Cycling Resources: Google Maps / by Erin Wade

One of the tasks that goes with cycling is sorting out routes to ride on. While it’s fun, at times, to simply pick a direction and see where the road takes you, much of the time it’s good to have an idea of where you are going, and how you are going to get there. This is especially true when you are trying to add distance to your regular routes. It’s pretty easy to use any mapping software or - if you still happen to have one about - a paper map - to sort out a five or ten mile ride. But as ride distances climb it becomes valuable to have a way to lay out clear routes that will work for the desired distance, and, particularly when riding on public roads, for safety purposes (it’s not fun to suddenly find that you’ve come to a point where your only choices are to either ride along a heavily traveled highway or backtrack).

Google Maps offers a free, readily available resource for this.

The first, simplest thing that it offers is cycling directions.

Cycling Directions

Usually this results in a route that avoids higher traffic areas, and it provides other information in a fashion that is specific to cycling - for example, travel times are at cycling speeds, and it gives a general impression of the terrain over the course of the route.

It also includes maps of biking trails and routes, identified in various shades of green lines on the map. The picture below shows biking trails in and around Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Illinois.

Rock Cut Biking Trails

Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide a key, so you are left to interpret on your own, but the Google blog says the following about the key:

  • Dark green indicates a dedicated bike-only trail;
  • Light green indicates a dedicated bike lane along a road;
  • Dashed green indicates roads that are designated as preferred for bicycling, but without dedicated lanes

Some of the maps also show red, or perhaps brown, lines which were perhaps added in later (?). Based upon some familiarity with one of the areas they show up in, it appeared to me that these were either hiking or off-road trails, and that seems to be supported by this article on using Google maps for cycling on That article also offers step-by-step directions about how to use the cycling directions, though they appear to be specific to a desktop/laptop interface. In Google Maps for iOS, you tap the layers button in the upper right-hand corner:

Tap the Layers button...

Then select the cycling option in the menu:

...then select the cycling option

This will turn on the cycling route overlay so you’ll see bike trails and such on the map. You also want to make sure you select "biking" for the directions when you punch in your destination. This means that your directions will be set for cycling rather than driving, so if you use Google Maps for driving directions, you’ll want to remember to switch it back when you are in the car.

That Google Maps offers cycling directions isn’t new - it’s been around as a feature since at least 2010 - but it’s one of those things that you only really notice when you have a use for it.

The cycling specific directions are a great feature when you are trying to determine how to get from one specific location to another, but Google Maps offers another feature that is extremely helpful when trying to add distance to routes: the Measure Distance mode.

To turn this on using Google Maps for iOS you want to find your starting point on the map, and do a long press to drop a pin. This will bring up a menu on the left that includes "measure distance":

Measure Distance

(Note that, if you accidentally tap on a notable feature, it may not offer this option, so you may have to re-adjust your starting point slightly. I had to do that for this example, because I apparently tapped on just the right spot for Lock 2 of the Hennepin Canal for my first try).

Once you’ve selected this option, you’ll get a blue circle with a dotted line, and a distance readout at the bottom left hand corner. The trickiest part of this to get a handle on is that you don’t move the blue dot, you move the map under it. As you move the map the dotted line will extend. When you reach a turning point in the route you are exploring, you tap the "add point" button in the lower left-hand corner. This sets a marker and allows you to move the line in another direction (without it turns will get lost and the line will move at a diagonal direction - cool if you a traveling as the crow flies, but otherwise doesn’t work for the rest of us). This means that you’ll only need a few points set for a route with a few turns and mostly straightaways, but a lot more for routes that curve and turn. My example below marks out the distance for the Hennepin Canal Trail, which has a combination of straights and curves:

Hennepin Canal Trail

I’ve zoomed out a bit to give a larger picture here, but you can zoom in pretty close to make the map more precise as you are making it.

Ultimately, this lets you lay out a route for the distance you want. I find myself using it often to select routes for the distance I want in a way that avoids major thoroughfares, and takes me in a circular route from start to finish while avoiding re-covering the same territory as much as possible.

I don’t necessarily love Google products as a rule - I use Apple Maps on iOS for driving directions, don’t use their office software at all, and don’t generally use them for search. But I do generally try to use the best tool I can find for the job, all other things being equal. For cycling routes and directions, and for finding cycling trails, Google Maps is absolutely a step above.