The Route 66 on a Bicycle: Do It Now, Don't Wait Too Long!

Mapillary cyclist Volker shares his experience from crossing the US from east to west on a 4,000-km bicycle tour along the famous Route 66. Read about the good, the not-so-good, and the practical tips for covering the ride with over 300k photos.

Photo Slide 1-1 Inside the Chuckwagon at McLean, TX

Volker Schmidt alias voschix is one of the most notable Mapillary cyclists. Originally from Germany and having also lived in the UK and California, he currently resides in Italy in the city of Padova. He is currently retired and invests a lot of time in FIAB (the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle), different bicycle tourism projects, and OpenStreetMap, where he mainly improves map data related to cycling.

Volker also takes photos and videos of his cycling, being one of the early users of GoPro, combined with Garmin GPS devices. He uses Mapillary images to improve the detail and quality of OSM for cyclists. He appreciates that Mapillary imagery can be and is taken on roads where car-operated cameras don't go, and has a licence compatible with editing OSM. Details to add include type of road, estimated width of road, number of lanes, type of surface, smoothness of surface, illumination, obstacles, road crossings, road signs, danger spots, traffic density, etc.

Photo Slide 3-1 Volker and his bike at the Petrified Forest National Park, AZ, in October 2016

The Route 66 tour

Volker calls himself "not a racer, but more an occasional tourist on two man-powered wheels". He took a liking to cycling relatively recently and preferred mountain hiking before that. The new hobby has led him to participate a number of bicycle tours in Tunisia, Norway, the Baltics, Western Europe, and California. In 2014, he used OpenStreetMap and some related tools to design a tour from Venice to Amsterdam. While the tour was a success for the group in general, Volker himself ended up with a dislodged shoulder 5 days in, that forced him to quit and also put him out of cycling for months.

Last year, he really put his bicycle touring abilities to test by joining the Route 66 tour across the US, arranged by the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). He knew about ACA already before and even helped them out by armchair-mapping routes as an OSM volunteer. The Route 66 tour attracted Volker because of being self-contained (that means no support cars, just autonomous riding during the day) and by offering a chance to go to totally new places for him.

"Maybe one additional reason for signing up for this was my complete lack of personal experience of most of the territory of the USA. I had lived in Southern California, travelled in New Mexico and Arizona, and had been on several occasions to the East Coast, but the huge lands in between I had no idea about."

So he geared up with tenting equipment and a new bicycle, and defied the slight nervousness he felt about his lack of training and experience from this kind of touring. But his solo test ride from Padova to the Dolomites (about 600 km) with this setup went really well. And thus, he was ready for the tour!

Photo Slide 4-1 At the beginning of the tour in Chicago, IL, 12 September 2016

Quick facts:

  • Self-supported group tour, organised by Adventure Cycling Association
  • Start: Chicago, IL, 11 September 2016
  • End: Santa Monica, CA, 5 November 2016
  • 47 riding days
  • 55 days total
  • 20 hostel/motel nights
  • 35 camping nights
  • Total riding distance 4,000 km
  • 81.4 km average per riding day
  • Accumulated ascent 22 km
  • Number of participants: at the start 15, at the end 10, plus tour leader
  • Composition (at the start): 10 USA, 1 NZ, 2 UK, 1 NL, 1 IT
  • Mapillary images collected: 312,760

Highlights from Route 66

When talking about his experiences from the tour, Volker notes, "It was very interesting and in many respects different from what I expected, both in the positive and the negative." Here is a selection of what he thought were the best things about the tour.

  • The Ancient Way Cafe and camp ground at El Morro in New Mexico

  • The Missisippi, and in particular the historic Chain-of-Rocks Route-66 Bridge near St Louis, Missouri Photo Slide 12-2 Old Chain of Rocks Bridge (photo: Wikimedia)

  • The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

  • The Turquoise trail with it's surprise little gems like San Francisco de Asìs adobe church in the gold miner ghost town of Golden Photo Slide 12-3 San Francisco de Asìs Church, Golden NM

  • The mile-long freight trains that move like slow, gigantic snakes through the country (and hoot incessantly also throughout the night)

  • The many towns with their main-street buildings from the 1920s and 1930s Photo Slide 13-4 Downtown Sayre, OK

  • The diners with their unhealthy food and kind servers

  • The starry night skies in the desert

  • Unexpected wildlife of all sorts, among them spiders as big as your palm; luckily we did not see any bears, but we often heard the coyotes

  • The many friendly people whom we met along the way, travellers and locals

  • The very pleasant company of my co-travellers coming from all courses of life and from all over the world and the fantastic tour leader, none of whom I had met before. These 15 complete strangers all turned out to be, in very different ways, very reliable travel companions and friends. Photo Slide 20-9 Early-morning "map meeting"

  • And then the most important of all, the Route 66 paraphernalia: industrial archaeology objects like bridges, garages, fuel pumps, rusty or shiny old-timer cars, motels, and heaps of kitsch, so exaggerated that I have started to love it, culminating with an enormous rocking chair, the Route 66 Red Rocker in Fanning, MO. Photo Slide 14-5
    The world's second-biggest rocking chair

Challenges along the way

But there were, of course, also hardships on the way. "The biggest challenges were long stretches without supplies, aggravated by steady strong headwind. The tour leader changed the program to mitigate, but it was hard, nevertheless. A close second were some busy stretches of freeway we were forced to cycle on for lack of alternative roads. The worst were the I40 stretch around the Barstow military base in California (the old Route 66 goes through the camp) and the Cajon Pass on I15. Both relatively short stretches, but really dangerous because of the heavy and fast truck traffic."

