In Australia, NZ, US, Japan and many other countries, signposts are generally associated with roads used by motorized through traffic. These will often be good roads. Follow them and there is minimal chance of getting lost. There’ll be more places to stop for refreshments and to find lodging. They are often the shortest and have the best inclines and the more direct bridges.
However, depending on what you like, there might be other routes that are nicer to cycle along, Maybe the only reason someone is not on them is that they don’t have the time to explore what may turn out to be dead-ends. They’d only be there, off the main road, if they knew exactly where to go. Once away from the highway signposts are often “spotty” and can even be contradictory. They tend not to mention further off destinations (such as yours). The places on the signs may not be on your paper map and you are not sure what to do. Bike tourers, when they are in unfamiliar places, generally start the day with a destination in mind. Sometimes there is just one way to go, but if there were other ways, paper maps might not show them due to scale restrictions.
Routes signposted specifically for bikes get you off the highway and are great when they exist. Europe is blessed with its long distance Eurovelo network plus several other large areas with good, signposted networks. The US has a number of great bike routes too including some long distance rail trails. The US is currently consolidating big networks. Australia has several long bike routes like the Munda Biddi (WA), the Mawson (SA) and the Tasmanian Trail. NZ has great bike routes but generally only for one or two day rides. Often though, cyclists are riding without the benefit of bike route signs. Therefore, they are often following signs intended for motor vehicles, because they are there.
Whatever our route, we also want to know our present location. On the paper map we often can’t pinpoint this so are just waiting for the next signpost. It usually does not matter precisely where we are anyway. However, on a route on back roads the next turn might be an unsealed track across a forest without a sign. It might even be a shortcut. Without a GPS chip in a device telling us where we are in relation to that turn, we’d get lost fast. So it seems to be either ….
- stick to the road signs and if they are not for bikes then still stick with them, or
- use digital mapping and not be reliant on road signs.
A route on unsigned tracks and a gadget with a GPS chip, to some, sounds like stuff for the super-experienced and the intrepid. Not you? These days however it is readily available to anyone that has a smartphone. You? This smartphone can be the camera and, with occasional free wi-fi , your way to use email and SMS. Cycle tourers mostly already have a smartphone or will get one next time they upgrade.
Many cyclists are getting into digital mapping now, having realized it is possible without any new purchases.
Smartphones have a GPS locator chip. Even without a sim card and without internet this will still pinpoint, in seconds, a precise location as long as (a) it is outside where the satellites can be seen by the chip and (b) a map can be brought up on the screen. That just means a map was previously downloaded through one of the apps.
We may have the above reasons (finding back road routes) for getting set up but when we are on the road with a GPS device we get additional benefits. For example, we might not even bother to buy any more paper maps, and so don’t need to carry them. The maps on our device will include the street directory of every town and city we are in. They are dramatically superior to paper maps in their detail. We may have just arrived in a vast and foreign place. We may have gone from one hemisphere to the other and, along with jetlag, our spatial senses are confused. But there is no stress. The navigation device gets fired up (no need to have a sim-card operating) and the map is opened. The locator pinpoints where we are. If we have loaded a route in advance (see the route plotting article) we can see our present location in relation to that route. As a final assurance, we coordinate the north on the screen map with the north on a wrist compass. Which way to go right now is clear.
If the route on the screen tries to take us somewhere that is impassable (eg. a road block, a bridge being replaced) we can see options of other roads and paths because we have a screen map. Knowing exactly where you are is good. So is being given the security and confidence to take better cycling routes. Although they may be better, we may not have dared to take them before. Even if the routes is a designated cycling one we don’t need to rely solely on the seeing the signs. With digital navigation we are more independent and safer.