Navigation Lesson #9: Macro-Navigation Route Choice
The last lesson was about micro-navigation, generally on-foot navigation between two checkpoints relatively close to each other. This lesson is on macro-navigation, or selecting routes over longer distances usually connecting a series of roads and trails via bike (but sometimes long trekking or paddling legs) rather than off-trail trekking. Some races don’t allow for a lot of strategic route selection but those races that do may offer opportunities for teams to gain significant time advantages over other teams.
With macro-navigation you are determining the best route based on a number of factors. Some teams will automatically look at distance as the number one consideration while veteran teams will include many more factors including road/terrain quality, elevation gain/loss, altitude, and ease of wayfinding – is one route obvious with fewer, clearer turns compared to another where roads and trails may be missing signage and clear intersections, e.g., two-tracks and hiking trails, requiring lots of stopping to navigate? At times, you’ll be faced with a decision to take a shortcut involving “bike-whacking” off trail. These are tempting but often are much slower, placing a heavy wear and tear on the bike and body. It’s at least four times faster to stay pedaling.
Also important with macro-navigation is measuring distances on the map ahead of time (a measuring wheel is a helpful device for this but the ruler on your compass works fine for straight roads) and then using your bike computer (ideally at least two teammates will track) to determine about when you should arrive at a turn or other map feature.
Here’s a good example of a macro-nav decision from our recent 12-hour race in Ludington (click to enlarge). Teams had two clear route options. The southern route was a little shorter (only 1,500 feet shorter when you factor in all the turns) but what factors besides distance should be considered? Road surface is the most obvious in this case (elevation is insignificant). In this case, the road type is hard to see on the original US Geological Society map because a 2016 road update layer has covered up much of the original type of road. If allowed, you should bring a road atlas or access a mapping app on your phone to determine if a road is paved, improved (often gravel road), or unimproved (often two-track). By using external maps, teams may be able to determine road type. If online tools are allowed, a satellite view can determine the extent of the tree canopy over the road which also indicates improved vs. unimproved road type. A clear view of the road means power lines are likely lining the road and thus the road is of better quality. Even without external maps, you can have pretty good certainty of road condition by straightness of the road alone. The northern route is a straight line which usually means gravel at worst and paved at best. The southern route winds through the woods in many directions, so likely it’s a two track of softer surface and the constant turns means a slower pace and more challenging pace line. Teams that took the northern route in this case gained a lot of time as a result of these factors.