Photo Slide 15-6a I15 on Cajon Pass, California

"With the exception of the freeways, road surface quality was generally poor. Particularly annoying are potholes and transverse and longitudinal fissures (the junctions of the original concrete plates, which in many cases are still present or are hidden only under a thin layer of asphalt). The debris on the freeway shoulders resulted in a heavy toll in the form of flat tires plus the need to check three times per day the tires for the tiny needles that you pick up and which work their way through the rubber of your tires. Some of us had five and more flats per day. I was really lucky and had only two flats during the entire tour (with my brand-new €80-a-piece flat-proof tires)!"

Photo Slide 15-6b Typical road surface

"Not to forget the position of the camp sites. Because their main clients are the oversized American RVs, they are mostly located near freeway exits, i.e. near the freeway, and also near the railway, as the freeway was built alongside the railway. We often had the free choice of reasons why we could not sleep, because of the truck noise from the freeway, or from the hooting of the railway engines. Then there were long stretches of flat country with nothing in particular, which were simply long and just plain boring."

"And there was one event that was beautiful and frightening at the same time: in Clinton, OK, we watched two nearby big thunderstorm systems that were at first beautifully illuminated by the evening sun and then, in the dark, were illuminated internally by fireworks of lightning strikes. The snag was that one of them was only 15 km away and had a nice tornado attached to its belly (so they said on the local TV station that I was unlucky enough to watch in a convenience store, buying a soda, with the effect that I did not sleep very well during that night)."

Photo Slide 17-7 Thunderstorm cloud in the evening sun

The bottom line

All in all, Volker notes that the tour really let him get to know the parts of America that he had not visited or lived in. He had expected it to be different, but he notes that the differences turned out to be even larger than he had thought.

"I had seen the deserts of the West, but these huge stretches of nearly empty and, in many cases, abandoned land in the centre of the continent, I had not imagined in this form. I was surprised about the absence of people, of infrastructure, of structures of education and non-religious culture. I was also surprised about the number of churches of different denominations in even the smallest, half-abandoned settlement. The most exotic church I saw was a Bar-none Cowboy Church."

He really appreciates the new experiences from the trip, such as touring with people that you don't know from before, travelling long stretches on your own but as part of a group, improving your riding technique and physical capabilities, and learning to really like your tent! Most of all, seeing a different side of America than what you are used to underlined how important it is to always be prepared to review your judgements.

Volker's final suggestion is this: "Do it, if you have the chance, and do it now. Don't wait too long. You don't become younger. I realise now that I started bicycle touring a bit late (in 2008 at the age of 64 years)."

Photo Slide 25-13 At the end of the tour in Santa Monica, CA, 4 November 2016

The practical side of documenting a bicycle tour

Volker covered his whole trip with GPS tracks and photos and hopes that in addition to the amazing physical tour maps that ACA provides, they will be able to use this material to further improve documenting and defining the future US Bicycle Route 66 which is part of the ambitious project of creating a fully signposted and documented US-wide long-distance bicycle route network.

Route 66 Mapillary coverage Coverage of the Route 66 on a bicycle (click on the image to go and explore the map)

Here are some practical tips for anyone who is thinking to do some serious capturing on a longer bicycle ride.

  • When using a smartphone, be prepared for mounting issues. A "sausage mount" or a chest mount might perform better than a standard handlebar mount in terms of shaking and vibration effects.
  • Sausage mount Smartphone "sausage mount"

  • With such extensive use, a plastic mount is also likely to give in so have backups and secure your phone so it couldn't fall to the ground. You can also try reinforcing the Mapillary mount.
  • Mapillary mount reinforced Mapillary bicycle mount with reinforcements

  • Prepare your battery setup. Also consider that you might not have a recharging opportunity every night, and a normal charging device will not recharge a 15Ah battery pack overnight.

  • It may make sense to mount a second, rearwards-looking smartphone/camera on the bicycle to take photos facing forward and backward at the same time.

  • If you have the chance, using an action camera likely provides better photo quality as well as handles vibrations better. If it's mounted on the bicycle helmet it also gives you a higher viewing position and the possibility to point the camera easily in different directions. (Note that sometimes it might also be a pitfall that the camera always turns with your head.)

  • A separate GPS device often provides better GPX tracks than your smartphone.

  • Think about the suitable capture frequency for you to keep your storage space and power consumption within reasonable limits.

  • You can consider using the reduced file size option on the Android app, but remember that this comes on the account of lower resolution of the images which might make it harder to get all the details from them later.

So, now you know all the tips—where will your next big bicycle ride be? Do you have any tips or experiences you'd like to share? Comment below or come to our forum. Happy cycling!

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