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New ways to find the best urban cycle routes

Bike icon

New ways to find the best urban cycle routes

The LED light at 12 o'clock on the neat gadget on my bicycle handlebars is green and that means I can cycle straight on secure in the knowledge that I'm going in the right direction. I'm free to view London’s sights: the boats on the River Thames to my right with the Houses of Parliament looming ahead. 

Now the three lights at two, three and four o'clock blink and I know I must take the next right to stay on my pre-planned route. Arm out. Make the move. No drama. Just simple directions. The geography of the city – its confusion of roads, traffic and signals – is reduced to a simple set of instructions. Connected via Bluetooth to the smartphone in my pocket, the gadget, which is called Blubel, is a clear and intuitive satnav that even doubles as a classic bell.

Cycling is a fantastic way to travel around a new city... just so long as you avoid traffic congestion, intimidating junctions, unexpected potholes, mystifying traffic signals, too much pollution and getting completely lost. And luckily, there is now a wide and rapidly expanding host of apps like Blubel that make it easy to plot your journey through any city. 

“Cycling transforms our cities and has the capacity to reduce pollution and make people fitter and happier,” says Sasha Afanasieva, Blubel's CEO. “I believe that the key to unlocking this potential is through making cycling easy and stress-free for everyone.”

Multiple apps

There are other options, too: Cyclemeter is a handy app that turns your smartphone into a cycle computer. Mount it on your handlebars and it provides you with route information, including maps. 

Meanwhile the mapping tool of popular cycling app Strava does a lot more than provide a route from A to B. It offers a “Use Popularity” option that taps into its vast database of shared cycle routes, which is invaluable if you are cycling in a new city. With a few quick clicks you can find out what all the locals do, whether in Amsterdam or Zurich. It also shows you how to avoid busy roads and even lets you see how many hills you may have to climb. MapMyRide, which is similar, gives it a serious run for its money.

Bike Citizens is a navigational app and a travel guide in one. It has a database of 450 European city maps packed with tips and points of interest. Download the Berlin map, for example, and you can enjoy 11 tours “curated” by local cyclists, 139 suggested tourist sights and 17,171 points of interest that range from cafés to bike shops. It also has voice commands so you don’t need to stare at your phone while trying to navigate.

Custom-built tours

The Bike Citizens app also gives you the option of choosing a level of riding that suits your mood: “leisurely”, “fast” or “convenient”. You can also tap in your bike model and it will adapt the route accordingly – so no nasty cobblestones, for example, if you are on a thin-wheeled racer. 

For those looking for an even more relaxed but equally inspirational experience on two wheels, there is always the option of letting a battery take the strain by joining a bespoke e-bike tour. In Italy, for example, Pirelli provides a selection of interesting trips as part of its premium e-bike rental service, Cycl-e Around. These range from a two-hour tour of Milan’s Bicocca district to a multi-day excursion from Cortina to Venice.

The Bicocca tour is far more than a simple cycle route. It's an urban safari through the art and architecture, the history and contemporary life of this unique Milanese district, guided by an art historian. A highlight is a visit to the Bicocca degli Arcimboldi, a refined 15th-century villa, which contains ancient frescoes and is normally closed to the public.

Collective wisdom

Back in London I see the London Eye slowly turning and then pass a new set of roadworks. I ring Blubel's bell. It is not an over-reaction. The hazard is immediately noted by the system. Data is also continually pulled from Blubel's in-built accelerometer and gyroscope to detect if a cyclist has had to brake suddenly. The result is that it can calculate – accurately – the three lowest-risk routes for a journey across a city. 

Following Blubel's flashing LED system is all too easy. As I approach my destination – Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames – it indicates that I need to turn left, so I turn right as an act of mutiny. It responds, recalculates, the LEDs flash and soon I'm back on track. I couldn't get lost if I tried!

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