're huge multi-year projects).

    Post a Reply
  8. It's cool isn't it? I use it for all kinds of stuff but when I moved it a new place about six months ago I relied on it heavily to map out a route to my normal cycling route down at White Rock Lake. It's great for finding routes off the beaten path like cutting through neighborhoods to avoid major roads.

    Post a Reply

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